Nigel Zimmermann on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Nigel Zimmermann

Nigel Zimmermann is Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and the author of Levinas and Theology (T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2013). We invited him 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 an enticingly nebulous branch of philosophy that invites thought into a shared space with belief. Such a space is of course richly pluralistic, offering complex layers of religious commitment and practice to the imprecise scrutiny of the modern and the postmodern philosopher alike.

However, what seems interesting to me is not the diversity on display which is to be expected, but that for all the fruits of philosophy of religion, it is not the space that changes – indeed agents of religion happily live out their faith without any need to enquire what philosophers might be saying about them – but rather it is the nature of thought that changes because it comes into contact with religion. This is in contrast to the natural scientist, whose subject is always under inspection to the point of its own deconstruction; manipulation, re-design, and repetition under laboratory conditions are normative. The enquiring mind who embarks upon the task of philosophy of religion through approaches that include logic, history, metaphysics and accounts of the mind-body problem, investigates the unfathomably broad topic of religion with a kind of intellectual naivety, and finds oneself provoked to think again what it means to live, to die, and to believe in something worthy of either life or death. One’s naivety becomes an obvious feature of one’s philosophising, and so the “unexamined life” is crossed over for the sake of the examined life, in which life becomes worth living. The philosopher, in this way of thinking, becomes a little more humble before their subject matter and transcendence becomes a rich possibility, carrying with it the implications of theological language. In this way, diverse figures such as John of the Cross and Edmund Husserl have an important contribution to make. What Karol Wojtyla called the “testimony of experience” (Faith According to St John of the Cross, 23) in the former becomes an existential reality that captures what is given to us in what Husserl called, going “back to the things themselves” (Logical Investigations, 168).

In this way, philosophy of religion, if it is doing its job, lands in the dangerously unstable border between philosophy and theology. And precisely because it lands on a border, it makes that boundary line even more disjointed and difficult to maintain.

This instability is what makes philosophy of religion, especially its contemporary expression in various examples of phenomenological thinking, possible. All the while philosophers pursue the questions that naturally arise in this context, this discipline remains, in every sense of the word, philosophy; a seeking after wisdom out of a complex arrangement of agapeic and erotic desire for the beauty of wisdom. It is a philosophy that finds itself first moved by what it encounters, and then inspired to respond in kind. Because it is the best of the mind offered up in light of an ancient and multilayered tradition of thoughtful enquiry, it remains acutely aware of its own small impoverishments and human weakness, and empowered by the insights gleaned by thorough investigation.

As Emmanuel Levinas argued in his monumental work, Totality and Infinity, “the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.” Levinas, a philosopher not shy of using theological language, could recognise the significance of otherness, and of the convergence of religion, ethics, and philosophy in descriptions of alterity. It is precisely this convergence that made his philosophy the beginning of a tangent in philosophy of religion, rather than the closure of a system. And perhaps we live in a historical period in much need of tangents of possibility.

As such, I suggest that the exemplars of philosophy of religion are those who display a sober hospitality to theology. Figures such as Jean-Luc Marion or the rewarding work of Michel Henry open up onto the space described above, not by flights of mystical fancy, but through the hard work of a philosophy open to the theological. Countless moderns misunderstand religion as an easy practice, or a de-intellectualised account of life, or of belief and ritual stripped of philosophical meaning; or equally absurdly, treat religion as a series of artefacts open to discovery through the poke and prod of enlightened secularism. In any of these cases, religion, as a lived practice, is missed altogether, and the integration of mind and spirit is marginalised in the academy and in the modern mind. Meanwhile, religious adherents live and die for their religious commitments outside the gaze and the interest of many philosophers.

We live in a cultural epoch in which religion is treated with great disparity. At the same time that religion is rising as a significant cultural force that is proving instrumental – for good and for bad – in the global social and economic context – it is treated with dim-eyed ignorance by those in roles of influence and the shaping of public opinion. For example, mass media understands religion in the same way that Snoopy in the Peanuts comic understands he is a real dog: ‘thin’ texts and symbols are placed upon him by unseen forces to convey short-term meaning and sense, and because he is a fictional construct he is utterly incapable of perceiving the truth of the world or his own nature. Like Snoopy, moments of wisdom can appear and be enjoyed, but they are short-lived forays of good humour in an otherwise bewildering medium of advertisements, conflicting agendas and misunderstood practices. Snoopy cannot understand he is not real, because he is a construct. Our most powerful interpreters of religion are those in the electronic and online media who have a similar misapprehension of self-meaning.

Religion demands a commitment, and philosophy of religion offers a space where that commitment may be examined by drawing upon all the riches of the philosophical tradition. Hospitality to theology is, to my mind, a crucial part of any successful philosophy of religion, and the means by which the discipline will develop and flourish.


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