William D. Hart is Professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 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 philosopher of religion is the ultimate peripatetic: traveling across spacetime, rummaging among the texts, discourses, and performances of various religious traditions that provide grain for an interpretive mill. The philosopher of religion is a provocateur who corrupts youthful, naïve, staid, and common sense notions of what religion is. “Philosophy of religion” is an abstract noun that refers to the concrete work of particular philosophers. Western in provenance—that is, Greek, Roman, and Christian, the philosophy of religion is an old form of what Edward W. Said famously describes as “traveling theory.” In the world of “post” imperial/colonial modernity with its international flows of capital, labor, and culture, where the distance between metropole and periphery has shrank almost to the vanishing point, the wisdom traditions of the east and the global south are challenging and dislocating a western-born philosophy of religion.
So what is the philosophy of religion? During the period of late antiquity, as philosophical theologians appropriated Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, and other forms of Greco-Roman thought, the philosophy of religion became a discourse of the Christian church. If this way of describing the matter is a bit too stark, then we can say that the philosophy of religion became Christianity’s valet. Hard and fast distinctions between philosophy of religion and philosophical theology did not exist. Thus the importance of Augustine as a philosopher cannot be determined apart from his theology. The two are mutually constitutive. There is no distinction to be made. Several centuries later, these same relations were true with respect to Aquinas. By the time of the European Enlightenment, a standard set of argumentative foci had emerged: the existence and nature of god, the problem of evil, the reality of miracles, the immortality of the soul, and the reasonableness of Christian belief. Even Spinoza, perhaps the most unconventional of philosophers, could not wholly escape this theocentric discourse. Thus god (or nature or infinitive substance) has the starring role in the Ethics. While the traditional foci—god, evil, miracles, immortality, and rational belief—have not disappeared, the nineteenth century saw an erosion of their organizing power as the philosophical discourse of religion slipped the noose of the older tradition. Vast differences among philosophers of religion became increasing evident. To see the incredible diversity and the extent to which the old paradigm and foci have been displaced, one need only consider the differences among four twentieth-century philosophers of religion: William James, Alvin Plantinga, Robert Neville, and Mark C. Taylor. Though I drop these names (without elaboration) to make a point, several alternative lists are easy to compose.
More broadly, whenever an inquirer slows down, steps back, engages in an act of considered abstraction even when synthesizing everything in sight (think Hegel); digs deep, becomes especially conscious of the peculiarities and powers of language, and explores the assumptions and metaphors behind a given concept in the study of religion, then we can say “that is the philosophy of religion.” On this view, the philosophy of religion—to be somewhat literal-minded, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom regarding the nature of religion—is broader than the academic and discipline-specific phenomenon that usually bears the name. The philosophy of religion is no longer owned by the disciplines of philosophy, theology, and religious studies. In the latter part of the twentieth century, an interdisciplinary, often maddening, promiscuous, and transgressive form of inquiry called critical theory cancelled, preserved, transformed, and elevated—that is, aufgehoben—the traditional forms of the philosophy of religion. The critical theory of religion is a product of this broader form of inquiry. It is now the genus of which the traditional philosophy of religion is a species.
A concluding note: the philosophy of religion is a writing-mediated wisdom tradition that grapples critically with the nature of religion, including the reality (imaginary or “really real”) of supernatural, “nature-queer,” transcendent, and/or counterintuitive agents, objects, places, performances, and encounters. In addition, the philosophy of religion explores cognitive, emotional, and axiological orientations toward these phenomena.