Tadd Ruetenik on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Tadd Ruetenik is Professor of Philosophy at St. Ambrose 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.

I find that William James’ definition of philosophy is a good start in defining an excellent philosophy of religion. In Pragmatism, he says that philosophy is “our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (1). This might at first seem too common and vague, amounting to little more than a fire-side chat model of philosophy. We can imagine people rambling some thought and then ending with “and that’s just my philosophy,” to the approving nods of those who are merely waiting their own turn to express theirs. But this view is largely conditioned by an individualistic understanding of James, itself conditioned by an individualistic culture in which beliefs are thought of as the kinds of things that should be insulated from any critical attention.

We must note that James’ definition is based on the assumption that other human beings are indeed part of the cosmoi that pushes and presses. So while our philosophy is indeed our individual expression, this expression is conditioned by the individual expressions of others. And this is just as much the case when we think of a philosophy of religion. In this sense, philosophy of religion is our individual way of feeling the push and pressure of the cosmos, subjected to a concurrent push and pressure of other individuals in the cosmos. As strange as it might sound, for James, it is not the case that philosophy of religion is a subset of philosophy, but rather that philosophy is a subset of philosophy of religion. For James, experience proceeds by subtraction. We experience everything together, in all its relations, and then separate things based on selective interest. The religious questions for him are the largest questions, the everything questions.

This largest of questions was addressed by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, who talked about sorge, a German word often translated unhelpfully as “solicitude,” which, perhaps even more unhelpfully, is then also rendered as “anxious care.” But one doesn’t need to be fretting to be religious. The idea is that the human being’s fundamental relation to the world is one in which, to put it both abstractly and precisely, things matter.

I don’t know how helpful this will be, but I offer that the best way to render this fundamental idea is to say that, in the largest sense, a philosophy of religion is a consideration of to what extent the universe gives a shit. Perhaps the universe gives a shit about itself, or gives a shit about certain beings within itself, or gives a shit about certain subclass of these beings called human, or perhaps gives a shit only about a subclass within that of human beings. The scope of this theory can be both large enough and limited enough to be useful. It can suggest that, through a theory of karmic involvement, the universe gives a shit about justice. Or it can postulate that there exists a personal God who gives a shit about justice in our world. Or it can postulate that there exists a God who so gave a shit about the world that he sent His only Son so that … .

What this theory excludes from being religious is an understanding of the cosmos according to which the cosmos simply does not give a shit. It is not clear if it is possible for a philosopher even to maintain such a theory, since to maintain something is to give a shit whether it is true. I suppose they could respond to all such criticism by saying, “well, that’s just my philosophy.”

But to return to James, we see a good formulation of a philosophy of religion coming from his Varieties of Religious Experience:

The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts:

1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers. (551-552)

There are parts of this definition that need to be understood with nuance. In some Native American religions the idea that we are naturally wrong need not be understood as implying a dramatic Fall that requires a heroic savior, but rather only a disequilibrium that requires an adjustment. In that case, the wrongness can be saved by an appropriate ritual. It is difficult, however, for me to imagine a religious universe that did not have this salvific aspect, which is to say, did not have any give-a-shitedness (gebensheissenheit?) built into it. I can imagine a universe in which our descriptions can be marked as true or otherwise. But in this case it would be difficult to see why we would give a shit if the description were true. James’ reference to higher powers might seem gratuitous, since our own questioning of the cosmos could show that, in fact, there exists one thing that gives a shit. But we have to understand that, for James — the son of the religious socialist Henry James the Elder — the cosmos is a dynamic and human place. In such a world the higher power is the sense of connection with others, the sense that, despite differences in individual philosophies, there is a natural desire to leave warring and disunity for peace and unity, whether permanent or transitory in realization. An excellent philosophy of religion is one that gives enough of a shit to account for both the wrongness and the propriety of the universe, and the relations among those existing in it.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. (New York: The Modern Library) 1994.
James, William. Pragmatism. (New York: Dover Publications) 1995.