The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain, associate professor of theology at the School of Theology, has embarked upon a fascinating research project this year, underwritten by a generous grant from the Templeton Religious Trust. Features caught up with MacSwain to get the details.
What served as your inspiration for this project?
My first book, Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Leuven: Peeters, 2013), ended by considering Farrer’s provocative and unusual claim that the best evidence for God was found not in philosophical arguments but in holy lives, those rare and remarkable people whom Farrer called “saints.” And by that term Farrer meant not just the famous canonized saints that everyone has heard of but that no one today has met, but people whom we might actually know, people who somehow make belief in God possible for us. Since other figures such as Sarah Coakley and Rowan Williams have made similar claims, I eventually realized that this idea was worth exploring further in a whole book of its own, so it became the primary focus of my research over the past few years. I decided to call it “the hagiological argument for the existence of God”—that is, “the argument from (human) holiness.”
How has the project progressed?
I began to get into it seriously during my 2016-17 sabbatical at Harvard Divinity School and the Center for the Study of World Religions. Progress naturally slowed down when I returned to the classroom in Advent 2017, but then two years later I was awarded a generous grant from the Templeton Religion Trust to work on it full-time in 2019-20. While I have remained in Sewanee for most of this academic year, I will be the American Yip Visiting Fellow at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, for the Easter 2020 term April 21 through June 15.
I understand that there are two main aspects to the project. Can you describe them?
One is the meaning of the term “saint.” While many people restrict the term to officially canonized saints in the Roman Catholic Church, in moral philosophy it is often used as a technical term to refer to someone who is exceptionally altruistic (regardless of any religious affiliation), and in religious studies it is now commonly used to refer to those considered holy not just in Christianity but also in other religious traditions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. These secular and interfaith meanings of the term are crucial to the hagiological argument, as well as the idea that (as undoubtedly rare as they are) “saints” are still to be found in many religious communities today. That is, sainthood is not just a Christian phenomenon, and not just a thing of the past, but is alive and well in every religious tradition in the world. So, to grapple with these diverse meanings of the term in order to understand it better, I have been reading in disciplines such as ethics, church history, and comparative religion, and during the term in Cambridge I will look specifically at the moral anthropology of exemplary individuals.
But the second major aspect of the project is “evidence:” when Farrer says that “the saint is our evidence,” what does that mean? And here I think that there are three different versions of the argument, what I call the propositional, the perceptual, and the performative. They each construe the evidence of human holiness in slightly different ways. The propositional version (which I associate with Sarah Coakley) tends to identify sainthood with extreme altruism and says that without God such self-sacrificial lives simply don’t make sense. The perceptual version (which I identify with William James) sees saints as numinous channels of religious experience for those who encounter them. And the performative version (which I connect with Rowan Williams and Stanley Hauerwas) says that somehow the “evidence” for God is “performed” not just in a single act or moment but through the whole life-narrative of the saint. So, for this aspect of the project I am reading in disciplines such as epistemology, the philosophical and psychological literature around religious experience, and systematic theology.
What excites you about this project and how will that excitement relay to readers?
Aside from the interesting conceptual content and all the different academic disciplines that I am getting to engage with, what’s particularly exciting about this project is that the very idea of sainthood is challenging on so many levels: intellectual, religious, moral, and spiritual. That is, thinking about these exemplary, transformed, challenging, disturbing, eccentric, holy human lives we call “saints” has confronted me with the question of my own life in relation to the call to sainthood. Are we all called to be saints, and if so then what are the implications of that? What are we doing to achieve it, and what’s holding us back? Also, whenever I describe the project to someone they normally respond with genuine interest and enthusiasm, so that’s encouraging!
When will the book be published?
Although I don’t yet have a book contract, I am in conversation with an academic publisher. I hope to finish the book in 2021 for publication in 2022.