Clayton Crockett on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

clayton crockettClayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In many respects, Immanuel Kant defines the theoretical situation for knowledge in the modern university. In his three Critiques, Kant accomplishes a critique of science or philosophy (pure reason), a critique of morality (pure practical reason), and a critique of art (aesthetics) that sets up an idealized model for modern knowledge. This model is institutionally implemented in neo-Kantian terms, as these sciences are divided into disciplines that are then positivized and historicized. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant defends the lower faculty of philosophy, which represents what becomes known as the liberal arts, against the claims of the higher faculties of theology, medicine and law. The higher faculties are the professional schools, that threaten to subsume philosophy, humanities and the liberal arts.

As the contemporary university becomes increasingly corporatized, disciplines and areas of knowledge that are less directly profitable get marginalized. The humanities, liberal arts, and what is sometimes called general education are downsized as administrators, politicians, parents and even students emphasize the value of college as a vocational training program. Students matriculate into degree programs that presumably prepare them for jobs in a precarious global economy. Philosophy and religious studies are not popular areas of study in this context, not to mention philosophy of religion.

It is significant that Kant was unable to develop a critique of religion; he viewed religion as a subset of morality, as a form of practical reason. Modern religion should function within “the limits of reason alone.” It is Hegel who articulated a modern philosophy of religion, because for Hegel religion dialectically leads to philosophy. Religion is a kind of picture-thinking, a representation that shows the true but must give way to the pure reason of the Concept (Begriff). Hegel’s teleology is problematic, but he helps historicize reason and philosophy even as he does so from a Eurocentric perspective. Adopting Freud’s idea of the return of the repressed, we could say that religion consistently returns throughout modernity to haunt reason’s desire to repress it.

A quote I often mention to my classes is one that was given by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. He stated: “In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.” Despite the pressures to study something that appears more directly useful for a career, understanding the nature and role of religion in the world today is incredibly important and valuable. And this recognition of the value of studying religion occurs within a context where more and more potential employers are recommending that students study the humanities rather than business or STEM-related topics. Recent studies show that many entrepreneurs and CEOs of thriving corporations want students to study and major in humanities subjects.

In the humanities, or more specifically the academic study of religion, philosophy of religion has a crucial role to play. Unfortunately, due to the history of academic religious studies in the United States, philosophy of religion has been devalued in religious studies programs. Kerry affirms the importance of studying comparative religion. The predominant academic model of religious studies in the US today is the comparative world religions curriculum, which replaces the Protestant seminary model for the study of religion. During much of the twentieth century, the study of religion took place under the guise of the Protestant seminary model, and this curriculum continues to influence the field because most of the major US universities have seminaries attached or connected to them. According to a seminary model, religious studies is primarily Christian, and consists of categories like scripture, ethics, church history, and theology. The secular comparative world religions model replaces and updates the Protestant seminary model.

The ascendance of a comparative world religions curriculum for religious studies is mostly a good thing, because it transcends Christian parochialism, but there is one major downside. The world religions model adopts social scientific methodologies from the social sciences. These methodologies are crucial to the academic study of religion, but they leave out any explicitly philosophical approach. Most of the time, philosophy is associated, explicitly or implicitly, with theology. And theology is what the comparative world religions model explicitly opposes. Many scholars of religion demand the expulsion of theology in order for religious studies to be a viable academic discipline. At the same time, the construction of what we call world religions is not neutral, and has a complex history that Tomoko Masuzawa explores in her important book The Invention of World Religions.

Today we can see the breakdown of a certain kind of modern secularism, defined as the delimitation of religion to a private sphere. The return of religion in political terms indicates what José Casanova calls a deprivatization of religion. The strict opposition between reason and religion, faith and knowledge, deconstructs. This is a crucial task for philosophical understanding, to make sense of what is sometimes called a postsecular world.

My contention is that whatever one thinks about theology and the postsecular, the elimination of philosophy from the academic study of religion is a huge loss. Philosophy of religion is vital to the study of religion, not just a subset of philosophical inquiry. We need an explicitly philosophical commitment to exploring the persistent phenomenon of religion, a word that Jacques Derrida calls “the clearest and the most obscure” in his essay on “Faith and Knowledge.” Philosophy of religion studies the word, the meaning, the history, and the situation of religion as it expresses itself in the world today, which is integrated with everything that one works with, decides upon, and thinks about in life today, as Kerry affirms. The modern and contemporary university does not know how to properly value this form of thinking and understanding. But it is blind without it.

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