Merold Westphal on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Merold Westphal is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I am using the term philosophy of religion in a broad, inclusive sense. It includes philosophizing about religion as a human mode of theory and practice and philosophizing about God. It includes those practices that are sometimes called natural theology, rational theology, philosophical theology, public theology, philosophy of God, and phenomenology of religion. What it does not include is just plain theology, as I am using the term; for I think it is important to distinguish philosophy, even the philosophy of religion, from theology.

Jean-Luc Marion has shown us one way to do this. Theological accounts are meant to tell us what is real or actual, while philosophical descriptions (phenomenological in Marion’s case) are meant to tell us about the possible, what might be actual. We might say that one makes truth claims while the other is concerned about meaning.

Oscar Cullmann makes a similar distinction. He says the lectures he gives as a theologian in Basel are the same as those he gives as an historian in Paris. In the one case they are meant to express the truth about God and the world; in the other case they are meant to give an accurate account of what some people believe or have believed.

I find this distinction helpful and see no reason why phenomenologists and historians might not accept it. But many, if not most, philosophers of religion (as specified above) would not be willing to bracket truth claims in this way. They claim to provide a supplemental or, in some cases, a superior mode of truth to that of the theologian. What we need is a distinction that leaves both sides free to make truth claims and focuses on the different criteria they employ. As I am using the term, the theologian takes the scriptures and traditions of a particular religion as normative for the discourse, while all those I have included above in the philosophy of religion do not.

Two caveats. First, just as philosophers in general can be deeply indebted to various thinkers or traditions without giving them de jure status as criteria, so philosophers of religion can be deeply influenced by various scriptures and traditions without making them into norms. Second, regardless of what theological account theologians may give about the relative status of scripture and tradition, the two can never be neatly separated in actual theological work. Accordingly, my account of theology does not require any particular theory of their relation.

So, by definition the philosopher of religion does not make of any scripture or tradition a norm that requires conformity. It is tempting to suggest that the alternative is Reason rather than Revelation. This is often accompanied by the claim that this is both epistemically and politically superior by virtue of being universal rather than particular, plural, and merely tribal. But it turns out that this is impossible, for there is no such thing as Reason. Anything concrete enough to function as a criterion turns out to be a particular version of reason claiming to be Universal Reason.

Consider Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, the most powerful European philosophers of religion of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively. Each claimed to be the voice of Reason, in whose name they flat out rejected some of the beliefs of Jewish and Christian monotheism, while reinterpreting others beyond recognition (Deus sive natura, for example). Each of the three is deeply incompatible with the other two, for each was appealing to a different version of reason. Their criteria were anything but universal, and their theologies relate to one another much the same as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.

What this means, in terms of our question of criteria, is that the norms at work in any philosophy of religion are as particular and thus as controversial at the substantive theses they seek to legitimize. Often they are the more formal elements of some particular philosophical or theological tradition, but this does not make them self-evident and axiomatic (except to those already singing in that particular choir). For those who understand this to be the hermeneutical situation and who have taken the hermeneutical turn, this is not a misfortune to be resisted or escaped but rather than inevitable consequence of our inherent finitude.

This kind of analysis has two significant implications. First, philosophy of religion is no less parochial, “denominational”, or “confessional” than theology, just differently thus. Second, if we seek to justify our theorems with reference to our axioms (to use this geometrical language metaphorically), it now turns out that our axioms, the norms that function in an a priori manner, are also in need of justification. But that is a very difficult task. For it is hard to see how one can find “neutral”, “presuppositionless”, “objective” criteria in terms of which to validate our criteria. They appear to be matters of faith, not theological faith, but faith in the sense of belief that cannot justify itself in terms of Reason, but only in terms of some quite particular version of reason.

In “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” Quine wrote, “Ontological questions, under this view, are on a par with questions of natural science.” I’m suggesting the following version of the same basic insight. “Questions of criteria are on a par with questions about the nature of religion and the reality of God.”

Ronald Hall on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Ronald Hall is Professor of Philosophy at Stetson University and Editor-in-Chief of International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What is the primary task of the philosophy of religion? Perhaps this question is ill-conceived. After all, there are multiple tasks that have been proposed and pursued. So a better question might be: “What is the first order of business for the philosophy of religion?” I think there might be widespread agreement about this. Like all areas of inquiry, the philosophy of religion must begin with words about its words.

In saying this, I take my lead from a cryptic remark of Wittgenstein’s in Philosophical Investigations (373). Here we find Wittgenstein saying: “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.).” I think we can expand his suggestion and include the philosophy of religion as a grammatical investigation, at least, in part. In saying this, I do not suggest that grammatical investigation has been or should be the exclusive task of the philosophy of religion. However, I do think that it is obvious that work in the philosophy of religion must begin with discussions or assumptions about the meaning of its terms, that is, terms like ‘God’, ‘freedom’ and ‘immortality’, not to mention ‘evil’, ‘creation’, ‘suffering’, ‘existence’, ‘faith’ and so forth. In asking what God is, or evil is (say moral or natural) the “is” here is the “is” of identification, and not the ‘is” of existence. (Existence is not a predicate). Philosophy of religion may not have the last word regarding the “is” of identification, but it must take its first order of business as that of identifying its terms; as I might put this, the philosophy of religion’s first word should be words of conceptual clarification. Questions of existence may or may not come up, but if they do, they should only come up as after-words.

Often it is thought that addressing the question of meaning (the question of what something is) is simply preliminary to addressing the really important work of the philosophy of religion, namely, the work of establishing that something is. The difference between the two senses of “is” is subtle. Consider this difference: “This is evil” vs. “This is evil”. Clearly, the view that the primary business of the philosophy of religion is to argue for or against the existence of God (evil, faith, and all the rest) has, historically speaking, dominated the discipline. I might even say, it carries the current day in the field. We see this in approaches to the philosophy of religion that model it on scientific inquiry. When this approach is taken, the philosophy of religion becomes a kind of “science of God”. The existence of God is taken to be a hypothesis measurable by its explanatory power, coherence, simplicity, and other scientific virtues. Here the grammar of God is taken to parallel to the grammar of empirical theory. And I note that even here, the philosophy of religion begins with grammatical assumptions; grammar has the first word, a first word that sets the parameters of its subsequent existential task. As this approach reckons, what could be more important than the question of God’s existence? If God does not exist, religious language is not about anything anymore than mathematics is about anything. Religious language games need to be tied to reality if we are to take them seriously. For this approach therefore, the most important order of business for the philosophy of religion is the project of settling the questions of existence. Accordingly, its interests are in theistic belief, truth, and reality. As such, the relevant questions are whether or not there are justifying grounds for theistic belief or not, whether or not the claim that God does or does not exist is true, and whether or not God is the name of some independently existing reality.

As I conceive of it, the philosophy of religion as grammar does not make existential assumptions: There is no assumption that the “object” named by ‘God’ exists. Rather, the interest here is in exploring the meaning of different ways of understanding what ‘God’ means. This does not deny that the term God has existential import; rather the focus is on the term’s use in our lives; to take account of this use makes it clear what kind of object “God” is taken to betoken. Grammar tells us that God may not be a something; but it also may tell us that it is not a nothing either. More profoundly, the philosopher of religion’s task is to confess that even though we do not, indeed cannot, grasp fully what not being a nothing comes to, nor can we say exhaustively what not being a nothing is, we can acknowledge the wonder of our confrontation with its mystery and at least declare that how we use these terms (what they mean) is a function of their role in the life of the religious community.

For many, this is simply not satisfying, or not satisfying enough. It is not as though these philosophers of religion are in dispute about the importance of getting clear about the meaning religious language, it is rather that they would find the work the philosophy of religion disappointing if it did not or cannot go further. I do not deny that the drive to settle questions of existence is intense. But, for me, it is intensely personal, not philosophical. At the same time, I am driven by my intense philosophical interest in understanding what the terms of religious discourse mean. For me, getting clear about the grammar of religious terms is gratification enough to keep me passionately engaged in the findings of grammatical analysis. These findings, these clarifications, set the stage for whatever personal settlement on these matters of existence anyone can hope for.