Robert C. Neville
Robert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Philosophy of religion is best described paradigmatically as philosophy that has something interesting and important to say about religion insofar as it addresses religion. The modern Western instances of Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Whitehead, among others, are paradigmatic. In each case, the philosopher developed a somewhat comprehensive if not systematic philosophy addressing many topics and arising from many motives and out of that philosophy made important contributions to understanding religion. To this list of greats we can add Marx and Nietzsche, who had comprehensive philosophies with negative but influential things to say by way of understanding religion. A number of intellectual projects relative to or derivative from this paradigmatic sense of philosophy of religion also deserve the title and important places in the public conversation that constitutes living philosophy of religion today.
Michael Zank is Professor of Religion at Boston University and Acting Director of the Elie Wiesel Center of Judaic Studies. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
“Philosophy of religion” may well be a contradiction in terms, especially if we follow Leo Strauss’s definition of “philosophy” and “religion” where philosophy always starts from what is at hand, whereas religion starts from obedience to divine command or absolute truth.
But Strauss’s construal of philosophy and religion as opposites does not start from scratch. Instead, it proceeds from a critique of the most eminent modern philosophy of religion, namely, that of Hegel. For Hegel, the philosophy of religion is the manner in which the truth embedded in the history of religions is discovered as the dialectic unfolding of the spirit in historical and symbolic form. To deny that means to make religion and philosophy irreconcilable opposites, without being able to say—on rational grounds—in whose favor to decide. If religion and philosophy cannot be reconciled other than by irrational decision, religion wins, since it is contingent on irrational decision (fideism as first philosophy). But philosophy (and hence: science and the university) is contingent on a decision in favor of reason; in other words: unbelief or, at least, agnosticism.