Rem Edwards on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Rem Edwards

Rem Edwards is the Lindsay Young Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Tennessee. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Anyone attempting to answer this question inevitably expresses his or her own approach to it, interests in it, and limited perspective on it, so I will try to be as forthright as possible about my own involvements. No one can give a complete and definitive answer to it, so my own efforts make no such pretensions. Many different interests and concerns guide philosophers of religion. My own have been passionate curiosity and quests for true beliefs and defensible values and practices, spread over the whole of philosophy, and not limited to the philosophy of religion. The whole enterprise must be qualified from the outset by a fallibilism which recognizes that after we have done our best, not all competent rational authorities will agree. Philosophers are no more agreed than theologians about what philosophy (or revelation) authorizes us to believe, practice, and value; so personal perspectivism and commitment are inevitable and inescapable in all of philosophy and theology.

The first two problems here are, “What is Philosophy?” and “What is Religion?” Both questions have many answers, none of which are universally accepted by philosophers of religion. My own view is that philosophizing is an attempt to be as rational as humanly possible about its subject matter, which in this case is religion. Sadly, professional philosophers do not agree about what reason is or own it works, much less about what commitments it authorizes. Still, trying to be rational is an interesting and worthwhile game for intellectuals, but I still think that philosophically unexamined lives are well worth living. My own view is that a rational or philosophical approach to anything, including religion, is a search for true beliefs and defensible practices and values involving such methodological criteria as logic, consistency, coherence, simplicity, comprehensiveness, clarification, interpretation, evidence, and faithfulness to experience, including what experience tells us about causal connections. Of course, philosophers do not even agree about what counts as experience. Is it only sensations, or do introspection, conscience, intuitions, self-consciousness, and religions experiences also count? My own view is: all of the above.

As for “What is Religion?” I identify and critically examine many possible answers in my philosophy of religion textbook, Reason and Religion: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, published originally by Harcourt in 1972 and republished by the University Press of America in 1979. There are very few things in this book that I would change today. There I discuss Paul Tillich’s search for a common defining essence of “religion” as “ultimate concern,” and I develop a “family resemblances” approach that is Wittgensteinian in spirit. I also examine various “persuasive definitions” like those of Kant and Schleiermacher who define “religion” narrowly to promote their own special agendas.

Many particular issues are standard in philosophy of religion texts, books, articles, and classes. Choosing particular issues to be covered in such publications and university courses is inevitably selective and reflective of personal interests, if for no other reason that no one can cover them all. I treated six different ways of relating faith and reason and many other topics. One of these was, “How shall we conceive of ‘God’? Here I explain and critically examine two such concepts in some depth: Classical Supernaturalism, and Panentheism or Process Theology. I critically explore the most common and attractive atheistic alternative to theism, Naturalistic Humanism, which does not fair very well under critical examination. Standard topics also explored in some detail are the usual “arguments for the existence of God:” the ontological argument from the concept of God as that being who could not possibly not exist, the cosmological argument from the contingency of the universe, the teleological argument from the order or design within the universe, and arguments from religious or mystical experience, broadly understood. I show that much more can be said in favor of these arguments than many philosophers are willing to say. Since religion usually has some concern with death, I examine the possibility of verifying religious beliefs after death. Issues of theodicy and the problem of evil are intermixed with much of the above.

The Naturalistic alternative to theistic belief has been an ongoing concern of mine, and to address it in relation to what is going on in contemporary cosmology, I wrote and published the book, What Caused the Big Bang? through Rodopi, Amsterdam – New York, 2001. Once again, Naturalism does not hold up very well under critical examination, especially the classical version of it, which assumes that our universe has always existed through an infinite past, thus does not need a cause. Many cosmological variations on and modernizations of naturalistic atheism are also critiqued in this book, and none of them are very plausible, though you will just have to read the book to see what I mean!

More recently, my interests in issues in the philosophy of religion have become more practical and axiological. My latest books in this area are less concerned with true beliefs, though not completely unconcerned, and more concerned with rationally defensible spiritual/moral practices and values. Two of my books published in 2012 develop and defend what I think are reasonable approaches to spiritual/moral values and practices. These are John Wesley’s Values—And Ours, and Spiritual Values and Valuations, both published by Emeth Press, Lexington, KY. Both books apply the hierarchy of value developed in the formal axiology of Robert S. Hartman. In this hierarchy, intrinsic values (ends in themselves) have more worth than extrinsic values (means to ends), which in turn have more worth than systemic values (concepts, beliefs, systems, formalities). Both books deal in different historical contexts with the spiritual significance of “worldliness” which ranks extrinsic values first, with “ideologies” that rank systemic values first, and with “saintliness” which ranks people, God, (and animals) first. This seemingly simple hierarchy has many complex and illuminating applications.

My very latest work deals with ethical issues in process theology and philosophy, and how to improve the current state of such. My An Axiological Process Ethics will be published later this year by Process Century Press, Claremont, CA.

Once again, I think that all approaches to philosophical issues, including those in the philosophy of religion, are in some sense autobiographical and rest at rock bottom on personal values and judgments. I have tried to be as forthright as possible about my own in this limited discussion. We strive for intersubjective agreement and rational validity and soundness, but no one completely succeeds, and “reason” is not sufficiently powerful to bring all competent rational authorities into complete agreement.

I may be retired, but I am not yet brain dead, thank God!


One thought on “Rem Edwards on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

  1. Dear Rem,
    I was happy to run across this post. Your influence on students at UT was a strong and positive one. It was marked by reason, a commitment to your vision, and a generosity spirit towards those who reached conclusions different than your own. Your classes made students better philosophers. May you and your family be enjoing your retirement. I’m pleased to learn your are continuing to contribute to philosophy. It is especially worthwhile that you are bringing to light the contributions of neglected figures that other people, myself included, who lack your breadth either don’t know at all or do know know well enough. All the best to you & yours, mike

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