Stanley Tweyman on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

stweyman-cStanley Tweyman is University Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at York University, Canada. 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.

There is a sense in which the Philosophy of Religion is aligned with other areas of philosophy, in that they all try to provide answers to questions about the subject matter of that area of inquiry. So, for example, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica raises the question, “What is good?”, and Moore seeks to provide an answer to this (and other) questions. Now, generally speaking, the Philosophy of Religion proceeds in a similar manner: whether we are interested in proofs for the existence of God; criticisms of proofs for the existence of God; the way in which the topic of God contributes—or does not contribute—to certain philosophies; the epistemic significance of claims of revelation and the miraculous; all of these topics, and many more, are treated within the realm of the philosophy of religion, and are the focus of courses and research in the modern university. In one sense, then, an answer to the question ‘What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university’ can be put in this (unexciting) way: The philosophy of religion offers the modern university whatever is done in the philosophy of religion.

We can go further (again, in an unexciting way) to compare the philosophy of religion to other areas of inquiry outside philosophy. In an obvious sense, Philosophy of Religion deals with its subject matter, namely God, in a manner which is similar to the manner in which other areas of learning proceed with their respective subject matter. Where they differ is in the subject matter connected to each field or discipline: astronomy studies celestial bodies, medicine studies the human body, while religion studies what can be known about God.

But this is hardly an adequate answer to our question. I regard the question of this blog to be a meta-question in the area of the philosophy of religion: here I am not doing the philosophy of religion; rather, I am trying to understand what contribution the philosophy of religion makes, or better, can make, to the modern university. Now, in fact, I want to narrow this inquiry even further than indicated above, by asking, what is it that only the philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university? I want to know what is unique in the philosophy of religion- what the philosophy of religion does not share with any other area of inquiry. I believe that we can provide an answer to this question.

It seems to me that to answer this question we need to grasp the point at which the philosophy of religion parts company with all other areas of inquiry. And that point is reached when we attempt to understand God, not through argument, but through contemplation and meditation. The philosopher who I believe articulates this point best is Rene Descartes, who in the last paragraph of the third meditation (after he has established that God exists as Descartes’ creator and that God is not a deceiver) writes: “…[I]t seems to me right to pause for a while in order to contemplate God Himself, to ponder at leisure His marvellous attributes, to consider, and admire, and adore, the beauty of this light so resplendent, at least as far as the strength of my mind, which is in some measure dazzled by the sight, will allow me to do so. For just as faith teaches us that the supreme felicity of the other life consists only in this contemplation of Divine Majesty, so we continue to learn by experience that a similar meditation…causes us to enjoy the greatest satisfaction of which we are capable in this life.” [i]

First, not everyone agrees that God exists, and even among those who do hold a belief in God’s existence, not all would agree that we are in possession of an idea of God (innate or otherwise) upon which we can reflect or meditate. Now, those who do not believe that God exists are outside the scope of this blog (except in the sense I discuss toward the end of this paragraph), although they can continue to study proofs of God’s existence and nature, and continue to formulate criticisms to support their position. Those who believe that God exists but deny that they possess a Cartesian or other-type idea of God upon which to meditate have three options: (1) either try to understand God through arguments, or (2) through alleged religious experiences (their own, or those of others), or (3) through the study of nature. On this third way, the most articulate statement I have found is one put forth by Albert Einstein in 1930 at the end of his work, “What I Believe”: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.” I said at the beginning of this paragraph that non-believers are outside the scope of this blog, but, in fact, this may not be so. For, following the point made by Einstein, all those interested in art and science may be able to achieve the sense of religiousness of which Einstein speaks.

In this blog, I have tried to show that the philosophy of religion has an important contribution to make to the modern university in pointing us to ways to comprehend, however imperfectly, an appreciation of the divine.

[i] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, first published in 1993 by Routledge, London and New York, and in 2002 by Caravan Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, by arrangement with Routledge.


Mark Gardiner on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

mark gardinerMark Gardiner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, Canada. 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.

In light of the fact that the humanities are under siege in so many universities around the world, I take the invited blog question to really be that of asking philosophy of religion (PofR) to justify its place in the modern university.

To begin, my defence is predicated upon ‘philosophy of religion’ (PofR) being understood in much broader ways than it has traditionally been. The companion Blog series–“What is Philosophy of Religion?” (–provides excellent discussion on what PofR is, might be, or should be. Many entries illustrate and critique ‘traditional’ PofR’s narrow emphasis on such things as the existence of (a particular type of) God, the truth/rationality of religious belief, metaphysical questions about freedom, miracles, and life after death. PofR must wrestle with the myriad religions as concretely practiced around the globe just as much as, if not more than, ‘religion’ as a reified abstract entity historically tied to abstract monotheism. Of this I will offer no further elaboration or justification, other than to note that my defence of the value of PofR in the modern university is a defence of this sort of ‘revised’ or ‘reformed’ PofR.

The other noun phrase in the Blog question–‘the modern university’–invites some reflection as well. The definite article is, of course, misleading, for there is no single thing which constitutes ‘the’ modern university. The adjective ‘modern’ signals that what are called universities have changed over time with the implication that it is that change which underwrites the need for PofR to justify itself. I doubt that the question ‘What does Philosophy of Religion have to offer the medieval university?’ could seriously have been raised, given that ‘philosophy of religion’ was then tantamount to Christian theology. Consider an analogous question: “What does the study of business have to offer the modern university?” It cannot now be raised seriously, but such absurdity is not a priori. It would have been (and likely was) a quite serious question in the past. Business did not enter the academy as a result of a sudden recognition that its subject matters did, in fact, fall under the type of knowledge whose pursuit universities were designed to foster. Rather, its body of knowledge had advanced to such a degree (pun intended) that its mastery required the prolonged multi-year training from those who were both educators and researchers; in other words, only a university style system could properly enable (and regulate) entrance to and mastery of it. But this couldn’t have been enough; business schools could have remained at the level of specialized ‘technical’ institutions. What more was needed was a ‘recognition’ that business interests itself in a set of generalized, or more ‘universal’, social values of precisely the type that the university was designed to enable. In other words, what should be included and what excluded from ‘the university’ is a function of what the society which supports and maintains it at any given time deems to be of sufficient general and social value. Some values have seemed to transcend of the particularities of culture, such as the speaking, writing, and reasoning well, and this perhaps explains why at least the trivium has had a history indistinguishable from ‘the university’ itself (at least prior to this century). Other values are more transitory. Medieval Europe’s obsession with ‘spiritual’ well-being is what would have made the blog question rhetorical in the 14th century. As it became possible to question the very existence of such a thing, let alone its value, philosophy of religion aka theology no longer had a built-in justification in relation to ‘the university’. To considerable extent, economic (i.e. material) well-being has replaced ‘spiritual’ well-being as the predominant social value, and it is this change which allowed business to enter. Although it now seems analytic to many that ‘economic well-being’ is the sine qua non of ‘the modern university’, it is important to realize that it has not always been seen so, nor should we expect it to always be so. If, or when, that value recedes, business may be called upon to show what it has to offer the ‘modern’ university.

PofR, then, can seek to justify itself in two distinct ways. First, it can try to show that it does align with ‘economic well-being’. Many, including some writing entries in this blog, do just that. Exposure to the humanities in general (and PofR by implication) have been amply demonstrated to increase the prospects of meaningful and well paid employment. Especially in a world of increasingly unstable and changing markets, the generalized skills of problem solving, complex reasoning, clear articulation, and abstract thought strongly contribute to the predominant value of economic well-being. The ability to spot and critique often unnoticed assumptions is a decided plus especially in a world tending towards globalization in which an ever increasing number of diverse cultural forms, beliefs, and practices participate.

But what interests me more is the second sort of justification: PofR can critique the very values underwriting ‘the modern university’, perhaps arguing that they are not worth preserving, at least not in the manner in which universities now operate. That would be the negative first step in the defence; the positive second step would be to argue for a set of values which the modern university properly ought to enable, protect, and advance, and show that PofR aligns strongly with them. The reflexivity is not lost on me; philosophy in general constitutes just the sort of body of knowledge and methodology which is equipped to explore, understand, explain, and critique the relationship between norms and practices, oughts and ises. If the very nature of the university is to socially operationalize advancement of a set of shared values requiring the sort of training and scholarly research indicative of that institution, then the very discipline which is well (best?) suited to fully understand, articulate, and explain that mandate ipso facto has much to offer it. Philosophy, I put it, ought always have an home in the university.

PofR, as a branch of philosophy, shares in its general justification, but it also deserves a more focused one. First, I argue that more philosophical attention to religion and religious phenomena makes for better philosophy, particularly at its most fundamental level at which its bedrock concepts are to be found: truth, meaning, reason, explanation. These bedrock concepts are so thoroughly intertwined that it is impossible to separate them in any practical way. They all coalesce, I argue—following a ‘interpretationalist’ line in the philosophy of language associated with such philosophers as Donald Davidson and Robert Brandom—in the ways in which we seek to understand human language and explain human behaviour. Religious phenomena—language and behavior—is incredibly rich and diverse; it serves as the most important ‘acid test’ for theories of meaning: any adequate philosophy must accommodate religion. An approach to philosophy which takes semantic constraints as bedrock, and which is informed by the nuances and complexities of real and lived religious phenomena, is a better philosophy. It is a philosophy better suited to explore, unravel, and critique the myriad hidden assumptions, competing values, and the social placement that is driving ‘the modern university’ in the early 21st century. It is the right type of philosophy to carry on the self-reflection and critique that is critical to the function and survival of the academy, but which is all too often lost sight of.

Patricia Johnson on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Johnson_PatriciaPatricia Johnson is Professor Emerita and Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Dayton. 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 question posed calls for some reflection on what it means to offer.  The term contains religious connotations, with historical usages that relate to both sacrifice and worship.  But it is also used in a more general sense of presenting something for acceptance, to be ready or willing to do something if there is acceptance on the part of the receiving person or group.  As philosophers of religion, the question asks us to consider what we can put forward to our universities as something important that we are willing to do.

We live in a time of conflict that is heightened by religious differences.  For example, in the United States, Muslim communities are often treated with suspicion. Communities refuse to allow them burial grounds. In India, the eating of beef by members of religious groups such as Muslims and Christians has resulted in violent response from Hindu religious and political groups.  The list of examples could take all of the space allotted here. What we know is, we live in a time that calls for dialogue in order to reduce violence that is caused, at least in part, by religious exclusivism and intolerance.

Those engaged in inter-religious dialogue have suggested that this dialogue can take place at many levels.  That is, there are many types of dialogue. People simply living together can come to respect the religious practices of others because they respect other individuals.  People from different religious traditions working on a common project can learn about each other’s traditions while focused on something that both hold as a common good.  People can share in religious practices of their own traditions and those of others. Finally, theological discussions, or discussions about fundamental claims that arise from the religious experiences of different traditions can be explored.  This may require intra-religious dialogue where individuals and groups question themselves and ask themselves to be open to a range of what may be understood as religious experiences.

Philosophy has the most to contribute to these last two types of dialogue.  Before exploring this in a bit more detail, I want to suggest that in the university, philosophy needs to work with other disciplines in order to contribute to inter-religious dialogue.  Students and faculty need the experiences of participating in a range of religious practices.  They need to know about history and the roles that religions have played over time in the development and destruction of human communities and human well-being. They need to read the literature that is part of various religious traditions.  So, philosophy needs to offer to work with other disciplines to develop robust and informed dialogue.  This offering is a willingness to learn from others.

But philosophy also can make significant contributions to inter-religious dialogue.  Philosophy can model for students and others in the universities how to discuss these difficult issues in a context of openness that seeks truth and common good. Philosophy has a long tradition of developing dialogue and so brings an understanding of what dialogue can be and how to go about engaging in productive dialogue.  Philosophy also has a long tradition of exploring meaning both in practices and in our use of language.

Philosophical hermeneutics, as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer, understands philosophy as authentic conversation.  Gadamer maintains that all philosophy must be based in fundamental experiences of human existence and must be carried out calling on the conceptual and intuitive powers of the languages in which we live.  Influenced heavily by Plato, Gadamer sees dialogue, or conversation, as an art which shows us our own ignorance and so serves as an antidote to illusions of superiority that we may have.  The art of dialogue requires that we ask questions together that are important for understanding our human experiences and that enable us to take directions where we are open to being changed.  Gadamer maintains that such conversations enable communities and individuals to live more justly.  Together, in conversation, we can determine ways to live well together.  Such conversations require attentiveness to the words of others and require each participant to listen and to remember the importance of quiet words.  These words seek to advance the conversation rather than claim victory over another.

In addition to modeling dialogue as authentic conversation, philosophy can bring rich traditions of thinking about the meaning of language used to give expression to religious experience.  Western philosophy is not alone in probing questions of meaning. Philosophy of religion needs to engage in dialogue across the philosophical traditions that arise in the context of a wide range of religions.  In order to do this, philosophy departments at our universities need to develop ways of engaging scholars from these diverse religious backgrounds.  This can, and should, be done through hiring processes.  But it can also be done through providing opportunities for scholarly exchanges that make time for opportunities to allow for quiet conversations.

Finally, philosophy can make important contributions to intra-religious dialogue both on the individual and institutional levels.  At the institutional level, these contributions are probably best carried out at institutions that still retain religious affiliation.  Here philosophy can ask more probing and difficult questions.  How does the institution understand the implications of the practices and beliefs of the tradition to which it ascribes?  What are the moral implications for the institution of its grounding in such religious traditions?  At the individual level, philosophy can provide students with the opportunity to explore religious commitment which they hold or reject.  It can enable students to explore their own religious identities without the pressure of needing to ascribe to particular practices or beliefs.

Philosophy of religion can offer to learn from other disciplines, to advance dialogues across religious traditions, and to facilitate individual and communal understanding of religious experiences and practices.  This may, or may not, result in a more unified understanding of religious experience such as John Hick proposed.  This seems important work for the modern university.  Whether or not our universities will accept the offer remains to be determined.

Jennifer Hockenbery on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

profile_hockenbery-jenniferJennifer Hockenbery is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Mary University. 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.

In order to advocate for philosophy of religion at a modern university, one must first decipher what is the vocation of the modern university. While different institutions have different areas of specialization and different mission statements, one common goal is that a university is a community that centers itself on the investigation of common questions of human experience: What is Happiness? What is Virtue? What are the possibilities for human knowledge? How can we best form a social community that benefits individuals? Such questions certainly pertain to the empirical and social sciences, the arts, and professional degree programs, but the discipline that continually reminds all the other disciplines of the central questions is philosophy: the nagging mother of all disciplines. As such philosophical questioning and thinking must be integrated into every division and department in a University.

The philosophy of religion, as a sub-discipline of philosophy, serves its role in the university by asking questions about religious experiences. Unlike anthropology, philosophy of religion does not ask for a description of religious practices but asks philosophical questions about the metaphysics, the axiology, and the ethics of specific religions. While philosophy of religion began in the European Enlightenment as a method of using philosophy to prove or disprove certain philosophical claims, the discipline is more broadly construed in contemporary academia. For example, a philosopher of religion might discuss the truth value of a specific religious claim by using logic and/or empiricism. But a philosopher of religion might also simply question what a specific religious faith declares ontologically or axiologically—what a specific faith suggests is most real or has most value. A philosopher of religion might also consider the topic of religion generally asking questions about the difference between faith and reason, discussing the role of religious experience in psychological well-being, and considering the role of gender as part of religious experience. Finally, a philosopher of religion might consider how a religion has influenced philosophical thinking throughout history.

In my own work I see myself doing three types of philosophy of religion. First, I am interested in the philosophical systems inherent in Christian thought. I teach classes and write articles on Christian Philosophy in which I explore what Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Hildegard of Bingen, Edith Stein and other Christians said philosophically about the role of philosophy, reason, and faith in pursuing Truth as well as what they said about the nature of the self and the role of the mind and body in the individual. Second, I am interested in the question of religion and faith generally as a valid or invalid way of truth seeking. In my course, Philosophy of Religion: Reason and Faith, students read Hume, Kierkegaard, Freud, James, Nietzsche, Daly, and Beauvoir in order to think deeply about the role of faith in science, ethics, psychology, and gender roles. Third, I am interested in the way the religions of different philosophers influenced their writing, even and especially their secular writing. For example, discussing Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche’s Lutheran roots opens up important ways of understanding these thinkers insights. Understanding Judith Butler’s Judaism and Simone de Beauvoir and Donna Haraway’s Catholicism deepens a reader’s understanding of these thinker’s place in intellectual history.

As the contemporary academy continues to seek a deeper understanding of central human questions, the role of philosophy and philosophy of religion continues to be central. Philosophers of religion require that we apply philosophical thinking in the study of religion and also that we consider the ways religious commitments might properly limit philosophical thinking. As such philosophers must critically examine their own disciplines as much as they examine others.

Morgan Luck on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Morgan Luck is Professor of Philosophy at Charles Sturt 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.

Analytical philosophy offers, in general, a way to think clearly about lots of stuff. So, analytical philosophy of religion offers, in general, a way to think clearly about lots of religious stuff. We would not want to restrict this general offer if made to the modern university. So, analytical philosophy of religion offers the modern university a way to think clearly about lots of religious stuff. If the value this offer needs to be made more apparent to the modern university, this may say more about the modern university than it does about analytical philosophy of religion.