No One’s Heard of Paul Ricoeur

No One’s Heard of Paul Ricoeur November 25, 2014
Paul Ricoeur

I’ve spent the last week at academic conferences on religion (honestly, the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society is only vaguely academic — it is primarily fideistic, it seems). To wander around among 10,000 theologians, biblical scholars, and professors of religion at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is a great way to nerd out with your geek out. That is, if you’re into theology and religion.

But most people aren’t.

At AAR you can hear presentations with titles like,

  • “The Path has a Mind of its Own”: Eco-Agri-Pilgrimage to the Corn Maze Performance — an Exercise of Cross-Species Sociality
  • Seeing the Things You Cannot See: (Dis)-solving the Sublime in Interreligious Aesthetics through the Paintings of Hiroshi Senju

  • Yoga Body, Yoga Pants: The Feminization, Sexualization, and Pornification of Yoga

One of my commitments this week has been to make a short speech at the Society for Beer Lovers and Assorted Academic Research, a couple hundred young scholars who bring killer microbrews from all over the world to share at AAR. It was a pretty awesome night, with high octane brews being poured in a hot and humid church basement.

Here’s what I told them:

When I was a doctoral student, my advisor told me what her advisor had told her twenty years earlier: “At some point early in your academic career, you’ll face a fork in the road, and you’ll have to choose. You can either write for the academy, or you can write for people. You can’t do both.”

I’m here tonight to tell you: that’s bullshit. It may have been true in the past, but it is no longer. You can write for the academic guild, publish your heavily footnoted monographs and get your tenure. But you can also write passionate theology in language that people understand. You can write theology without footnotes.

Statistically speaking, the percentage of Americans who’ve heard of Paul Ricoeur is 0%. You are as much of an authority on any given subject as Ricoeur, so a block quote from Ricoeur on page three of your book doesn’t help you. In fact, it hurts you.

So, when you write for real people, disabuse yourself of everything that the academy has taught you about writing.

Also: start a blog.

I was done speaking and back to drinking beer when an esteemed New Testament scholar from an esteemed graduate school came up to me and said, “That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a long time. If I’m as authoritative as Paul Ricoeur, something is very wrong.”

I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Welcome to the Wild West.”

Of course, I am a huge fan of Paul Ricoeur. I have books by him on my shelf, and books about him. My point was not that he’s not important. My point is that he’s obscure, at least to the vast majority of Americans.

The fact that one of the great philosophers of the 20th century is so obscure is a topic for another post. It may be tragic, but it is true. The point of this post is that theology has also become intellectualized to the point of obscurantism. NY Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer recently made this point, much to the chagrin of a fellow Patheos blogger. Mark and I went on to have the following interaction on Twitter:


Of course, this does not need to be the case. Those of us who care about good theology do not need to abdicate the public space to Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, and to books about near-death experiences and the Rapture. But I’m saying, to reclaim the public space, we’ve got to learn to talk and write like normal people.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • KentonS

    Hurrah from this normal person!

  • Casey

    This is why Rob Bell is


    so many


    You might hate his style but he speaks english.

  • Danielle Shroyer

    If I have said this once I’ve said it a million zillion times. Pastors and theologians and academics routinely underestimate people. People CAN understand Ricoeur. They may not want to sit down and read him, and some may not be able to do so. But all it takes is someone who likes Ricoeur to translate it into normal language and share it when there’s a relevant connection. People like ideas. They just don’t like being made to feel stupid around academics who are using obtuse language when it isn’t necessary. (That being said, thank God for AAR and SBL when academics can freely use all that obtuse language and have it be accepted on its own terms. Because for nerds/geeks, translation to common language is work, and sometimes it’s nice to speak in your native tongue.)

  • Brad

    I had the pleasure of studying Phenomenology, Ricouer included, at the University of Dallas. Although the texts themselves are usually most readable to graduate students, it is certainly teachable. I develop and present a high school character formation program that practically utilizes otherwise “obscure” phenomenological concepts on a relatable and practical level. It’s difficult at times, but I have learned that if the concept is difficult to teach and make relevant to even a teenager, I have yet to comprehend it.

    • Brad

      *Or if it’s impossible to teach, it’s probably bullshit

  • Joel Kessler

    Overly pedantic talk is the quickest way to become unloving to people who want to care but can’t.

  • Brother Corey

    “The point of this post is that theology has also become intellectualized to the point of obscurantism.”

    There has always been a major disconnect between academics and practitioners, like in psychology and the sciences, for example. Thanks to folks like you and HBC for bringing theological goodness to the masses in an approachable way.