Merold Westphal on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

merold-westphal-bwMerold Westphal is Distinguish Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University. 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.

I believe that what follows applies to both private and public colleges and universities and to both religious and secular schools. By ‘religious’ schools I mean those who make a serious attempt to integrate their religious identity with their academic program. Neither being “church-related” in either its historical origins or current constitution nor having a denominational or interdenominational chaplaincy suffices to categorize a school as religious in my sense.

Of course, religious schools may have students and faculty who do not share the institution’s religious identity. But they should expect that some students choose that school in part because of that identity; and they should insure that a critical mass of the faculty (an unquantifiable percentage, once it is allowed to fall below 100%) are committed to it.

For religious schools philosophy of religion can and should be in the mode of “faith seeking understanding.” This does not preclude being ecumenical rather than parochial about it; but it does mean that no one should be surprised or offended if special attention is given to the resources, history, and problems of a particular religious tradition. The school’s raison d’etre is, at least in part, to be an academic arm of that tradition.

I take philosophy to be critical reflection on our beliefs and practices. So philosophy of religion is critical reflection on our religious beliefs and practices. But who are we? I think in terms of concentric circles. For secular schools, we are the heirs of western civilization, and “our” religion is the Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, rooted in the Bible, that for better and for worse have played a role in our becoming. But we are also members of the human race, and “our” religion includes the eastern and tribal religions that we can picture as belonging to an outer circle, less central to our own identity but not simply extraneous. For religious schools there will be an inner circle in which “our” religion will be some particular tradition with biblical roots. So, in varying degrees, all three circles represent “our” religious beliefs and practices and are appropriate subject matter for philosophy of religion.

Such reflection can have two rather distinct senses: philosophizing about God or, perhaps, the Sacred, and philosophizing about religion, observable human networks of beliefs and practices that purport to be in touch with a reality that is transhuman and not observable, at least not directly. In either case, such reflection can ask two rather distinct questions: normative and descriptive. On the one hand, are the beliefs true, and are the practices appropriate? On the other hand, how can the meanings of the beliefs and practices be clarified so as not to be confused with different, if not always easily distinguishable, meanings? Analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the former questions, phenomenological and comparative approaches on the latter.

Persons whose thought about God and religion barely got to the junior high school level but have a college level understanding of science and technology, music and literature, psychology and sociology, etc., will fit all too well the title of a book by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. Given the close relation, de facto, between religion and morality, the latter may be seriously undeveloped. The discrepancy within the educational system will represent a cultural prejudice against religion. Serious study of the philosophy of religion is one way of providing students, whether or not they are active in a religious community, with an adult level of understanding of God and of religion that is on a par with their understanding of other dimensions of their world.

Here’s another benefit. To a large degree we have inherited from the Enlightenment the view that reason is universal and univocal. It is neutral, objective, unprejudiced, and unconditioned. Religions whose highest authority lies in some purported divine revelation, some “bible” or sacred text, for example, are particular, seeing the world through lenses that represent a prejudice (pre-judgment) that is formally and sometimes materially irrational.

So, the title of Kant’s book on religion, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, is also a good name for what we can call the Enlightenment project in philosophy of religion. The task of philosophy is to bring religion up to the level of rationality in one of two ways: rejecting outright those beliefs and practices that offend reason and reinterpreting those that can be salvaged by giving them quite different, “rational” meanings.

This view is still with us in various forms. But it is clearly false. Consider the most powerful examples of this project from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively: Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. One doesn’t have to delve very deeply into these philosophies of religion to see that they are mutually incompatible, each deeply at odds with the other two. But this shows us that the “reason” to which they appeal as their norm is not universal, objective, and free from presuppositions. It is rather a quite particular worldview or paradigm that functions as the a priori condition of all possible interpretation, whether of scriptural texts or of the worlds of nature and spirit. So far from being an unprejudiced “view from nowhere,” the three versions of “reason” and the resultant philosophies of religion relate to one another more like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – combining some overlap with deep divergence.

I call the systematic recognition of this finitude and particularity of human reason the hermeneutical turn and take it to signify the difference between modern and postmodern philosophy. But this means that ‘postmodern’ is not narrowly the name for French poststructuralism, since this turn has been made in various analytic philosophies (including Kuhnian philosophy of science), continental philosophies, and American pragmatisms.

Philosophy of religion taught in the modern mode offers the university a view of human reason that is unable to sustain itself and a view of religion resting on this faulty foundation. Taught in the postmodern mode, with an explicit hermeneutical turn, it offers the university a more modest understanding of human reason and allows us to explore the ways in which language, tradition, and social practices give historical particularity to our thinking. This puts religions of the book and philosophies of reason on a more nearly level playing field in what Ricoeur calls “the conflict of interpretations.” Philosophy loses is special privilege in relation to religion.

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