Nancy K. Frankenberry on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Nancy K. Frankenberry is John Phillips Professor of Religion, Emeritus at Dartmouth College. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Epistemological questions constitute an important part of the traditional agenda for philosophy of religion. With the advent of gender studies, however, non-traditional questions have come to the fore. What has the status of knowledge in various religious traditions? What gets valorized as worth knowing? What are the criteria evoked? Who has the authority to establish religious meaning? Is religious meaning something distinct from or independent of ordinary linguistic meanings of words? Who is the presumed subject of religious belief? How does the social position of the subject affect the content of religious belief? What is the impact upon religious life of the subject’s sexed body? What do we learn by examining the relations between power, on the one hand, and what counts as evidence, foundations, modes of discourse, forms of apprehension and transmission, on the other? In view of the intimate connection of power/knowledge, how do we handle the inevitable occlusion that attends all knowledge production? What particular processes constitute the normative cultural subject as masculine in its philosophical and religious dimensions?

I answer such questions from the far country called “feminist,” a region seldom visited by mainstream philosophers of religion, at least those in the Anglo-American tradition. Yet the development of feminist philosophies of religion remains an urgent part of our agenda. I say “part” of the agenda in order to recognize Kimberlé Grenshaw’s point about intersectionality: that there are overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination due not only to gender, but also to ethnicity, sexuality, and economic and religious background. Attempting to do justice to multiple axes at once can be exhausting, and perhaps that is why most philosophers of religion repair so readily to the highly abstract and rarified regions of metaphilosophy when they discuss norms and criteria for evaluation in our field.

Without the category of gender firmly recognized as a crucial ideological barometer of both past and present, of the philosophical and religious texts we read and of the ones we as philosophers of religion then write, philosophy of religion will slide back into its traditional, monologically male vision of things, regressing into a less problematic, pre-feminist world that conservative voices have lately tried to recuperate by proclaiming that contemporary theory has now entered the happy haven of a “post-feminist era.” Like its mythical twin the “post-racial era,” this phrase has meaning but no reference.

Standard norms and criteria such as coherence, consistency, evidential warrant, adequacy to experience, clarity, simplicity, cogency, and plausibility, do not get lost in feminist philosophies of religion; they remain critically important for showing and protecting whatever objectively-valid claims we may make. But feminist work in our field does require, among other things, a “principle of concretion,” by which I mean something other than Whitehead’s idea of God. A principle of concretion is needed to move from the level of abstract generality to the level of concrete particularity. Both levels of analysis are valuable, but which is more inclusive? My suggestion is that the concrete includes the abstract and exceeds it in value. For example, we might extract the following abstract generalities from the philosophy of Donald Davidson: 1) rationality pertains to anything that has a mind; 2) the constraints of rationality pertain to the conditions necessary for both mind and interpretation; 3) thought requires that we have the concept of error, of making a mistake; 4) thought presumes the concept of objective reality and of truth; 5) therefore, general skeptical claims are unintelligible, even if specific claims can be doubted; 6) communication with others is required and a shared world of objects in a common time and space; 7) knowledge emerges holistically and is interpersonal from the start. Moving from the abstract rule-based general constraints enumerated in 1-7, feminist inquiry then asks about the concrete particularity of the exercise of rationality, the gendered aspects of having a mind, the various ways in which gender norms differentially structure the religious spaces to which men and women are admitted, the presentation of self to others, etc. etc. One can imagine such concretion unfolding with copious narrative detail at the concrete, empirical level. It is not so much that rationality has a gender as that any agent who applies reason is gendered. The point is to scrutinize the gendered values that constitute our epistemic practices by attending to the concrete as much as to the abstract, and to the inextricable interrelatedness of the two.

What difference does the difference of gender make? More than anything else, it serves to orient philosophy of religion to affirming immanence, rather than to escaping finitude, embodiment, and materiality. I have space to mention but two leading authors. The work of Pamela Sue Anderson (1955-2017) was governed by the double imperative: “to think from the lives of others” and “to reinvent ourselves as other.” She articulated a feminist philosophy of religion around three central theoretical elements: feminist standpoint epistemology, inspired by Sandra Harding’s feminist philosophy of science; bell hook’s central concept of “yearning” as a cognitive act of creative and just memory; and the Spinozist dimensions of Michele Le Doeuff’s form of rationalism. Together, these themes ensured that social locatedness was always prominent in Anderson’s work, that yearning and all it stood for motivated her struggle in the search for personal communal justice, and that no personal, male-gendered deity was implied, yet a creative corporeality was at work in the very exercise of reason, giving rise to a new form of reasoned thinking which has God or Nature (deus sive natura) as its ground.

Indeed, for Pamela Anderson yearning is the vital reality of human life that gives rise to religious belief, and rationality based on creative corporeality belongs at the heart of feminist philosophy of religion. Therefore, philosophical analysis of and feminist concern with reason combined with desire, as found in expressions of yearning for truth whether epistemological, ethical (justice), or aesthetic (love or beauty), need to supplement standard approaches to philosophy of religion.

With a different regard for the place of rationality, Grace Jantzen (1948-2006) argued that feminist philosophies of religion should forego the preoccupation with the rational justification of beliefs and the evaluation of truth-claims. Inspired mainly by French continental philosophy, Jantzen constructed a philosophy of religion built on natality and birth. For her, the “path of desire to/for the divine” opened up the symbolic impact of birth rather than death as a strategy for creating a new imaginary construct that emphasizes flourishing of life rather than sacrifice of it. The norms of ethical or political adequacy can perfectly well supplement, if not replace, those of epistemic adequacy. Jantzen proposed nothing less than a new imaginary of religion, a feminist symbolic of “natality and flourishing” as an alternative to the category of mortality, verging on necrophilia/necrophobia, with which the western tradition has been saturated. Influenced by Hannah Arendt’s work on natality and Adriana Cavarero’s feminist reading of Plato, Jantzen believed that a preoccupation with death and violence subtends the masculinist imaginary. If feminist philosophy of religion is ever to transform the symbolic order that inscribes this imaginary, it is necessary to change the imaginary. For this purpose, she thought that a model of transformative change drawn from psychoanalysis and Continental philosophy of religion was more useful than a model drawn from Anglo-American adversarial modes of argumentation.

The Western symbolic, long saturated with violence and death, is epitomized in the crucified Christ. Sacrificial codes involve a forgetting/erasure of the complex role of the maternal, amounting to a “matricide” at the foundation of religious practice. The central figure of the western cultural imaginary is the unmourned and unacknowledged sacrifice of the (m)other’s body that Christianity masks under the Eucharistic sacrifice of the son. The real symbolic association, then, according to Jantzen, is not between women and birth, but between women and death, setting up men as cultural masters over and above mortality and its intimations in the bodies of women.

The provocations that the work of Anderson, Jantzen, and other feminist philosophers of religion have contributed over the course of several decades now demand to be addressed in the new agendas and manifestos appearing from Wesley Wildman, Kevin Shilbrack, Thomas A. Lewis, and Timothy Knepper.

Aleksander S. Santrac on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Aleksander S. Santrac is Professor of Ethics and Philosophy and Chair of Religion and Philosophy Dept. at Washington Adventist University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is the branch of philosophy that explores the variety of religious phenomena including the idea or the concept of God and its relationship to reason or common sense. Though “philosophizing about religion” cannot be easily explained I believe that the primary goal of philosophy of religion is to look closely at existing religious worldviews and traditions, rigorously investigating the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the problem of evil, religion and science, and justifications for the existence of religious pluralism, to name a few. Philosophy of religion is, of course, one of the most comprehensive areas of philosophy for it includes studies in logic, epistemology, ethics, science, etc. It is also intellectually challenging and rewarding at the same time. The basic questions of philosophy—like where are we coming from? or where are we going?—are investigated through the question of origins or afterlife in philosophy of religion. It is worth mentioning that the new book of Dan Brown, Origin, deals with these questions in a mystical-fictional-scientific way. Therefore, philosophy of religion again might become relevant even in the popular belletristic releases.

As we are all aware, philosophy of religion explains religious phenomena without personal engagement, based on rational arguments and some logical evidence. The basic strength of the analytical philosophy of religion is to provide sound argumentation as antidote for esoteric postmodern trends in thinking about language and reality. However, most of the analytical research in philosophy of religion looks more like a mathematical logic than philosophical treatises. The symbolic logic in the analytical tradition seems to be detached from the basic philosophical questions of origins, meaning and destiny. Philosophy of religion, therefore, can be done in a rigid and detached way without asking the question of meaning or purpose of human existence which would be worth living. This “logical” and “objective” approach is viewed as a safeguard against the one-sided, biased and narrow-minded position of value-laden theology or religious studies (another assumed strength of the philosophy of religion). Nevertheless, it distances itself from the existential and axiological questions raised by humanity in every generation. I will try to tackle only one of these questions.

How does the very knowledge of divine realities and logical investigation of God contribute to the question: what sort of life is worth living? In other words, how does a religious phenomenon impact a person or a student existentially on the level of the life lived, not just what type of reality correspond to the religious phenomenon (something like Wittgensteinian transcendence of realism and non-realism)? Let me unpack this.

Philosophy of religion belongs to the realm of study called humanities. After all, it is a philosophy. Most of the humanities in contemporary higher education do not deal with the question of meaning or purpose. Unfortunately, as they have become instrumental in obtaining knowledge for the specific professions, ancient and deep questions of humanum have been lost. Students are rarely confronted with the fundamental questions of life and their impact on student’s daily living. Though philosophy as the most general discipline of humanities sits in judgment of all phenomena, as its definition implies, it still can be taught without reference to meaning and purpose of life worth living.

It is a challenge to teach philosophy of religion as a relevant discipline that raises questions of meaning or purpose especially of the issues of whether life is worth living and/or what sort of life is worth living. Humanities, in general, avoid discussing these issues. Intelligibility of the religious phenomena has been questioned recently by Wittgenstein and others. This is, of course, an assumed weakness of philosophy of religion. However, I believe that the basic challenge is to find the way to teach students why this life is worth living or what kind of life is worth living in spite of the irresolvable and complex issue of the problem of evil or (non)existence of God. We can find the perfect fine-tuning argument in cosmology or irreducible complexity in biology, but, at the end of the day, why and how will this knowledge contribute to my personal life in order to have a permanent value of life worth living. Can philosophy of religion become value-laden? Maybe looking at only Christian perspective of philosophy of religion is insufficient. Perhaps we should adopt a comparative approach and explore other religious traditions more deeply to find the ultimate permanent value of this very life as worth living.

My suggestion is to look first at this issue from the perspective of inquiry. Every human being desires to know and strives to have its life examined as the Greek tradition taught us. A holistic approach to human life includes this inquiry. We are intelligent and curious beings. The very fact that philosophy of religion raises critical questions of origins, destiny, purposes, and meaning contributes to this holistic inquiry as part of life worth living/life properly lived. Whatever is the result of the investigation of religious phenomena within the study of the philosophy of religion what contributes to a life worth living is the very ability and desire to ask questions and explore the unknown phenomena. A life worth living is the life of expected flourishing that is the result of a search for a life a bit more than the ordinary. Asking questions, therefore, with openness towards life a bit more than the ordinary leads to a life worth living. These questions and potential answers transcend the instrumental approach to the study of human ideals like goodness, beauty and truth. The value of human being as intrinsically given or defined by the transcendence we are searching for can be found only in the phenomenological search for a life a bit more than the ordinary or a sort of life worth living. I also believe that whatever is the result of the study of the philosophy of religion with its goal to “define” the Ultimate Reality (whether it makes sense or not) this craving for the unknown and desire to experience a bit more than ordinary might provide the space for transcendence and recognition of the sacredness of human life. In my own experience the combination of openness to transcendence in the religious consciousness with rational inquiry of religious phenomena contributed to the discovery of a life worth living/life properly lived.

Philosophy of religion, therefore, if it is taught from the perspective of the quest for a sort of life worth living can stimulate students to search for the meaning and purpose of their lives and probably even open themselves to transcendence and that universal space of the ultimate meaning that contributes to a life worth living.

Eric Steinhart on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Aristotle said philosophy begins in wonder. I take this to mean that philosophy at its best is driven by an unwavering curiosity, an all-consuming desire to make sense of the world, to explore its possibilities, and to know its truth. If norms and values are ideals to which we ought to aspire, then philosophers of religion ought to be curious about religion. What is religion? What does it mean to be religious? Religious behaviors are among the weirdest things that human animals do. Why do we do it?

At its best, philosophy of religion is curious about all the religions on earth. Do they fall into taxonomies? Is there a universal grammar of religions? Why are their phylogenetic relations? What do we learn about religion from fictional religions? There are, after all, many fictional religions, in books, in movies, in video games. It would be interesting for philosophers of religion to try to make up their own religions. And especially interesting to try to make up new types of religion. Such creativity is found in almost every other branch of philosophy. Why not in philosophy of religion?

A philosopher of religion ought to be curious about how religious emerge, live, and die. They ought to be curious about how religions evolve, how older religions persist into newer religions. Philosophers of science have been very interested in the ways that science changes. The phlogiston theory of combustion became the oxygen theory. The concept of God evolved. This is not simply a historical question: it is a question of the ways in which old conceptual structures evolve into new ones.

We are lucky to be alive at one of the most exciting times in the history of religion. All over the world, religions are changing. New religions are emerging. Every philosopher of religion should try to write an essay about the future of religion, including futures in which religion disappears, or evolves into something very different. What will religion look like in one hundred years? In five hundred years? In two thousand years? If artificial super-intelligence becomes reality, will people worship AIs? But our brains have not stopped evolving. Will worship itself become obsolete?

Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the ways in which philosophical ideas animate religions. Neoplatonism is alive and well in the United States. It is arguable that more people in the US are Neoplatonic than theistic. Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the revivals of pagan religious philosophies. A high percentage of Americans believe that physical things are animated by a spiritual energy. What does that mean? What are the arguments for or against the existence of this energy?

Driving through the San Rafael Swell, in the middle of the Utah desert, you fall into ecstasy: the rocks with their brilliant colors become transparent to an uncanny light. Chet Raymo said: when God is gone, everything becomes holy. Do stones shine? Are their colors broken open? Paul Tillich came close to saying something new when he wrote about revelation, and when he wrote about the ground of being. Almost. His work is half-free from theistic mythology. What would it be like to free it completely? Atheists have mystical experiences. What do their experiences mean? Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the spiritualities of nontheists.

Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the ways religion is evolving into something new. The rise in the non-religious (the “Nones”) is accelerating across the West. But the Nones often identify as spiritual but not religious. What would it mean for religion to evolve into spirituality? How is therapeutic work on the self replacing worship? Spirituality appears in the New Age, in the revival of Stoicism, in the rapid growth of Westernized Buddhisms and Yoga, in lifehacking and self-tracking, even in the writings of the New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Are philosophers of religion even aware that Dawkins has written extensively about spirituality?

More than anything else, a philosopher of religion ought to stare straight into something spiritual or religious that they find utterly baffling. Read Gloria Anzaldua’s “Now Let Us Shift.” Participate in a Wiccan circle. Go on a Buddhist meditation retreat. Go to Burning Man. Drink ayahuasca with Santo Daime. Look at this light rising above the horizon. Listen to what it has to say. Write it down.

Mark Gardiner on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Mark Gardiner is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The blog question—“What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?”—needs refining. It is clear that the organizers intend something more specific than asking of the norms or values that define excellent philosophy in general, though in the main I would expect massive overlap of those that define, say, excellent philosophy of language, or of science, or of law, or of anything else one might name, let alone excellent philosophy of religion. So, the question’s focus is on what are, if not unique, at least indicative of excellent philosophy of religion. In other words, it is asking for the differentia specifica, not the genus proximum.

In my view, philosophy of religion does not differ from any other area of philosophy on methodological grounds; critical analysis, meeting argument with argument, and adherence to some basic principles of logic are pretty much the tools of all philosophers. Perhaps there is a difference in the aims of philosophy of religion and its counterparts. Ethics and metaphysics, for example, may be seen as having different aims: the former with what to do and the latter with what to believe. However, besides the believing/acting distinction being challenged on many grounds, especially by the sort of pragmatic-oriented philosophy of language and action I’m inclined towards, this difference in aim might hide a commonality at a higher level, namely that both are tied to a concern with that old chestnut of the philosopher, namely truth. For example, an ethicist may be interested in whether the claim “Eating meat is wrong” is true or false, and similarly for a metaphysican over the claim “Mind and matter are distinct substances”. Is there an obvious counterpart in philosophy of religion? Are philosophers of religion, as such, concerned with the truth or falsity of “Jesus is lord” or with “All dharmas are fixed on the self in their own-being”? Some may be—perhaps those who are also religious adherents or theologians—but many will not be. Many, though I recognize not all, philosophers of religion do not regard the task of determining the truth-values of particular first-order religious claims to be any part of the philosophy of religion. To this I see affinity with philosophy of science, which is by and large content to leave the question of which first-order scientific claims are true and which are false to scientists. (Though the affinity doesn’t go too far—I don’t know of many philosophers of religion who are content to leave the question of the truth-value of ‘Jesus is lord’ up to the adherent.) Indeed, I can see how or why some philosophers would argue that higher-level questioning, say over the overall rationality of a religious system rather than over the truth-value of a particular claim, is what is indicative of excellent philosophy of any sort.

What I am suggesting is that a conception of the aim of a given intellectual pursuit is impossible without a conception of what that pursuit is about. In other words, the specifica that differentiates between philosophy of religion and other forms of philosophy should be located in their respective contents. To ask for the norms and values ‘definitive’ (not my first choice of word) of excellent philosophy of religion is to ask a prior question of what actually constitutes philosophy of religion, whether of the excellent or regular variety.

The organizers of of course know this—this is the 3rd in a series of blogs, the first asking precisely what philosophy of religion is. My point, though, is the answer I give to the question for this blog depends on the one I gave to the first…. I don’t expect the reader of this blog to be familiar with that one; as a summary, it was that the key concept—religion—needed to be understood in very broad, flexible, and, perhaps ironically, vague terms. Largely as a result of collaborations I’ve had with those who describe themselves as scholars, not philosophers, of religion, I have come to regard philosophy of religion more as a branch of philosophy of social science (particularly, following Kevin Schilbrack, as philosophy of religious studies) than as an autonomous or sui generis discipline. Much philosophy of religion, what I tend to call traditional philosophy of religion, has tended to equate religion as such with ‘world views’ or belief systems—already a mistake as religions, when appreciated in the concrete rather than the abstract, include much more varied phenomena, including practices, norms, social institutions, laws, etc. Worse, it has overwhelmingly tended to equate it with a particular type of belief system, namely Eurocentric abstract monotheism. By privileging ‘belief’ as the central form that religious phenomena take, what has been taken to count as philosophy of religion has likewise been narrow and, in my mind, unnecessarily limiting and skewed.

And so I finally get to the heart of the start of my answer to the blog question: philosophy of religion is the philosophical study of religion as such, and any a priori delimitation of the very concept of religion built into that study will detract from it achieving excellence. The fundamental value of excellent philosophy of religion, I submit, is an openness to continually rethinking the content of its own subject matter. The so-called ‘new atheism’ of people like Richard Dawkins and, yes, even the philosophically astute Daniel Dennett, is hamstrung by its inability to see religion in any term other than as oppositional to science, and hence writes it off as irrational superstition. The ‘new atheism’ does not constitute, in my mind, excellent philosophy of religion. Other approaches, perhaps certain forms of theology, may err in the other direction by overemphasizing the task of understanding or making rational sense of religion to the extent of making it immune from critical challenge. Some of the ‘grand theories’ of religion of the past—e.g. Marx, Freud, Frazer—tended to see religion almost exclusively as something that needed to be explained, by which they usually meant explained away, by reference to something else (economics, psychology, proto-science). Excellent philosophy of religion likewise does not presume any a priori task with respect to its subject matter. To do so is to limit its conception of its subject matter. Each of interpreting, explaining, and critiquing religion and religions can constitute quite philosophical activities, and all the more excellent ones when no one task is supposed to be preeminent.

The danger with what I have argued is that it is so open-ended, so vague, as to be practically useless in terms of functioning as genuine norms or values. I agree that the concept of religion, i.e. the conception of the very subject matter of philosophy of religion, cannot be entirely unconstrained. Here I lean heavily on what my colleagues in the social scientific study of religion have to say. The best place to start is not some conception of religion in the abstract, but rather with the full particularities of religions on the ground. And so my final value of excellent philosophy of religion: an openness to see the philosophical study of religion as coextensive, continuous, and intersecting with other academic studies.