An Interview with Timo Helenius

Could you tell us about your project?

While pursuing my postdoctoral project in philosophical anthropology in general and on human finitude and fallibility in particular, I begun to be more and more interested in the recent discussion on the tensional relations between phenomenology and religion (Janicaud, Marion, Chrétien, Falque, etc.), philosophy and religious studies (Lewis, Schilbrack, Herdt, etc.), and between theology and science (Coakley, McGrath, Drees, etc.). I intend to map out these discussions and find their points of convergence and overlap. The planned project thereby also relates to the discussion concerning postsecularism and postatheist faith (Taylor, Caputo, Kearney, Vattimo, Westphal, etc.); this project is also a cultural analysis.

What led you to work on this project?

My dissertation work explored Paul Ricoeur’s cultural hermeneutics that focuses on the process of becoming an ethico-political subject but it also, under the rubric of “the wholly other,” addressed the question of the limit of philosophy in terms of the possibility of a hermeneutic of the sacred. An edited version of the dissertation, that mirrored Ricoeur’s work through the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, was recently published by Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield) under the title of Ricoeur, Culture, and Recognition: A Hermeneutic of Cultural Subjectivity (2016). While editing the dissertation for publication, a question concerning the role and power of religious language in self-recognition and -formation stroke as interesting and valuable; this is based on Ricoeur’s oxymoronic depiction of human being as “capable de faillir” or being capable of falling. It is Ricoeur’s phenomenological anthropology—equally critical of theological and philosophical dogmatisms—that subsequently led me to the planned project.

What drew you to SRC fellowship? And how do you see it contributing to your work?

I was immediately intrigued upon having learned about the SRC Program; the multidisciplinary and yet focused approach on questions crossing and interweaving culture, language, religion, and science (as a human institution) is seemingly a perfect match for me in terms of the project that I will be pursuing. One reason for my excitement is that I can fully take use of my education in both philosophy and theology. I obviously don’t yet have any personal experience of the SRC colloquia and other related activities, but I am looking forward to the discussions that I hope to lead me to such avenues of thought that I have not yet been able to identify or consider.

How do you see your work benefitting from or addressing questions of science and religion?

My recent focus has been on religious expressivity and human experience expressed using that religious registry. I have approached these both through the lens of hermeneutical phenomenology that I have found valuable in terms of getting a grasp of how we begin to understand ourselves (as thoroughly cultural-linguistic beings). Science, which I would like to understand broadly and not to restrict it to what goes by the name of natural sciences, is therefore integral for me as I explore these questions. Science as science helps us both to see the need for formulating methodologically guided questions and to formulate those questions for exploring religion and expressions pertaining to religiously expressed experience. Science in general gives clarity to what we experience religiously.

What lessons does your project provide for scientists, historians, religious scholars, or the general public today?

In spite of the most recent backlash against methodological intellectual work and certain forms of religious expressivity, both science (broadly understood) and religion have provided the drivers for our cultural development. We need to understand what has shaped us to be the human beings we are. To modify the famous Tertullian phrase, Athens has very much to do with Jerusalem as it comes to our understanding of ourselves as products of the culture that sprang from these two manifestly important sources of the Western world—including the Muslim world on the way through the millennia to our day. I address some aspects of this development in my recent essay “Understandings and Standings Under: Hermeneutics, the New Realisms, and Our (Baconian) Idols,” published in Philosophy Today in 2017. The essay comments on (the recent critiques of) phenomenology, hermeneutics, neorealism, and scientism. I am hopeful that such commentaries will help us see ourselves and others in a more open, clear, and potentially also a more humble manner.

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