Camping With Kierkegaard: Faithfulness as a Way of Life
By J. Aaron Simmons
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
Have these two words ever appeared in the same sentence? And where would you locate this book in the library or bookstore? And what kind of life journey has prepared a person to write such a book?
These are the questions this book first generated in my mind, and they are the questions that kept percolating as I read this book. Plus, this one: why wasn’t there a book like this fifty years ago when I was reading philosophy in college?
College students, especially those at Furman University, will never ask that question, now that their teacher, Dr. J. Aaron Simmons, has put his pen to the paper. Out of his journey through the mountains, the sanctuary, the classroom, and his home, Simmons has written a very engaging, very accessible reflection on the meaning of life as filtered through the philosophy of Kierkegaard and the engagement with the outdoors.
For Simmons, that is primarily the mountains, rivers, and campgrounds of the lower Appalachian Mountains. That would be Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, within a day’s drive of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He describes his life-long exposure to these elements as well as his pandemic-driven conversion to a more immersive engagement with fishing, biking, hiking, and camping.
Mixed in with his nature-born philosophizing is impressive notations of contemporary musicians, all mostly foreign to me: Oasis, Joy Division, Donovan Woods, Rage Against the Machine, Busdriver, Death Cab for Cutie, plus Drake (whom he dislikes), and Bob Dylan (whom we all like). Jesus, also, makes an appearance here and there!
I could say the same for the philosophers. Yes, he cites Kierkegaard, who is famous beyond the academy. But he also quotes Thoreau, Sartre, Levinas, Derrida, Chretien, and Beauvoir. His Acknowledgment page references Surfing with Satre, Hiking with Nietzsche, and Backpacking with the Saints, and it is easier to understand why we now have Camping with Kierkegaard.
At the core of this camping essay is the question, “What is worthy of my finitude?” This is, of course, the existential question itself, like Who am I? and What is my purpose? And, How then shall I live?
Simmons is clear about his own life: “… camping, fishing, biking, and hiking are … activities that bring me joy, that allow finitude not to be something that I desire to escape, but something that I hope to inhabit more effectively” (xiii). These are pursuits that empower him to live a virtuous life, understood and described not so much in the language of traditional religion (although God-talk pops into this treatise in both a frequent and natural way) as with the vocabulary of humane ethics:
“Virtue is not ultimately about following rules set by someone else, but about internalizing those ideas that lead to human flourishing in ways that make them what we unconsciously expect of ourselves….” He then names three moral expectations: humility, hospitality, and gratitude (84). He quotes approvingly the popular three-tiered prayer of Ann Lamont when he writes, “Let’s all make a habit of living the prayers, “Help me. Thank you. Wow” (94ff).
Simmons is deeply aware of the constant push to understand higher education as preparation for the job market, as equipping young adults with the skills to work for a living. But the liberal arts university, like where Simmons teaches, embraces a wider, deeper understanding of education. He writes:
“Of course, within our current economic framework, jobs matter, but when we are oriented toward faithfulness rather than success, jobs matter because they are specific ways in which we live out how we have chosen to hear the call to ourselves. When we think that we are “called” to a specific job, then we stop being selves and become employees. The key is to flip things such that we begin to see the call as a matter of what we take to be worthy of our finitude and then see the job as a particular manifestation of how we can make our practices align with that value-judgment. The job is secondary, the decision about meaning if (sic) foremost” (108).
He concludes: “So, will you hear “What are you going to do with your life?” as a call (to selfhood) or merely as a question (about employment)” (ibid). This is the central point of the book, of education, of religion, and indeed of life itself.
Famous and influential naturalist John Muir evidently coined the phrase, “The mountains are calling.” It adorns the shirts in a thousand shops in these parts of the country, and it is the invitation embraced by Simmons in this wise and winsome book, “The mountains are calling . . . I choose to go. Come with me” (114). Just be prepared for a little philosophizing while casting that fly into the water.