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

Robert SmidRobert Smid is Senior Lecturer in 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.

As several others have pointed out, any answer to this question depends on how the terms in the question are defined.  While the previous series of this blog focused on what “philosophy of religion” is, any answer to the question at hand will so depend on how that prior question is addressed that it is necessary to begin there.  I take philosophy of religion to be that sub-discipline of philosophy that is concerned with the most basic questions pertaining to the study of religion; in other words, it addresses the philosophical questions at the root of religious studies that the latter, as a social science, cannot address for itself.  The most basic of these questions, of course, is “what is religion?” (or, perhaps better, “what is it to be religious”), but it also extends to such related questions as “what counts as religious?” and “who gets to decide?” More developed and specialized versions of these questions include: Is religiosity a characteristic of only some persons, or is it a characteristic of human beings more generally? In what respect are religious truth-claims similar to and different from other kinds of truth-claims? What phenomena not typically considered ‘religious’ might be better understood when examined through the lens of religious studies?  Inevitably, these questions bleed into the discipline of religious studies, but one might just as well say that, pressed back to their root, the questions of religious studies bleed back into philosophy.

Of course, these are not the questions that have historically driven philosophy of religion.  When one can assume Christian normativity—as Western universities often could, at least culturally, prior to the twentieth century—the attention of philosophy to matters of religion can be focused primarily, if not exclusively, on Christian philosophical concerns. These include, but are not limited to, the existence of God, the reality of free will, the explanation of miracles, the possibility of an afterlife, and so on.  Considered outside of such normativity, however, it is unclear why these questions pertain specifically to philosophy of religion: either one is working out these philosophical concerns within the context of a particular religious tradition or set of traditions (in which case it is better understood as philosophical theology), or one is working out such concerns irrespective of their religious implications (in which case it is better understood as philosophy more generally). Thus, for example, arguments concerning the existence of a Judeo-Christian God would count as the former (whether made by theists or atheists), while arguments about the possibility of other planes of existence (such as the “supernatural”) would count as the latter.

To be of appropriate service to a modern university, philosophy of religion should reflect the pluralistic context within which such universities now exist. In this respect, philosophy of religion should be a comparative enterprise, at least insofar as the consideration of any specific religious phenomenon takes place only within the context of a consideration of religious phenomena more generally.  This would help to prevent giving disciplinary preference—explicit or implicit—to the philosophical concerns of one tradition or another.

It is precisely in helping to cultivate this broader perspective that philosophy of religion has the most to offer the modern university. The modern university is many things, and has interests that are both varied and often at odds with one another; however, it includes at least the following: providing a broader and deeper understanding of the world for its students than was possible in secondary school, improving the job prospects for its graduates, supporting the continual development of its disciplines, and contributing to the development of a well-informed and responsible citizenry. By broadening perspectives through the comparative and critical examination of basic assumptions, philosophy of religion—like philosophy more generally—can contribute to each of these interests.  Stated simply, the student who can think critically and creatively about such assumptions is more likely to thrive in a world that struggles to see past its own conventionalities.

Philosophy of religion, however, is in a particularly strong position to make this contribution.  Religious life remains one the dimensions of human life most often rendered immune from critical examination outside of the academy, so a student who learns to think critically about religious subject matter will not only have had to develop particularly strong critical thinking skills but is also likely to be a more culturally sensitive global citizen as a result.  Philosophy of religion thus not only has something of theoretical value to offer to the college, but something of immediately practical value as well.

Ultimately, then, the question of what philosophy of religion has to offer the modern university depends on whether it is able to move beyond the preoccupations of its parochial Christian history and engage the broader array of religious life as such.  While it is important to be aware of this historical trajectory, it would be a mistake to become bound by it.  If philosophy of religion can take this comparative turn, then I think that it has a great deal to offer the modern university.  If it cannot, then it will be difficult to see what it has to offer that philosophic theology or philosophy more generally do not already offer.  The modern university continues to change, as does the religious landscape around it; the value of philosophy of religion will be determined by its ability to adapt to these changes and serve their needs.



Rolf Ahlers on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

rolf ahlersRolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage 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.

Philosophy of religion lives in the truth and guards skeptically against dogmatic decay of other sciences in the academy. What does that mean?

All thought is contextual. Thought’s objective context of reason is normative, necessary and unitary, while what thought thinks is contingent, for thought always determines what it knows. So we have three: the one context, the many determinants and mediating thought. That insight is basic to all knowing. Enlightening insight looks in and out: internal determination, e.g. self-determination, does not need external input. Similarly, empirical input from the outside also gains specificity and clarity through the modification it experiences in “being elevated into thought” in Hegel’s words. In both cases what is thought about is being changed in being determined. Philosophy of religion is and has always moved on those two planes: From antiquity to the present time we have known that God knows himself as self and other (Plato, Aristotle, John 1:1-5), and that knowledge is philosophy of religion. It has since the beginning claimed to be index sui et falsi, the criterion of itself as true and of what is false, similarly as light enlightens but also casts shadows. Since the very beginning real people like Plato, Plotinus, the Apostles John and Paul, people like you and I but also Pilate, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Darwin and Einstein have been part of that broad process of thought’s self-recognition in the history of thought and science, as also in political, economic and scientific history: in that history thought specifies itself as true, thereby also highlighting the false. The language and style of thought operative here has last gained prominence in Hegel; we claim here it has greater validity than for example what is known today as “structuralism”, “narrative philosophy”, “naturalism” and other similar oddities like “philosophy of gender and power studies”, “philosophy of mobbing” – the list of intellectual less rooted movements at modern universities goes on down to the idea that “ours is a post-metaphysical age”, the mother of all superficialities. What and how Darwin or Einstein thought cannot be separated from the ontology of thought thinking itself and what this implies theoretically. But empirical anthropology or sociology or economics or biology gained their potencies through a short-sighted rejection of the objective ontology of thought’s theoretical self-awareness. And that emancipation is, although empowering, reductive. No less reductive in the modern university is the universal acosmism, i.e. worldlessness of what is called “philosophy” or “religion” or other brainy disciplines such as “cybernetics”. Philosophy of religion recognizes and is skeptical of that acosmic reduction of the true heart of the university. The university is not only about providing tools for trade for lawyers or politicians or biochemists or teachers. The university is first and foremost about a disciplinary integrity that could only be achieved through an understanding how all thought coordinates truth and objectivity, and value and factuality, but that coordination is grounded in the distinction between truth and the lie. Distinguishing between truth as truth and the lie as lie gives greater weight to truth than to the lie. This is illustrated in Plato’s paradox of the lie: it is problematic to claim, as does the Cretan, as true that all positions including his own are lies. That means that some positions have more weight than others. The task is then to dislodge the half-truths and the lies in the academic world. Doing so is the skeptical side of philosophy of religion. It seeks to prevent decay into sociological description of religious practices or at the very least preserve a healthy discourse with value neutral sociology of religion, for such description has its place at the university. Also other natural sciences, e.g. Darwin’s insights, are no less central to philosophy of religion as are Einstein’s and that of all other scientists: after all, they are all part of the incredibly creative stream of knowledge’s self-realization in and through them. But there are forms of contemporary science from Marx’ “science of dialectical materialism” to Dawkin’s “science” that reject as “myth” or “delusional” Plato’s, the Bible’s, Spinoza’s and Hegel’s principle that truth is index sui et falsi. With that rejection “science” decays into dogmatism. And any dogmatism must be the object of skeptical critique by truth, for truth identifies the lie as a lie and so this identification points to the skeptical side of truth: Truth is skeptical of the lie and the half-truth. Our universities are populated with far too many dogmatists who claim the ideological mantle of “science” that has decayed to dogmatism. Philosophy of religion’s skeptical rejection of dogmatism throws a skeptical light on the dogmatism of confusing opinions with truth or to declare truth claims are ultimately not provable. Philosophy of religion is skeptical of the peaceful coexistence of all views and all sciences next to each other almost as if the rejection of any theodicy in the science criminology or in holocaust studies is indifferently coequal with Hegel’s philosophy of the spirit which is theodiceic in principle. That means: philosophy of religion would be skeptically watchful over curricular decisions as also over the very institutional structure of the university. In short:  From Plato to Hegel skepticism was central for a philosophy worthy of that name. We claim such centrality of skepticism for philosophy of religion, modifying Luther’s pronouncement: Spiritus sanctus scepticus est: the Holy Spirit is a skeptic. The absence of such skepticism in the modern university has led to world-wide problems from the ecological crisis to economic and demographic and other imbalances on a global scale. To deal with such problems we would first need to recognize the problem in order to then build a real, modern university that overcomes dogmatic reductivism everywhere. That is as much a philosophical as it is a scientific or institutional responsibility: The task is as huge as it is necessary: The specialist in Heidegger needs to learn to talk meaningfully to theoretical physicists as well as to behaviorist economists.

Jeffrey Wattles on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

jeffrey wattlesJeffrey Wattles was Associate Professor of Philosophy at Kent State 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.

What can philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? Quick answer: Teach an experiential philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness.

A new opportunity on the horizon builds upon one of philosophy’s classical functions, interdisciplinary reflection. Philosophy of religion courses that include units on science and religion, philosophy and religion, religion and the arts, and religious ethics already bless the university.

But more can be done to mine the interdisciplinary potentials. Philosophers of religion can pioneer a new approach to education in meaning and value. Philosophy is the premier academic discipline when it comes to interpreting meaning, and philosophy of religion is philosophy’s specialty best suited to probe the range of values cherished as supreme by diverse individuals and groups.

Two more ingredients will enhance philosophy of religion’s outreach to the university: a philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness, and an experiential approach to education. Let me explain.

Truth, beauty, and goodness are qualities of divinity that we can live. Truth is the supreme value that lures and rewards thinking. “Truth” here does not connote an absolute; rather, like a living cell, it is both sturdy and flexible, trustworthy and adaptable. Truth has a spiritual core, a scientific periphery, and a philosophical bridge between the two. The image comes with a caveat, however, since philosophy’s bridge does not function as a passive supporter of whatever traffic would march across it bearing passionate beliefs regarding science or religion. Truths are acquired by experiment, interpretation, and faith—the methods befitting their correlated domains of reality. Science discovers truths of fact, philosophy truths of meaning, and spiritual experience truths of value.

Beauty is the supreme value that lures and rewards feeling; and joy registers our recognition of beauty. Such claims require expanded concepts of beauty and joy. Beauty is not confined to one aesthetic quality among others, from the humorous to the sublime; rather beauty embraces the spectrum of positive aesthetic values. Nor is joy a crystallized emotion; it varies from quiet contentment to enthusiastic celebration. Above all, beauty is a spiritual reality that reaches down to become perceptible in nature and to inspire artistic creativity.

Goodness is the supreme value that governs doing. The concept of the good must be expanded to include the right; and morality is here understood as an all-things-considered affair, just as excellent character integrates virtues drawn from every kind of activity.

The bonds that join truth, beauty, and goodness are hinted at in the connections between thinking, feeling, and doing—which do not transpire in a value vacuum. Students taking philosophy classes are typically seeking a higher quality of thinking. But neuroscience, psychology, and ordinary experience agree that these three basic human activations are interrelated. The parts of the brain that support thinking are connected with the parts that support emotion. The widespread applicability of psychology’s cognitive-behavioral therapy gives credence to the motto: Think better and you’ll feel better; feel better and you’ll act better. And we know from experience that thinking hardly flourishes when emotions are in turmoil and behavior seriously off track.

Thus it should be no surprise that education in thinking can be enhanced by including the other dimensions as well. This is what I found during my last fifteen years of teaching, when all my classes were centered on experiential projects, from introduction to philosophy, aesthetics, and ethics, to world religions, philosophy of religious experience, and philosophy of religion.

In order to make project-centered teaching accessible, I went to great lengths to be supportive of each student and to make the projects open to all regardless of their beliefs. I would select the most widely appealing teaching in whatever philosophy or religion we were studying, propose that for their projects, and repeatedly encourage them to modify that teaching as needed, to make it more religious, less religious, differently religious, or more secular, less secular, or differently secular—until each person had an idea that he or she felt good about applying in their lives. I would mention that the greatest growth in a project comes from focusing on one’s front burner issue, one’s biggest growth challenge (if it is psychologically wise to do so). After six weeks, students would turn in an experience report narrating what they did, what happened as a result, and what they learned, as related to the readings. Over the years, an estimated two-thirds reported a transformative breakthrough. Skepticism, for example, about the reality of these values vanished as students pursued what they found to be cool, awesome, or in other ways personally compelling.

In some courses, one of the projects was on spiritual experience. I would give them a choice between conscious breathing and centering prayer, and was happy to discuss other practices. After three weeks, remarkable experiences would begin to occur, and I would mention the possibility of complementary explanations: biological, psychological, and spiritual.

Philosophy has produced countless books and articles on truth, beauty, and goodness, taken singly, in pairs, or all together, and innumerable discussions relevant to the philosophy of living. Religions have libraries of texts on supreme values and how to live them. Philosophy and religion all need these themes synthesized in a well-developed philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness, but nowhere is one to be found—yet.

Next summer Cascade Books will publish my book, Living in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. There I set forth concepts, say more about my approach in teaching, give excerpts from student papers, and present chapters on science, philosophy, spiritual experience, the beauties of nature, the arts, morality, and character. Each chapter highlights the relevant virtues of someone whose excellent qualities we may in some measure develop in our own lives: Darwin, Socrates, Jesus, John Muir, Bach, Albert Schweitzer, Jane Addams, and Pitirim Sorokin. Some of these discoveries have been shared in my weblog, I make no claim to doing anything more than helping to construct the new philosophy of living, which is emerging through the work of many persons. Please help.

Aaron Simmons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

J. Aaron Simmons hi defJ. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University. He is the author of God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn (Indiana UP), co-author of The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (Bloomsbury), and co-editor of Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion (Duquesne UP), Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion (Indiana UP), and Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, forthcoming). Currently, he is working on a book simply entitled Continental Philosophy of Religion. 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.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a marketing and public relations firm that is working with my University’s admissions office to shape a narrative for presenting the distinctiveness of liberal arts education and, especially, the way in which our institution stands as a national leader of such education. What I quickly discovered was the degree to which explaining liberal arts education was understood as a matter of presenting it as instrumentally valuable in relation to the end of a successful life and lucrative career. While there is nothing necessarily wrong about success and financial wellbeing (indeed, I hope for both for my own son, who is now six years old), there does seem to be something troubling about the idea that the point of higher education is primarily understood as a matter of job preparation. On this model, relationships are important because of the network of connections to possible employers that can result. Similarly, critical thinking, reflective analysis, rhetorical ability, and careful interpretive awareness are all valuable due to the way in which they stand as “transferable skills that are in high demand in today’s complex and quickly changing global marketplace.” Though I am sure that such marketing firms are important for institutions of higher education that are trying to better position themselves in an increasingly difficult situation of changing demographics and increasingly pragmatic social priorities, I think that reflecting on the value-theory operative in the assumptions that tend to guide such “positioning strategies” offers an important opportunity to glimpse the possible importance of philosophy of religion for the modern university (whether a liberal arts institution or not).

Simply put, my suggestion is that philosophy of religion is distinctively, though perhaps not necessarily uniquely, able to highlight the existential stakes of higher education itself within a social frame. Philosophy of religion is not a discourse that works well when considered as being of mere instrumental value to some other pragmatic end such as theistic belief, say. The goal of philosophy of religion, as opposed to philosophical theology, should not be to lead individuals to the truth of religion, but to provide the space for reflecting about how and why what we call “religion” can stand as one of the most important aspects of a person’s identity. Philosophy of religion stands as a productive instance of academic inquiry being about more than merely a consumable outcome, but instead about the decidedly personal task of self-making that should occur in the context of university life—for scholars, for students, and for society.

I have argued elsewhere for the importance of philosophy of religion as a “personal” discourse, but not a “confessional” one. By that I mean that philosophy of religion should start from the fact that religious phenomena (or the possibility thereof) are not merely value neutral objects for detached speculation. Rather, as Gianni Vattimo suggests, none of us start from zero when it comes to religion. Here I do not mean to suggest that atheism should be understood as a religion, but simply that there is no non-answer when it comes to religious identity and truth. Even if one challenges the category as socially constructed (see, for example, the work of Jonathan Z. Smith or Russell McCutcheon), or globalizes the category such that it is deeply problematic (see, for example, the work of Richard King or Tomoko Masuzawa), fundamental concerns of human existence hang in the balance regarding meaning, value, and community. Importantly, it is because I think that reflecting on the very category is so important for thinking well about religion, whether philosophically or not, that I think philosophers of religion would do well to engage more often with the work of scholars in religious studies, and especially those working in critical theories of religion.

When philosophers of religion invite students, colleagues, and the broader public to reflect on questions attending to the meaning of “God,” the relationship between something called “faith” and what we term “reason,” or the possible ways in which religious life offers promising resources, and raises potential problems, for contemporary social existence, they invite reflection that is difficult to marginalize as being of “merely academic interest.” Instead, the very meaning of our lives and the application of those lives in a shared world are at stake in such inquiry. Again, this is not to say that other academic pursuits (whether in or outside the discipline of philosophy) do not, or cannot highlight such matters, but regardless of whether there is a God or not, whether faith is a product of divine grace or simply a matter of wish-fulfillment, or whether religion is a reflection of divine activity in the world of human affairs or nothing more than a social construct deployed in a network of power-relations, we are better off when we wrestle with such possibilities than we are when we do not.

When we do, we face up to the potential limits of human abilities and, thus, can better foster humility as a mode of being. Moreover, when we do, we find ourselves attending to the difficulties of asking questions that may not admit of final answers, yet this calls us to remain open to what might lie beyond ourselves. Finally, when we do, we confront the dynamism of different communities who attempt to live into the space left open by these persistent question-marks and so we are likely to see hospitality as about much more than we would have otherwise figured. Philosophy of religion offers a great deal to the contemporary university because it invites us all to interrogate patiently the assumptions that we allow to remain basic in our conceptions of meaning, value, and truth.

One of my professors in graduate school used to say that whatever else God might be, God was definitely “trouble.” Investigating the truths that attend the associated notions of God, the divine, faith, etc., while recognizing that we never do so without already being committed to particular inherited socio-cultural ways of understanding these notions should “trouble” not only our complacency with the way things are understood to be, but should also “trouble” our aspirations, our ideals, and our shared goals when they fail to live up to what we would name as worthy of our effort, and perhaps even worthy of our worship.

In the end, then, philosophy of religion should and can be a striking resource for reclaiming the narrative of the aims of the contemporary university itself. Rather than focusing on instrumentally valued transferable skills that are packaged by a marketing firm, philosophy of religion refuses to turn away from the importance of thinking about the depth of existence exposed when we attempt to think about those dimensions of existence itself that cannot be reduced to a slogan. In this way, the practice of philosophy of religion might rightly be understood as a type of academic “spiritual exercise,” whether or not there is a God and whether or not one rightly passes as a theist, an atheist, or something else.