In Memoriam: Alumnus Tim Murphy

October 01, 2013

Knowing Tim Murphy

written by Karen deVries

Associate Professor Tim MurphyTim was a friend, a mentor, and part of my kin group. Allow me to tell a little bit of a story in order to convey a more fleshed out sense of what this means to me.

I first heard about Tim in 1998. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, a place I loved very much, but I could see the writing on the wall that the politics there were going to prohibit me from continuing my doctoral endeavors at Swift Hall. My advisor, Jonathan Z. Smith, had suggested I consider the History of Consciousness (HistCon) graduate department at UC/Santa Cruz. I contacted Professor Gary Lease, the religion specialist at HistCon, to ask him what studying religion at UCSC was like and what job prospects one might anticipate. He replied enthusiastically and named Tim as his heretofore most successful and promising student. At the time, Tim was doing postdoc work in Cleveland. This was my introduction to the figure of Dr. Timothy Murphy. I never forgot this recommendation.

Events conspired, and I moved west to pursue the Ph.D. in the same place Tim had. Upon arrival, I quickly located and perused his qualifying exams and dissertation on Nietzsche and religion. I was both elated and daunted by what I encountered. This kind of work was exactly what I had hoped one could do in HistCon, and it was going to require much more literacy than I currently possessed.

In 2002, I finally met Tim in person at the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) meeting in Toronto. Unlike many of the religion scholars who wore some variation on the theme of tweed jackets and elbow pads, Tim sported a leather jacket, jeans, and a shaved head. I knew I was going to like him. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I began to get a sense of him as someone possessing a bone-deep sense of integrity, a good measure of joyful humor, and at least a dash of anti-authoritarianism.

Our paths did not cross again for several years. Tim joined the Department of Religion at the University of Alabama, and he published his second book. I withdrew from HistCon for family and health-related reasons. In 2008, Gary Lease died. Tim and I were both devastated. Tim had planned to come to Santa Cruz for the memorial, but his health did not cooperate. However, we began staying in regular touch, largely via Facebook but also via email. By 2010, circumstances in my life began to improve, and Donna Haraway, a HistCon faculty member who had also worked with Tim, agreed to help me get back to work on my Ph.D. I was going to need a religion person on my committee, and I immediately knew who it had to be. I contacted Tim. After he thought about it for a few days, he replied that he was incredibly honored and would love to be involved but warned me that his health problems could flare up at any time. 

I’m sorry to say that Tim did not live long enough to sign off on my dissertation. However, he is one of a handful of people who helped me get back in the saddle. The wisdom and advice and friendship he shared with me over the past few years has been nothing short of life-changing. Let me share some of the best nuggets with you.


On writing. The key, Tim said, is to learn to identify your super-ego and then tell it to fuck off. Every day. Shortly after I returned to Santa Cruz, I shared my doubts about my ability to write a dissertation with Tim. He responded simply, “You can do this. Just take the writing a section at a time.” When the author Ray Bradbury died, this quote of his was making the rounds: “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” Tim commented, “This has a lot to do with why I became a scholar.” 


On intellectual projects. “Just because you’re not writing,” he said, “doesn’t mean that you’re not working through something. Just keep thinking. Don’t get down on yourself.” Regarding his own work, he said that it took a long time for him to figure out what he was up to, but once he did, he never looked back. “Trust yourself,” he said. And then he remarked that he ought to remember his own advice more often.


On things he loved. Tim identified more with artists than with academics, a trait I found both refreshing and nurturing. I also learned that he loved the sound of rain and thunder, classic rock, the blues, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Beat poets, and good conversations. I recall him saying at one point that he had not been so successful in his romantic or monetary endeavors, but that he had hit the jackpot when it came to friends. He had a serious connection to Kansas – particularly the University of Kansas Jayhawks. I will never again hear the chant, “Rock, chalk, jayhawk” without thinking of Tim.


As anyone who knew him can probably attest, Tim also loved baseball. One of our conversations this past summer revolved around the topic of trying to figure out how he could teach something on religion and baseball at the same time. On his Facebook page, he shared what he called “the religion soliloquy” delivered by the character, Annie Savoy, in the opening of the film, Bull Durham. Here’s part of it:

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring... the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball. 


I don’t think I’m stretching things to say this quote resonated for Tim. Although I know my way around a baseball field well enough, I had never truly understood the appeal of the major leagues. When a friend invited me to an Oakland A’s game last summer, I asked Tim for some instruction on how to begin acquiring a serious appreciation for the game. He suggested I start by learning about the different techniques involved in different kinds of pitches, and he sent me some YouTube links for good measure. “Buy a program and score the game,” he said. “Most importantly, always cheer for the home team.”


I feel like I’ve known for a while that Tim’s death was imminent, but that doesn’t make it any less of a loss. The same morning I received the news from Russ that Tim was no longer with us, I also saw Dorothea Ditchfield, Gary Lease’s widow. At some point, she remarked that perhaps Tim and Gary and Christopher Hitchens were having drinks and a good laugh together. Neither of us actually put much stock in this idea, but I like the image. I’m think we’re holding onto the connections that have made us who we are. I know I am.

Now you know the story of how I knew Tim and a little bit about how his intra-actions in the world have shaped me. I am certain there is much more to the life and times of Timothy Michael Murphy than the fleeting yet so important exchanges I shared with him. And I’m certain that his work in the world will continue reverberating like a good electric guitar solo. To all of Tim’s friends and family, I share in your loss and your love.


Tim posted this on Facebook on January 20, 2011 at 6:00am. He tagged 27 people in it. I was one of them. I share it with you because I read it as an honest self-assessment, and much of it has stuck with me. This is the Tim that I knew … in his own words.


The “Proust Questionnaire”

What is your current state of mind?
Alert, intent, and in a good, but serious mood.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
socially constructed,  constituted,  difference,  post- anything

What is the word or phrase you use most that you like?
God-fucking-damnit!  can say SO many different things.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The integration of all aspects of life: amor fati.

Was there one person that influenced your outlook on life?
I was truly fortunate to have two heroes when I was a boy: John Lennon and Roberto Clemente. What incredible luck!

What book, film, poem, etc., influenced your outlook on life?
The Tao te Ching came along at a most opportune time, but that was a million phases ago.  The Gay Science and Steppenwolf opened things for me that nothing else ever has.

What is your greatest extravagance?
 I like black leather. Without apologies.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
That I waste so many opportunities.  Often too snarky & cynical as well, but mostly I don't mind that.

What is the trait you most like in yourself?
The ability to see things in broad perspective...and to laugh about it all.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Inability to see themselves in a context, as part of something larger, as one person out of many. Also, self-righteousness (which is certainly related to the foregoing).

What is the trait you most like in others?
Compassion, when I'm weak; independence when I'm strong.

What is it that you most dislike in life?
Mendacity. People knowingly misrepresenting things; not owning up to the truth, come what may. More, though, the way life just lays so much to waste. So much senseless destruction.

On what occasion/s do you lie?
To save face, mine or the others.  Or, just smooth over a situation.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
That they aren't hung up on "manliness" and yet are, more or less, manly. Also, articulateness. Humor. Men who have to be the alpha dog are a total drag; go away!

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
That they don't pull the "mother move," i.e., see themselves as automatically morally superior/right _just_ because they are a woman.  Also, articulateness.  And, of course, that they laugh at my jokes.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My circle of long-time friends, scattered, sadly, across the lower 48.  Tiffany.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Going from a "Fast-Times-at-Ridgemont-High" high school drop out to a tenured professor with three books published and Cystic Fibrosis.  

When and where were you happiest?
I've never been very good at happiness.  Spurts here and there; with David, with Lorioux, in the 1990s at Santa Cruz when I was coming into my own, both as a person and as a professional.  Back in the Crossing days.  When we had those "moments" playing music in my old band.  Almost every moment on a baseball field.  

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 
All things are interconnected and reciprocally effect one another. Therefore to change one thing is to change everything.  Amor fati.  On the other hand, if I didn't have this goddamned lung disease...

Where would you like to live?
Lawrence, Kansas.  For me, it's not about where, but who.  My connections with people are what I value most.

What is your favorite occupation?
"Writer," or laborer in language (lectures, writing, etc.).  "Concept artist" as John Massad called me once.

What is your most treasured possession?
My sense of humor.

What is your greatest regret?

See Also