Jerome Stone on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jerome Stone

Jerome A. Stone is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois and on the adjunct faculty of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. His courses have included Environmental Ethics, Nonwestern Philosophy, World Religions and Racism in America. He is the author of The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (SUNY) and Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative (SUNY) and the co-editor of The Chicago School of Inquiry—Pioneers in Religious Inquiry. A United Church of Christ pastor for 18 years, he is now a Unitarian Universalist minister involved in adult religious education. 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 is disciplined thinking creating surmises about matters of importance. There is no consensus about the method of reaching or supporting these visions, hence they are surmises. A case can be made for such a surmise, but it is always subject to challenge. In the final analysis there is no final analysis (apparent contradiction intended).

Discipline is practiced by various means, including learning from other philosophies, being open to challenge, exploring the accumulated wisdom of humanity, seeking empirical fit where appropriate, and so forth.

In developing my own thinking I have attempted to define religion in such a way as to include religious naturalism and religious humanism. Most conceptions of religion involve a reference to a transcendent dimension. My working definition of religion is that it is an orientation of life in relation to the “Big Picture.” A humanist who tries to live her life in the light of the world as shown by the best current science is, insofar, religious. This is the naturalist analogue to standard notions of transcendence.

Thus philosophy of religion will involve disciplined thinking about how to live our lives in the light of the Big Picture.

There are a number of movements in this inquiry. There is the description and analysis of various attempts to orient our lives in the light of the Big Picture. This includes what today is called religious studies. There is the attempt to expand one’s understanding of the Big Picture. This includes increasing one’s scientific literacy. Reflection on the ways in which science and religion could be related is an important undertaking. One key moment in the philosophy of religion should be criticism of religions and reflection upon the criteria of criticism. Another key moment can be reconstruction of religion. Here philosophy of religion overlaps with theology. While such reconstruction is especially developed for the use of the person thinking philosophically, it need not be viewed as a private affair. Such reconstruction can be a gift offered to humanity at large, nourishment for those who can chew and digest it. It may even be material to be taken up in a new cultural meme. This is part of the educational task of philosophy and should not be disdained as mere popularization. The philosopher need not be afraid of the jibe that she is offering a pot of message. However, neither criticism nor reconstruction can proceed with incorrigible certainty.

My own work of religious reconstruction has been to develop an approach that I call religious naturalism. Religious naturalism is the hypothesis that a robust (if not completely satisfying) religious/spiritual life can be maintained without reference to a God or other ontologically distinct and superior being or realm, to a soul or to an afterlife. (See my Religious Naturalism Today.)

My critical moment has caused me to think that both traditional and revised (including process) forms of theism are too difficult to sustain in the light of the developing scientific picture of the world. At one point I was taken by Tillich’s notion of the ground of being. This sustained me during part of my eighteen years in the parish ministry. However, the critical urge finally challenged this surmise. I could not refute it conclusively, but I felt that like the epicycles devised to bolster Ptolemaic astronomy, a simpler solution was warranted. Hence I began to develop my religious naturalism which also sustained me in my ministry, although not without some tension. This issue of the adequacy of the notion of the ground of being and similar notions as developed by Robert Neville and Wesley Wildman is an extremely important issue in contemporary philosophy of religion. I recognize that I cannot dismiss these notions merely by muttering an incantation about epicycles.

The case for religious naturalism as the hypothesis that a robust religious life can be pursued without an ontologically distinct and superior transcendence involves both a critique of maximal transcendence (e.g., my reference above to “epicycles”) and the outline of a naturalist spirituality. (See my Minimalist Vision of Transcendence and “Spirituality for Naturalists” in the Sept. 2012 Zygon.) My specific version of religious naturalism involves the pursuit of continuing challenging ideals (e.g., the pursuits of truth, beauty, selfhood and justice conceived as regulative ideas) and openness to creative and healing resources which are transcendent to one’s situation as perceived (see Minimalist Vision, Chap. One).

The worldview which supports this minimalist vision is emergentism, the scientifically informed vision of an evolving, experimental universe in which something important can evolve from nothing other than its parts when in the appropriate configuration. The alternatives to emergentism are traditional dualisms and an ontological reductionism. Loyal Rue, in Nature is Enough, calls the latter “the grunge theory of matter,” which says that nothing important can develop from lower levels.

Aesthetic, moral and spiritual values involve transactions between valuing beings (organisms with interests, including humans) and the evolving levels (atomic, molecular, living, mental) of the universe. In this sense values are grounded in reality. However in an experimental universe there is conflict and selection, the survival of the successful. But today’s success story may become tomorrow’s extinction. In this sense values can be lost in reality.

This vision of an evolving, experimental universe is an extrapolation from the specific sciences. One philosophical task is to articulate this vision in a way that does not obstruct the methodological reductionism of specific scientific inquiries. Neuroscience has developed partly through experimentation with the components of the neural system. A crucial task today is to articulate the nature of selfhood in such a way as to do justice both to methodological reductionism and human agency and to propose a naturalistic reconstruction of what Christians called sin and grace.

There is more to be said about the ethical and environmental implications of religious naturalism in general and my own minimalist variety, about the type of language appropriate to naturalism (shall traditional religious terms, such as “God,” be used in a naturalistic sense?), and whether philosophy of religion can be helpful in facing our environmental catastrophe with a concern for justice (it can).


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