As someone who has not successfully read any works of philosophy — not made it past the preface in most cases — my motivation to read Vigilant Faith came directly from the mission of Little Village: to celebrate and critique the community in which we live. Dan Boscaljon is an Iowa Citian who has Ph.D.s from the University of Iowa in Religious Studies and English. He was my son’s debate coach in high school. He’s someone I see at The Mill, in the corner reading while the bands play, or out shopping the Farmers’ Market. We live in a place where people we see every day go about the low-key business of doing remarkable things.
Vigilant Faith is a book concerned with the philosophy of religion. It reviews and summarizes the works of philosophers and theologians like Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, as they speak to the project of the book, which is to rigorously describe and explain a kind of faith open to agnostics, skeptics and atheists.
As such, it is not an easy read. Boscaljon’s writing is not the problem: As a prose stylist he is as concise and fluent as he can be given the subject, which explicitly and necessarily dwells right at the the limits of language’s expressive capacity. Compared to the classics of modern philosophy, whose turgid discursivenesses are the price of admission, Vigilant Faith is as simple and clear as the subject matter allows. And the heavy going of the first two-thirds of the book is preparation for some remarkable, straightforward writing in a summation that gives one the sensation of the sun coming out after a grey day of sustained rain.
The title, Vigilant Faith, is Boscaljon’s formulation of a faith that can connect the skeptically minded to something that their refusal to accept religious belief has previously denied them: A spiritual connection to what is outside and beyond themselves. Human beings yearn to bridge the gap between their finite lives and the infinite. In an increasingly secular world, the place of religion in many people’s lives has shrunk to the point of vanishing, while for others it has inflated into a malignantly rigid fundamentalism. Skepticism and its toxic cousin cynicism can lead to isolation and despair. Living with the conflict between science and traditional religion, and the dehumanizing anonymity of consumer capitalism, there seem to be only two choices: Trusting nothing, and surrendering to a dogmatic religious faith.
Vigilant Faith suggests another way of being. The native skepticism of non-believers and agnostics becomes a way into an abiding encounter with the indescribable and unknowable absolute. Paul Tillich called this the “The God Above God.” Rather than an obstacle to faith, skepticism becomes the dynamic faculty for experiencing faith. Given an experience whereby one feels the presence of the infinite, a vigilant faith exists in the balancing opposite propositions about the experience: “I think I experienced the presence of God” and “I don’t know if I experienced the presence of God.” At the same time this skeptical facility watches itself, always seeking to rigorously evaluate its own process. What is spiritually sustaining is that it trusts that eventually, in the end, the truth of the matter will be unveiled.
About the practice of vigilant faith and its eventual ‘unveilation’ in the final chapters, I don’t want to say much more. Unusual for a book of philosophy, there are surprises that should be left for readers to be surprised by. No spoilers!
There are examples from the world of art along the way—notably, the plastic bag drifting in the breeze from the film American Beauty—which illustrate worldly phenomena that point to a hidden divinity within the finite. There’s en passant mentions of the extremities of philosophical discourse, like Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, of which Boscaljon says, “ … does the exhaustive (and exhausting) work of demonstrating that a human being is capable of nothing at all.” The struggle for a language equal to the task of understanding understanding itself is highlighted by his use of Heidegger’s invented words like “thingness” and “over-againstness.”
What is most affecting about this book is its voice. Though there is no specifically personal anecdotes, there are dramatic moments when Boscaljon shares what must have been his own points of revelation. When he switches from the third person to the first, it may be a grammatical convenience, but with it comes an intimation of the ‘I’ behind the text. The reader feels invited into a strange, arduous journey with the author. Words like ‘self’ and ‘belief’ and ‘truth’ become more active and elusive than in everyday discourse, but the connection to the commonplace is never lost.
Unlike some academic philosophy, which is as hard to connect to the mundane as string theory, Vigilant Faith has a purpose outside the academy: It invites the reader to participate in a process of finding a way of faith, without asking them to, as Mark Twain would say, “swallow any stretchers.”
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor of spirit (and who isn’t?) are to whom Boscaljon addresses this book. The vigilant faith he describes can be an opening, a possible healing of what is broken, without asking those of a skeptical mind to cast aside their doubts. The vigilantly faithful are “subjectively convinced of the uncertainty of objective certainty,” but may abide in the comfort of the possibility of a connection with the infinite.
Whereof Kent Williams cannot speak, thereof Kent Williams must be silent. But rarely is.