Jacqueline Mariña on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jacqueline Mariña

Jacqueline Mariña is Professor of Philosophy at Purdue 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 is a critical inquiry into the most fundamental questions of the meaning of human existence. Because positive historical religions have also engaged these questions, it is at least part of the task of philosophy of religion to critically assess those answers. This means that philosophy of religion must be sharply distinguished from both apologetics and theology. Yet more foundational to philosophy of religion, and critical to the possibility of all critical inquiry within this domain, is the development of categories grounding the manner in which the inquiry is to proceed. The clue to the development of these concepts must lie with our initial definition of the task before us: critical investigation into the meaning of human existence. In what follows I provide a sketch of what I consider the most important methodological and conceptual parameters guiding this investigation.

Kant taught us that the structure of consciousness and its contribution to reality as it appears to consciousness cannot be ignored. The only access we have to reality is through consciousness, and we cannot get behind consciousness, so to speak, to access some extra-mental reality. Hence front and center of any inquiry into the human condition is the problem of the nature of consciousness itself, and how the world–and that which grounds both self and world–acquires meaning for consciousness.

An appropriate analysis of consciousness must be carried through from a first person point of view. Were we to treat consciousness as one empirical object among others in the world, the categories that consciousness employs to know the world as object of consciousness would be used on consciousness itself, thereby turning consciousness into one empirical object among many and obscuring the activity of consciousness in the interpretation of reality. Moreover, it is only as interpreters and actors that we seek the fundamental meaning of our existence. One of the fundamental tasks of philosophy of religion is to disclose the character of the activity of consciousness and its role in conferring meaning to the world of self and other to which it is directed.

Any valid attempt to characterize the fundamental Ground of all reality must also begin from the first person point of view. There are several reasons for this. First, any attempt to understand the Ground of all reality as an object for consciousness rests on a contradiction. This is because any object of consciousness is limited by consciousness and as such cannot ground consciousness. The ultimate Ground must also be the ground of consciousness itself, that is, it must condition the I think. If the self does indeed stand in relation to such a Ground, its awareness of it cannot be the awareness it has of objects that stand over against it. Instead, awareness of it can only be given through the immediate awareness that the self has of itself as conditioned. Only through this immediate awareness of the I think as conditioned is the ultimate Ground not made into an object to which consciousness directs itself, an object limited by consciousness as something onto which consciousness must project itself in order to grasp it. Only as ground of the I think itself can the relation between the self and the unconditioned Ground be thought consistently.

Second, reflection on the meaning of human existence must begin with the primacy of the practical: it is only as actors and interpreters of the world that the question of the significance of our lives can be disclosed. If there is an ultimate Ground of consciousness, an important question follows: how does the self’s relation to this Ground condition the self’s interpretation of itself and others? In what ways does it influence action? And in what ways is the influence of the Ground on our interpretive capacities possible?

Lastly, both our ultimate origins and our final destiny, which for the most part remain shrouded in mystery, can be posited as objects of practical faith only insofar as they illumine the present as inherently valuable and worth experiencing for its own sake. One of the fundamental tasks of the philosophy of religion is to show how hope regarding our whence and whither can coexist with a robust appreciation of human existence in this world. Too often the religious drive leads to what Hegel called the unhappy consciousness, always positing fulfillment in a beyond, in some not yet. There is a certain kind of dwelling on the whence and the whither, a certain kind of hope that loses the value of this world and all that must be achieved in it.

The question of what may I hope must be tied in the strongest possible way to valuing the present, so that in hoping for the future what is already present is not lost. There is yet another, profound kind of hope that deepens the experience of the present and guides action in the moment. I take it to be an important task of the philosophy of religion to articulate the possibilities of this kind of hope.


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