Danger: Philosophy of Religion

Robert S Gall. Philosophy Today. Volume 42, Issue 4. Winter 1998.

At first glance, philosophy of religion might seem to be an unproblematic discipline. However, closer inspection reveals that philosophers and religious people often seem uneasy when confronted with the subject. That uneasiness, one suspects, is due to the fact that philosophy of religion poses a threat to our accepted notions of philosophy and religion-a threat that lies in the ambiguity of the genitive. The philosopher suspects that philosophy of religion is religious philosophy, a disguised theology and apologetics that threatens the objectivity of philosophy. The religious person, on the other hand, suspects that philosophy of religion is philosophy about religion, an intrusion into religion by “outsiders” (i.e., “unbelievers”) that threatens the sanctity of religious belief and practice. In the following, I want to explore the threat posed by philosophy of religion and argue that we should embrace the ambiguity of the genitive and the danger that it poses to philosophy and religion. Indeed, as philosophers of religion we have no choice but to embrace this ambiguity if we are to be true to philosophy, religion, and the philosophy of religion.

The danger of philosophy of religion is acknowledged in one of two ways. One way involves a kind of repression and avoidance of the threat. Thus on the opening page of his An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (2nd edition, Oxford, 1993) Brian Davies tells us that “it is difficult to say exactly what the philosophy of religion is,” noting that the difficulty lies in characterizing both philosophy and religion. Rather than pursuing this insight, he goes on to tell us that he will “not attempt the perilous task of defining the philosophy of religion” (ix) and then proceeds to introduce us to the subject. Here Davies, like a few other philosophers of religion, is dealing with the problem and the threat posed by philosophy of religion by not dealing with it. However, avoidance and repression generally are not healthy ways of coping with problems; they lead to more problems. Thus William Wainwright, for instance, also foregoes any definition, though he has some very definite ideas about what philosophy of religion should be covering. He seems to assume that philosophy of religion is equivalent to “philosophical theology” (whatever that is) and consequently jumps right into an argument about “maximally perfect reality,” despite the fact that there are religious traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism) that cannot be said to be doing “theology” (i.e., investigating the logic of ”God”) or are not concerned with a “maximally perfect reality.” If philosophers of religion such as Davies and Wainwright refuse to define what it is they are doing, they leave themselves open to the suspicion that they have a hidden agenda, or have made assumptions that will not survive the light of day.

Of course, more often than not philosophers of religion do undertake “the perilous task” of defining philosophy of religion. Yet they too acknowledge the threat posed by philosophy of religion (albeit indirectly) by characterizing it in such a way as to put everyone at ease. A good example can be found at the beginning of John Hick’s popular introduction to Philosophy of Religion (4th edition, Prentice-Hall, 1990). On the opening page of that work, Hick confidently proclaims-with emphasis-that “we may reserve the name ‘philosophy of religion’ for what (by analogy with philosophy of science, philosophy of art, etc.) is its proper meaning, namely, philosophical thinking about religion” (1). The definition generally accepted and/or echoed in other treatments of the subject–is bound to be comforting to both philosophers and religious persons. But the definition (and those like it) does not do justice to philosophy, religion, or philosophy of religion, either in theory or in practice.

One of the first things to note about Hick’s definition is that it somehow places philosophy outside religion. Since philosophy of religion is neither an organ of religious teaching nor a branch of theology, philosophers are assured that all religion-including “natural” theology (1)-is kept at arm’s length. Philosophy of religion, as Hick says a bit further along, is “a second-order activity, standing at one remove from its subject matter. It is not itself a part of the religious realm” (2). Philosophy of religion is somehow isolated, free from the possibility of contamination by the personal bias of religious practice. In short, philosophy of religion assumes the role of philosopher as spectator. This in turn may mean or imply one of two things. On the one hand, it may mean that philosophy-and philosophy of religion-has a unique perspective on the practice and beliefs of religion, just as philosophy has a unique perspective on science, art, etc. That perspective is one rooted in the Truth and/or Reality, and makes philosophy the judge of the nature or the truth-value of religious claims, beliefs and practices. Philosophy then has the place granted it by Plato in the Phaedo or The Republic, or Descartes in The Meditations, and the philosopher of religion stands as the detached observer of religious doctrines and practices, judging them according to his or her privileged access to Truth and/or Reality. As the detached philosopher-king of the Platonic tradition, the philosopher of religion is able to render an impartial verdict on the nature of this or that religious belief or practice, or on how well it approximates the Truth. Philosophy of religion therefore comes to be described as an “attempt to study religious teachings and phenomena objectively, that is, not from the perspective of any particular tradition,” a discipline that appeals to reason rather than revelation.

However, in these more “politically correct” times, the philosopher as spectator is more likely to be cast as an impartial observer rather than a judge. Here the philosopher of religion does not pass judgment on religion one way or the other. Instead, practicing some sort of “higher order neutralism,” description and analysis are the order of the day. The philosopher of religion becomes a kind of forensic pathologist of the religious life, classifying religious practices and beliefs according to some catalog of linguistic, phenomenological or sociological categories and concepts that are presumably value-neutral but nonetheless correctly arrange those beliefs and practices according to some universal order. Here philosophy of religion drifts into the phenomenology of religions or history of religions approach pioneered by Mircea Eliade.

The problem with defining philosophy of religion using the model of the philosopher as spectator will be apparent to anyone familiar with recent trends in philosophy, which have seriously called into question this spectator/judge view of philosophy. For instance, in contemporary American philosophy, Martha Nussbaum, working from an Aristotelian perspective, has looked to ancient Greek tragedy and the modern novel for models of our practical reasoning. Stanley Cavell, starting with the ordinary language philosophy of Austin and Wittgenstein, draws on drama, literature, painting, music and television to explore traditional philosophical problems. Richard Rorty, developing a kind of pragmatism that draws on thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey, has argued that philosophy is just one more genre of discourse without privilege in the conversation of mankind. Not surprisingly, as these thinkers have challenged the traditional spectator model of philosophy they have found themselves wrestling with religious issues. Though Nussbaum tends to try to avoid theological issues in The Fragility of Goodness, she is nonetheless drawn into discussions and evaluations of the soul and the life of human beings vis-a-vis that of the gods in her book and in various essays on philosophy and literature. For his part, Cavell’s ruminations on philosophy have drawn him toward the romanticism, transcendentalism and perfectionism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. And Richard Rorty’s commitment to American pragmatism forces him to confront and find a place for William James, whose interest in and commitment to religious life and philosophy of religion are well known.

Likewise, in continental philosophy over the past one hundred years, thinkers from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Sartre and Derrida have questioned the metaphysical presuppositions of traditional philosophical logic and discourse while exploring how literature and art disclose the truth in ways that are not reducible to “philosophy.” As a result, religious and spiritual matters continually emerge in the work of these thinkers, blurring and even dissolving the line between philosophy and theology. As much a poet, literary figure, and critic of culture as he is a philosopher, Nietzsche constantly found himself wrestling with theological and religious issues, proposing his own Dionysian affirmation of life as a replacement for Christianity. From the start, Heidegger found himself engaged with religious thought as he sought alternative ways of addressing philosophical issues, and his thinking returns again and again to “religious” issues such as the gods, the holy, salvation, and the piety of thinking. Derrida, too, wrestling with his Jewish heritage and with the ways in which philosophy is permeated and “contaminated” by other disciplines and practices, finds himself confronting religious and theological matters as he addresses our literary and philosophical traditions.

In one way or another, all these thinkers, in their own way, are making two points. First, they are all questioning what Stephen Toulmin has called the “myth of the clean slate,” i.e., the idea that we can begin our critical reflection by cutting ourselves off from the inherited ideas and practices of our traditions and making a fresh start “from scratch.” All of these thinkers stress our embeddedness in culture, tradition, and particular ways of thinking that nullifies any claim the philosopher might make that he or she has some access to the Truth or Reality by way of some pure and untainted Reason. Such contextualism does not rule out critical thinking or preclude transcending our situation in various, local ways, but it does deny that anyone can simply uproot themselves from their situation and somehow sit in judgment on what is true or false, real or unreal, on the basis of some privileged connection to Truth/Reality. Instead, we are called upon to be “reasonable” in the manner of 16th century humanists, i.e., sensitive to diversity and unique circumstances, modest and self-aware in the claims we make (Toulmin, 199). Secondly, and relatedly, these thinkers tend to stress that the spectator/judge view of philosophy is at best limited insofar as it overlooks the diverse and complex ways in which we critically assess and discover the truth about our world. At worst, the spectator/judge view of philosophy is seen by these thinkers as arrogantly naive, claiming a purity that dangerously ignores the ways in which our intellectual reflections are imbedded in a variety of traditions and practices that shape and nurture our thinking.

The practice of philosophy of religion itself bears witness to these insights. For one thing, most thinkers and texts dealing with the subject are far from “objective” and “value-free” (in the usual senses) in their approach to the subject. Instead, they ask questions traditionally asked in the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or the tradition rooted in the Enlightenment era inquiries of Hume and Kant. Only occasionally are questions addressed from other philosophical starting points, or with any acknowledgment of other religious traditions. Even then, when some acknowledgment of other traditions is undertaken, it is usually only to fit them back into traditional Western categories and frameworks. Genuine attention to other philosophical and religious traditions would immediately reveal the narrowness of the categories regularly employed by philosophers and historians of religion (e.g., “mysticism,” which often is applied to everyone from Teresa of Avila to the Japanese thinker Kukai) or the narrowness of a definition such as Hick’s (which really does not apply to anyone outside the Western tradition, or to anyone in the Western tradition prior to the 18th century). Likewise, in terms of style, it is interesting to see how often the practice of philosophy of religion strays from typical analytic philosophical discourse. For instance, as David Tracy has noticed, the paradigms of the modern philosopher of religion-Hume, Kant and Hegel-had comparativist interests that call for an historical, dialogical approach to philosophy of religion that undermines the idea of undertaking purely formal analyses of religion. As a result (to cite just one example), Hume found it preferable to resort to a literary style in presenting arguments in philosophy of religion in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Likewise, some of Soren Kierkegaard’s and Friedrich Nietzsche’s most memorable work revolves around telling or retelling stories and parables, e.g., of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling, or the madman’s proclamation of the death of God in The Gay Science. The mixture of styles in the practice of philosophy of religion has continued in this century. Discussions of the relation of religion and morality will invariably make reference to a dialogue-Plato’s Euthyphro-and a number of anthologies and texts use material ranging from the “Rebellion” chapter from The Brothers Karamozov to Woody Allen’s short story “Red Sea Scrolls” to present and discuss issues in the philosophy of religion. In addition, in the important New Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (New York: Macmillan, 1955), we find a promise that traditional problems will be addressed through “modern philosophical techniques.” Yet in the pivotal university discussion about “Theology and Falsification” (96-108), we find Antony Flew, R. M. Hare, and Basil Mitchell telling parables of invisible gardeners, lunatics and wartime resistance fighters (with a final nod by Flew to Orwell’s 1984) to make their philosophical points. So even using “modem philosophical techniques” it turns out in practice that the philosophy of religion is a mixed discourse, with thinkers rooted in tradition employing a variety of (literary) genres, including many often associated with religious practice.

If Hick’s definition of philosophy of religion tries to protect a standard notion of philosophy, it also tries to ensure that philosophy of religion poses no threat to traditional religious belief and practice. By saying that philosophy of religion is philosophical thinking about religion and therefore outside of religion, he seems to be indicating that rational reflection and argument are not an essential part of religion and its practice (and thereby have no status injudging the truth of religious beliefs and practices). In other words, some sort of “experience” or “feeling” is the essence of religion. In this way, a place is claimed for religion in the history of humanity that is independent of and irreducible to other aspects of culture and society, including philosophy. This attitude, as Wayne Proudfoot has observed, is pervasive in religious studies, largely as a result of Schleiermacher’s attempt to defend religious belief against its “cultured despisers.” One can seemingly draw on a variety of sources to defend this view. Philosophically, the view can be combined with the spectator/judge view of philosophy just presented. Ninian Smart’s advocacy of a “higher-order neutralism” which presumably attempts simply to describe the nature of religious beliefs would be one such example. Religiously, in the West, one may refer to St. Paul, for whom faith was “foolishness” for wisdom, and Tertullian, who suggested that God is sought in the simplicity of the heart, such that there is nothing in common to be found between Athens and Jerusalem, the Academy and the Church. Figures such as Luther, who called reason a whore, and Pascal, who spoke of the “logic of the heart,” periodically reinforced this view prior to the modem period and Schleiermacher’s “feeling of utter dependence,” Kierkegaard’s “subjective truth,” Barth’s distinction between religion and revelation/faith, or Otto’s “numinous feeling.” A glance toward Asia seems to confirm this emphasis on the experiential, nonrational core of religion, given the primacy of “intuition” over reason in the orthodox Hindu schools, the esoteric teachings and practices of Daoism, and the high regard for meditative practice in Buddhism. As a result, whether it is William James’s conclusion that “if you wish to grasp her [religion ‘s] essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements,” Peter Berger’s claim that “at the heart of the religious phenomenon is pre-reflective, pre-theoretical experience” or William Alston’s argument for the unanalyzable experiential justification of beliefs about God, philosophers, theologians, religious thinkers, and scholars of religion regularly refer to some variant-of “religious experience” as the fundamentum inconcussum of religious knowledge and truth.

On closer examination, this view of the relation of philosophy and religion as a basis for defining the philosophy of religion has serious problems. For one thing, to defend this view by appeal to St. Paul, Tertullian, Luther, and Pascal overlooks the fact that these religious figures almost invariably were reacting to very specific types of philosophy in particular contexts rather than dismissing “logic” or critical assessment of religious faith/beliefs altogether. In addition, for all these so-called rejections of “philosophy,” there are numerous examples to the contrary. Whether we are talking about Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the commentaries of gankara or Ramanuja on the Vedanta Sutra, Nagarjuna, Mulamadyamikakarikas, or Shobo genzo, the religions of the world are replete with numerous attempts to make sense of the experiences, doctrines, beliefs and practices of religious communities in some critical fashion. Furthermore, these critical attempts are not accidental or marginal, nor do the religious traditions in which they occur go unaffected by these analyses. Even in the Western tradition we find religion and religious belief profoundly affected by the analyses of, e.g., Hume and Kant, the latter acknowledging that undertaking his analysis of reason makes room for faith. We routinely acknowledge critical thought as part of religious experience and practice when anthologies of work in the philosophy of religion by and large include selections from Anselm, Aquinas, Tillich and others who are practitioners in a particular religious community. Hick himself acknowledges this insofar as he discusses the accounts of thinkers such as Aquinas and Tillich as he investigates some of the issues in the philosophy of religion, and insofar as he runs disciplines together by publishing a book entitled Disputed Questions in Theology and Philosophy of Religion. In addition, even where we may not obviously have lengthy, systematic treatises such as Aquinas’s Summa, we have critical reflection about religion in religious experience/practice. As, e.g., the practitioner of a ritual, one must be able to analyze it; the line between actor and analyst is a permeable boundary that must be crossed for the behavior to be appropriate and normalized. “The participant must make choices, distinguish, differentiate, evaluate. He must operate according to some Einein.” So William Wainwright points out that in the practice of mysticism in the West, mystical experience traditionally has been viewed as corrigible, subject to a number of criteria that are used to evaluate and assess the truthfulness and authenticity of the experience. In one way or another, then, it would seem strange to say that critical, “philosophical” reflection is not part of religious experience and practice on some level.

The appeal to Asian religious traditions has similar problems. To whatever extent a distinction is made here between “philosophy” and “religion”–and in most cases no distinction is made–it is a practical distinction that warns against separating intellectual activity from other religious activity. So of course one cannot simply study to become a sannyasin; one does not pass an exam to get a certificate of achievement to receive “holy man” status. However, study of the scriptures and commentaries is part of the discipline and training; it is a practice woven into the overall development of the one who aspires to salvation. Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that the fascination with meditation and the appeal to religious experience within Hinduism and Buddhism (particularly Zen) is a result of Western agendas and interpretation. In reality, experiential claims are “judged on the basis of the course of training that engendered the experience and the behavior that ensued” as seen in “the emphasis placed on the formal authentication and certification of so-called enlightenment experiences.” Critical analysis and experience are interwoven; prescriptive systemizations of scriptural materials serve to shape experience, and debates arise regarding the authenticity of enlightenment experience.

These observations about Buddhist practice correspond to Wayne Proudfoot’s more general analysis of religious experience. Drawing on a variety of philosophical and psychological resources, Proudfoot makes the case that experience and emotion are not some sui generis basis for religion, immune to critical analysis. Instead, experience and emotion are complex phenomena subject to linguistic, conceptual and contextual formation such that “the labels a person adopts in order to understand what is happening to him determine what he experiences” (229). Religious experience is not only dependent upon grammatical rules and linguistic practices (which a Wittgenstinian fideist such as D. Z. Phillips might allow), but explanatory commitments also are embedded in the criteria for the identification of an experience as religious. Thus Schleiermacher includes causal claims in his criteria for identifying the feeling of utter dependence, Otto rules out identifying any experience as a numinous experience if it can be explained naturally, and James assumes a “More” operative in the universe outside the self to explain religious experience (as does Hick). Such explanatory commitments, along with the language, the concepts, the discipline and the training used to make sense of the experience, are and should be subject to question and debate.

We have seen that Hick’s definition of the philosophy of religion falls short in its characterization of philosophy, religion, and philosophy of religion. Assuming the idea of philosophy as intellectual spectator and/or judge, Hick’s definition ignores the mixed stance and discourse of (contemporary) philosophy. Assuming the idea of religion as “feeling” or “experience,” Hick’s definition uncritically assumes a modern apologetic view of religion that is rooted in the 19th and early 20th century thought of figures such as Schleiermacher, James, and Otto. Yet such a view ignores religious practice in both Western and Asian traditions, in which critical reflection is and has been an important and essential part of religious experience and practice. It also intentionally or unintentionally devalues religion by severing its ties with our thinking selves. Finally, as philosophy of religion, Hick’s definition overlooks the actual practice of philosophy of religion in both Western and Asian traditions. The distinction between philosophy and religion assumed by Hick is not recognized among Asian traditions, making it difficult to find a philosopher of religion outside the Western philosophical tradition that fits Hick’s definition. Even in the West, we find that the philosophy of religion is a mixed discourse and practice in which the participants start with a variety of religious commitments and employ a variety of critical and evaluative tools.

In the end, Hick’s definition (and those like it) fails because it makes an abstraction of both philosophy and religion. Hence we might say that philosophy of religion is a critique of abstractions in philosophy and religion. So defined, the practice of philosophy of religion proves to be dangerous to our settled notions of both philosophy and religion as it wanders the ambiguous border between the two. As philosophy about religion, the critical stance of philosophy of religion constantly takes one outside religion, challenging the beliefs and practices that make up the religious life. As religious philosophy, philosophy of religion challenges philosophy with alternative models of so-called “rational” thought and practice, complicating our efforts to assess our world and discover the truth. We are left with an ambiguity that neither can nor should be eliminated, for that ambiguity generated by the genitive is the source and possibility not only of the philosophy of religion but of philosophy and religion as well. Indeed, the ambiguity marks the way theory and practice are not separate spheres of our lives but are intertwined. It is not exactly that the distinction between religion and philosophy is a difference that makes no difference, as the pragmatists say, but that any such distinction “is a distinction of convenience, since the two may overlap in a host of interesting ways.” To use the imagery of deconstruction, the boundary between the two is a permeable, flexible one. We move back and forth across such boundaries in doing philosophy of religion, such that philosophy of religion is neither inside nor outside (“thought” or “experience,” “philosophy” or “religion”). As a result, in doing philosophy of religion we are always doing more than we often care to acknowledge: the “philosopher” is always (potentially) a religious person, potentially defending religious belief and practice as well as potentially rejecting it, while the “religious” person is always (potentially) a philosopher, potentially rejecting his or her belief as well as potentially defending it. To do any less is to limit ourselves into irrelevance-the philosopher (of religion) will overlook all the ways in which we assess the world, the religious person will no longer make any sense.