Jonathan D Jansen reviews CONJECTURES: LIVING WITH QUESTIONS by James Leatt

James Leatt’s Conjectures: Living with questions (Karavan Press, 2021)

In this captivating and evocative new book, Conjectures, Professor James Leatt delivers a master class in how to think about and think through those perplexing questions that humans everywhere grapple with—questions of life and death, salvation and suffering, faith and doubt. Rich in literary references, the book is nevertheless accessible to a broad readership well beyond the landscapes of theology and philosophy that the author traverses with remarkable ease.

What makes this work particularly interesting is that Jim, as friends call him, teaches us about ‘living with questions’ (the sub-title of the book) through the biography of his rich and rewarding life, shared with us warts and all. The eldest child of a broken home (alcoholic parents), Jim finds the objects of his devotion in the Methodist Church and its sense of mission leads him to preaching in the backyards of my youthful upbringing (Retreat, on the Cape Flats) and ministering in the once promising community of Alice in the Eastern Cape before the apartheid government drained those small oases of non-racial living.

During his studies at Rhodes University, Jim begins to question the certainties of his faith as he engages some of the great thinkers of the 19th century on truth, knowledge, and human reason. It is his openness to challenging ideas and his courage in confronting unsettling questions that impress throughout the reading of this intriguing text. In the writing Jim gives us access to his head and his heart, and the slow but steady process of change that starts to transform his thinking about divine authority and the human condition.

Right in the middle of this contemplation, Jim shares insights into his roles as a leader of universities from Cape Town (UCT) to Durban (University of Natal) and eventually Thohoyandou (University of Venda) where, in the latter case, he led the successful transformation of a dysfunctional institution that is now regarded as one of the two or three historically black universities that have overcome the ideological and material deadweight of the apartheid burden.

Jim reassures the reader that he is not an atheist but one who has through his openness to ideas found his calling in ‘secular spirituality’ that values human connection, owns up to personal responsibility, lives compassionately, and revels in the ordinary. His “non-theism” inspired by Eastern thought, insists that we are on our own and that “there isn’t someone or something that is going to make things right for me …”

No doubt, the book will disturb those of us raised on foundational truths and the comforting certainties of fundamentalist faith. Fortunately, Jim does not set out to win over converts to his commitments but to invite readers into a world of conscious deliberation on vital questions about transcendent living that makes a difference in the lives of those around us. For that reason alone, Conjectures is highly recommended for these uncertain times where self-absorption, even mere survival, has displaced deep thinking about humanity, connectivity, and solidarity in an unjust world.

Jonathan D Jansen, Distinguished Professor of Education, Stellenbosch University

ISBN: 978-0-620935-87-6

Also available on Kindle: Conjectures

The latest Karavan Press title – Conjectures: Living With Questions – in the hands of its author James Leatt

Always a happy moment: the handover of author’s copies to The Author! Yesterday, James Leatt received the first copies of his Conjectures: Living With Questions and signed a copy for the Karavan Press archive.

When I put up two of the above photographs on Instagram yesterday, the post attracted two very moving comments:

“There’s an author who once slept holding … a copy of his first book. He finished a matchbox looking at the book at night since there was no electricity in his rural area. Congratulations James.”

— Sipho Banda

“I love that you publish outsider authors with exceptional talent that other publishers are afraid of. You’re like the originals, publishing words not social media followers. Literature is better for Karavan Press.”

— Rachel Zadok

Instagram

Rachel is the founder of Short Story Day Africa. She and her work – as writer, editor, publisher and curator of Short Story Day Africa – continue to be great inspirations for Karavan Press.

And, like no other, Sipho’s comment captures the pride and joy of the moment of holding your book in your hands for the very first time, especially when the journey up to that point had not been easy. But no matter what the path, the magic of the arrival is extraordinary.

Thank you, Rachel and Sipho! And thank you, James, for travelling with Karavan Press!

Conjectures: Living With Questions tells the story of James’s search for how to live a meaningful life at a time when the socio-historical realities all around forced him to question the mere possibility. The book is now available from all good bookstores (please order, if not in stock), online from Loot, and as ebook.

James Leatt was nine when the Nationalist Party came to power, and eleven when he saw a documentary of the Allied forces liberating Nazi death camps. For most of his life the shadows of apartheid and the Holocaust have dogged his beliefs about faith, the meaning of life and the moral challenges humankind faces.

Conjectures is a philosophical reflection on his life and times as he grapples with the realities of parish work in black communities, teaching ethics in a business school under apartheid, managing a university in the dying days of the Nationalist regime, and eventually working in higher education in post-apartheid South Africa.

Weaving strands of his personal life with the questions of theodicy and modernity as well as drawing upon the Western philosophical tradition and the wisdom of East Asian traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism, he comes to terms with a disenchanted reality which has no need for supernatural or magical thought and practice.

He has learned to live with questions. If you no longer believe in God and a sacred text, what are your sources of meaning? What kind of moral GPS allows you to find your way? Is what might be called a secular spirituality even possible?

Conjectures traces the author’s search for a secular way of being that is meaningful, mindful and reverent.

ISBN: 978-0-620935-87-6

Forthcoming from Karavan Press: CONJECTURES by JAMES LEATT

Conjectures, when the book still went by a different working title, was one of the first manuscripts to arrive on Karavan Press’s doorstep. “Lovely to be entrusted with an author’s intellectual and creative work. A great honour and responsibility. Looking forward to the read…” I commented about it on Instagram at the time.

The manuscript and the author came highly recommended by a writer who has been running creative writing classes for a long time and who knew that this book was special and needed a home with an independent publisher. They thought we would be a good fit. And so it is.

Reading James’s reflections about his life and work, I felt as if someone had written about my own intellectual and spiritual journey, but with the deeply grounded theoretical and practical insights that I had lacked at the time when I was travelling this path. He writes with care, integrity and joy, and an unmistakable gratitude for the treasures he had discovered along the way – a journey marked by many difficult questions and challenges, but also rewards and achievements.

Beautifully written, Conjectures will appeal to readers who have questions of their own and are willing to open their hearts and minds to them, no matter how complex and arduous the attempt may be. Some of us might arrive at a different destination, but the journey itself is quite a thrill.

The book’s cover and content have been designed by Stephen Symons. We are in the final stages of production and I can’t wait to share this intellectual and creative literary gem with our Readers.

Karavan Press title: Conjectures – Living With Questions by James Leatt

DESCRIPTION

James Leatt was nine when the Nationalist Party came to power, and eleven when he saw a documentary of the Allied forces liberating Nazi death camps. For most of his life the shadows of apartheid and the Holocaust have dogged his beliefs about faith, the meaning of life and the moral challenges humankind faces.

Conjectures is a philosophical reflection on his life and times as he grapples with the realities of parish work in black communities, teaching ethics in a business school under apartheid, managing a university in the dying days of the Nationalist regime, and eventually working in higher education in post-apartheid South Africa.

Weaving strands of his personal life with the questions of theodicy and modernity as well as drawing upon the Western philosophical tradition and the wisdom of East Asian traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism, he comes to terms with a disenchanted reality which has no need for supernatural or magical thought and practice.

He has learned to live with questions. If you no longer believe in God and a sacred text, what are your sources of meaning? What kind of moral GPS allows you to find your way? Is what might be called a secular spirituality even possible?

Conjectures traces the author’s search for a secular way of being that is meaningful, mindful and reverent.

ISBN: 978-0-620935-87-6

Publication date: August 2021

Also available on Kindle: Conjectures – Living With Questions

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

DR JAMES (JIM) LEATT began his career in banking before becoming a Methodist minister, working on the Cape Flats, in District Six and at the Federal Theological Seminary, Alice. In 1977, he became Lecturer in Religious Studies at UCT. His work in industrial relations mediation and interest in applied ethics led to a joint appointment with the GSB at UCT in 1980. Three years later, he was appointed to the first chair in Social Ethics at a South African business school. In 1985, he became a Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal at UCT, and in 1991, he took up the post of Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of Natal, where he initiated a major strategic review of the university. On his return to Cape Town, he became CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium involving the four public universities in the Western Cape, and consulted in higher education.

He is the author of journal articles, chapters in books, and is editor-in-chief of Contending Ideologies in South Africa (David Philip, 1986 & 1989). He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA (IMSSA). He retired after eleven years as Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), and as Deputy Chair of the Tertiary Education Network (TENET).

James and his wife Jenny live in Somerset West. They have two children, Christopher and Ann-Marie.

Author: James Leatt

DR JAMES (JIM) LEATT began his career in banking before becoming a Methodist minister, working on the Cape Flats, in District Six and at the Federal Theological Seminary, Alice. In 1977, he became Lecturer in Religious Studies at UCT. His work in industrial relations mediation and interest in applied ethics led to a joint appointment with the GSB at UCT in 1980. Three years later, he was appointed to the first chair in Social Ethics at a South African business school. In 1985, he became a Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal at UCT, and in 1991, he took up the post of Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of Natal, where he initiated a major strategic review of the university. On his return to Cape Town, he became CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium involving the four public universities in the Western Cape, and consulted in higher education.

He is the author of journal articles, chapters in books, and is editor-in-chief of Contending Ideologies in South Africa (David Philip, 1986 & 1989). He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA (IMSSA). He retired after eleven years as Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), and as Deputy Chair of the Tertiary Education Network (TENET).

James and his wife Jenny live in Somerset West. They have two children, Christopher and Ann-Marie.