Jin Park on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jin Y. Park

Jin Y. Park is Associate Professor of Philosophy at American University. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion emerged as a field in philosophy at a certain point in the intellectual history of the West. The discipline evolved through the reflections on some of repeated themes including the nature of God and good and evil. If we think about philosophy of religion from a perspective that does not share the concerns that inspired traditional philosophy of religion, we encounter different approaches to philosophy and philosophy of religion. In the East Asian tradition, distinct terms for “philosophy” (哲學, Jap. testugaku; Chi. zhéxué; Kor. ch’ŏrhak) and “religion” (宗教, Jap. shūkyō; Chi. zōngjiào; Kor. chonggyo) were created only in the mid-19th century along with the introduction of Western culture to East Asia.

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Sonia Sikka on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Sonia Sikka

Sonia Sikka is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Canada. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Martin Heidegger once wrote that the idea of a “Christian philosophy” is like that of a square circle, because philosophy is essential questioning and faith cannot participate in such questioning. Philosophy asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” whereas for faith the question is answered before even being posed: all that is, is created by God, the supreme being. While many theologians would likely want to make more room for reason within their method of inquiry than such a position allows, Heidegger is typical among Western philosophers in drawing a sharp distinction between the realms of faith and philosophy. Faith means acceptance of some doctrines as given, whether these are revealed in a text or communicated by a religious authority, and commitment to living in accordance with these doctrines. Philosophy, by contrast, is supposed to take nothing as given. Although it may address itself sometimes to a topic that is also an object of faith, it relates to that topic in a different way.

In wider contemporary discourse, moreover, “religion” is often taken to be synonymous with faith. After all, the world’s various religions are commonly referred to as “faiths.” On this understanding, “philosophy of religion” becomes rational investigation of views that religions accept on faith. I have never found this approach to be quite satisfactory. I would question the assumption that “faith” necessarily defines religion, and that the content of religion is given through such faith, with philosophy’s task then being to investigate the truth of that content in a fashion that is “external” to religion. In addition, I am troubled by the conception of “religions” as fixed bundles of creed, so that “religious” people must belong to one or another of these.

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Bassam Romaya on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Bassam Romaya

Bassam Romaya is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion might seem to suggest that the subject area deals with a series of philosophical questions about religion, perhaps a “meta-theological” undertaking, a series of cryptic meditations about the nature or origin of some necessary being, mundane ruminations on the problem of evil, an examination of religious experience, analyses on the distinction between faith and reason, and so on. Apart from rudimentary questions, it appears to me that an increasingly widening approach to the various components of philosophy of religion is essential. In reflecting upon the question of meaning, articulating the nature of contemporary philosophy of religion, I have found it helpful to draw upon insights I encountered from students, as a result of undergraduate instruction in courses that intersect the margins of philosophy and religion, courses on world religion, world philosophy, Arabic/Islamic philosophy, mysticism, and the like.

One of the leading questions we consider, usually at the outset of the term, attempts to articulate methodological differences between the two disciplines in order to identify any similarities and differences, and ultimately, ground a workable account that serves as a springboard for our study of the various issues commonly examined in such courses, broadly construed. In appealing to the etymological root of religion from the Latin, religare, “to bind or tie,” in other words, to bind an individual to a relationship of obligation or one of mutual devotion (as Sri Krishna teaches us in the Bhagavad Gita) to a system, higher power/s or entity/ies believed to preside over one’s destiny, we find a lucrative account from which to correlate our understanding of the two domains of inquiry. In this sense, an informed position might mean an attitude toward the human condition, a particular perspective about the world, a generational collection of cultural or moral wisdom, largely depended on being positioned within a narrative or metaphorical story about the origin and purpose of human life. These ideas are fascinatingly close to what is sometimes meant by philosophy, as a repository of some set of principles, a weltanschauung, a value system that holds some special significance for its proponents. I do not contend that philosophy and religion are identical pursuits, nor that their methodologies are merely synonymous. What is particularly significant is the observation that students often have difficulty articulating the differences between the two subjects and their methods, mistakenly believing that philosophy is an entirely secular enterprise whereas religion is that branch of philosophy with a God/s-principle at its core. This insight illuminates the sense in which both philosophy and religion expound value systems, deemed either sacred (religion) or supremely significant (philosophy) for its adherents.

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