Rolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage College. 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 rooted in the absolute and is therefore skeptical of finite knowledge that is internally contradicted as shown by Kant in his antinomy of reason. All religions thrive on that absolute, the negative form of all that is. It is radically different, ab-solved, separate and independent from and therefore not available to finitude, specifically not available to the conceptual grasp; but as its radical negation it is the opposite of irrationalism, namely reason as such. Reason has since the most ancient times also been known as the certainty of pistis=faith. The absolute, unlike finitude, is autarchic, without presuppositions and self-justifying. Finitude requires justification from outside. Justifying itself, the infinite is unshakably certain. It is necessarily one, and free because it is self-causing and the arche, beginning of all.
Philosophy of religion is therefore archeology or principating logic and therefore not really logic about first principles but rather principating logic. Probing the depths of God (skopein), it seeks its own identity. That inquiry is triplicistic, moving from self, to its negation and to the negation of the negativity in identity. Self-originating philosophy of religion is therefore archeological eschatology. As all religions retell creation stories about beginnings and endings, philosophy of religion is presuppositionless, originating, principating philosophy that seeks the outcome, i.e. the end and cohesiveness of all. Its participation in the necessarily one absolute therefore mandates systematic coherence. That means all intellectual work in all disciplines – the natural, social and human sciences –, their development, methodology and subject contribute to that coherence. If other disciplines such as chemistry or law or other forms of philosophy might at first sight not share philosophy of religion’s starting premise of the self-principating absolute that merely indicates the negativity – the skeptical No! – central to all intellectual work. Omni determinatio est negatio:
Philosophy of religion is not theistic – albeit therefore not atheist. For reason recognizes that the self-originating infinite understood as an object among other objects is not infinite but conceived as a finite entity. That insight is theism’s skeptical negation. Truth skeptically negates all anthropomorphic stunts that try to earn their way to heaven by intellectual works. Skepsis, the center of philosophy of religion, works with the dialectical “No!”, the void fixed between the infinite heaven and finite earth, the creative source of all. All great religions, not only Abrahamic but also Hindu-Buddhist, know of that void. In the west negative thinking from Plato over Plotinus, Proclos, G. Bruno, Pascal to Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Barth and Derrida recognizes the power of the Not! of certain knowledge revealed to them. You cannot reach infinity by climbing up to heaven on Jacob’s ladder, although angels can surely climb down. Wittgenstein insists that climbing up the ladder does not really get you there and he said shortly before he died we must at some point stop justifying ourselves. We could never engage in such activity without already being justified. Hegel denounced any attempt to master the tools of reasoning prior to employing them because that mastery presupposes reasoning in the same way as a gastroenterologist is already digesting while writing a textbook on gastroenterology.
So philosophy of religion is not religious life just as philosophy reflects on but is not life itself. Only when evening approaches and the vitality of the day is past does the owl of Minerva spread its wings: philosophy of religion can not really add to the vitality of religions but can only paint religions’ colorful story “gray in gray”. The chasm of the “Not” separates living truth from all reasoning justifications in the same way as lived religion is far removed from musty theology tomes and the vitality of cell division is far removed from the gray-in-gray of scholarly papers presented in a hotel room without windows or published in a journal. So living religion is skeptical of academic majesty and arrogance, but academic religion’s skepticism can help us understand the coherence of all.
Archeological, self-justifying eschatology is the basis of all great cultures if all religions are the basis of law and culture. Stories of how it all began and will end are basic to national and cultural identity everywhere. Everywhere the formidable majesty of the law and its diligence in establishing justice is rooted in religious knowledge separating right from wrong, and customs, institutions and legal establishments not only practice daily what is right and reject what is wrong, but also reject any dogmatic decay of the right into wrong and both that daily practice and that vigilant surveillance of dogmatic falsifications are forms of skepticism. Legal traditions practice that skepticism in all they do. These intellectual activities are all workings of the eschatologically active spirit seeking to establish its identity through law and its justice, and thus the culture of nations.
Truth alone wields the sword of critical scrutiny and it is therefore a skeptical form of thought. Truth, yes, religious truth motivated great modern scientists like Bruno, Kepler, Galileo and others to overturn long-held dogmatic assumptions about the universe. The metaphor of the “eye of reason”, mentis oculus, central for modern science, can be found in Plato’s Republic but it is important for all western thought, especially for the tradition called “negative theology” that centers in the “Not” and is therefore skepticism. Plato’s religious metaphor of the mentis oculus reappears in Giordano Bruno’s religious occhio della raggione=eye of reason, which is separated by the deep Not from the occhio della sensitive=eye of the senses. So “losing your senses”, going insane, is always a close neighbor of being religious. If Hegel knew the world of the senses as the “inverted world”, then religiously or philosophically “walking on your head” may be a way to see things right-side-up. Therefore the madman, the fool, the clown, the saint or hermit, guru, oddball, outsider and fanatic – all these figures have in religious traditions been revered, scorned, ostracized or crucified. Also such phenomena manifest the power of the skeptical No! in religion and philosophy of religion.