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CSLR Welcomes Dr. Thomas Jared Farmer
By CSLR | Emory Law | Emory Law | Nov 14, 2023 12:11:56 PM

CSLR Welcomes Dr. Thomas Jared Farmer as McDonald Scholar in Residence

CSLR is pleased to welcome Dr. Thomas Jared Farmer as McDonald Scholar in Residence. Jared will work closely with John Witte and Amy Wheeler on the planning and administration of the new McDonald Distinguished Senior Fellows program. He will also provide research support to John Witte and advance his own research agenda in the philosophy of religion.

Farmer holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Illinois, an MTS and Th.M. from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, an MA in Philosophy as well as an MA in Religion from Claremont Graduate University and a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from the University of Münster (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster).

We sat down with Jared to learn more about his path (back) to Emory and plans for the future.



Welcome back to Emory! You recently earned a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from the University of Muenster. Can you tell us a little bit about your time there and your dissertation research?

It’s truly great to be back at Emory! I love it here. The university and the community in Atlanta have always felt like a second home to me. Everyone at CSLR has also been very kind and welcoming.  

That said, my time at Muenster was a rewarding end to a very long academic journey. Muenster is one of the largest research universities in Germany and is situated on a really beautiful campus. While there, I had the great privilege of working primarily with the Lutheran systematic theologian, Hans-Peter Grosshans, and the philosopher of religion, Ingolf U. Dalferth (whom I had known from my time at Claremont Graduate University). My dissertation research focused on the expansion of so-called “hermeneutical philosophy” across roughly all of western thought over the course of the last century. That is, it focused on the emerging predominance of a transdisciplinary approach to analysis which centered around language, history, and cultural traditions as determinative factors in the social construction of the symbolic worlds in which we are all embedded. This shift in approach represented something of a break from much Enlightenment-era thinking which had largely sought to detach the human subject from the conditions of observation, in order to achieve a position of “objectivity.” By contrast, hermeneutical thought argued instead that there is really no such thing as a “view from nowhere.” In other words, fairness and neutrality—to the extent to which they can ever be achieved on some given topic—are arrived at not by appeals to some supposedly disinterested position of perfect objectivity but rather by becoming increasingly aware of the various ways in which beliefs, cultural assumptions, and historical context inform our decisions, practices, and even basic assumptions about the world and each other. It is only by being aware of our biases that we can begin to control for them as best we can.

Historically, classical hermeneutics began in “textual analysis” (primarily of the Bible). Later on, however, this method of critical analysis became broadly applicable to other domains of thought with the help of figures such as Friederich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and in their own distinct ways, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. For my dissertation though, I focused attention on a much-less well-known figure in English-language philosophy, the contemporary Italian thinker and politician, Gianni Vattimo. Vattimo’s philosophy, referred to as “Weak Thought” (pensiero debole), draws on the work of figures like Heidegger, Marx, Nietzsche, Gadamer, Rorty, and Kuhn, in order to construct a non-absolutist way of approaching philosophy, politics, and religion in response to the growing problems of ideology, violence, and social division facing our increasingly globalized postmodern world.   


What made CSLR the right place for the next phase of your career?

 Hermeneutics as a kind of meta-philosophy is concerned with the nature and extent of interpretive practices. As such, I think it finds wide application with respect to questions regarding the practice of legal interpretation, philosophy of law, and the relationship between law and religion. I am interested, among other things, in the nature of justice, the theological/philosophical basis for conceptions of human rights, as well as the distinct ways in which the ever-changing dynamics of secularism and religious pluralism affect areas of public policy. CSLR offers a unique opportunity for me, in so far as it provides a space in which I (as primarily a philosopher and scholar of religion) can engage in such questions while utilizing input from the distinctive perspectives of lawyers and legal scholars.     


What are three books [scholars / traditions] that have shaped your intellectual development?

 I would assume this is a difficult question for most academics. Often books which were determinative in some way or other in helping us progress along our individual intellectual or spiritual journeys are not necessarily books that our present selves would necessarily still endorse. Likewise, books with which we might presently agree may not have been major factors in leading us to those conclusions. With those caveats in mind, three books do come to mind:  

  1. One of the first books I remember reading about the importance of language as a factor in philosophy, religion, and human culture was Ernst Cassirer’s, Language and Myth (1925). Cassirer was an important Neo-Kantian scholar, and he argues here for a view of language as a kind of encoding and deciphering of symbols. I continue to find many of his observations instructive and useful in as much as they have implications for the study of natural languages, constructed languages (such as formal logic), as well as providing space for the recovery of myth as a respectable mode of cultural expression.


  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer is one of those thinkers whose real contributions to a field are often underappreciated because their observations are persuasive enough that they are subsequently taken for granted. Thus, by the time I actually got around to reading his major work, Truth and Method (1960), much of it already seemed like common sense. This is in part due to my time ay Emory. So, if you’ll indulge me here for a moment, I would like to use this as an opportunity to shoehorn in a brief plug for the Candler School of Theology.


While my primary field is in philosophy, I first became aware of hermeneutical thought as well as important related sociological concepts such as “social construction” and “symbolic worlds” while studying New Testament here at Candler. More so than even my formal training in philosophy, I think biblical studies taught me the practices of close and attentive reading, the importance of scrutinizing sources, and the myriad ways in which a text (or any cultural artifact for that matter) lives within a distinctive life-world—one which should inform our interpretation of it. I learned to be aware of the history of interpretations and to see myself as not merely absorbing information from a text, but instead viewing the practice of reading as analogous to carrying on a conversation with a text or its authors. Furthermore, this process forces you to reflect upon the assumptions, hidden biases, and perspectives you invariably bring to the table in such an exchange. In this way, my former Emory professors, including Luke Timothy Johnson, Steve Kraftchick, Carl Holladay, Brent Strawn, David Pacini, and others, had an enormous impact on my subsequent approach to philosophy. Gadamer’s hermeneutical philosophy, therefore, fits very comfortably within this scholarly context where the rigorous scrutinizing of the language, texts, or laws is of paramount importance. 


  1. I would be remiss if I did not include a mention of at least one book by the thinker on whose work I wrote much of my dissertation. Therefore, I would recommend Gianni Vattimo’s, Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy (1994). Here, Vattimo discusses the pervasiveness of hermeneutical thinking across areas of science, philosophy, religion, and art. It offers a succinct presentation of ideas that he develops in greater detail elsewhere including his views on nihilism, secularity, and the role of religion in public life.


You're joining CSLR on the heels of its fortieth anniversary. From your perspective, why is the study of law and religion important today? What are some of the challenges we can expect to face in the next forty years?

You could argue that there has never really been a time in history in which either considerations of law or religion were irrelevant. Beyond merely questions of First Amendment rights or “religious freedom,” juridical and religious reasoning represent distinct modes of approaching many areas of life. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our views on religion or moral foundations inform nearly every aspect of our respective approaches to law and politics. As scholars, therefore, it is our responsibility to understand the various ways in which these modalities of thought intersect and often come into conflict. At CSLR we are tasked with tackling hard questions about the public application of laws and policies which respect sometimes competing social values. As I see it, this task only becomes more relevant over time as society grows increasingly diverse.