James McLachlan on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

James McLachlan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Carolina University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Ethical Transcendence and Critical Historical Immanence

The norms and values that I think define excellent philosophy of religion are openness to otherness as the effort to see how different religious logics might work in relation to different basic assumptions about the world. And a critical/historical consciousness that sees all human activities as situated in historical and cultural development.

I start with both hyperbole and a way too overly negative statement of the state of the discipline. I will greatly oversimplify things by dividing philosophy of religion between what I take to be the two major approaches from the two disciplines that use the term: philosophy and religious studies. Philosophy of Religion as it practiced in philosophy departments must realize that it has to focus on much more than theism or the types of theisms that has been the standard of philosophy of religion as a primarily Western and even more narrowly Christian discipline. Though this has certainly been changing over the last couple of decades any random survey of introductory philosophy of religion texts indicates the narrowness of the questions considered in the field. The usual arguments for the existence of God, the tension between faith and reason, miracles, the problem of evil (related to an omnipotent and omniscient deity), and the relation of religion and ethics, or rather, theism and ethics. But the narrowness of the traditional approaches to the discipline go beyond its narrowly Western focus.1 It also seems to ignore the history of Western Theism. It behaves as if the last two hundred years of historical/critical studies of Christian doctrines like theism itself had not occurred. The philosophers of religion sometimes appear to better fit Donald Wiebe’s characterization of religionists as crypto-theologians than do the phenomenologists of religion. They seem only really concerned with Christian theology or at the most theism, despite the fact that Christianity only accounts for about a third of what we could call religious people on the planet and theism only about half. They seem to have taken the part of Mr. Thwackum, the Divine, at least in part against Mr. Square, the Philosopher, in that wonderful dispute in Henry Fielding’s The Adventures of Tom Jones: “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion, and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England” (Fielding 1917).

It is only correct that philosophers of religion from religious studies should be critical of such an approach. However, many religionists may also be crypto-theological in seeking to find something irreducibly religious in all religions and excluding any other approaches as reductionist. These are countered by a gang of theorists in the study of religion that includes, among others, Wiebe and Russell McCutcheon. They argue for methodological atheism in the study of religious phenomena and will not allow any philosophical approach that would evaluate what might be the truth or value of religious groups’ claims or practices. Such approaches reveal much about the phenomena that is to be explored but in their insistence on method as revealer of truth about the phenomenon they are not open to the phenomena themselves. As Merleau-Ponty famously quipped at the beginning of “Eye and Mind” “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.”

This does not mean that there is something irreducibly religious about religious phenomena, as suggested by the phenomenologists of religions. What is needed instead is a phenomenological approach championed by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas that would see religion as part of the life world.

The title to H. G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method is deliberately ironic. Truth evades the methodological approach. Understanding is not the act of a subject over against an object but the way of being. Truth is not reached methodically but dialectically, through question and answer, the constant passing from whole to part and part to whole. The dialectical approach to truth is the antithesis of method, indeed it is a pre-structure of the individual’s way of seeing. It recognizes the historicality of both religion, the investigator searching to understand it, and his method. Method only renders explicit what was implicit in the method. In the dialectical situation, the matter encountered is that to which we respond. The interpretive encounter is no longer that of a questioner and an object, with the questioner having to construct methods to bring the object into his grasp. On the contrary, the questioner suddenly finds himself the being who is interrogated by the subject matter. Here one is situated in history and sees her own position as produced historically. Religion would be approached much as art, as a human creation that is at least an effort at transcendence.

Religion claims a transcendent but the idea that I ought to be open to the other, either as an individual or to her tradition is ethical. This is basically Levinas’s distinction between the “Holy” and the “Sacred.” He claims the ways that these terms are usually defined is the essence of idolatry. Levinas uses the word sacred as a notion of a single ground that unites everything. This would be the irreducibly religious of the old phenomenology of religion movement. Otto calls it the “Mysterium Tremendom et Fascinans” that fills us with awe and terror. This can be quite wonderful but could also provoke the kind of enthusiasm that was provoked in Nazi rallies. It can be a source of violence. Levinas defines the Holy as the respectful relation to another person who “transcends” me and all my ideas.

  1. Of the seventy-four essays in Louis Pojman’s and Michael Rea’s classic anthology on The Philosophy of Religion, seventy-one are on theism. The other three include an essay on Plato’s theory of the eternal and immutable soul, the Dalai Lama on the possibility of Christian truth, and an essay on Hindu philosophy. The rest of the world religions are not even mentioned. In the introduction to the text, Pojman and Rea talk about the power of religion, mentioning texts like the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, and the Dhammapada, and then proceed as if these traditions did not exist. They focus almost exclusively on the theistic tradition claiming: ‘Questions connected with the existence of God may be the most important that we can ask and try to answer’ (Pojman and Rea 2008, xv)

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