Renee Kohler-Ryan on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

RKohlerRyanRenee Kohler-Ryan is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. 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 Augustinian idea that one understands in order to believe, and believes so as to understand, remains central to Philosophy of Religion. I speak here particularly within the context of a Catholic university. This approach seems to have its genesis in early Christianity. For, as John Paul II points out in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, the early Fathers of the Church brought “to light the link between reason and revelation.” The philosophical methods these thinkers used had been developed in the ancient world and now became vital tools: “Superstitions were recognized for what they were and religion was, at least in part, purified by rational analysis.” Arguably, this is where the practise of Philosophy of Religion began. True religion was investigated as reasonable, and belief was taken seriously. In this community of believers, philosophy of religion made perfect sense.

It is somewhat tempting to think that contemporary society, including the modern university, has no need for such study any longer. After all, in a pluralistic society, all personal beliefs are valid, and there is no objective standard to test their validity.  Priding oneself on secularised tolerance rules out taking seriously arguments from religious belief. The philosopher’s work seems to lie elsewhere. This though, would be not only a naïve position. In at least two senses, which I will now discuss, it would also be unjust.

Firstly, to consider religious belief beneath the dignity of philosophical investigation does an injustice to the believer. Religion is a human phenomenon, capturing the human person’s quest to find ultimate meaning and taking him toward at least a glimpse of the possibility of transcendence. Religion also coincides with giving proper meaning to the moral life. Augustine thought of religion as a lived relationship whereby the person freely accepts that he is created, and thereby enters into a re-creation of the self. This is self-awareness at its finest point. At the same time, religion for Augustine involves an appreciation of creation and of human society. The one who seeks transcendence does not flee from the world, but instead adopts a healthy appreciation of earthly limitations, and acts well within them. The more rigorously that same person investigates his beliefs, the more robust will be his analysis of the strengths as well as the shortcomings of himself and of the society around him.

Thus, Augustine holds that true religion is a deeply personal quest for truth, and there is a moral imperative to undertake that investigation. The Confessions are a testament to his appreciation that sincerely held beliefs, in particular those that pertain to God’s existence and nature, mould attitudes and actions. Thinking about God was never only an intellectual pursuit; exploration of God informed everything that Augustine did and felt. Crucially, what he thought and at the same time believed about God needed to be true. Augustine is in a certain sense a model for the philosopher of religion, because of the seriousness with which he took philosophically sound belief in God. To think about God as one’s origin is to develop a finer sense of self. It follows that the better our questions and thoughts about God, the greater our capacity for self-understanding. If the university truly is the ideal place for authentic questions about being human, then this is where philosophy of religion finds its proper home. The philosopher of religion performs an act of justice to the believer, by finding the beliefs worthy of study. Ideally, such an attitude would then affect the modern world, supporting religious belief as a worthy and authentic aspect of being human.

Secondly, to investigate religion is to try to understand justice in one of its most fundamental senses. Even in the ancient world, religious practise gives to God what is due to him. If the believer thinks of God as the ultimate perfect and good cause of everything, then we owe everything that we are to Him. An act of worship is at the same time virtuous. Again according to Augustine, on these terms it is only just to love and to worship God. What can the philosopher make of this? How can the philosopher of religion investigate human adoration for what is divine? These questions are particularly pressing for the philosopher of religion in the modern university, because that institution is increasingly inspired by a scientific world-view and methodology that does not have the tools to think through religious belief. One need only consider the way that modern universities increasingly rationalize cuts to funding in the humanities – including philosophy – to know that this is the case. The philosopher of religion is called upon to perform an impossible task. Religious belief cannot be tried and tested according to scientific method, and so the philosopher is told that it cannot in fact be true.

Faced with a similar problem in early modern intellectual society, Blaise Pascal postulated that this is simply a category mistake. Without abandoning Augustine’s appreciation that understanding and belief constantly seek each other out, he established a proper investigative mode for each. From deep within the modern project of scientific investigation, Pascal postulated that one can think with l’esprit de finesse as well as l’esprit de géométrie. That is, there are two ways of looking at philosophical questions. In the spirit of geometry, Pascal designs a calculating machine, or works out a theory of probability. Here he works with mathematically clear and accurate demonstration. When the same thinker turns to considerations of God though, finesse is called for, which pertains to the workings of the heart, where love and belief coincide. “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing”, declares Pascal: the human heart cannot be scrutinized with the same tools we use for mathematics and the physical world. William Desmond observes in The Intimate Strangeness of Being: Metaphysics After Dialectic, that while Pascal’s l’esprit de finesse “is required when we deal with the human being, in the deep ambiguity of its being… beyond all our knowing had not God already mysteriously made himself known to us.” (191) At heart, the human being is not a mathematical problem to be solved; nor is God.

Philosophy of Religion is justly present in the modern university when it takes religious belief seriously; but also when it finds the right ways to investigate and express what religious belief means. Respecting belief is the first step to enabling such exploration. Only then can the philosopher work with thoughtful finesse.

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