Jim Kanaris on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jim kanarisJim Kanaris is Professor of Religious Studies at McGill 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.

Philosophy of religion, at least as a university exercise, comes in different sizes and shapes. As a practice that evolved from ancient Greece through medieval Europe to modern and contemporary empiricisms and rationalisms, the preoccupation has tended to be with fundamental topics such as proofs for God’s existence and theodicy brought to bear through issues of logic, language theory, and cosmology. This analytic approach continues to be the dominant form of “philosophy of religion”. One finds it commonly in philosophy departments, also embodied in the more normative discourse of philosophical theology practiced in professional schools of theology. A younger development stems largely from German schools of thought in the nineteenth century, to which contemporary French forms are indebted in their significantly less topical, political-hermeneutical restructuring of the field. Conveniently dubbed continental, one finds this approach in philosophy departments in both Europe and North America, although in Europe one senses an indifference to identifying with a subfield of philosophy of religion as such. It is also the more dominant form of philosophizing found in religion departments, a fact that is hardly surprising when one considers that continental reflection birthed comparative religion.

What philosophy of religion offers the modern university is an arresting question. How one answers it will depend on the type of philosophy of religion one practices, which is usually shaped by the environment in which one teaches it and the professional communities with which one associates. Philosophy of religion in a philosophy department, for example, will have an aim different from philosophy of religion in a theology department or religious studies program. In one context the aim is to introduce students to epistemological issues such as whether religious language is properly understood in, say, realist or nonrealist terms. In another context the aim will differ slightly, developing the normative claims of a specific tradition philosophically, either in terms exclusive to that tradition or in comparison to other traditions. In still another context the aim may be to critically assess religious beliefs and practices as one siphons off issues surrounding humanity’s existential plight or as one connects them to some social-political reality. In my estimation all the positions in this admittedly broad taxonomy possess a legitimacy, especially if our aim is to avoid parochialism. Be that as it may, philosophers of religion have their preferences, the more responsible ones aim to address a divided field.

For the purposes of this blog, I wish to bracket these boundary questions and focus instead on my own teaching environment, which happens to be religious studies. This forces me to think differently about philosophy of religion. Ironically, in my desire to avoid parochialism, my contribution to this question does seem dangerously close to being parochial. Nevertheless, its application is, I believe, transdisciplinary.

One thing is certain: there is a deep wedge between the student demographic in religious studies and the concerns and procedures of the card-carrying philosopher of religion. The specificities of the intellectual culture and history surrounding those procedures are no longer privileged in global consciousness. The inclusion of diverse perspectives, whose religious worldviews are assessed in terms of their logical weight, continues to have remedial value. But the extension of this analytic procedure is simultaneously too specific and general to be wholly effective in religious studies. It’s too specific in the sense of being bound to a tradition of philosophy whose aims have been quite apologetic and modelled on western scientific ideals. It’s too general in the sense that this approach tends to essentialize religious traditions. Ever since at least modern classics as Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Meaning and End of Religion (1962) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), to mention only two examples, students of religion have developed a dyspeptic sense when confronted by the analytic mien. Issues of power, status, and identity tend to take precedence displacing the traditional platform of knowledge while extending it to the problem of representation (Carrette 2010, 277).

In this environment the role of philosophy can be both object- and subject-constitutive. That is, in a revamped form of “epistemology”, philosophy links up here with an issue-based attention to “socio-economic disparities, environmental degradation, and ongoing biases linked to race, sexual orientation, or colonial exploitation” (Rodrigues and Harding 2009, 104). This object-constitutive approach replaces the systematic scholastic and analytic orientations of pre-modern and modern epistemology with the critical cultural strategies of contemporary theorizing about religion. Philosophy holds much promise in this regard for critical scholarship attuned not so much to the cognitive dimension of religious beliefs as to the historicality (Geschichtlichkeit) of diverse religious phenomena. A hybrid form of such philosophical-methodological interests exists already in religious studies represented in diversified forms by Donald Wiebe, Mark C. Taylor, David Chidester, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Ivan Strenski, and Talal Asad.

The subject-constitutive emphasis dovetails with these interests but emphasizes subjective agency in the task. It joins with the “artistic thinking” of Pierre Hadot and Alexander Nehamas who have reinstalled the ancient practice of philosophy in the academy as a way of life and art of living. The position is a live option today thanks to the pioneering work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his contemporary disciple Michel Foucault—one could throw in Søren Kierkegaard for good measure; and Heidegger? Why not! My own sense about this artistry harks back to the transcendental tradition. It manages philosophical issues broadly in terms of self-critical reflexivity. The singularity of the self is its guiding principle, an irreducible hyper-transcendental that ensures that the individuality of the inquirer is not lost in object-constitutive discourses. In religious studies this means that one’s own intellectual, moral, religious, and political horizons become an explicit means to arbitrate an objectified relationality of concerns: text to self, politics to self, transcendence to self, alterity to self, and what have you. One wouldn’t be wrong to call it personalism, although my preference is to call it “enecstatic”, a disposition that signals a post-Heideggerian ontic preoccupation. In addition to those just mentioned, the thinking of Bernard Lonergan and what he calls self-appropriation has been particularly serviceable. Self-appropriation means precisely what it says, taking possession of one’s self but in the sense of taking responsibility to engage the self as one engages and is engaged by the other, whether that other is an object or a subject. It’s a decisive and personal act that is uninterrupted. An important outcome is to recognize that “[g]enuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity” (Lonergan 1972, 292). I translate what Lonergan means by “authentic subjectivity” in a context that reflects the current non-foundationalist climate in philosophy of religion and religious studies.

Enecstasis provides an opportunity for students to negotiate their own sensibility regarding objects that they are often (rightly) encouraged to examine dispassionately. Nevertheless, in this epoché of the personal, the desire to be engaged attaches to an object that disenfranchises students from self-awareness and involvement. Their voice is never really lost, of course, but it resonates as though from another room. Taking possession of it is not something students of religion think of because the room they’re in invariably averts their attention. And yet the alienation is experienced deeply, often viscerally, confusedly. Enecstasis, then, disrupts ideological commitments in religious studies whose object-constitutive presuppositions and methods marginalize a holistic and personal mediation of meaning. As such enecstatic analysis provides a space for participants to decide for themselves how to implement the level and relevance of their engagement. A sociologist will have a different appreciation of how he is implicated in the construction of a religious phenomenon from the historian constructing religious meanings. A philosopher of religion will have to decide for herself how her understanding of mystical experience impacts and is impacted by her being-in-the-world. Theologians must do the same but vis-à-vis the norms of their tradition and the scales of dislocation embodied in the God before whom they learn to dance.

Enecstatic philosophy of religion is ultimately philosophy of religious studies. It includes—indeed, has been generated by—the issues and concerns of analytic and continental philosophies of religion. However, enecstatic philosophy of religion transcends the particularities of these philosophies in providing a space for the personal negotiation of one’s intellectual, moral, religious, and political foundations. Philosophy of religion, religious studies, and theology provide the content and methods of such a focus, enecstasis the contemporary ability to sense their relevance in a personally appropriated subjectivity formed by academic concerns. In an age where student indifference is at an all-time high the importance of such an exercise in the modern university seems beyond question. I see it in undergraduate and graduate students each term as their eyes light up in the realization that they matter, that they have a voice and ought to develop it critically, that is, with a heightened sense of self-awareness.

Works Cited

Cantwell Smith, Wilfred. 1962. The Meaning and End of Religion. New York: Macmillan.

Carrette, Jeremy. 2010. “Post-structuralism and the Study of Religion.” In The Routledge

Companion to the study of Religion, 2d edn., edited by John Hinnells, 274-290. London and New York: Routledge.

Lonergan, Bernard. 1972. Method in Theology. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Rodrigues, Hillary and John S. Harding. 2009. Introduction to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books Edition.

Diane Proudfoot on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Diane_Proudfoot_croppedDiane Proudfoot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Canterbury in New Zealand. 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.

Alma is a smart mathematics student, taking a philosophy of religion course as an elective. She is fired up by the passion of the new atheists. In the class she reads Anselm for the first time. The teacher takes Anselm’s side, using his intricate arguments to bat away the cruder positions of Dawkins and Harris. Alma, at first grudgingly and then with signs of real enjoyment, writes as her assignment a debate between Pascal and Hitchens. Hitchens still wins but Alma signs on for a double major in mathematics and philosophy.

Bart is studying sociology and anthropology, and has already taken classes in the sociology of religion. The philosophy course is merely a filler. As far as Bart is concerned, philosophy of religion is an anachronism—‘Truth, there’s no such thing’ he says confidently. Many of the other students in the class are survivors of epistemology and metaphysics courses, and they poke holes in Bart’s naïve relativism. Bart is at a loss until he learns how to counter his classmates’ arguments. He goes on, nevertheless, to use the very same arguments against his sociology professors.

Carl has had a religious education and is still unsure whether or not to enroll in seminary. He is a serious, older student taking time out from his work as a history teacher; he signed up for a philosophy of religion class with the assumption that it would be a theology primer. Initially Carl finds the expectation that he clarify and even justify his faith (or justify his lack of justification) subversive and discomfiting. Then he begins to separate those of his beliefs that he considers up for scrutiny from those that remain sacrosanct. There is far more of the former than he ever suspected, and Carl finds this liberating.

These three case studies (composites of real individuals) illustrate the fact that, at its best, analytic philosophy of religion offers students a rare opportunity to have their preconceptions about fundamentals uncovered and challenged. With this comes the possibility of growth and change. Students also develop the skill of open-minded analysis. Employers and academic guardians of liberal values should—and in my experience do—value this skill highly.

If philosophy of religion is to remain a powerful tool for change, however, it must escape from the staid mid-20th century curriculum. It must include serious discussion of current science, the implications and problems of religious diversity, and the ethics of religious freedom. These are the topics in the media and at the forefront of students’ minds.

I am writing this blog from Jerusalem. Anyone in modern universities who thinks that philosophy of religion is irrelevant should visit.

Robert Larmer on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

rlarmer2Robert Larmer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Brunswick. 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.

It is fair to say that religious belief is widely studied in modern universities. Departments of psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, literature, not to mention religious studies, all take an interest. So what then does the discipline of philosophy, specifically analytic philosophy of religion have to offer?

All these other disciplines find it possible, or at least think they find it possible, to study religion without ever raising questions of the truth of religious claims. Indeed, in an academic environment dominated by naturalist assumptions, it is routinely taken for granted that the various effects of religious beliefs can be examined without ever raising the question of whether the truth of such beliefs need be debated. By analogy, it seems like never asking the question of whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a good man, but simply examining the effects of people believing he was a good man.

At its best, analytic philosophy of religion reminds us to take seriously the issue of truth. Are there good reasons to take seriously the claims of religious believers? Are the arguments provided in their support good ones? Are the criticisms of religious belief well-argued? Have we been victims of chronological snobbery, simply assuming that because certain arguments have passed out of fashion they should not be taken seriously? Have we simply accepted certain well-known arguments of great fame without seriously examining whether such arguments deserve respect – one thinks for instance of John Earman’s (Hume’s Abject Failure) examination of Hume’s arguments concerning miracle.

It is, of course, possible to do analytic philosophy of religion badly. Too often, philosophers specializing in other areas of philosophy seem to assume that no special expertise beyond a general training in philosophy is necessary to work in the field. Worse still, one meets philosophers who simply dismiss philosophy of religion as somehow not truly philosophy. Thus one finds colleagues who assume that simply mentioning the Euthryphro objection is sufficient refutation of any proposed theistic meta-ethic, or who, like Daniel Dennett, insist that philosophers of religion are like tennis players who want the net lowered.

Fortunately, despite the tendency of universities to look more and more towards a business model in which students are viewed as clients and customers, and curriculum is geared towards producing technical expertise, philosophy of religion continues to attract thinkers of great ability such as Robert Adams, Marilyn McCord Adams, Evan Fales, Alvin Plantinga, Quentin Smith, Eleonore Stump, and Richard Swinburne, to name only a few. Given the fundamental questions that philosophy of religion examines – questions that in the final analysis are hard to avoid by any reflective person – and given the caliber of work done in the field, philosophy of religion has much to offer to the modern university and its students.

Shirong Luo on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Shirong Luo 540x463Shirong Luo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simmons College. 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.

To address the topic of what philosophy of religion offers to the modern university, it is apropos to briefly talk about the aim of the modern university education. There are two views with regard to such an aim: some say that the aim of higher learning is to train specialists such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, nurses, etc., while others hold a more holistic view: the mission of institutions of higher learning is to produce generalists with a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills. Since the title question specifically mentions the modern university, we may justifiably exclude from our discussion vocational schools and colleges that aim to prepare students for highly specialized careers. Therefore, the modern university provides students with knowledge and skills that are broadly applicable. But this does not mean our students don’t have a focus on a specific discipline. They do. That’s what college majors are about. Among a constellation of subject matters and skills, knowledge of and skills in critical thinking stand out as a necessary tool in our students’ intellectual toolkit. Nowadays many, if not all, disciplines claim that they teach students critical thinking skills, but philosophy instructors seem to be in a slightly better position to teach critical thinking in a narrow and technical sense than the rest because after all they are the ones who have gone through a rigorous training in logic. Specifically, philosophy of religion offers the modern university applied critical thinking vis-à-vis religion. I now want to elaborate on this answer.

In my previous blog entry, I defined descriptively philosophy of religion as a subject about the debate on the existence of God and other related issues between theological apologists and their atheistic or agnostic detractors. Philosophy of religion offers the modern university critical thinking about religion because it does analyses and evaluations of the arguments both for and against the existence of God. But the question is: Which side offers better arguments? The answer depends to a large extent on who presents the debate. There is hardly anyone who is absolutely neutral like that proverbial Buridan’s donkey. As an instructor, you may lean toward one side or the other. Just imagine what it would be like if David Hume or Thomas Aquinas taught philosophy of religion today. Even if you want to be even-handed and impartial, as an instructor you may add your own weight, willy-nilly, to the debate, which would undoubtedly influence the learning outcome. On the other hand, the students are not absolutely neutral either. More often than not, they come to the debate not with a tabula rasa. So the outcome is very much dependent on the complex psychological dynamics of the instructor and the student. Nevertheless, philosophy of religion teaches students to think critically about religion. But what does it mean to think critically about religion?

Critical thinking is not a monolithic idea. The ability to think critically may be classified into three levels. At the lowest level, one is able to analyze and evaluate arguments and construct good arguments. Critical thinking about religion at this level enables one to see whether the arguments presented by Anselm, Hume or Paley are good or not. But a better critical thinker is one who is not only able to analyze and evaluate arguments critically but also knows when such cognitive processes are appropriate rather than someone who sees arguments everywhere and itches for a logical analysis. Such a thinker avoids the pitfall that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I would like to illustrate the critical thinker of religion at the elevated level using two examples in the New Testament: Apostles Philip and Thomas. Philip the Apostle pleads with Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Clearly he relies on one simple methodology: sight. He seems to think that the ontological status of God the Father is an empirical rather than a conceptual matter: if I can see Him, then I believe; seeing is believing. The request “Show us the Father” cuts through all the conceptual fog and verbal maze and directly to the core of the matter. Thomas the Apostle goes even further. He does not believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he can see the “nail marks in his hands” and “put his hand into his side.” For Thomas, hearsay is out of the question; seeing is not enough; he demands a more rigorous proof–touch. Neither of them seems to think that their request can be appropriately answered by an argument or a conceptual analysis. Though at a higher level, this kind of aptitude, when applied too rigidly, can easily become a conversation stopper. In contrast, the ultimate critical thinker understands that there are things that transcend the value of critical thinking in its technical sense, such as friendship, solidarity, inclusivity, community, humanity, survival, peaceful coexistence, etc. I would count David Hume, among others, as an ultimate critical thinker. He says: “Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.” He analyzes the arguments of his opponents and presents his own rebuttals. And his critics in turn do the same. So the debate continues. To conclude, my answer to the question of what philosophy of religion offers to the modern university is thinking critically about religion. I have argued that thinking critically about religion should be understood in a global, strategic and holistic sense rather than merely in its technical sense. Philosophy of religion teaches the modern university students to think about religion critically, and above all to be congenial and civilized cosmopolitans.