by Craig Martin
We regret to share that Tim Murphy (Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Alabama; Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz), passed away yesterday after a protracted battle with cystic fibrosis (The announcement from the University of Alabama Department of Religious Studies can be found here). Tim was the author of three books, Nietzsche, Metaphor, Religion (SUNY 2001), Representing Religion (Equinox Publishing 2007), and The Politics of Spirit (SUNY 2010), as well as numerous articles—including several that have appeared in the Bulletin over the years. He’s also appeared on the Bulletin blog a few times; in particular, see this two-part interview published in 2011, following the publication of Politics of Spirit.
I originally met Tim at a reception for the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) several years ago; I remember talking with him about Nietzsche and Hegel over appetizers and beers. We kept closely in touch on Facebook in between conferences, and I learned that Tim could be the fiercest critic—and I mean that in the best sense possible. We argued about anything and everything relevant to religion and critical theory, and Tim never let up or pulled his punches. He made me a better scholar as a result, always pushing me to make a better argument for my position (or abandon it for a stronger one).
The first book of his I read was Representing Religion, which made a strong impression on me. I loved it, and thought to myself: this guy understands and applies Derrida’s work better than anyone else in the study of religion. Tim did a brilliant job of deconstructing phenomenology’s essence/manifestation distinction, and then further developed this critique in The Politics of Spirit; the latter is, in my opinion, the most thorough and damning critique of phenomenology of religion to date.
Tim was one of the sharpest thinkers in religious studies, and I will miss him greatly.
Tim is my uncle and he was one of my closest friends. He gave me copies of all his books, but even the introductions were too lofty for my brain that is small in comparison to his. Never-the-less, he only ever made me feel brilliant. He was a wonderful man and I will miss him dearly. Thank you very much for this tribute.
I am not one to spend much time on Facebook, but knowing Tim was struggling, I just checked out his page. I am devastated. We had been close friends for over 30 years and he thanked me for what I considered to be minimal assistance by giving me a mention in the beginning of one of his books. Like his niece, I had a difficult time following the argument laid out therein, however, he explained his writings to me in such a way that he never made me feel less intelligent than he. I’m a teacher, but damn, I certainly couldn’t follow his train of thought. He was a lovely man, a great friend, and I will miss his presence on this planet sorely. One of my favorite memories of him was his relationship with my daughter. During a summer he spent in Lawrence writing, we often met for breakfast. He carried my daughter around, playing with her and becoming very close to her as she grew older. We visited in him in Santa Cruz on a vacation, and as a result, I have one of my favorite pictures of him (it’s a shame it’s not digital so I could post it). He’s sitting at a table that juts out over the bay. My lovely 5-year-old daughter is in his lap & he’s giving her bunny ears with that great big smile of his. The last time I saw him we’d stopped for a visit on our way to Florida–to put my brother’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico because it wasn’t legal to dump his body in like he wanted. That was 2007. I can’t believe it’s been so long. I miss him already. What an incredible spirit, mind, and sense of humor he had. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to hold out until St. Paddy’s Day. He loved it as much as I did. How could you not with a name like Timothy Michael Murphy?
I just sent this note of condolence/remembrance to the Religious Studies Dept. at the University of Alabama, and I thought I’d share it here:
Dear Religious Studies Faculty and Students,
I was very sad to hear of the recent death of Prof. Tim Murphy, and I wanted to take a moment to send my condolences. Tim was one of my teachers at Case Western Reserve University, and he is a big part of why I now find myself in “this business,” as he liked to call it. I had been out of touch with him for a while, but one of the last times I did exchange emails with him, he expressed some hesitation at accepting credit for having inspired me to pursue a career in the academic study of religion. He knew that the world of academe could be unforgiving, but he also had an enthusiasm for the subject and a belief in its importance that was infectious. So, I think he understood that once you caught the bug, “the business” was something you would have to suffer for the sake of “the art.”
The “art” that I learned from Tim was that of scholarship, which he approached both as a constructive and a critical discipline. As a student of Foucault, Tim knew that “disciplines” were always normative, and he felt deeply the responsibility of being a good teacher of this one. I never felt that he was simply presenting information, but rather, he was initiating us into a praxis, which he wanted to be sure that we were equipped to do with the requisite blend of generosity and fierce criticism that characterized his own work. Indeed, criticism was a generous act, for Tim, because, as Marx showed us, criticism sets people free. Criticism unmasks ideology, which turns our most cherished ideals into a prison.
As an undergraduate, Tim gave me the gift of being able to turn this critique on my own relatively unreflective Catholic faith, which actually breathed new life into it by allowing me to separate the ideal from the ideological. I’m sure he would now be truly horrified to hear that he not only inspired me to become a scholar of religion, but also that he had helped me be a better Catholic in the process! But this is the thing that I don’t think some of his colleagues both at Case and in the academy understood: for Tim, religion could be both illusion and illumination, and he really didn’t care which it was. What he did care about was the ability to separate the two, and this is the job of the scholar of religious studies. Nothing can ever be too sacred to submit to critique. But, as a believer, I have also found that rigorous and merciless critique is the best thing you can do to and for the “sacred.”
Of course, not all believers (or scholars!) agree. They often take offense at critique, as if somehow being diagnosed with a case of ideology impugns their character. As if we aren’t all susceptible to ideology, just as we might get any illness regardless of our moral standing. Tim showed me that you could critique someone’s ideas without attacking their character or identity. He also taught me that not everyone would be able to see the difference, but that as a scholar, this is the risk you take. This is something like the dentist who is hated for extracting the rotten tooth. Or, to borrow an image from Tim’s Nietzsche, the scholar/critic of religion is like Christ-the-idiot, whose revolutionary earnestness always comes across as slightly uncouth to those “mature” enough to realize that polite company demands a bit of ironic hypocrisy.
In a field so often characterized by both irony and hypocrisy, it was always reassuring to know that Tim was out there, cheering on those who take this work seriously as a “discipline” in the true sense. All this is to say that I am in solidarity with your community in Alabama as you both celebrate and grieve Tim’s passing, and I am so happy that he was able to find a place that was so supportive of his work, which I will always consider to be a gift to both scholars and practitioners of religion everywhere.