Luo Shirong is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simmons College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
That is a very difficult question because in order to define “philosophy of religion” one needs to be clear about what philosophy and religion are, respectively, and those two terms are notoriously hard to delineate adequately. What is philosophy? This beguilingly simple question seems to require an extended discussion, as evidenced by the monographs written by such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze.
In the Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell defines philosophy as the attempt to critically answer ultimate questions after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas. But that definition leads to new questions such as what constitutes an ultimate question. Even if what is philosophy is not an ultimate question, to answer it requires no less critical prowess and clarity. One might say that the question whether God exists is an ultimate question. But it is not a question for theists, let alone an ultimate question, because entertaining that question is a sign of lack of faith. For theists, belief in God is a given or what Alvin Plantinga calls “a properly basic belief.”
The term “religion” is no less difficult to define. According to Ronald Dworkin, it is an interpretive concept. What it means depends on whom one asks. A priest and a philosopher may answer the same question very differently. More often than not, what they tell you is not what it is but what it should be. There doesn’t seem to be a neutral or objective answer waiting to be unearthed like an archeological find. The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as “belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship.” This definition seems to be both too broad and too narrow: it is too broad because the traditional sense of “religion” in “Philosophy of Religion” means three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, especially Christianity. It is too narrow because some critics say that it excludes religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. It is true that Buddhists do not believe in a personal god or gods. They do believe, however, in karma which is supernatural but impersonal.
The ancient Chinese in the Xia (c. 2070-1600 BCE) and Shang (c. 1600-1046 BCE) dynasties believed in a supernatural and personal deity called Shang Di (the Lord on High), very much like God in the three monotheistic religions. But after the Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang dynasty, the Lord on High was transformed into Tian (Heaven) as the supreme object of worship. The Duke of Zhou, a statesman and a political theorist, introduced the idea of the Mandate of Heaven in the attempt to legitimize the founding of the Zhou dynasty on the ruins of the Shang dynasty whose rulers had claimed that they were the descendants of the Lord on High. According to the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, the legitimacy of a regime should not depend on the family name of a dynasty but virtue of the ruler. The impersonal Heaven would confer political power on the basis of virtue, rather than consanguinity. Confucians believe in Heaven and the Mandate of Heaven. Thus, a key difference between Buddhism and Confucianism on the one hand and the monotheistic religions on the other seems to hinge on the issue whether the supernatural power is personal or not. A more inclusive and progressive definition of religion should excise the emphasis on the personal attribute of the supernatural.
Philosophy of religion in its traditional form is not readily distinguishable from Philosophical Theology or Catholic Philosophy. Some discussions in Kant’s Lectures on Philosophical Theology are very much like what we usually find in a textbook on philosophy of religion today. Because of the intertwinement between theology and philosophy, philosophy of religion may be understood as an ongoing debate between the theologian and the philosopher on the existence of God. Depending on who presents the debate, the form philosophy of religion takes may lean toward the side of philosophy or that of theology. If philosophy of religion is understood in this way, then we need to distinguish a philosopher from a philosophical theologian.
A philosopher may be defined as, a la Descartes’ definition of a thinking thing, someone who argues, doubts, questions, and explores in the realm of ultimate significance. But argumentation is not unique of philosophers because theologians argue, so do scientists. Doubting, it seems to me, is essential to being a philosopher. In principle, if not in practice, no belief is off limits to the philosopher’s all-encompassing net of doubt. That perhaps explains why philosophers spend so much time and energy answering the skeptic, for the skeptic is the philosopher’s alter ego. In contrast, faith, in addition to erudition in theology and argumentative prowess, is essential to being a theologian. The faith of a Christian philosopher or philosophical theologian precedes philosophical inquiry and argumentation. As soon as theologians doubt their belief in the existence of God, they cease to be theologians in the true sense of the word. Another trait that distinguishes true philosophers from others is that they follow the lead of logic even when doing so is detrimental to them. Socrates was a good example of a real philosopher.