Bassam Romaya on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Bassam Romaya

Bassam Romaya is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion might seem to suggest that the subject area deals with a series of philosophical questions about religion, perhaps a “meta-theological” undertaking, a series of cryptic meditations about the nature or origin of some necessary being, mundane ruminations on the problem of evil, an examination of religious experience, analyses on the distinction between faith and reason, and so on. Apart from rudimentary questions, it appears to me that an increasingly widening approach to the various components of philosophy of religion is essential. In reflecting upon the question of meaning, articulating the nature of contemporary philosophy of religion, I have found it helpful to draw upon insights I encountered from students, as a result of undergraduate instruction in courses that intersect the margins of philosophy and religion, courses on world religion, world philosophy, Arabic/Islamic philosophy, mysticism, and the like.

One of the leading questions we consider, usually at the outset of the term, attempts to articulate methodological differences between the two disciplines in order to identify any similarities and differences, and ultimately, ground a workable account that serves as a springboard for our study of the various issues commonly examined in such courses, broadly construed. In appealing to the etymological root of religion from the Latin, religare, “to bind or tie,” in other words, to bind an individual to a relationship of obligation or one of mutual devotion (as Sri Krishna teaches us in the Bhagavad Gita) to a system, higher power/s or entity/ies believed to preside over one’s destiny, we find a lucrative account from which to correlate our understanding of the two domains of inquiry. In this sense, an informed position might mean an attitude toward the human condition, a particular perspective about the world, a generational collection of cultural or moral wisdom, largely depended on being positioned within a narrative or metaphorical story about the origin and purpose of human life. These ideas are fascinatingly close to what is sometimes meant by philosophy, as a repository of some set of principles, a weltanschauung, a value system that holds some special significance for its proponents. I do not contend that philosophy and religion are identical pursuits, nor that their methodologies are merely synonymous. What is particularly significant is the observation that students often have difficulty articulating the differences between the two subjects and their methods, mistakenly believing that philosophy is an entirely secular enterprise whereas religion is that branch of philosophy with a God/s-principle at its core. This insight illuminates the sense in which both philosophy and religion expound value systems, deemed either sacred (religion) or supremely significant (philosophy) for its adherents.

Our linguistic expressions recall such relationships, for instance, an expression such as “He goes to the gym religiously” (or “Going to the gym is his philosophy”) reveals that some set of values is held with utmost importance, as if they are sacred for the individual; namely, the importance of fitness and its central place in one’s life, not necessarily the sense in which a higher power presides over one’s destiny, but in ordering his life and providing it with a sense of meaning and purpose. Each workout thus becomes a ritualistic act, a practice connecting the individual to the community and its “sacred” values, the primacy of physical fitness. He might even go on to become a personal trainer, helping others to cultivate physical (but not necessarily spiritual) excellence, much as a religious leader serves as mediator between the faithful and the divine.

During my first time attempt teaching a course on Arabic and Islamic philosophy, I asked students on the first day of class what propelled them to take a course on this topic. Approximately two-thirds of the class (of about 25 students), expressed an interest in learning about Arab culture/s, the political context of current events such as the so-called Arab spring/s, Israel-Palestine, or 9/11. I was surprised by these responses, since they seemed better suited for a course in political science or even a history course on the modern Middle East. As the term drew on, I realized that the cultural and contemporary political aspects of the course were of greatest interest to students, rather than any actual philosophy, much less any theology (classical/medieval of the 9th-12th centuries mostly), despite any efforts to liven up its arcane literature. It became clear to me that the deeply interdisciplinary nature of philosophy and religion, and courses in the philosophy of religion, inevitably stray from their limited or intended subject position.

While courses in the philosophy of religion are good at introducing newcomers to the various branches of philosophy, such as ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology, they are capable of doing much more than that. Contemporary philosophy of religion is deeply interdisciplinary, at times it is anthropological, historical, veers into cultural studies, and often, it is inherently political. Even a rudimentary discussion on the existence of God (or lack thereof) may easily lead to a discussion of same-sex marriage or the latest shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church. As I see it, contemporary philosophy of religion is not circumscribed by the classic questions, but often departs from them, since the field is unquestionably interconnected with broader social, political, and global issues, ones that take into account the significance of race and gender, war and violence, economic justice and other pressing concerns.

In Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece of 1898, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Paradigmatic questions of philosophy, religion, and the philosophy of religion are magnificently represented in the work. The first question invites us to reflect on the origin of human beings, the second addresses ethical pursuits, what sort of life is best or how shall we live, and finally, we are invited to contemplate eschatological possibilities. I often share this painting with students, a work that successfully captures in a very straightforward way, the seminal questions of philosophy and religion.


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