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Beyond words: Knepper, Kalmanson publish book on ineffability

A new book by two members of the Drake University faculty was inspired by that which cannot be expressed in words. Professor of Philosophy Tim Knepper and Associate Professor of Philosophy Leah Kalmanson edited and wrote essays for Ineffability: An Exercise in Comparative Philosophy of Religion (Nov. 2017, Springer).

The book discusses ineffability, which is what cannot be put into words. Specifically, within religion, this means there are certain religious experiences or supernatural beings that cannot be expressed adequately in language, Knepper said.

Forming the basis for the book is the two-year lecture and dialogue series by The Comparison Project at Drake University on “Religion Beyond Words,” which from 2013 to 2015 included lectures by scholars on ineffability in different religious and aesthetic traditions as well as dialogues, exhibitions, and performances about ineffability.

Written primarily for scholars and graduate students, the book chronologically outlines the lectures presented over the two-year series. Each lecture is a chapter in the book, which covers nine religions, discusses art and literature as it relates to ineffability and has two comparative conclusions written by Knepper and Kalmanson.

The topic of ineffability is broken down and specified to a certain religious experience or ultimate being in each religion. So, for Buddhism, the topic of ineffability goes hand in hand with experiences of Nirvana. With Daoism, it has to do with The Dao, which is the source-force of all things. In Christianity, it would be God as transcendent of everything that people can think and say. Since the book’s scope is not limited to religion, one chapter looks at “how music can express the failure of language,” and the chapter includes scores the presenter discussed and preformed in his lecture, Knepper said.

After writing the book, Knepper said that, personally, he is skeptical of ineffability. It functions, he says, as a sort of defense mechanism —a way to protect parts of religion from analysis and explanation. Ineffability became the core of many religions because, generally speaking, there are so many different gods, and so many conflicting ideas and practices in and across religions, that they cannot all simultaneously be true. This core was said to be ineffable experience and reality, which was believed to be shared by all religions. It could not be analyzed and explained by the natural and human sciences because it could not be put into words, Knepper said.

Still, Knepper loves looking at how humans talk about things they say they can’t talk about. “I’m enthralled by this move that humans do, not just in religion, but in regard to food and love, Knepper said. “In many cultures language is perceived as sullying. If you want to show that something is really special, you free it from the shackles of language.”

The book on ineffability is the second produced by The Comparison Project, which was founded in 2010. The first, A Spectrum of Faith: Religions of the World in America’s Heartland, tells the stories of 15 Iowa religious communities. That book was published by Drake Community Press in 2017, and was co-produced by Drake faculty, staff members, students, and community partners.

Ineffability: An Exercise in Comparative Philosophy of Religion is the first lecture-based book in what will hopefully become a series. Right now, Knepper is halfway through writing and editing the chapters of a book based on the 2015-2017 series on “Death and Dying.” It has a tentative release date of December 2018.