Aaron Simmons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

J. Aaron Simmons hi defJ. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University. He is the author of God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn (Indiana UP), co-author of The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (Bloomsbury), and co-editor of Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion (Duquesne UP), Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion (Indiana UP), and Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, forthcoming). Currently, he is working on a book simply entitled Continental Philosophy of Religion. 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.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a marketing and public relations firm that is working with my University’s admissions office to shape a narrative for presenting the distinctiveness of liberal arts education and, especially, the way in which our institution stands as a national leader of such education. What I quickly discovered was the degree to which explaining liberal arts education was understood as a matter of presenting it as instrumentally valuable in relation to the end of a successful life and lucrative career. While there is nothing necessarily wrong about success and financial wellbeing (indeed, I hope for both for my own son, who is now six years old), there does seem to be something troubling about the idea that the point of higher education is primarily understood as a matter of job preparation. On this model, relationships are important because of the network of connections to possible employers that can result. Similarly, critical thinking, reflective analysis, rhetorical ability, and careful interpretive awareness are all valuable due to the way in which they stand as “transferable skills that are in high demand in today’s complex and quickly changing global marketplace.” Though I am sure that such marketing firms are important for institutions of higher education that are trying to better position themselves in an increasingly difficult situation of changing demographics and increasingly pragmatic social priorities, I think that reflecting on the value-theory operative in the assumptions that tend to guide such “positioning strategies” offers an important opportunity to glimpse the possible importance of philosophy of religion for the modern university (whether a liberal arts institution or not).

Simply put, my suggestion is that philosophy of religion is distinctively, though perhaps not necessarily uniquely, able to highlight the existential stakes of higher education itself within a social frame. Philosophy of religion is not a discourse that works well when considered as being of mere instrumental value to some other pragmatic end such as theistic belief, say. The goal of philosophy of religion, as opposed to philosophical theology, should not be to lead individuals to the truth of religion, but to provide the space for reflecting about how and why what we call “religion” can stand as one of the most important aspects of a person’s identity. Philosophy of religion stands as a productive instance of academic inquiry being about more than merely a consumable outcome, but instead about the decidedly personal task of self-making that should occur in the context of university life—for scholars, for students, and for society.

I have argued elsewhere for the importance of philosophy of religion as a “personal” discourse, but not a “confessional” one. By that I mean that philosophy of religion should start from the fact that religious phenomena (or the possibility thereof) are not merely value neutral objects for detached speculation. Rather, as Gianni Vattimo suggests, none of us start from zero when it comes to religion. Here I do not mean to suggest that atheism should be understood as a religion, but simply that there is no non-answer when it comes to religious identity and truth. Even if one challenges the category as socially constructed (see, for example, the work of Jonathan Z. Smith or Russell McCutcheon), or globalizes the category such that it is deeply problematic (see, for example, the work of Richard King or Tomoko Masuzawa), fundamental concerns of human existence hang in the balance regarding meaning, value, and community. Importantly, it is because I think that reflecting on the very category is so important for thinking well about religion, whether philosophically or not, that I think philosophers of religion would do well to engage more often with the work of scholars in religious studies, and especially those working in critical theories of religion.

When philosophers of religion invite students, colleagues, and the broader public to reflect on questions attending to the meaning of “God,” the relationship between something called “faith” and what we term “reason,” or the possible ways in which religious life offers promising resources, and raises potential problems, for contemporary social existence, they invite reflection that is difficult to marginalize as being of “merely academic interest.” Instead, the very meaning of our lives and the application of those lives in a shared world are at stake in such inquiry. Again, this is not to say that other academic pursuits (whether in or outside the discipline of philosophy) do not, or cannot highlight such matters, but regardless of whether there is a God or not, whether faith is a product of divine grace or simply a matter of wish-fulfillment, or whether religion is a reflection of divine activity in the world of human affairs or nothing more than a social construct deployed in a network of power-relations, we are better off when we wrestle with such possibilities than we are when we do not.

When we do, we face up to the potential limits of human abilities and, thus, can better foster humility as a mode of being. Moreover, when we do, we find ourselves attending to the difficulties of asking questions that may not admit of final answers, yet this calls us to remain open to what might lie beyond ourselves. Finally, when we do, we confront the dynamism of different communities who attempt to live into the space left open by these persistent question-marks and so we are likely to see hospitality as about much more than we would have otherwise figured. Philosophy of religion offers a great deal to the contemporary university because it invites us all to interrogate patiently the assumptions that we allow to remain basic in our conceptions of meaning, value, and truth.

One of my professors in graduate school used to say that whatever else God might be, God was definitely “trouble.” Investigating the truths that attend the associated notions of God, the divine, faith, etc., while recognizing that we never do so without already being committed to particular inherited socio-cultural ways of understanding these notions should “trouble” not only our complacency with the way things are understood to be, but should also “trouble” our aspirations, our ideals, and our shared goals when they fail to live up to what we would name as worthy of our effort, and perhaps even worthy of our worship.

In the end, then, philosophy of religion should and can be a striking resource for reclaiming the narrative of the aims of the contemporary university itself. Rather than focusing on instrumentally valued transferable skills that are packaged by a marketing firm, philosophy of religion refuses to turn away from the importance of thinking about the depth of existence exposed when we attempt to think about those dimensions of existence itself that cannot be reduced to a slogan. In this way, the practice of philosophy of religion might rightly be understood as a type of academic “spiritual exercise,” whether or not there is a God and whether or not one rightly passes as a theist, an atheist, or something else.

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