Peter Jonkers is full professor of philosophy at Tilburg University (the Netherlands). We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Do you have to be religious in order to be a good philosopher of religion or is a pious heart, by contrast, an obstacle for a philosophical examination of religion? Let me introduce this tricky question through a personal experience. A few years ago, I participated in a conference on Rawls’s ideas about the role of religion in the public sphere. The overall majority of the delegates were political philosophers, presenting excellent papers on religious comprehensive doctrines as expressions of non-public reason, on the fact that these doctrines have to fulfill the ‘proviso’ of using proper political or public reasons (and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines) in order to be introduced in the public political discussion, etc. However, none of them paid any attention to On My Religion, an autobiographical essay in which Rawls explains why he abandoned his orthodox Christian beliefs in spite of the deeply religious temperament that informed his life and writings. Although there is no direct link between his life and his philosophy, this essay sheds an intriguing light on Rawls’s personal struggle in answering the leading question of his Political Liberalism: “How is it possible for those affirming a religious doctrine that is based on religious authority, for example, the Church or the Bible, also to hold a reasonable political conception that supports a just democratic regime?”
With these considerations in mind I asked some of the Rawls-experts at the conference whether they would qualify themselves as religious or perhaps even as Christian. Almost all of them replied that they were not religious, and considered their secular stance as an important or even necessary condition for the unprejudiced, philosophical study of religion. I found this answer rather odd, because it prevents them from understanding the deeper reasons and motives of Rawls’s struggle, which are highly relevant for the understanding of his philosophy.
In particular, many of them have no clue whatsoever of many crucial aspects of religion, e.g. why people consciously choose radically to subordinate their own will to the will of God, and sometimes even are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sake of God. For my secular colleagues at the Rawls conference, the inner dynamics as well as the enormous motivational power of religion remain somehow incomprehensible. Although Rawls defines religion as a comprehensive doctrine, he knew, thanks to his deep religious temperament, that religion is first of all a way of life, to which people are committed on a personal level, i.e. with whole their hearts, and not only at a theoretical level. A religious comprehensive doctrine is only instrumental to one’s faith, since it is meant to elucidate God’s mysterious reality to the people who are personally committed to Him and to offer some insights that are helpful to put their lives in a religious perspective. This explains why religious people often have the impression of being misunderstood or even not taken seriously when secular philosophers of religion reduce their personal way of life, including its intellectual reflection on it, to an objective, quasi-scientific doctrine about supernatural things. To put it differently: If everyone agrees that, in order to be a good philosopher of art, it is crucial that one has experienced a feeling of awe and deep admiration for an exquisite work of art, why would the same reasoning not hold true for a philosopher of religion with regard to his field of study?
But although a deep familiarity with and even personal involvement in religion is essential to philosophy of religion, it is nevertheless a philosophical discipline, not a theological one. To explain this difference in very simple terms: philosophers of religion study and admire a lot of classical texts, from Plato over to Thomas Aquinas and Kant to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, but they have no Bible, i.e. a text with a transcendent normative status. So, what exactly makes an intellectual reflection on religion a philosophical, not a theological endeavor? In my view, this has to do with the nature of this involvement. Philosophers are the kind of people who cultivate a fundamental characteristic of all humans to an extreme degree: they always have second thoughts on something, leave open the possibility that things might be different; in sum they never take themselves completely seriously. With regard to philosophy of religion this means that they should be familiar with or even involved in a religious way of life, but not unreservedly.
So, they are at the same time insiders and outsiders, never feeling completely at home with the religious in-crowd, nor being able to settle themselves for good in an indeterminate sphere beyond daily life and its cares for tomorrow. This extreme cultivation of a universal human characteristic enables philosophers of religion to understand religion from the inside, while they keep asking the critical and sometimes even unsettling questions that outsiders never stop asking: How to avoid religious illusion? What relevance can crucial religious ideas, such as creation, sin, redemption, mercy etc. have for secular people? What is a true religious way of life? How can the enormous motivational potential of religion be used for the benefit of humankind? How can the truth claims of one religion be reconciled with those of others?