Carl Raschke on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

raschkeCarl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. 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.

The philosophy of religion is more important than ever to the curriculum of the modern university and offers something that is increasingly in short supply among academics – a broad, probing, and critical perspective on the more encompassing issue of the nature of religion as a whole.

The urgency of boosting both the contributions and the prestige of the philosophy of religion in the university is driven by two key developments in recent decades: 1) the proliferating public perception that only scientific investigations can ascertain what is real or valuable in human affairs; 2) the companion belief that all religious views, values, or perspectives are somehow equivalent to each other.

Historically, religion and science have never been so neatly separated from each other as the public is wont to assume. Einstein frequently made references to God in his public accounts of relativity theory. And various studies by the Pew Foundation have found a more complex, nuanced, and even conflicted relationship between the epistemological commitment of professional scientists and their personal religious orientation. Philosophy of religion with its multi-century legacy of sorting out theological from scientific claims can play a much more robust role in these discussions than it has done to date.

More overarching “theological” questions – i.e., questions about the relationship between the infinite and the finite or, as Paul Tillich famously put it, between the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned” – have historically been intertwined with scientific inquiry, and one cannot leave these sorts of “meta”-questions to science alone.

Science itself is reaching its own internal limits, according to recent conversations going on among top theoretical physicists. “The next few years may tell us whether we’ll be able to continue to increase our understanding of nature or whether maybe, for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer,” Harry Cliff, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, stated at a public talk in Geneva, Switzerland.

Given that what is now considered theology today tends to be largely tradition-centered and confessional, while the philosophy of science has scrupulously avoided religious questions, it remains for the philosophy of religion to pick up the slack.

Second, the age of radical pluralism and spiritual consumerism, in tandem with the co-optation by certain political movements of traditional religious symbols and ideas has led to a certain popular inattention, if not ignorance, what it means to be “religious” in a deeper sense than what one merely professes. The broad, sprawling, multi-disciplinary zone of inquiry we now know as religious studies has sensitized us to the seemingly infinite array of “ways of being religious.” Yet it has also had the opposite, and often detrimental, effect of leaving us both reluctant and lazy about making necessary, normative judgments about the complex, and qualitative differences between these different representations of religion.

Only the philosophy of religion with its broader, “dialectical” sweep of the issues themselves can prevent this paralysis of judgment, or what in the past I have termed the “default of critical intelligence,” when it comes to the question of religion. For example, the persistent and intense controversy over whether certain kinds of religious beliefs can be integrally associated with acts of terrorism, or whether those beliefs are both inconsequential and episodic, cannot simply be resolved by arriving at some consensus on who truly is a Muslim, Christian, Jew, etc. Philosophy of religion can assist us in figuring out whether the last question is even meaningful at all, or it can bring to bear certain criteria for settling the matter in the first place.

Our democratic deference toward maximizing the amount of religious diversity in the public sphere has to be tempered with a serious intellectual inquiry into the criteria and procedures for adjudicating various religious claims, which sometimes border on sheer pretentions. We cannot rely merely on descriptivist methods as well as the variety of not-so-thinly-disguised religious apologetics that counts today for the academic study of religion.

I myself have argued, especially in last two published books (Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory, University of Virginia Press, 2012; Force of God, Columbia University Press, 2015), that the study of religion, if it is truly to find a distinguished place within the modern, secular university, needs a strong and salutary infusion of theory. But the framework for the theory of religion has always been the philosophy of religion. And our understanding of religion in a world where religion is in the headlines almost daily becomes profoundly impoverished without the voice of the latter.


David Schrader on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

David SchraderDavid Schrader taught philosophy of religion for thirty-one years at Loras College (Dubuque, IA), Austin College (Sherman, TX), and Washington and Jefferson College (Washington, PA). He also served as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006-2012. 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.

What philosophy of religion has to offer the modern university almost certainly differs somewhat depending on the specific mission of the university.  My own answer to this question will be both personal and confessional.

I was drawn to philosophy as an undergraduate fifty years ago because philosophy seemed to be the one discipline in which I could jointly satisfy my love of mathematics and my passionate interests in religion and politics. I was immediately drawn into philosophy of religion. That interest led me to pursue graduate study in the history of religion prior to pursuing my graduate study in philosophy. Prior to my last six years of employment, as Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, I taught for thirty one years in three small liberal arts colleges. The first of those was a Catholic diocesan college, where my course in philosophy of religion was looked upon with some suspicion my some of my senior colleges who saw it running at cross-purposes with the late 1970s traditional “Philosophy of God” course that a senior priest taught. The two institutions at which I spent most of my career teaching philosophy of religion were small liberal arts college with modest or no religious affiliation.

In the settings in which I taught, philosophy of religion offered something parallel to other “philosophy-of” subdisciplines. Much as students interested in the sciences benefit from studying philosophy of science, students interested in religion benefit from studying philosophy of religion. The difference is that a lot more students are interested in religion than are interested in science. This gives philosophy of religion a particularly important contribution to make to the university. In addition to the interest that many students have in religion, it is clear that religion plays a significant role in contemporary American culture. If a central purpose of the university is to graduate students who are capable of thinking and reflecting clearly, critically, and accurately about the world in which they live, the ability to think and reflect clearly, critically, and accurately about religion should be part of university education.

The kind of philosophy of religion that I think has much to offer universities regardless of their particular sectarian orientations is not to be confused with philosophical theology. Philosophical theology is a subdiscipline of theology, while philosophy of religion is a subdiscipline of philosophy. From a confessional standpoint, my own deeply Lutheran theological orientation leads me to see philosophy to have little to offer as a foundation for theology. By contrast, philosophy has a great deal to offer as a vehicle for critical examination of religion and for clearer understanding of religion. Philosophical theology undoubtedly has a contribution to make in universities affiliated with religious denominations that see philosophy as providing a grounding for religion, but not in universities without such affiliation (unless housed in a Religious Studies Department).

I will conclude my contribution by identifying what appear to me some, but not all, of the major issues over which university students puzzle that may benefit from engagement with philosophy of religion.

Reason and Religion: There are clearly those who claim that reason can either count decisively for or against religious belief. This is a question that philosophy has engaged for over two thousand years. It is important to examine both contemporary and historical arguments for and against religious belief in appropriate context. The natural theological arguments of Saint Thomas, for example, are raised against a backdrop of Aristotelian physics. Sound philosophical practice requires that the background beliefs about nature that underlie the arguments be recognized and explained. Similarly, Hume’s famous argument about the unreliability of miracle reports arose in the context of a broader early 17th Century debate about miracles. That context also needs to be acknowledged. More generally, it is important for students to engage the larger question of how tightly evidence constrains belief and how reason may help refine beliefs that are rationally neither required nor forbidden.

Language: Should the language we use in religious discourse be taken as accurately descriptive of God? What is the relationship between language and reality? Does God differ from natural reality in ways that affect the adequacy of language to describe accurately? Additionally, how do names function? We see in public and religious discourse debates over whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” Any responsible answer to that question requires that we understand reasonably the putative reference of the term ‘God’ as used by Christians and ‘Allah’ as used by Muslims. To the extent that both refer to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” we should be driven to a conclusion.

Religious Diversity: This is certainly related to both of the above issues. This issue goes well beyond religious differences between Christians and Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, etc. Not all Christians are in full theological agreement. Even Christians within the same denominational tradition have theological disagreements among themselves. Are these simple issues of one being right and the other wrong? Or are there ways of engaging religious disagreement that allow for more sympathetic forms of conversation.

Coherence of Religious Traditions: This is not a widely addressed issue within philosophy of religion, but it is an important issue for many students. In the current American environment religion frequently becomes hijacked by politics. There is a significant political alliance between some socially conservative Catholics and some socially conservative Evangelical Protestants. The pivotal issue that has cemented the political alliance has been abortion. That political alliance, however, carries over into other issues. I have seen socially conservative Catholic students who think that they should oppose biological evolution because of their Catholicism. Some theologically conservative Evangelical Protestants see their religious views as opposing biological evolution. Yet there is nothing in the Catholic intellectual tradition that would drive traditional Catholics to oppose biological evolution. Students need to learn to avoid simply following political movements, conservative or liberal, as an alternative to thinking carefully about their own commitments.

Merold Westphal on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

merold-westphal-bwMerold Westphal is Distinguish Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham 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 believe that what follows applies to both private and public colleges and universities and to both religious and secular schools. By ‘religious’ schools I mean those who make a serious attempt to integrate their religious identity with their academic program. Neither being “church-related” in either its historical origins or current constitution nor having a denominational or interdenominational chaplaincy suffices to categorize a school as religious in my sense.

Of course, religious schools may have students and faculty who do not share the institution’s religious identity. But they should expect that some students choose that school in part because of that identity; and they should insure that a critical mass of the faculty (an unquantifiable percentage, once it is allowed to fall below 100%) are committed to it.

For religious schools philosophy of religion can and should be in the mode of “faith seeking understanding.” This does not preclude being ecumenical rather than parochial about it; but it does mean that no one should be surprised or offended if special attention is given to the resources, history, and problems of a particular religious tradition. The school’s raison d’etre is, at least in part, to be an academic arm of that tradition.

I take philosophy to be critical reflection on our beliefs and practices. So philosophy of religion is critical reflection on our religious beliefs and practices. But who are we? I think in terms of concentric circles. For secular schools, we are the heirs of western civilization, and “our” religion is the Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, rooted in the Bible, that for better and for worse have played a role in our becoming. But we are also members of the human race, and “our” religion includes the eastern and tribal religions that we can picture as belonging to an outer circle, less central to our own identity but not simply extraneous. For religious schools there will be an inner circle in which “our” religion will be some particular tradition with biblical roots. So, in varying degrees, all three circles represent “our” religious beliefs and practices and are appropriate subject matter for philosophy of religion.

Such reflection can have two rather distinct senses: philosophizing about God or, perhaps, the Sacred, and philosophizing about religion, observable human networks of beliefs and practices that purport to be in touch with a reality that is transhuman and not observable, at least not directly. In either case, such reflection can ask two rather distinct questions: normative and descriptive. On the one hand, are the beliefs true, and are the practices appropriate? On the other hand, how can the meanings of the beliefs and practices be clarified so as not to be confused with different, if not always easily distinguishable, meanings? Analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the former questions, phenomenological and comparative approaches on the latter.

Persons whose thought about God and religion barely got to the junior high school level but have a college level understanding of science and technology, music and literature, psychology and sociology, etc., will fit all too well the title of a book by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. Given the close relation, de facto, between religion and morality, the latter may be seriously undeveloped. The discrepancy within the educational system will represent a cultural prejudice against religion. Serious study of the philosophy of religion is one way of providing students, whether or not they are active in a religious community, with an adult level of understanding of God and of religion that is on a par with their understanding of other dimensions of their world.

Here’s another benefit. To a large degree we have inherited from the Enlightenment the view that reason is universal and univocal. It is neutral, objective, unprejudiced, and unconditioned. Religions whose highest authority lies in some purported divine revelation, some “bible” or sacred text, for example, are particular, seeing the world through lenses that represent a prejudice (pre-judgment) that is formally and sometimes materially irrational.

So, the title of Kant’s book on religion, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, is also a good name for what we can call the Enlightenment project in philosophy of religion. The task of philosophy is to bring religion up to the level of rationality in one of two ways: rejecting outright those beliefs and practices that offend reason and reinterpreting those that can be salvaged by giving them quite different, “rational” meanings.

This view is still with us in various forms. But it is clearly false. Consider the most powerful examples of this project from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, respectively: Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. One doesn’t have to delve very deeply into these philosophies of religion to see that they are mutually incompatible, each deeply at odds with the other two. But this shows us that the “reason” to which they appeal as their norm is not universal, objective, and free from presuppositions. It is rather a quite particular worldview or paradigm that functions as the a priori condition of all possible interpretation, whether of scriptural texts or of the worlds of nature and spirit. So far from being an unprejudiced “view from nowhere,” the three versions of “reason” and the resultant philosophies of religion relate to one another more like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – combining some overlap with deep divergence.

I call the systematic recognition of this finitude and particularity of human reason the hermeneutical turn and take it to signify the difference between modern and postmodern philosophy. But this means that ‘postmodern’ is not narrowly the name for French poststructuralism, since this turn has been made in various analytic philosophies (including Kuhnian philosophy of science), continental philosophies, and American pragmatisms.

Philosophy of religion taught in the modern mode offers the university a view of human reason that is unable to sustain itself and a view of religion resting on this faulty foundation. Taught in the postmodern mode, with an explicit hermeneutical turn, it offers the university a more modest understanding of human reason and allows us to explore the ways in which language, tradition, and social practices give historical particularity to our thinking. This puts religions of the book and philosophies of reason on a more nearly level playing field in what Ricoeur calls “the conflict of interpretations.” Philosophy loses is special privilege in relation to religion.

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Ramelli%20Dr%20Ilaria%20crp%204169Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Professor of Theology and K. Britt Chair (SHMS, Angelicum), Senior Visiting Professor at major universities, and Senior Fellow at Oxford University, Princeton University (Hellenic Studies), Durham University and Sacred Heart University Milan (Ancient Philosophy). 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.

This is a very intriguing and helpful question for us scholars — and, I hope, for our students. Thank you for asking it and having us reflect on this!

From my personal experience and my way of conceiving and doing scholarship and all academic and scientific service, I think the main contribution of Philosophy of Religion [PoR] to the modern University is probably helping bridge the gap between Religious Studies / Theology and Philosophy departments. The philosophy-theology/religion divide is legitimate and has its theoretical and historical reasons, but can prove detrimental to scholarship, especially in the study of ancient and late antique thought. Also in light of the universalizing, and not compartmentalizing, etymology of “University” (Universitas), PoR as a discipline within modern University can work against the compartmentalization of philosophy, religious studies, and theology departments – and not only departments, but also competences, ways of thinking, and work. An excessive departmentalization takes away the capacity for complex thinking, complicating perspectives, and interdisciplinary and innovative research and scholarship.

Broadening, interrelating fields, and gaining larger pictures and better vantage points, must not be at the expense of rigorous deepening and competence in one’s own specialization. Ideally, broadening, intertwining, and deepening should go hand in hand to the extent that is humanly possible. This requires a tremendous amount of (individual and team) work and competence, but it also repays to a huge degree in terms of quality of research that can positively advance academic scholarship and thinking.

PoR shows that Religion can, and must, be studied philosophically, and that Philosophy can, and must, have Religion too as its object. PoR in Universities can also take a diachronic, historical approach, which, in my view, can, and still has to, yield extremely rich and momentous results.

More generally, PoR shows that the divine, like human philosophical reflection on the divine, belongs to modern University and occupies an important place in the scholarly and didactic work done in contemporary Universities. And didactic work at University, especially at the graduate level, makes sense only if firmly grounded in living, active scholarship of the highest quality. Professors should be great, accurate, and innovative scholars themselves.

Yet more broadly and importantly, PoR reveals that humans cannot help thinking about the divine and engaging into some relation with it — whatever their religious convictions, including atheistic ones. God is relevant to the modern University and what is going on there. That is, God is relevant to human thinking and human life (which is what University should reflect and enhance).

The perspective and method of PoR (as the branch of Philosophy that investigates Religion philosophically) are those of Philosophy, but they are applied to Religion — and religions. Philosophers of religion in Universities could thus belong to both departments, though primarily, from the disciplinary viewpoint, they should be home in Philosophy departments.

Scholars in ancient and late antique philosophy are in turn found either in Classics or in Philosophy departments, depending on the academic traditions of their Universities. But they study a period in the history of thought in which philosophy was closely related to theology and religion, and had to do with the exegesis of theological traditions. This often took the shape of allegoresis, from Stoicism to Middle/Neoplatonism, including patristic Platonism. Allegoresis was part and parcel of philosophy in the Stoic and Platonic traditions, and showed precisely the connection between religion and philosophy! It indicated how religious traditions expressed philosophical truths. See my “The Philosophical Stance of Allegory in Stoicism and its Reception in Platonism, ‘Pagan’ and Christian,” IJCT 18 (2011) 335-371; “Valuing Antiquity in Antiquity by Means of Allegoresis,” in Valuing the Past in the Greco-Roman World. Penn-Leiden Colloquium on Ancient Values VII, eds. James Ker and Christoph Pieper, Leiden: Brill, 2014, 485-507; “The Philosophical Role of Allegoresis as a Mediator between Physikē and Theologia,” JbRP 12 (2013) 9-26.

In antiquity and late antiquity, theology was part and parcel of philosophy. The study of the divinity was the crowning of philosophy. I highlighted this point myself in a number of studies. Carlos Fraenkel, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press) also illustates well that for many “pagan,” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers before the Enlightenment, philosophy and religion were not really distinct.

Of course, I am not advocating a confusion of methodologies between contemporary philosophy and theology, or simply a return to pre-Kantian or pre-Cartesian philosophy, or even to ancient and medieval philosophy as a necessary paradigm for doing philosophy academically today. But perhaps I would like to see more interest in ancient and late antique philosophy by philosophers of religion and philosophers in general, and in turn more interest in PoR by scholars in ancient philosophy. Also, patristic philosophy, particularly patristic Platonism, in which theology/religion was prominent (just as it was in “pagan” Neoplatonism!), should better be considered part of ancient philosophy and studied as such.

Academic journals and series could be devoted to patristic philosophy. Hopefully the gap could be bridged between patristic scholars, who often are not very familiar with ancient philosophy, and scholars in ancient philosophy, who often do not even know patristic philosophers, or discard them as non-philosophers, merely because (one could suspect) they are not conversant with their thought.

An approach such as that offered by PoR helps a great deal study ancient and late antique philosophy and theology. As is well known, there exists no word for “religion” in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, and the concept itself is elusive in ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman thought and culture. (See Jörg Rüpke, Religion of the Romans, Cambridge: Polity, 2007, 5-12; Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, New Haven: Yale University, 2013.) But significantly there is a word for “philosophy” in Greek, where it was invented, and Latin, and there is a word for “theology” too, coined again in Greek, as the part of philosophy that deals with the divine, and also interprets religious traditions (literary, cultic, icongraphic…) in philosophical terms.

PoR was indeed already practiced by ancient and late antique philosophers, “pagan”, Jewish, and Christian (and Islamic) alike, from Stoic allegorists to Middle and Neoplatonists, Philo and Origen of Alexandria, down to Eriugena and beyond. For Origen, biblical exegesis and the study of the divinity pertained quintessentially to philosophy (as I shall clarify in Origen of Alexandria as Philosopher and Theologian, Cambridge University Press). These intellectual giants, ancient and medieval philosophers of religion, may provide a fruitful source of inspiration for philosophers or religion in our modern Universities.