Michael S. Jones is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University and Executive Editor for the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
What is philosophy of religion? Without even a dash of hyperbole, I’d say that philosophy of religion is the greatest of all intellectual human endeavors. It is a logically rigorous and intensely creative attempt to probe subjects at least some of which transcend human comprehension. The ideas that we find in the world’s religions – the idea of a pantheon of competing gods or a single supreme God, the concept of a being that is incorporeal and yet omnipresent, the question of if and how human cognition can lead to beliefs about such a being that accurately reflect that being’s nature, and many other fascinating but difficult issues – are carefully analyzed, using the tools of logic, linguistic analysis, reflection on the insights of great thinkers of the past, and dialogue with current philosophers in order to arrive at conclusions that are as clear and accurate as is humanly possible. All this is done with a spirit of open-mindedness toward the eventual outcome of the investigation, the goal being a deeper understanding of ultimate reality. Yes, it’s grandiose. Philosophers of religion aim at the stars. Why aim lower?
The open-mindedness that ideally characterizes philosophical investigation does not exclude the possibility of philosophers of religion adopting a particular religion as his or her own. In fact, many philosophers work productively from within a particular religious tradition, subjecting the doctrines of that religion to critical scrutiny in order to gain new insights. Sometimes they employ the tools of philosophy to debate and defend the truth of their own religion. At other times they focus on particular doctrines, exploring the relationship of a doctrine to the larger doctrinal system or analyzing rival formulations of a doctrine to determine which is most cogent.
Rational investigation of questions of “faith” has gone on for millennia in all of the world’s major religions. It characterized Taoist thinkers and Hellenistic philosophers as far back as 2500 BCE. At about the same time, philosophy began to become a prominent force in Hinduism. Philosophical reflection is found in ancient Hebrew literature, too. During the medieval period Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars turned the rigor and insight of Greek philosophy on their respective religious traditions with notable results, yielding insights and interpretations that are still very influential today.
Philosophical analysis has the same effect on each of these religions: it makes them stronger. It does this by bringing weaknesses to light: inconsistencies, poor arguments, imprecise definitions, muddy concepts, and the like. It’s a sort of “survival of the fittest” for religious beliefs.
Of course, this approach to religion will strike some people as being severely misguided. As the second century church father Tertullian famously put it, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Many non-philosophers will think that a strictly rational approach to religion leaves no room for true “faith.” Often such people understand “faith” as meaning a type of belief that is not based upon reason or even a type of belief that goes against reason. This has become a widely accepted connotation of the term. However, others understand “faith” to be closer in meaning to “trust” than to any kind of “belief.” For example, in some biblical texts the term “faith” seems to refer to trusting in God to do what is right, what is loving, or what is just – as when Abraham trusted in God even though he did not understand why God wanted him to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah. The biblical book of Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.” Such “faith” presupposes belief in God, of course. But that belief may have a rational basis, and having such a basis does not undermine the degree of trust involved.
Philosophers who are interested in religion generally recognize that religion cannot be reduced to a set of rational beliefs. Religion also involves feelings, practices, goals, and usually a sense of community. Similarly, many philosophers who are interested in religion will grant that there can be beliefs that one is justified in holding that are not themselves easily confirmed. Furthermore, some beliefs that don’t seem completely rational may still be justified for someone to accept. The classical formulation of the Trinity comes to mind as a possible example. These are fascinating but knotty issues best left to a separate essay on religious epistemology.
So what is philosophy of religion? Simply put, it is the rational attempt to purify religion of error, to make it stronger through giving it a stouter connection to truth. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, the pursuit of truth and understanding. Religion that is truthful and insightful is much better than the alternative: religion that is superficial and disconnected from reality. Hence religion that has gone through the refining fires of philosophical examination emerges polished and reinforced.