Into the Future: An interview with Professor George Pattison

Into the Future: An interview with Professor George Pattison

Interviewer: Philip Tonner.

I’m delighted to be joined today by George Pattison, Chair of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. Over the last twenty years Professor Pattison has emerged as one of the key figures in contemporary British philosophical theology: if every generation of theologians and philosophers starts afresh when approaching the “big questions” then Pattison, by anyone’s estimation, is surely one of the key voices of his generation to have entered the debate. Professor Pattison is a prominent figure in contemporary Kierkegaard scholarship and through his work he has reinvigorated interest in theological thinkers drawing on the work of existential figures such as Kierkegaard and also Martin Heidegger. Prior to entering academia, George spent 14 years as a parish priest in the Church of England. From there he went on to serve as Dean of King’s College, Cambridge (1991-2001), before moving on to become Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford (2004-2013). George has been in post as Professor in the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow since October 2013. He is currently working on a new book provisionally entitled Eternal God/Saving Time.

PT: to begin with, perhaps you would like to say something about your move from being a parish priest into academia? Do you find the two roles continuous at all?

GP: This is now a long time ago—1991—although, in fact, my first university post as Dean of Chapel at King’s College Cambridge involved pastoral and worship roles alongside teaching, so it was not entirely abrupt.

In the past, it was generally expected that parish clergy would keep up with scholarship through their own reading. The idea of a priest-scholar is an ancient one and involves several important elements that I think are still true. Firstly, that Christian teaching involves ongoing reflection on the Bible and on Christian tradition. Although this doesn’t have to be narrowly academic it has to be serious, critical, and imaginative and this needs dedicated time. Unfortunately, this is getting harder and harder and for several reasons. Academic life is becoming ever more specialized and internationalized so that it is now hard to ‘keep up’ with developments even in a small sub-field (e.g. New Testament studies or philosophy of religion), let alone across the subject (theology) as a whole. At the same time, parish clergy are required to take further training in areas of management and leadership that cuts out time for study—not to mention the demands of parish life. So maybe I’m one of the last generation for whom it was possible to move to academia after a longish period in parish life.

PT: going back, how did you become interested in philosophy and theology? Do you find the concerns of one domain (philosophy or theology) more pressing than those of the other? How do you relate the two disciplines?

GP: This goes back at least to studying Sartre (The Flies) in 6th Form and at the same time starting to read Plato, but probably also before that. When I was 16 my parish priest took me to my first ever theological lecture. It was by Raimundo Panikkar, a Catholic theologian who explored the convergence of Christianity and Eastern mystical traditions—he’s got a lot of videos on YouTube. This still remains an interest today, since for all their doctrinal differences there really do seem to be commonalities between Christian and Asian practices of prayer and meditation and the cultivation of a quiet and attentive mind that both enjoin.

Philosophy too involves quiet reflection, really thinking something through and taking time over it, so even if meditation is often seen as emptying the mind, there is a kinship in mental attitude—as thinkers such as Plato, Plotinus and, more recently, Martin Heidegger have known. Plotinus’ philosophy was fulfilled in moments of ecstasy, while Heidegger spoke of the piety of thinking. Nevertheless there are also important differences. If meditation inculcates attentiveness, philosophy involves relentless questioning. Both can come together in attentive questioning or questioning attentiveness, although there‘s still a difference of emphasis.

As far as the content goes, Christian theology clearly takes up issues of belief and practice specific to the Christian tradition. Nevertheless, all academic disciplines have a philosophical element once we start to ask about the kind of truth at issue in them.

PT: your work has centred on a number of themes. One of these is summed up in the word ‘hope’. Another key term that you revisit is ‘love’. Firstly, can you explain what you mean by these terms and can you say how they integrate with your thought more generally? Secondly, what is the role of the future in connection to hope? Does hope relate to something ‘distinctly impending’ or does it relate to a more general sense of something ‘to come’? Is there an eschatological dimension to your thought here? Finally, do you feel that your concerns with hope and love (and so on) are distinctly theological or do you think that there is a role for hope and love in philosophy? Are these themes that you discuss in your new book project Eternal God/Saving Time?

GP: One of the books by Emmanuel Levinas, an important Lithuanian-French-Jewish thinker whose life spanned the 20th century, is entitled Time and the Other. This title reflects two themes that Levinas was led to see as basic to human existence: we are (as Heidegger had discovered) thoroughly temporal beings such that there is nothing we can think, do, or say that is not conditioned by time, but (as most people think Heidegger didn’t sufficiently emphasize) we are who we are through our relations to others. For Levinas this meant above all taking responsibility for the weak and marginalized in society—the biblical command to care for the ‘widows, orphans, and aliens in the land’. Time and the Other therefore gives us the basis for identifying hope and love as fundamental philosophical and (I’d say) theological categories.

But there is a leap between time and the other and hope and love. Sartre, for example, thought despair not hope was the outcome of recognizing our thoroughly temporal nature. For Heidegger himself, the best we could hope for was a heroic acknowledgement of death. Regarding relations to others, Sartre thought these were necessarily violent and competitive, while Heidegger largely neglected them. If we want to see the world in the light of hope and love and if we don’t want these to be written off as mere wishful thinking, there’s therefore a big job to be done. We have to show that hope and love are not just desirable but they are both based on and help us to understand aspects of the human condition that are crucial to our being human. And, yes, that’s a large part of the agenda of Eternal God/Saving Time. The point of the title is that whereas traditional theology looked towards divine eternity as offering hope for salvation from time, our modern experience suggests that maybe time itself has saving possibilities and that it is in time-experience itself that we can best discover what it means to talk about God as eternal. I say ‘modern’ but, in one of the chapters of the book I discuss how these questions are already relevant to the work of Pindar, one of the earliest Greek poets. But the modern focus on time has, I think, sharpened the question again.

PT: you have a sustained interest in existential thinkers: figures such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Can you explain why that is? What is it about their thought that is so compelling to you?

GP: In their (very) different ways Kierkegaard and Heidegger have returned philosophy to what it was in the ancient world: not a merely academic specialism but a lifelong commitment to searching out the best way to live and why we might want to live like that. For Kierkegaard this is very specifically focussed on the issue of how to become a Christian and what Christianity requires as a way of life. Therefore he was very critical of those who thought of Christianity solely in terms of belief and limited their practice to Sunday Church-going. It’s your whole life that’s at issue in being a Christian, he insisted and it makes or should make a difference to everything. Heidegger rejected Christianity and turned philosophy itself into a way of life. In many ways he is not a very attractive character (he was, at least for a time, a Nazi and never really faced up to his responsibilities for helping promote Nazism amongst the young), but his original thought and his interpretations of other philosophers’ works achieves levels of subtlety and force that are scarcely matched in modern times. (Kierkegaard, by way of contrast, was certainly a very uncomfortable person to have around, but his mix of religion, irony, and humour is also very attractive and it’s striking that many of those who write about him choose to use his first name—Søren—since after reading him for a while he really starts to feel like a friend, albeit a prickly one.)

PT: as well as being a key figure in the history of existentialism Heidegger is also a key representative of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy. As a movement, phenomenology is around a century old. Do you feel that phenomenology still has something to offer us today? If so, what do you think that is?

GP: Phenomenology has a lot to offer and is offering a lot today! Of course, as with any school of philosophy there are several varieties of phenomenology. Some, like that of Jean-Luc Marion (who in 2014 gave Gifford lectures in Glasgow) see phenomenology as helping show how God can be present in human life. Other phenomenologies take a more atheistic view. But—going back to my use of attentive questioning and questioning attentiveness as characterizing the way of philosophy—if analytic philosophy excels in questioning, phenomenology is a discipline of attentiveness, whether to what is going on in perception, in language, or in, e.g., ethical issues. Phenomenology doesn’t necessarily tell us what’s out there in the world or even what we ourselves are, but it does help us understand how the world shows itself to us and how we experience ourselves in our relation to our world.

 PT: coming back to the future, in your view, what are the key challenges and questions facing philosophical theology in the 21st Century?

GP: Universities today are increasingly subject to managerial systems that favour quantifiable outcomes and that demand practical applications. These are also systems that, like so many businesses, want short term results. Philosophy goes against this tendency, since philosophy won’t get anywhere unless it’s prepared for a long, slow haul. It’s a lifelong process and one whose ‘outcome’ is, in the first instance, the transformation of the philosopher’s own life. Theology invites us to go further and ask whether what we value most in our lives (e.g. hope and love) reveals something ultimate about reality as such. Putting these together in ‘philosophical theology’ then means something like letting our thinking ourselves be transformed by a consistent and sustained questioning of what is of greatest importance in the experience and conduct of life itself and then also asking whether this also reflects a more encompassing truth, namely, that life is a gift for which the most fundamental response is gratitude. As Heidegger said, ‘thinking is thanking’.

Professor Pattison, thank you!


Professor Pattison’s website at the University of Glasgow: