Patricia Johnson is Professor Emerita and Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Dayton. We invited her 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.
The question posed calls for some reflection on what it means to offer. The term contains religious connotations, with historical usages that relate to both sacrifice and worship. But it is also used in a more general sense of presenting something for acceptance, to be ready or willing to do something if there is acceptance on the part of the receiving person or group. As philosophers of religion, the question asks us to consider what we can put forward to our universities as something important that we are willing to do.
We live in a time of conflict that is heightened by religious differences. For example, in the United States, Muslim communities are often treated with suspicion. Communities refuse to allow them burial grounds. In India, the eating of beef by members of religious groups such as Muslims and Christians has resulted in violent response from Hindu religious and political groups. The list of examples could take all of the space allotted here. What we know is, we live in a time that calls for dialogue in order to reduce violence that is caused, at least in part, by religious exclusivism and intolerance.
Those engaged in inter-religious dialogue have suggested that this dialogue can take place at many levels. That is, there are many types of dialogue. People simply living together can come to respect the religious practices of others because they respect other individuals. People from different religious traditions working on a common project can learn about each other’s traditions while focused on something that both hold as a common good. People can share in religious practices of their own traditions and those of others. Finally, theological discussions, or discussions about fundamental claims that arise from the religious experiences of different traditions can be explored. This may require intra-religious dialogue where individuals and groups question themselves and ask themselves to be open to a range of what may be understood as religious experiences.
Philosophy has the most to contribute to these last two types of dialogue. Before exploring this in a bit more detail, I want to suggest that in the university, philosophy needs to work with other disciplines in order to contribute to inter-religious dialogue. Students and faculty need the experiences of participating in a range of religious practices. They need to know about history and the roles that religions have played over time in the development and destruction of human communities and human well-being. They need to read the literature that is part of various religious traditions. So, philosophy needs to offer to work with other disciplines to develop robust and informed dialogue. This offering is a willingness to learn from others.
But philosophy also can make significant contributions to inter-religious dialogue. Philosophy can model for students and others in the universities how to discuss these difficult issues in a context of openness that seeks truth and common good. Philosophy has a long tradition of developing dialogue and so brings an understanding of what dialogue can be and how to go about engaging in productive dialogue. Philosophy also has a long tradition of exploring meaning both in practices and in our use of language.
Philosophical hermeneutics, as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer, understands philosophy as authentic conversation. Gadamer maintains that all philosophy must be based in fundamental experiences of human existence and must be carried out calling on the conceptual and intuitive powers of the languages in which we live. Influenced heavily by Plato, Gadamer sees dialogue, or conversation, as an art which shows us our own ignorance and so serves as an antidote to illusions of superiority that we may have. The art of dialogue requires that we ask questions together that are important for understanding our human experiences and that enable us to take directions where we are open to being changed. Gadamer maintains that such conversations enable communities and individuals to live more justly. Together, in conversation, we can determine ways to live well together. Such conversations require attentiveness to the words of others and require each participant to listen and to remember the importance of quiet words. These words seek to advance the conversation rather than claim victory over another.
In addition to modeling dialogue as authentic conversation, philosophy can bring rich traditions of thinking about the meaning of language used to give expression to religious experience. Western philosophy is not alone in probing questions of meaning. Philosophy of religion needs to engage in dialogue across the philosophical traditions that arise in the context of a wide range of religions. In order to do this, philosophy departments at our universities need to develop ways of engaging scholars from these diverse religious backgrounds. This can, and should, be done through hiring processes. But it can also be done through providing opportunities for scholarly exchanges that make time for opportunities to allow for quiet conversations.
Finally, philosophy can make important contributions to intra-religious dialogue both on the individual and institutional levels. At the institutional level, these contributions are probably best carried out at institutions that still retain religious affiliation. Here philosophy can ask more probing and difficult questions. How does the institution understand the implications of the practices and beliefs of the tradition to which it ascribes? What are the moral implications for the institution of its grounding in such religious traditions? At the individual level, philosophy can provide students with the opportunity to explore religious commitment which they hold or reject. It can enable students to explore their own religious identities without the pressure of needing to ascribe to particular practices or beliefs.
Philosophy of religion can offer to learn from other disciplines, to advance dialogues across religious traditions, and to facilitate individual and communal understanding of religious experiences and practices. This may, or may not, result in a more unified understanding of religious experience such as John Hick proposed. This seems important work for the modern university. Whether or not our universities will accept the offer remains to be determined.