An Interview with Dr. Steven DeLay

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Steven DeLay

Dr. Steven DeLay is a writer and philosopher living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. An Old Member of Christ Church, Oxford, he is the author of six different books in the realm of philosophy and theology. He is a new contributor to Philosophical Rambler.

“I was born in the Bay Area in the mid-’80s. I didn’t fully understand or appreciate so at the time, but a number of very interesting things were occurring then in California that have proven to be of general cultural and societal significance, events and changes that everyone now recognizes to have been important milestones for the country and the world. I remember what it was like living through those things; it was an experience that shaped me deeply. When I was very young, for example, my dad always told me stories about what the Bay Area was like when he had grown up there in the ’50 and ‘60s. He told me all about the blossom fields and the orchards. He was born in Los Angeles, so he told me the stories he had heard about California during the time of the Great Depression and the Second War World War. My mother was from Boston, so I heard stories about life on the East Coast. From an early age, then, I had a sense of history and place—of how the California I was born into had already been changing.

Things really began to change for everyone, of course, with the rise of tech. In my early grade school years, we still had been using VHS. There were payphones still. Cable television was relatively new. The Walkman was hip and cool. Most families didn’t own a computer. When the internet was made public, it took a while to catch on. Those were interesting years. I remember how during the start-up boom of the ‘90s, parents of my friends were regularly quitting their jobs on a Monday for the silliest of reasons, only to have a new job at some other company by the end of the same week. It was very decadent, very self-indulgent. People were spoiled. Everyone thought he was going to be a millionaire in the stock market. I have memories of that materialism and greed, of how superficial it all was, and how people took it all for granted.

There were also good things about California, especially the natural beauty, particularly the beach. I spent a lot of time as a kid at the ocean in Santa Cruz. That’s where my love of the sea originates. My parents both loved the beach, so some of my earliest memories are of being at
the ocean. When I think about the California of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it reminds me that nothing lasts, everything passes away. That’s a sentiment I’ve always had—an awareness of time and change, the transience of little periods in your life that other people around you may seem not to recognize are fleeting. I think, in that way, I’ve always felt like a pilgrim. The interest in time and beauty is what drew me to writing.”

“I’ve always wondered about existence—why anything exists at all, why I existed, what happens after death. I always wondered what other people thought about those things. One of the things that I noticed early on in life is that many people pretend not to have these questions or concerns. They ignore them. Or, at least, they don’t like to talk about them. I always wondered why that was the case, why the most basic and fundamental of existential questions were the ones that so much of daily life was structured around avoiding. Even before reading any philosophy or theology, I guess I was always ruminating over those things. I wanted to figure it all out—what’s the point of it all? When I got to high school, I encountered Emerson and Dostoevsky. Then when I got to college, I realized that I should study philosophy—four or five years spent reading philosophy books, and writing papers, and discussing it all with others seemed to me great. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to study anything else, frankly.”

“When Phenomenology in France was published, it received a very critical review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. That ended up being a blessing, because Richard Marshall learned of my work when he came across the review. He invited me to contribute to his philosophy interview series at 3:16 AM—the interview was entitled “Is Phenomenology in France Theology or Philosophy?” After that, he invited me to edit a series of online essays as well. Those were the first two things I did for online print. I’ve since written some pieces that ended up lying around for a while but were eventually published. Sometimes, there are things you want to say that won’t work for publication in an academic journal or an academic monograph. I’m not someone interested in launching a Substack or writing a blog. I don’t like the idea of writing for
regularly scheduled publication. I like to write something when I feel prompted, then find a place for it later when it’s done. The two pieces that I wrote—one on the “death of God,” the other on the American scholar—ended up finding a venue online which was great. I have a short story—a novella, I guess—that I’m working on currently, and I hope to get serialized online somewhere.”

“I’ve lived in many different places—the Bay Area, Texas, and then overseas in Oxford. I’ve traveled fairly extensively across North America, Europe, and the UK. I’ve met and gotten to know famous academics, heads of Oxford colleges, Parisian philosophers, foreign artists, journalists, barristers, other writers, even Hollywood directors. It’s an eclectic range of people with whom I’ve come into contact. I had a lot of friends who wanted to break into the art world or the film world or whatever. If I’d been chasing all that, my life would be empty. I just wanted to write work that I believe in. Doing so has ended up leading me to where it has. But the focus has always been on the work, not the interesting things or people that inevitably come along with the life of a writer. So, for me, the journey hasn’t been a matter of evolving geography or whom I meet; it’s been walking with Christ.

I’ve been publishing different kinds of writings for a while now: philosophy books, edited volumes, journal articles, book reviews, novels, and novellas. People have begun discovering what I’ve written. Now people want me to comment on the things that I’ve written, or comment on why I’ve written what I have. Along with that, people want me to say something about the state of the world, or how I see my work responding to the issues of today. I understand. It makes sense that people who read my work would have those questions. I don’t deny we’re living in strange times. It’s obvious we are. Nonetheless, the more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that the world has always been strange. The world is absurd. It’s insane. It’s wicked. It would be easy to catalog all the horrific things about the current state of the world that I would wish to change if I could. But that’s not the reality. The reality is that the world is the way it is. How do you respond to that? Many people choose to live in denial; they pretend everything is fine, that there is no evil, no absurdity. They ignore the problems. Others do the opposite; they fixate on all the problems and end up angry and bitter as a result. There are others who choose to shut down. One Christmas a number of years ago, my wife and I visited California to see my parents. It had been a few years since I had last seen my old California friends. We met up with one of them at a bar in San Francisco during the afternoon. By that point, I had quit drinking. I remember thinking to myself at the table that this friend of mine had become a completely different person than who I had known—he was a zombie, something inside him had just gone out. The lights were off. It was a very painful realization. We had known one another for years—since we were eight years old. He had been a groomsman at my wedding. I realized that when I had been away overseas, he had been unable to accept whatever suffering and disappointment had occurred in his life back in California. He made the
decision to go numb. I see that a lot now in people I used to know. My own view is that the task of life is to be honest about the world’s absurdity and evil, but then not let it consume you or drive you to apathy and despair. How do you do that? You overcome it—you have to overcome the world in Jesus Christ.”

“I guess it depends on who you’re considering—my work is totally unknown to most people, and if they do know something about my work, they know very little about me personally. But I think who I am comes through in my philosophical writing clearly. That’s why I prefer the philosophical approach of phenomenology—it’s a way of seeking the universal in the particular. I can reflect on the world as it is revealed to me, and then attempt to show something about it that will be of salience to those who read it. But ultimately, I write for God. That’s my inspiration. What I hope to accomplish with my books, why I work on some particular book rather than another—those sorts of goals and decisions are a secret between the Lord and me. It’s personal. But even though the work is very private in that way, I will hear from readers who tell me that what they read spoke to them very personally and deeply. That’s the paradoxical power of writing—you can say as a writer something personal about what life has taught you, and it ends up articulating something that crystallizes an aspect of the reader’s life.

A few years ago, I went back to Oxford to give a paper. It was my first time there since leaving. On the way there, I stopped in London for a meeting with some people. When we were talking, one of the people asked someone else there what one word he would use to describe me, having now met me in person. The person who was asked the question thought about it, then said, “Deep.” He meant it as a compliment. That it was some unique feature of mine. But it’s really true of everyone. Everyone has an inner life—his memories, his thoughts, his worries, his goals, his hopes, and so forth. It’s just that many people hide that inner world, or pretend not to have one.”

“Kierkegaard changed my life when I read him in college. His work was what spurred me on the path that eventually led to my becoming a Christian. And his work continues to inspire me. Dostoevsky has had a similar influence on me. Reading him when I was new to philosophy left a lasting mark on how I see human nature, and how I approach my own work in philosophy because of that. But those are the dead authors from long ago. Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Jean-Luc Marion, Emmanuel Falque, Claude Romano, and Jean-Yves Lacoste—the French phenomenologists are thinkers whom I look up to. The work I’m able to do now in phenomenology would not have been conceivable without theirs paving the way. I’m always learning more from their work as I carry on with my own.”

“Currently, I’m working on a short story, something that will probably expand into a novella. The next philosophical work I want to write is a book about film noir. I’ve been thinking about that for a while, and I feel like it’s going to come together soon. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out a book. In addition, there are a couple of other works I hope to write afterwards: a book on the philosophical history of the concept of conscience, another one on the theological doctrine of original sin. I have mentioned Michel Henry. I’m currently co-editing a volume on his work with Steven Nemes. There are also some essays that I’m working on for other edited volumes. That’s it for the writing.

As for life itself, it’s impossible to know. I don’t really think about it. There’s a sign in one of the coffee shops that I go to that says, “These Are the Good Old Days.” I think there’s something true about that. It’s very easy to slip into nostalgia. But when you look at it honestly, people have always thought the past was better than their own time. I don’t want to be old one day looking back on these times now in my life regretting not having made the most of what I was given.

Life can be simple. I have my coffee shops where I like to read. The places where I like to take walks. The little restaurants where I go for lunch or get takeout for dinner with my wife. I like that everyday routine of working independently. When I was at Oxford, and for a number of years afterwards, everyone I knew used to ask me about the academic job market—where am I applying? Where do I hope to work? Why haven’t I landed a job yet? What’s going on? To be honest, not being on a university campus has been an immense blessing. I have total freedom. “When I am weak, then I am strong,” as St. Paul said. Working on the margins of university life has become a strength—it makes it easy for me to choose to write work simply because I care about it, without having to worry about how it fits into an academic career, or what others will think about it. I don’t care about any of that.

My wife and I toy with the idea of moving somewhere eventually—I like the idea of Florida. She likes the idea of the Mediterranean. Who knows? I could die tomorrow in a car crash or live till a hundred. That’s the mystery. Each new day, I try not to let where I may end up next concern me, just so long as I’ll be able to say that I’ve made the most of the time the Lord has given me.”

You can learn more about Steven here.