James K. A. Smith on “Prospects for a Continental Philosophy of Religion”

James K. A. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

We now take for granted something that was virtually unthinkable just seventy-five years ago: that serious philosophical engagement with religion, even work that could be described as philosophical theology, is undertaken within the mainstream of the philosophical academy in North America. While religion was a persistent theme of philosophical reflection from Plato up through Hegel and even Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, the brief hijacking of Anglo-American philosophy by logical positivism had the effect of withering this subdiscipline in philosophy. But in the mid-twentieth century, after the implosion of logical positivism (whose shaky foundations couldn’t sustain critique), there was a movement of analytic philosophers that, in the course of challenging the epistemological assumptions of positivism, also cleared space for serious philosophical attention to God and religious phenomena. In different ways and in different streams, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Marilyn McCord Adams, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and many others began to unapologetically turn their philosophical tools to religious questions, while also letting their religious commitments inform their work on broader, mainstream philosophical issues in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. The result was not only a renaissance in philosophy of religion but also a burgeoning movement of Christian philosophy. It is telling, and encouraging, that several of these figures would be appointed (and honored) as presidents of the American Philosophical Association and would, in 1978, found the Society of Christian Philosophers. (This story has been well told elsewhere by Nicholas Wolterstorff.)

As most will concede, this is largely an “analytic” story; that is, this is a story about the demise and reemergence of religion in analytic philosophy, which is the dominant mode or style of philosophy in the Anglo-American academy, and also the stream that was most derailed by logical positivism. It explains why the so-called “renaissance” in philosophy of religion and Christian philosophy has been centered in analytic philosophy.

But the reason some philosophy is tagged as “analytic” is to distinguish it from another stream that we often call “continental” philosophy. I do not have any great stake in the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy except as a helpful description for different styles or streams of philosophical reflection. I appreciate Wolterstorff’s suggestion that “the identity of the analytic tradition is a narrative, rather than a purely systematic, identity. What makes a philosopher an analytic philosopher is that he places himself within a certain story line of philosophy in the twentieth century” (in Inquiring About God, p. 17). I would happily describe “continental” philosophy in the same way: there is no “essential” identity; only a historical, contingent, narrative identity insofar as the continental philosopher locates herself in a story of philosophical questions and debates that tracks onward from Edmund Husserl rather than, say, Gottlob Frege. And none of this precludes philosophers becoming conversant in both conversations.

With respect to religion, it is important to note that the continental stream was never hoodwinked by logical positivism and thus doesn’t have the same “Ichabod” episode in the twentieth century that it needed to overcome. To take just one example, questions about God, faith, and theology leave their mark across Heidegger’s corpus, from his early 1927 lecture on “Phenomenology and Theology” to his later critique of “onto-theo-logy” in Identity and Difference. And French philosophers working in Heidegger’s wake—what Alain Badiou calls “the ‘German move’” that is a feature of twentieth century French philosophy—continued to grapple with questions of God and religion, particularly in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, and Jean-Luc Marion, but also in more surprising thinkers such as Jacques Derrida. So when phenomenologist Dominque Janicaud pointed out (and criticized) what he described as a theological “turn” in phenomenology, the justifiable retort from philosophers like Jean-François Courtine, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Jean-Luc Marion, and Michel Henry was that theology had been woven into phenomenology almost since the beginning.

In that sense, questions about faith, religion, and God were never Verboten in continental philosophy the same way they were functionally outlawed by logical positivism’s hegemony in early twentieth-century analytic philosophy. However, insofar as the field of philosophy of religion (and Christian philosophy) congealed in response to analytic debates, the newly energized field of philosophy of religion tended to be synonymous with analytic philosophy of religion. Both the parameters of debate and methods for tackling the questions simply assumed the analytic story. But if Wolterstorff is correct (and I think he is) that what defines analytic philosophy is contingent—a particular history, even a particular bibliography, one might say—then philosophy of religion certainly shouldn’t be the exclusive province of analytic philosophy.

While the history of continental philosophy across the twentieth century testified to this, we can also admit that in the 1990s there emerged a more concerted effort to constitute continental philosophy of religion (and philosophical theology) as a field and subdiscipline within the North American academy. This included the launch of the Theology and Continental Philosophy Group within the American Academy of Religion and the founding of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology, leading, eventually, to the establishment of the Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion.

In this sense, the very question, “Is there a future for philosophy of religion?,” perhaps reflects a sort of Cartesian anxiety whose pathology is uniquely analytic. In the phenomenological tradition, philosophy of religion has remained vital. Perhaps its distinct contribution to the future of philosophy of religion is to model, in particular, a philosophy of religion that is attuned to the practice of religion—attending to religion as a “form of life,” à la Wittgenstein, as a community of practice that carries a habitus, in Bourdieu’s sense of the term. For just this reason, phenomenology of religion also models a more constructive openness to the specificity of theology and liturgy, and is interested in religion as something that we do, not simply something that we believe.

Excerpted from the Introduction to James K.A. Smith, The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology to be published by Baylor University Press (which will be released on August 16, 2021). Reprinted with permission.

John Teehan on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy Of Religion?”

John Teehan is Professor of Religion at Hofstra University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The questions presented by Troy DuJardin as invitations for reflection on the future of the philosophy of religion are insightful and important. Before responding to this invitation, I should situate myself in relation to the subject: I would not identify myself as a philosopher of religion (certainly not primarily). I am a philosopher, with a background in psychology and a research agenda in cognitive science, who teaches courses in these areas, while being housed in a Religious Studies department. I do have a deep and abiding interest in religion, and, despite the interdisciplinary nature of my studies (or perhaps, because of it), I see my work as, ultimately, philosophy. In regard to religion, I seek to bring a philosophical critique to the various fields I incorporate into my study of religion (evolutionary anthropology, cognitive science, historical criticism), and I bring the insights from these fields to questions within philosophy, particularly the philosophy of religion (specifically, the justification of belief, and the problem of evil).

So, while I do not feel qualified to provide an assessment of the state of the philosophy of religion, nor to make any sweeping claims about its future, I believe I can speak about a possible trajectory within this field of study. In doing so, I am not setting up my own approach as a model for the future of the field, of course. Rather, I would like to discuss certain theoretical insights from cognitive and bio-cultural studies of religion that may offer one way forward for the philosophy of religion—one which has implications for some of the questions in DuJardin’s blog. Continue reading

Gereon Kopf on “How to Make Philosophy of Religion Relevant to the Future”

Gereon Kopf is Professor of East Asian religions and philosophy of religion at Luther College, an adjunct professor of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Iceland, and research fellow at the International Institute for Philosophy at Tōyō University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In this essay, I would like to shift the focus and not ponder whether or not philosophy of religion has a future as academic discipline but instead to focus on the question of whether or not philosophy of religion can maintain or regain its relevance as an academic discipline and for the public discourse beyond academia. The data collected by Wesley Wildman and his team indicate that the future of this discipline could become an existential question for us “experts” in the field, even though Gary Colwell argued convincingly in this series that “there will always be a future for philosophy of religion” in one shape or another. I agree with Wildman that to remain/be relevant philosophy of religion needs to be multidisciplinary in its method and inclusive in its scope. In this essay I will propose an approach to facilitate this inclusivity that I have developed over the past 4 years (Kopf 2019, 2022a, 2022b).

In the interests of full disclosure, before I begin, I would like to describe my background and explain the standpoint from which I come. I am not trained in philosophy of religion per se, but rather in the religious philosophies developed in the context of Japanese Buddhism. Together with Timothy Knepper and Nathan Loewen, I serve as co-director of the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project that started as a 5-year seminar at the A.A.R. and now continues its work funded by generous grants from the Wabash Center and the N.E.H. We are currently working on three book projects: a textbook (authored by Knepper), a teaching manual (edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and myself), and a companion volume that is edited by Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. These volumes propose different visions of global-critical philosophy. Today, I will focus on what I call a “fourth-person approach” (Kopf 2022a, 2022b). Continue reading

Mikel Burley – An Experimental Moment in Philosophy of Religion

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A central concern articulated in recent years by critical voices both inside and outside Western philosophy of religion has been this subfield’s perceived lack of religious diversity. It has been claimed that Western philosophers of religion are too often preoccupied with “the rationality of theism” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 3), a theism detached from the particularities of historically and geographically rooted religious traditions (Knepper 2013). These critical voices have, on occasion, included my own.

In what follows, I wish to do three things. First, I acknowledge a qualification to the kind of critical assessment that I and others have made of Western philosophy of religion. Second, I give due recognition to the difficulties of expanding the subfield in ways that remain identifiably philosophical. And third, I advocate the need for methodological experimentation as a response to these difficulties. Continue reading

Graham Oppy on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As long as there are both philosophy and religion, there will be philosophy of religion. If there is religion, there will be questions about religion for which there is no expert consensus on either answers or methods to be used in seeking answers. If there is philosophy, there will be discussion of questions of that kind. Discussion of questions of that kind falls squarely in the domain of philosophy of religion.

Some seem to worry that there is no such thing as religion. If they are right, then philosophy of religion does not have a present, let alone a future. I think that this worry is best understood as a complaint against taking particular categories—gods, afterlives, faith, belief—to be essential or pivotal in adequate characterisations of religion. There is justice in this complaint. There are religions that have no truck with gods and afterlives; there are religions in which faith and belief are comparatively unimportant. Moreover, insisting that these particular categories are essential or pivotal in adequate characterisations of religion skews discussion in philosophy of religion. But there is nothing here that would ground error theory about religion; rather, what seems required is better understanding of what is essential or pivotal to religion. Continue reading

Stanley Tweyman on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Stanley Tweyman is University Professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In an earlier blog, “What does Philosophy of Religion offer to the Modern University”, I argued that the philosophy of religion parts company with all other areas of inquiry when we attempt to understand God through contemplation and meditation, rather than through argumentation. My analysis was developed by reference to the last paragraph in Descartes’ third meditation. In the current blog, I propose to turn, once again, to Descartes’ third meditation,1 with a view to answering the question, by way of illustration, “Is there a future for the Philosophy of Religion”.

In seeking to provide an answer to the question raised in this blog, I want to focus on one concern, namely, is there an experience which we can have which is able to enlighten us about God? To pursue this topic, I propose to examine the philosophy of Rene Descartes on knowing God. I am not suggesting that Descartes has provided a definitive answer to the question highlighted in this essay. But, I do propose to show that he has provided a roadmap, as it were, for focusing on an experience which may be able to enlighten us about God, and as such, to reveal at least one strategy for providing a future for the Philosophy of Religion. Continue reading

Gregory W. Dawes – “The Future of Philosophy of Religion: From Practices to Beliefs”

Gregory W. Dawes is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Otago. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In the first post to this blog, Troy has remarked that the philosophy of religion, as currently practised, is ‘insular, narrow, and myopic’. I entirely agree. The one sign of hope is that an increasing number of authors are realising this and are trying to offer an alternative vision of the discipline. I have done this myself in a couple of short works, one entitled Religion, Philosophy and Knowledge, and the other Deprovincializing Science and Religion. So I welcome the publication of The Future of the Philosophy of Religion, which continues this discussion.

What I want to pick up here is just one idea from that volume. It is the idea that scholars of religion should focus less on beliefs and more on practices. As Kevin Schilbrack writes,

the philosophy of religion has traditionally had an intellectualist bias to the extent that the discipline has focused on religious truth claims and therefore engaged only with a relatively small fraction of what religious people do and care about.

That is true. What I want to argue, however, is that we are not forced to choose. It is not a matter of focusing either on religious beliefs or on religious practices, for we should not set the two in opposition. A few reflections on some recent theories of knowledge will show why. Continue reading

Peter Jonkers – “Philosophy of Religion: Alive and Kicking!”

Peter Jonkers is emeritus professor of philosophy at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has published extensively on questions regarding religion in the public space, in particular religious truth, pluralism and identity, religious violence and tolerance, and wisdom. From 2008 to 2020 he was member of the board of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion, and from 2010 to 2012 he served as president of that Society. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

My response to the question whether there is a future for philosophy of religion is definitely affirmative. I would even argue that nowadays philosophy of religion holds a more prominent place on the philosophical scene than, say, during the second half of the twentieth century. This has to do with a transformation of the place of religion in many societies around the globe, to which philosophy of religion is reacting by developing some new, promising approaches and rephrasing some of its old questions.

Let us start with the changes in the religious landscape. Although the secularization theory was correct in predicting the gradual decline of the number of church-goers and the decrease of the influence of the churches in most modern societies, its more speculative assumption, namely that religiosity as such would fade away in modern societies and be replaced by a scientific worldview and a procedural ethics of (individual) autonomy, has turned out to be empirically invalid. What we see is not so much a disappearance, but rather a transformation of the religious landscape: in most modern societies, people have not stopped searching for spiritual nourishment and substantial values to orientate their lives. Continue reading

Kevin Timpe on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Kevin Timpe is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In an earlier blogpost, Troy DuJardin asked “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” I think the answer to this question is, obviously, yes. After all, the excellent book that he, M. David Eckel, and C. Allen Speight recently edited itself is a great example of what I take to be the continued flourishing of the field. One notices that the book’s title doesn’t contain the question mark that adorns the blogpost, and I think there’s good reason for that.

Despite my disagreement with the implied uncertainly from the blog post’s title, I think that DuJardin, both in the post and especially along with his co-editors in the volume’s introduction raise some great issues. This, I take it, is at the heart of the critique of philosophy of religion:

Many problems lodged deep in the roots of our field have been exposed in recent decades, and is has become increasingly clear that rethinking some of its once central aspects is now necessary.

Continue reading

Eric Steinhart on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?

Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of my last fully in-person classes, in the fall of 2019, was philosophy of religion. My class had a large percentage of atheists, not surprising for the northeast United States. What was surprising was that the atheists, who were all deeply anti-Christian, spent much of their time discussing how they charged their crystals (full moon or in the sun?), their favorite tarot decks (Waite-Rider or the Wild Unknown?), and the pros and cons of astrology apps (Co-Star or the Pattern?). But they didn’t care much about New Age spirituality, or identify as “spiritual but not religious”. They didn’t care much about atheism either. They just did their things. Since then many mass media articles have detailed the rise of these practices among younger Americans.

I’d like to try to understand my young students (obviously, they’re the future). But there aren’t any philosophy articles (much less books) about their practices or how they integrate them into their ways of thinking about reality. Nothing. Crickets. In this context, it would be absurd to say astrology or crystals involve consorting with demons. The Gallup organization recently reported that for the first time in their eighty-year history, less than half of adult Americans attend a church. By all demographic accounts, Christianity is declining rapidly in America. For the last decade, there have been many calls to expand philosophy of religion beyond Christian theism. Yet philosophy of religion, at least in the English-speaking world, remains intensely christo-normative. As far as I can tell, the academic journals and presses have not changed one bit. Continue reading