In a world where self-reliance is both respected and revered, Anthony Kemp believes in the need to remain open to things “that can revolutionize the way you think.”
Kemp, associate professor of English in USC College, spoke at this month’s “What Matters to Me and Why,” sponsored by the USC Office of Religious Life. The monthly events are organized by Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life, and a group of undergraduate and graduate students.
At each event, a USC faculty member provides the lunchtime audience with a thoughtful and thought-provoking speech on any topic. This month’s event, held on Feb. 13 at Ground Zero Coffee House, featured Kemp answering the series’ eponymous question.
He began by explaining his aversion to fundamentalism of any sort.
“It is,” he said, “a narrow set of opinions that are absolutely right, that require all wrong opinions be eliminated. It speaks against religious diversity.” As an example, Kemp highlighted a 1980 quote from the then-Southern Baptist Convention president stating that, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” This exclusivity, Kemp argues, is at the heart of fundamentalist belief.
He was careful to explain that his complaint is not with religion itself. He spoke of his antipathy toward “materialist fundamentalism,” which he defined as “the complete focus on the non-existence of the non-material world. It is, in essence, fundamentalist atheism.”
To illustrate this idea, Kemp pointed to atheist screeds such as God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Kemp argued that fundamentalist atheism — declaring all religion must be eliminated from the world — is as exclusionary as any other fundamentalist belief.
As much as Kemp dislikes the exclusion of fundamentalism, there’s something else that he does like: namely, redemption.
Talking specifically about redemption narratives, Kemp said that being lost is a result of one’s own actions, thereby making it necessary for something external — be it God, a friend, art — to act as the redeemer. Without redemption, he said, there is only complete self-reliance, a notion that Kemp finds “appalling.”
To reinforce his point, Kemp drew upon Ralph Waldo Emerson’s take on self-reliance. Emerson argues that one should be entirely self-reliant, contending, “As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.”
The implication that those who rely on external redemption are weak is what Kemp finds so disturbing. “I do not think,” he said, “that it is accurate to human experience.”
Kemp argued that Emerson left out an essential aspect of human experience: love. Love of people and things outside of the self are integral to the type of redemption that he values so highly.
Kemp believes that abstaining from fundamentalist ideals and exposing ourselves to the “overarching redemption in the universe,” can revolutionize us. Whether it is a painting or the higher power, he said, one should be open to those external sources of redemption.
“This will be the impetus for real change in our lives.”
As the event drew to a close, he left his listeners with a small and surprising inspirational anecdote.
Kemp, an expert on literature and critical theory who teaches in USC College’s Thematic Option honors program, had a very low tested IQ at a young age. He was told he would never be able to live a normal independent life.
He concluded with a single remark: “Here I am.”