Eric Steinhart on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

steinhartEric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson 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.

Some modern universities are sectarian.  They are committed to specific religious traditions.  To teach at such a university, a professor may have to sign a statement affirming his or her faith in some specific creed.  Sectarian universities have their own uses for their philosophies of their religions. At a Christian university, the philosophy of religion is probably going to be some version of Christian apologetics.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But not all modern universities are sectarian.

Some are secular.  They are public universities, which, at least in the United States, are legally obligated to adhere to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  If philosophy of religion is Christian apologetics, then it really should not be taught in public universities in the US.  It might even be illegal.  And indeed most contemporary philosophy of religion textbooks are texts in Christian apologetics.   Outside of the US, of course, laws are different.  Nevertheless, in any secular university, the students likely come from diverse religious backgrounds.  So a philosophy of religion course can’t be relevant if it’s just apologetics for one religion. Apologetics for any religion has no business in the modern secular university.  And if philosophy is the pursuit of truth, rather than the handmaiden of theology, then again apologetics has no place in the modern secular university.   Fortunately, apologetics, Christian or otherwise, is not the only way to do philosophy of religion.  But it should be obvious that a course which just offers some general information about world religions isn’t a philosophy of religion course.  The philosophy of religion isn’t religious studies.

Philosophers can nevertheless ask many important questions about religion generally.  There are definitional questions: what is religion?  And many sociological and psychological questions about religion are relevant in philosophy.  But philosophy of religion, as a secular discipline, can ask important questions about religious truth and value.  At least in the West, or in the Abrahamic religions, religious truth claims seem very different from other kinds of truth claims.  Religious truth claims seem heavily isolated from evidence and immune to revision.  Here’s a philosophical problem involving truth and value: do the conceptions of value and truth found in the Abrahamic religions lead to religious violence?  How are religious beliefs and values involved in practical syllogisms whose conclusions are violent actions?

There is no doubt that religions have contributed to the goodness of the world.  But today, sadly, they often seem mainly to be sources of conflict.  So one task for philosophy of religion is conflict reduction.  Secular philosophers of religion can try to work out ways to reduce the conflicts between different religions, or the conflicts between religions and science, and so on.  Many philosophers have done this.  They’ve argued that all religions point to the same ultimate truth or ultimate reality.  Or that science and religion don’t really compete.  A globally ecumenical approach to religion can be valuable in secular universities.  Students from diverse religious backgrounds need to learn how to work together, both in college and in their business or political lives after college. Such an approach is philosophical, because it deals in intensely abstract concepts.

Another strategy for secular philosophy of religion is somewhat historical.  It’s not a history of religion course, but a course which shows how religions evolve, how they are born, live, decline, and die.  Religions form a phylogenetic network.  For example, in the West, there were pre-Christian religions that contributed ideas to Christianity.  And new post-Christian religions are currently emerging.  This kind of course shows students that their own religious ideas are not immutable truths.  It can help to open their minds to religious diversity and tolerance.  It can help reduce conflict.  But it isn’t oppositional: it doesn’t oppose modern atheism to Christianity, but shows, for instance, how modern atheism grows out of Protestant theology.  This sort of evolutionary approach to the secular philosophy of religion isn’t merely a historical survey.  It reveals the dynamics of concepts, arguments, and patterns of religious practice.

A third strategy for secular philosophy of religion is to try to explore the future of religion.  There are three large classes of possible futures here.  One class of possible futures, which philosophers have explored, contains the futures without any religions at all.  Those are essentially secular futures.  Of course, they don’t need to be secular humanisms.   A second class of possible futures contains those in which the old axial age religions have mostly been replaced with new religions.  Philosophers of religion can work on the development of religions that aren’t bound to tribal identities.  We can work on the development of universal religions.  The task of constructing your own religion is an interesting class exercise.  A third class of possible futures involves the evolution of religion into something different.  Today there is evidence that religion in the West is evolving into spirituality.  But spirituality is currently extremely vague.  Philosophers of religion may work to clarify it.  And perhaps spiritualities can be developed in ways that are acceptable by all human animals.  If so, then philosophy of religion in the modern secular university might become philosophy of spirituality.

Leslie A. Muray on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Muray_Les_webLeslie A. Muray is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Curry 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.

In my ruminations below, I am dealing with philosophy of religion not as it is practiced and taught in modern universities but where I think it needs to be and what it needs to do. As such, much like Robert C. Neville and John B. Cobb, Jr., I do not draw a sharp distinction between philosophy of religion and theology.

Unlike the preoccupations of the dominant analytical school of philosophy, I see philosophy as a practical wisdom for living. Whitehead’s vision of speculative philosophy resembling the flight of an airplane, beginning on the ground below, soaring to the heights above, coming back and landing on the ground provides a powerful image of this. In other words, philosophy begins with lived experience, reflects on it, and returns and illumines lived experience.

Philosophy as practical wisdom for living is preeminently critical thinking. In the words of my department’s stated goals, “For any course in Philosophy or Religion at Curry College, the fundamental objective is: to demonstrate the ability to step back from commonly held beliefs, examine and assess those beliefs as well as alternatives to them, and determine the consequences of adopting any of those beliefs.”

The definition of religion from the Latin roots with which I want to work translates as “to bind together.” At its best, this is a unity that does not obliterate diversity and pluralism but rather affirms them. If one applies this vision of unity to the modern university, instead of unity, one sees the fragmentation of the disciplines, symptomatic of the fragmentation of modern life.

In my vision of the role of philosophy of religion (and theology) in the university, philosophy of religion would seek to bring the disciplines together in wrestling with issues of importance (such as climate change). Holistic yet affirming distinctiveness, philosophy of religion would truly thrive as practical wisdom for living.

Shubha Pathak on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

PathakSShubha Pathak is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University in Washington, D.C. 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.

Philosophy of religion offers to the modern university both elegant postulations of the principles by which life’s central questions can be identified and answered and capacious catalogues of culturally variegated responses to these questions. Thus, in figurative terms involving the imaging of human bodies, philosophy of religion acts both as an X-ray machine detecting the system of bones that structures human corpora and as a camera capturing the many forms that the flesh supported by the human osseous system takes. Within one kind of philosophical and religious inquiry, the cross-cultural study of myth, mythological philosophy (which, on the foundations of orienting tales that are larger than life, vividly posits frameworks for examining human issues) often co-operates with philosophical mythology (which explores extreme treatments of human issues in sweeping stories). While mythological philosophy sets forth the general rules governing an area of human concern, philosophical mythology limns credulity-straining cases that the ancient Greek polymath Aristotle (384–322 BCE), judging from his fragmentary Poetics, would have categorized as “the probable impossible” and that thus constitute memorable exceptions to those mythological philosophical rules—theories proven by nonpractices constituting articles of faith.

A fertile topic for such theoretical speculation and nonpractical demonstration is the finding and keeping of love. Mythological philosophers and philosophical mythologers considering human love have explored realms of counterfactual possibility—not only because all mortal lovers inevitably are separated (by death if not first by discord), but also because the status quibus (at least historically) have consisted in practically transacted partnerships. In crafting both the happy accidents of characters falling for each other and the reassuring permanence of their couplings, then, the love authors envision romantic alternatives.

For instance, in ancient Rome, in the face of the prevailing practice of arranged marriage, the poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) issued a rallying cry to would-be lovers in his didactic Art of Love. Speaking predominantly to a monied male audience, Ovid encouraged its members to recast themselves as heroes sped by their ardor in the manner of epic warriors in barks over the sea and in chariots over the land. As venturers on the battlefield of love long before the birth and bardery of Patricia Benatar, these aspirants did not have far to travel physically, as their impresario of affection assured them that their love goddess Venus was very much at home in Rome. Advising his male charges to look for lovely and intelligent women in such venues for cultural congregation as the overflowing amphitheaters, Ovid adjured these men to tend their new loves carefully and to strive for mutual sexual satisfaction while eschewing any form of sexual compulsion or obligation.

Ovid treats an even stronger bond between two lovers that is forged with much less effort in his epic Metamorphoses. Here, in the Greek region of Thrace, the poet Orpheus and the water nymph Eurydice easily fall in love. As they marry, however, inauspicious omens forebode Eurydice’s sudden death by snakebite and her spirit’s descent into the underworld. In response, Orpheus musically makes his case for his wife’s revivification before the dead’s king and queen, Pluto and Proserpine. The divine couple and their realm’s denizens are moved to tears by Orpheus’s woeful songs. So he is allowed to lead his hobbled dead wife to the land of the living, as long as he does not look back at her on the way. But, out of concern for her welfare and out of desire to see her, he turns his head toward her. Consequently, she is drawn back to the dead and he lives out his remaining days without remarrying, contenting himself instead with the affections of male youths and enthralling the natural world with his love odes. Once he dies, however, at the hands of his scorned countrywomen more than a couple of years later, his spirit and Eurydice’s are rejoined forever.

Correspondingly re-united in a piece of philosophical mythology authored by the poet Kalidasa (c. 390–470 CE) in the mid-fifth century are the North Indian rulers Aja and Indumati.  In Kalidasa’s epic Raghuvamsha, Indumati lovingly chooses Aja as her bridegroom from a broad field of accomplished suitors. Repelling the spurned men’s ensuing attack, Aja installs Indumati as his queen in Ayodhya, where they live happily until a celestial garland touches her chest and lays her to rest. Bereft of his life’s love, Aja mourns her even after learning that she has been released from a previous life’s curse that had condemned her as a heavenly courtesan to be reborn on earth. Nevertheless, Aja musters the strength to rear Indumati’s and his son for eight years, to manhood, before relinquishing his own life in meditation and enjoying heaven with her.

Aja and Indumati’s love match counters the norm espoused in Vatsyayana’s third-century Kamasutra, which teaches that marriages generally should be arranged. Indeed, rapturous Aja acts much more like this love manual’s cosmopolite (a recurring cultured urbanite who traverses love’s battlefield in search of his ideal mate) than like a king (who typically keeps concubines and seeks additional conquests). Whereas a ruler usually has his underlings locate new lovers for him, a city-dweller himself fosters intimacy with his ongoing love interest by plying her with flowers, perfume, liquor, conversation, and musical entertainment.

Thus, the philosophical myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Aja and Indumati serve as subject as well as object lessons in love, for—thanks to the feminist film critic and maker Laura Mulvey—the men’s agency in attaining their absent wives in face of societal obstacles is apparent. Writing against the tides of their societies’ prevailing thoughts on and practices of marriage, Ovid and Kalidasa created dynamic renderings of enduring romance that innovatively induce in their readers awareness of the alternatives deduced as mythic philosophies and that, launching themselves from those frameworks, countervail their respective traditions. Philosophy of religion thus makes for the modern university much sumptuous food for thought at an intellectually inclusive banquet where bards sing for the pedagogical pleasure of many more people than merely kings.


Derek Malone-France on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

derek.malone-franceDerek Malone-France is Associate Professor Philosophy and of Religion at the George Washington 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.

I will take a somewhat different tack in answering this question than that taken by previous respondents. This is not because I disagree with the general drift of their responses, which have predominantly focused on the intrinsic value of philosophy of religion – that which is associated with the particular subjects studied and questions raised therein. But since they have already admirably defended the thesis that what we study within the field of philosophy of religion has significant value as part of the broader discursive landscape of the modern university – and, by extension, as part of modern culture at large, I feel free to use my response to describe another, distinct and, I think, substantial dimension of value that is offered by philosophy of religion to the modern university.

Not surprisingly, while discussing the intrinsic value of philosophy of religion as an academic field, a number of the previous respondents have pointed to the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the field as a primary source of its intellectual robustness, diversity, and relevance. The interdisciplinarity of philosophy of religion is especially broad, deep, and substantive, because the field not only straddles two traditional academic disciplinary categories – namely, ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ – but also one of those categories – namely, ‘religion’ – is not best understood as a ‘discipline’ at all, but rather, as a major (i.e., departmentalization-worthy) locus for a wide range of necessarily interdisciplinary modes of inquiry related to a shared object or theme of exploration.*

I would like to focus, here, on what we might call the extrinsic value of this particularly broad, deep, and substantive interdisciplinarity that is embodied in philosophy of religion, for the wider university. What I mean by this is, the value presented by philosophy of religion both: 1. as a model of what real, rigorous, authentically interdisciplinary work looks like (I don’t think I even need to argue for the claim that most of what passes for ‘interdisciplinarity’ at most universities today does not meet this standard), and 2. as a source of faculty and potential administrators who understand and know how to do – and to recognize, cultivate, and evaluate – such work.

I’ll illustrate this value with reference to my own somewhat eccentric career arc, which has afforded me the opportunity – and presented me with the necessity – to draw deeply upon the interdisciplinary training I received as a graduate student in a degree program in philosophy of religion. I have had to do so in order to understand and navigate parts of the university far removed from this field and, ultimately, to help other faculty and administrators, in those other parts of the university, to better understand and navigate the changing exigencies of research and teaching in an intellectual and social landscape that increasingly demands thought and action transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries and the institutional silos associated with them. I believe that I was better prepared to do all of that by my training in philosophy of religion than I would have been by training in almost any other academic field that currently exists—and I hold this belief as someone who has meaningfully surveyed far more of those other fields than most inhabitants of the modern university ever do.

I received my graduate training in philosophy of religion at Claremont Graduate University, at a moment in the life of that institution when the constellation of degree programs associated with the interdisciplinary study of religion were ascendant and expanding (and powerfully augmented by collaborative relationships with programs and faculty in related fields at the other Claremont Colleges and the Claremont School of Theology). There, I was exposed to the wide range of both philosophical and religious perspectives represented among the faculty, as well as perspectives and methods from an array of other disciplines, ranging from history, archeology, and linguistic anthropology to political, social, and media theory. Moreover, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, philosophy of religion is one of the few academic fields in which liberal and conservative, revisionary and traditionalist thinkers have never stopped talking to one another directly and taking each other’s positions and arguments seriously.

When I graduated in 2001, the great humanities retrenchment across American higher education was, of course, already well underway. With few good options available for employment as a philosopher of religion, per se, I accepted a five-year, faculty-like postdoctoral position in the innovative multidisciplinary University Writing Program – now the Thompson Writing Program – that had just been founded at Duke University. The Thompson Program was created to embody an emerging shift in composition theory and writing pedagogy, one that recognizes the counterproductive nature of traditional undergraduate writing curricula, in which students have historically been trained to think and write as though they would all become English majors.

In the new, multidisciplinary model of writing program, instructors are drawn from a wide range of disciplines, from across all of the academic divisions, and they learn from and collaborate with one another, in order to construct courses and curricula that encourage students to explore the wide diversity of research methods and writing conventions and genres represented by different disciplines and fields in the academy. The point is not to turn the students into a specific kind of writer but, rather, to teach them to move nimbly between the multiple forms of research and writing they will encounter as they navigate their way through the multivalent required and elective curricula they must pass through in order to graduate (and in life after graduation, as well).

Typically, such writing programs augment the introductory first-year writing course, in which students are initiated into this more complex and sophisticated understanding of the writerly environment they’ve entered, with additional, more advanced writing-focused courses in the various major and minor degree programs into which students eventually make their way. These “writing in the disciplines” (or, alternatively, “writing across the curriculum”) courses deepen students understanding of the specific research methods and writing conventions and genres associated with their chosen fields of study. Those who administer the writing in the disciplines (WID) components of writing curricula are typically responsible for recruiting disciplinary faculty from each of the undergraduate degree programs on their campuses, training these faculty in current best practices in writing pedagogy, and assisting them in constructing substantial and productive WID courses for their students.

Obviously, to do this sort of administrative and faculty development work well, one must learn as much as one can about the particularities of research and writing in each of the different disciplines and fields represented in the curriculum, in order to understand the unique exigencies of teaching and learning that faculty and students face in each of them. This requires deep and sustained conversation with not just the teaching faculty, but also the chairs and program directors, the undergraduate and graduate students, and graduate teaching assistants in each department or program. Such conversation, in turn, requires genuine curiosity about the methods and modes of thought at work in other disciplines and a high capacity for a sort of continuous re-training of oneself.

As a graduate of a program in philosophy of religion, I immediately felt at home in WID. What clearly seemed like an overwhelming (or just off-putting) expectation to many of my postdoctoral peers, who had been trained in more classically disciplinary fields, seemed to me both natural and exciting. It represented the opportunity to continue to expand the range of my knowledge and training across further disciplinary boundaries, in just the way I had been taught to do so in philosophy of religion. That is, to take each new field I entered seriously, on its own terms, to learn its methods and presuppositions as they are understood by its core practitioners. To be an intellectual polyglot, but not a dilettante. And, ultimately, thereby, to develop a vision of the modern university that recognizes both the overarching coherence of the total educational enterprise and the diversity of valid modes of inquiry and understanding represented therein. Of course, these capacities are not merely desiderata for those who work in writing programs; they are increasingly requirements of meaningful intellectual and practical engagement with the profound challenges facing the modern university and, indeed, humanity at-large.

Now, fifteen years on, I am a tenured faculty member at a major university, at which I hold appointments in three separate departments; I have served as Executive Director of a writing program that serves ~15,000 students per year at both the undergraduate and graduate levels; and I have founded multiple successful interdisciplinary centers and initiatives, drawing substantial external funding and attention to my university. All of this – my own hard-fought climb up the faculty ladder and the contributions I have made to my institution – was made possible, in no small part, by the intellectual flexibility, curiosity, and humility about other ways of analyzing and interpreting the world that has been instilled in me through my graduate training and ongoing professional experience in philosophy of religion.

In this time of great and pervasive intellectual and cultural upending in which we are caught, the modern university can use as many people with such flexibility, open-mindedness, and humility as it can get. And those graduating with degrees in philosophy of religion should look for every opportunity to leverage their capacities in these regards, to forward their own careers, as well as the collective aims of higher education.
* It seems worth noting that, along their way to justifying the intrinsic value of the field of philosophy of religion, the previous respondents have, I think, also presented the outlines of a compelling collective case for the claim that the category of ‘religion’ – howsoever complicated and contested it may be – is conceptually coherent enough to justify its being – and continuing to be – such a locus.