Jin Y. Park is Associate Professor of Philosophy at American University. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Philosophy of religion emerged as a field in philosophy at a certain point in the intellectual history of the West. The discipline evolved through the reflections on some of repeated themes including the nature of God and good and evil. If we think about philosophy of religion from a perspective that does not share the concerns that inspired traditional philosophy of religion, we encounter different approaches to philosophy and philosophy of religion. In the East Asian tradition, distinct terms for “philosophy” (哲學, Jap. testugaku; Chi. zhéxué; Kor. ch’ŏrhak) and “religion” (宗教, Jap. shūkyō; Chi. zōngjiào; Kor. chonggyo) were created only in the mid-19th century along with the introduction of Western culture to East Asia.
As the notions of “philosophy” and “religion” were introduced to the East Asian intellectual world, East Asian thinkers began to explore the unique nature of each category, asking whether a specific East Asian tradition, such as Buddhism, could and should be categorized as philosophy or religion. A modern Japanese philosopher, Inoue Enryō (井上 円了1858–1919), for example, discusses the distinctive characteristics of philosophy and religion, and ponders how philosophy, which is based on human intellect, is capable of knowing anything beyond human intellect, which he defines as a major characteristic of religion. After considering the differences between philosophy and religion, Enryō proposes that philosophy as much as religion requires faith. Philosophers have faith in the philosophies they propose as much as believers have faith in the objects of their belief. Blurred demarcation between philosophy and religion as Enryō proposes here seems rather common in East Asian thinkers’ approaches to philosophy and/or religion. This is indicative of specific ways that East Asian tradition, in this case, Buddhism, understands the nature of being.
Interpreting Christianity from a Buddhist perspective, Korean Zen Buddhist nun/thinker Kim Iryŏp (金一葉 1896–1971) questions the dual postulation of good and evil, God (creator) and humans (created), and heaven and hell. For Iryŏp, good does not exist without thinking of evil, and heaven cannot stand by itself without our postulation of hell. God and humans are not two ontologically distinctive beings but two different states of beings. From the Buddhist perspective, the transcendent does not exist as the “wholly other,” as Rudolf Otto puts it in the Idea of the Holy. The ultimate being, be it God or the Buddha, does not attain the position of the ultimate being because of its ontological quality. Instead, a supreme being attains that position through its capacity to realize its full potential and its capacity to recognize the same potential in other beings. The Buddha or God, for Iryŏp, cannot be the exemplification of pure goodness; instead they should be able to encompass both good and evil by virtue of the mutual indebtedness of these binary concepts. With this reasoning, Iryŏp defines religion as an education to awaken each individual to his or her original capacity, whereby an individual can be released from suffering and live life as a free being.
Writing in post-World War II Japan, Tanabe Hajime (田辺 元 1885–1962) pondered the role of philosophy and philosophers. During the war, philosophers, who were supposed to pursue truth, were in fact blinded by historical reality and became supporters of Japanese imperialism and militarism. For Tanabe, such a historical reality is not just a problematic moment for Japanese history, but also evidence of the limits of human reason. Tanabe finds an answer to this “crisis” of reason and philosophy in the act of “repentance,” a proposal he fully explores in his book Philosophy as Metanoetics (懺悔道としての哲学 Zangedō to shite no tetsugaku). In exercising philosophy as repentance, Tanabe tells us, the subject completely surrenders itself to the Other Power, and through this self-negation, one empties out the pitfall of subjectivity and limits of reason that arose from individuality.
The relationship between the individual and Other Power in Tanabe’s proposal might sound similar to that of a theistic religion in which the individual submits him or herself to God or the transcendental being. However, the “Other Power” in Tanabe is not any being; it is postulated as “nothingness.” Tanabe claimed that the subject’s submission to nothingness enables the subject to overcome its fallibility and to be reborn as a being with new rationality. In what sense is nothingness capable of performing this function? Nothingness is, by definition, no thing, and hence it cannot have its own boundary, whereas a being does. The identity with which a being is defined is the being’s way to declare its individuality by distinguishing itself from others, but by the same token, the identity limits the being’s capacity and freedom because it creates boundaries for itself. Both Tanabe and Iryŏp in this context postulate the ultimate state of being as nothing or non-being. Additionally, sin is understood as a failure to see things as they are because of the limited vision of individuality.
As several people on this blog have pointed out, philosophy of religion has frequently been understood as philosophical theology. A brief discussion of the three East Asian thinkers I offered here shows us that traditional themes in philosophy of religion—such as God, the transcendent, good and evil, and the relationship between the transcendent and religious subject—can be understood in a significantly different way in the non-theistic religious traditions. In this regard, I broadly define philosophy of religion as philosophical reflections on the act of religion, when religion is understood as human beings’ search for and engagement with the ultimate meaning of existence. The topics of philosophy of religion cannot be limited to the traditional ones of God, good, and evil. Comparative approaches to philosophy of religion can offer us diverse religious reactions to perennial themes of life, including suffering, violence, discrimination, and war, and this global and engaged philosophy of religion seem more timely and appropriate for the field in our time.