Christine Overall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Christine Overall

Christine Overall is a Professor of Philosophy and holds a University Research Chair at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her most recent book is Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press, 2012). We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As I child I was a bookworm, and the kind of books I loved most were about magic. I started with the endlessly proliferating Oz books, but soon found them facile and implausible. I then devoured Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was also captivated by Edwardian novelist E. Nesbit’s books, especially her trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Amulet. And I immersed myself in the works of twentieth-century American writer Edward Eager, in particular Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, and The Time Garden. These books introduced me to alternate histories, time travel, identity shifts, magical charms, powerful incantations, and supernatural capacities.

Although I knew that these books were not literally true, I fervently hoped that they might turn out to be the fictional representation of a real world of magic—a world where one might buy a magic carpet and be transported through space and time, where one could find a magic coin that granted wishes (or even half-wishes), where an enchanted animal called a Psammead would transform dull normalcy into endless possibilities, and where children could be masters of their fate and independent agents of their own choices.

But the books that enchanted me most were C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had been raised as an Anglican. As a child I often prayed for God’s help, although I never received any noticeable response. Thanks to weekly Sunday School classes, which taught me stories and verses from the King James Version of the Bible, I was an avid and unquestioning believer.

For the naïve and impressionable Christian child that I was, the seven Narnia books were enthralling. The first two retell the biblical creation story through the creation of the Narnian world and recount, in the person of the lion god Aslan, the story of Jesus’ suffering, sacrificial death, and resurrection. The seventh book is a tale of apocalypse: the end of Narnia, along with the manifestation of a new, heavenly Narnia, where the courageous and good live forever.

So the stories of Narnia had a special resonance with me, and although their moral lessons—don’t gossip about your friends, be loyal to your siblings, act bravely even when frightened—were sometimes pedestrian and obvious, the children of Lewis’s world played an important role in the life of a bookish child. And the religious symbolism of the books reinforced my nascent commitment to God.

Nonetheless, no matter how much I wanted to believe, I gradually lost my trust in magic. The corruption of my innocence began when I reasoned that there could not possibly be a man named Santa Claus who visited every home in the world in one night on a flying sleigh. My disillusion was reinforced by the fact that no matter how much I looked, I never found a magic amulet, never saw a talking phoenix, and never stumbled into an enchanted thyme garden.

For somewhat comparable reasons, my Anglican faith also slipped away. When I entered adolescence I could no longer sustain a belief in the literal truth of the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, Moses’ receipt of the Ten Commandments, Daniel in the lion’s den, the virgin birth of the son of God, or Jesus’ resurrection. Both empirical observation and my growing capacity for argumentation convinced me that God had not done what was attributed to him. The final nails in the coffin of my dead religious faith were hammered during my first university philosophy course. Despite the professor’s largely sympathetic exposition of the traditional formal arguments for the existence of God, I regarded none of them as sound. I became a philosophical sceptic.

Nonetheless, I suspect that both the child who believed in magic and the preteen who resorted to prayer in times of uncertainty live on within me.

What magical tales and religious stories have in common is their focus on supernatural interventions into our ordinary quotidian reality. The child heroes and heroines created by Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, and C.S. Lewis are initiated into arcane knowledge and rituals, meet anthropomorphic beings, and become the temporary custodians of enigmatic talismans. They learn that their commonplace world can be mysteriously torn asunder to expose a different reality, which both lies behind and intercedes in their everyday lives. Similarly, through religion, human beings acquire hidden knowledge, participate in rituals, learn moral lessons, and encounter beings that are human-like but also super-human. Religious believers learn that there is a reality greater than they can ordinarily perceive, which dwells beyond their ordinary sense perception and has the capacity to communicate with and even overpower them.

These observations about the affinities between magical tales and religious stories may sound cynical, or merely quixotic, but they are not intended to be. What I say here is not so much an answer to “What is philosophy of religion?” as it is a statement about what (to me) philosophy of religion is for. I study the philosophy of religion in order to analyze and evaluate the deeper and wider significance of the beliefs that underlie my own childhood religious formation. More broadly, the philosophy of religion is my scholarly opportunity to think critically and creatively about a crucial value system motivating the lives of millions of people from monotheistic traditions.

Just as important for me, the philosophy of religion is an expression of hope. I am a sceptic, but the philosophy of religion remains a way to keep alive my childhood yearning that this world—this demanding, overweening, cacophonous, and often disappointing reality in which we are compelled to live—is not all there is. I still sustain the hope that the answers to who we human beings are, why we are here, and what we should aim for have a much larger meaning than we have hitherto been able to discern.


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