Adam Green on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Adam Green is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Azusa Pacific 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.

Let us begin with a toy argument. “Either God exists or the moon is made of cheese. The moon is not made of cheese. Therefore, God exists.” This is not an example of excellent philosophy of religion. The argument is valid, of course. If God exists, the argument is sound as well. These formal features, however, aren’t anywhere near sufficient for excellence. If we were to recast this argument in a formal apparatus more difficult to wield than a disjunctive syllogism, giving the modally quantified argument from trans-world non-cheesiness perhaps, it would still not be the case that this more difficult to wield version of this argument would count as excellent philosophy of religion.

Here’s another example. A fantasy novelist thinks up a universe in which the ground is divine and when it is worshipped, it oozes life into the plants that grow on its surface. I’m sure that a talented enough novelist could do something with the idea. It may even be that a philosopher of religion could run a thought experiment that incorporated it into one step of a larger argument (e.g. on God’s relationship to nature and environmental ethics). By itself, however, an imaginative construction of an alternative moral and religious system isn’t excellent philosophy of religion. It’s simply fantasy.

Since this is a blog post, let’s cut to the chase a bit. What does make for good philosophy of religion, especially if neither excellence in formal reasoning nor imaginative metaphysical speculations is sufficient for it? In a word, relevance. That is, relevance to the attempts of actual people to answer the big questions at the heart of philosophy of religion regarding whether the natural is all there is, whether there is a God or some other divine feature of reality, how our answers to the first two questions affect moral agency and the meaning of life, etc. Furthermore, excellent philosophy of religion is judged in terms of our attempts to not only answer these questions to our own satisfaction but to explain, if not convince, interested others of the relevance of our answers to their own attempts to grapple with these questions.

If one were to boil this answer down to how it might apply to an argument such as, say, the one that opened this blog post, one would put it something like this. A good argument in the philosophy of religion must be a valid/ cogent argument that moves from premises one’s interlocutors can reasonably be expected to grant to a non-trivial conclusion that contributes towards our answering one or more of the big questions that anchor the field. That’s a sketch rather than a set of conditions meant to capture all cases and brook no counterexamples, but it is enough to see why both of our examples don’t count as excellent philosophy of religion. The argument to God’s existence from non-cheesiness uses a premise that no one in any doubt as to God’s existence would ever accept. The only folks who would reasonably accept the first premise are those who are independently confident of the conclusion. Likewise, by itself a fantasy novelist’s flights of fancy aren’t attempts to answer our serious questions about our world. They must be brought to bear in helping us furnish at least possible answers to our questions about our world before they count as contributing to the philosophy of religion.

On this way of looking at things, what counts as excellent philosophy of religion is a moving target with a historical anchor. On the one hand, philosophy of religion grows from a set of questions that we inherit along with various attempts to answer them. Our understanding of the questions might change and develop over time. Perhaps some questions get subtracted from the core and others get added, but nonetheless the philosophy of religion is a continuing dialogue that extends over time. Now, of course, at any given point in time, it is not always one conversation, and the Venn diagram overlap between the questions being asked in different conversations can be greater or lesser. This complicates the picture, but does not falsify it.

On the other hand, who the interested parties are who should be included in one’s class of interlocutors and what premises are contestable changes over time. Aquinas’ five ways are arguments for God’s existence that end with the line “and this everyone understands to be God”. I think Aquinas’ arguments counted as excellent philosophy of religion relative to his time because everyone who would have counted as a relevant interlocutor for Aquinas would have reasonably granted that the conclusions of his arguments pointed to God. Giving those same arguments now, however, requires bolstering premises that are not as obvious to present day readers and perhaps trying to bridge the gap between unmoved movers or uncaused causes and God.

Within the current scene, there is growing discontent in some quarters with the state of philosophy of religion. Since Plantinga, many Christians have entered the field, skewing the literatures of the genre in ways reflective of their distinctively Christian views and interests. The discontents cry foul, pointing out that many contrary points of view are being neglected. One can imagine them putting the complaint this way, “Though often formally competent and sometimes quite philosophically imaginative, work like this does not make philosophy of religion as a discipline excellent.”

From within the perspective briefly outlined here, I think we can say two things about the situation. On the one hand, excellent philosophy of religion is relative to the attempts of actual people to answer the big questions. So, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a bunch of Christians wanting to develop their Christian-informed answers nor is there any particular reason to sequester such attempts into some other non-philosophical discipline (e.g. “oh, they’re doing theology, not philosophy”). Likewise, the idea that every square of logical space ought to be explored and published on equally is at best naïve. People write about these things because they’re trying to answer the big questions, and attempts to answer the big questions aren’t going to be distributed evenly across the vast logical space of possible answers. Rather, they’re going to clump, building on and critiquing attempts to answer these questions that have come before. That doesn’t mean that novel explorations are either off limits or intrinsically undesirable, but the idea that we can have a field that develops all possible answers with indifference, somehow investing our efforts in ways that float free from what people actually suspect the answers to be is, once again, fantasy.

On the other hand, the discontent of the discontent signals where the moving target of excellence in the philosophy of religion is moving, of who wants to be included in the class of relevant interlocutors, and of how their perspectives might end up shifting the standards of evaluation in the field. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to see the metrics of plausibility shift in sync with the demographics of participation either.

William F. Nietmann on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

William F. Nietmann is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Northern Arizona 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.

A philosopher probes what makes sense and what doesn’t. Philosophizing is a creative activity. Yet, taught as information concerning what this and that philosopher conclude about some issue makes philosophy a matter of ultimate indifference. Handed-down pedagogical practices and their textbook recitations of philosophy’s history—who said what, when, where—reveal little about what makes philosophy interesting and important. Classes which pour information into the students’ heads might add sophistication concerning the cultured world but likely leave students with the yawning indifference of “to each their own.” Philosophy as information is boring. It becomes exciting when these issues come alive as the student’s own. It happens with Socrates questioning people’s opinions in Plato’s dialogues. Students involved in doing philosophy find it a challenging and worthwhile activity.

Making sense can be cultivated by the practice of Socratic maieutic. It is an unconventional pedagogy because of its seeming ad hoc characteristics. However, improvisation requires knowing the history of philosophy with its resultant intellectual frameworks shaping not only what we take seriously but also the logic of what is thought. Developing a course dominated by the sharp tool of the critical question keeps the professor in a persistent mode of analysis as s/he works in the roles of protagonist or antagonist: “If what you say were true, then wouldn’t such and such be an unwelcomed result?” “How can that be argued if such and such is not the case?” Mastering the “critical question” moves students away from memorizing and repeating information into a confrontation with ideas.

Specific reading assignments vis a vis the issues depend on the philosopher’s interests, but the pertinent original material confronts students with the mind of a person intimately involved with an issue. Students prepare for class by developing critical questions (3″ by 5″ cards). Issues confronted by involved thinkers start to live when students, charged with the responsibility of developing critical questions, test their own reasoning powers. Does the author make sense? Discussion emerges in confrontation between thesis and counter thesis. Unused to such responsibility, students typically resort to asking for information: “I don’t understand this—what did she mean when she said . . . ?” and though the sought-for information might be provided through a mini-lecture, the professorial challenge remains that working with the student in developing the capacity to test the author’s position on a point. It is the challenge of the critical question.

What students take away from a philosophy of religion class, hopefully, is a view of how religious language works. Typically, they expect information about other of the world’s religions upon entering the class. These courses, found in Religious Studies Departments, miss what is demanding and important about the philosophy of religion: Do the underlying presumptions about religion make religious sense? Their analyses may shed light on some part of the intellectual space in which their religious thinking lives.

Thus the course question, “Why would anyone be religious?” anticipates moralistic incentives, first cause explanations, aesthetic awe or wonder, the presence of a seemingly rational universe in attempts at an answer this question, notions widely assumed in “common sense” conversation about religion. Skepticism created in the modern period (seventeenth century onward) challenged supernatural explanations, yielding to natural accounts of any of these phenomena. Unbowed, religious sympathizers defended their theses even melding philosophical outlooks of the modern period into a religious framework. Yet, all pay homage to a notion of an “ultimate truth” in the assertions made. The philosophical groundwork for understanding why or how such thinking originates is addressed in a philosophy of religion course. Thinking, as I do, that objectivistic accounts used in understanding religion are misguided, I would move toward a quite different possibility.

Why should religion exist at all? What forces the rise of religious language in the first place? This starting point brackets question of the objective existence of specific elements of religious beliefs or the efficacy of religious practices in order to reflect what there is in the human condition which forges itself into a religious language. It is a phenomenological probing of what “being human” entails which moves into the domain of hermeneutics.

Philosophically charged linguistic structures inherited in a subject-predicate grammar, Plato works into the subject term, pure Idea, purified or corrupted by dint of predicates incorporated into its life. The essential person is rational soul, eternal and divine, in danger of being compromised by a forever-in-flux corrupting material existence. It is only by striving for ‘the Good, the True, the rationally Beautiful,’ that there is authentic self-fulfillment. Neo-Platonist St. Augustine speaks of “being restless” until finding rest in the perfection of a changeless God. Buddhist priests seek enlightenment. It’s a typical religious theme in world religions aimed at staunching the drain of meaninglessness from life. Unnoticed is that the metaphysical distinction between essence (soul) and existence (body) begs the question of religious relevance. On this point (curiously), New Testament language insists on the impossibility of fleeing from intrinsic meaninglessness but believes in the necessity of a bodily existence (resurrection). Thus, an investigation of “received views” of religion is in order. What undergirds the different sorts of religious languages and lives?

I think that defining boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, spiritual/secular-physical is confused, or misleading, or misdirected. Some contemporary thinkers attempt to, thus opening a different hermeneutical approach to understanding religious language, something outside the Platonistic-types of interpretative analyses usually assumed. A world dominated by spirits and miracles is poles apart from explanation through chemistry and physics, but both may be ancient world thinking. Demythologization has been used in understanding religious language, but rethinking what it is that drives a religious life may be a more appropriate hermeneutic.

If words and the world we know are synonymous, they are generated from within the contexts and situations demanded by our living. The spoken intricacies that go into advancing our sense of life become our lived worlds. Scientific, social, personal worlds are brought to light in their being worded. We learn to speak the languages of each. Thus, “does God exist?” seen as an objective question is not a religious question. As a question of pseudo-objectivity, use of the word “God” is taken out of its context. It makes more sense to think in terms of a religious hermeneutic in which the concept, “God,” emerges as a way to probe and express the unfathomable ultimate meaninglessness of one’s own life.