Andrew Gleeson on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Andrew Gleeson is Lecturer in Philosophy at Flinders 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.

When philosophy is defended as part of a humane, liberal education – I say when, for these days often it isn’t – this is seen as a matter of providing a simplified introduction to the research pursued at graduate and faculty level. Contemporary undergraduate teaching in non-professional subjects has increasingly become a primer to graduate study. Teachers have their eye less on the progress of intelligent students in general than on picking out budding researchers. This is not a general education as opposed to a specialized one, but an initiation into specialized inquiry, an initiation which casts the net wide – across the mass of undergraduates – in the hope of trolling the able few. It is a sort of sieve for finding academic philosophical talent. This is of a piece with the gradual marginalization in our culture of the ideal of the generally educated person, and of what was once called the ‘man-of-letters’, eclipsed by the rise of the cloistered specialist or expert.

This is not a system which serves most students well. Between the enthusiasts for specialized research at one pole, and the long-suffering student-victims (increasing with each year’s new intake) unable to cope with a university education of any sort at the other, there exists a large number of thoughtful students – no less intelligent than the first group – who are missing out on something valuable. I do not suggest they get nothing of value from their education – they may certainly get things of interest. They may become passionately interested in arguments for the existence of God – Intelligent Design for example – and continue, as best they can, to follow popular discussions of these for the rest of their lives. The problem is that discussions of these arguments by philosophers – not only in the era of mass institutionalized research-education, but most intensely and pervasively there – have become dissociated from their real roots in human life, in this case in religious life. The arguments have become dry, abstracted intellectual exercises – conundrums or puzzles – that employ only a limited, impersonal dimension of human intelligence: logic, rationality, argumentative dexterity, sensitivity to relevant factual (especially scientific) information. The teaching becomes a kind of squandered opportunity. We are teaching our students to be only lop-sided thinkers and lop-sided human beings.

I do not mean the students miss out on something practical, something they can apply in their subsequent professional lives (the rationale for teaching ethics or critical thinking to students in professional courses). I would call it something ‘spiritual’, if only over-use hadn’t made that word so pretentious. Examples best show what I mean. There is the way mainstream discussion of the idea that contingent being implies necessary being treats the notions of contingency and necessity exclusively as logical or scientific ones, and gives no role to contingency as a sense of the perishability of worldly things, in contrast to the eternity of God, as these are (for instance) sung by the psalmist (‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God’). Or consider the failure of so much discussion of the problem of evil to hold itself accountable to real life examples of evil, a failure theorized by the field as the distinction between the genuinely intellectual problem (the proper business of philosophers) and the personal or existential problem (the business of pastors, counselors and social reformers) and valorized as an ensign of its intellectual probity. (Philosophers discussing theodicy will often begin by quoting Dostoevsky, but typically as mere prettification which is quickly passed over to get on with the serious work of theory construction.) The point is not that these mainstream treatments of the philosophy of religion employ the proper methods for discovering the truth and achieving understanding, but in the class-room they should be complemented by a humanist uplift that is edifying for the students but strictly irrelevant to the genuinely cognitive core of the discipline. That idea simply recapitulates the impoverished conception of intellectual life that extols impersonal thought at the expense of personal responsiveness, and thereby misses its own ostensible subject-matter, a subject-matter that cannot be understood by the tools of the merely impersonal outlook (indispensable as they are). Philosophers proceeding in this way get God and Evil wrong. Perhaps most fundamentally the very methodological assumption of treating them as objects of speculation already distorts the understanding by directing attention on to the wrong intentional objects, or at least ones that are badly out of focus: the God whom the theodicist defends in his arguments during the day is not the same one he prays to at night. I can merely assert these strong claims here. I have argued for them in my book A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil.

An alternative conception of philosophical thought about religion makes consideration of serious examples (of, say, evil, or the sense of life’s contingency, or the hidden-ness of God, or what it is to trust God) fundamental to philosophical practice. They need not come from the philosophers’ own lives, but philosophical consideration of them must be qua (thoughtful) human beings, not merely qua thinkers (philosophers) in the narrow sense of being responsive only to logic, rationality, etc. (It is admittedly a subtle question what marks thought as thought qua human being rather than qua philosopher, or qua literary critic, or qua historian, or …. My best quick stab is that it is thought presentable in any format – prose, poetry, painting, music – and without essential reference to any disciplinary canon or set of problems.) This casts philosophers in a quite different role in relation to the wider, non-specialist world than they standardly take themselves to have. The standard role assumes that philosophy can prove or disprove God, or make God more or less likely, and thus the point and rationality of religious practice in the world at large is made hostage to the results of highly specialized inquiry. I am suggesting things should be the other way round: that the philosophers should be learning from the world outside the seminar room. The students in that seminar room are usually young, and only just learning about both the academic world and the wider one. If the former condescends to the latter, and even dismisses it, we run the risk of disenfranchising them from both.

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