Peter Jonkers on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

peter jonkersPeter Jonkers is full professor of philosophy at Tilburg University (School of Catholic Theology) in the Netherlands. 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.

In his foreword to a recent book on the revitalization of religious culture through university education the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes: “In a university world where what counts as knowing, what counts as sustainable truth claims and, ultimately, what counts as ‘humanistic’ are all issues surrounded by some confusion at the moment, theology’s contribution to the conversation is not trivial. The humanities sorely need defences against functionalist barbarity – and so, for that matter, do most of the sciences. And what happens to these questions in the university is significant for what happens to them in our culture overall. Academic questions are not – as it were – purely academic questions” (cfr. O. Crisp, G. D’Costa, M. Davis, P. Hampson (eds.), Theology and Philosophy. Faith and Reason. London: Bloomsbury, 2011, viii). What Williams writes here about the role of theology in the university also applies to philosophy of religion, and perhaps even in a more appropriate sense. Since (Christian) religion is about the truth, it has to be engaged with all the ways in which human beings in general talk about truth and believe they discover and cope with it. Philosophy of religion is well apposite to examine religious truth claims and compare them with those in other fields of research and human culture in general.

What characterizes the public and academic debate is a growing mismatch between religious truths and what counts as sustainable truth claims in the university and society at large. This mismatch also concerns theological truth claims, since theology is a theoretical reflection on the truths of religion. The predominant truth-paradigm in the university world is a scientific, objectivistic and functionalistic one, and almost all researchers at universities have to fulfill the requirements set by this paradigm in order to count as respected academics. All other expressions of the human mind, however reflective and well-argued they may be, are typically reduced to private opinions and utterances of subjective taste. Religion and theology somehow seem to be stuck in this bifurcation: they obviously do not want to follow the paradigm of scientific truth, but nevertheless refuse to be disqualified as a body of contingent opinions. What makes things worse is that the truth-claims of religion concern a reality that is beyond ordinary empirical observation, and this ‘surreal’ character reflects negatively on theology. Consequently, not only have religious truths lost a great deal of their societal plausibility, but theology too is forced into a defensive position, and is hardly accepted as a respected discussion partner in the university debate. Nowadays, many academics consider religion and theology as equally non-cognitive, and even dispute the latter’s place in the academia.

Although this condition of religion and theology is quite unfavorable, but, at the same time, unlikely to change soon, it creates a good opportunity for philosophy of religion to show what it can offer to the modern university. First of all, philosophy of religion has an essential role in clarifying the current confusion about what counts as knowing, as truth-claims, and as humanistic. Unlike theology, its object of study is not primarily God and how he has revealed himself through Scripture, the history of humankind and nature, but rather religion as an empirical reality. This puts philosophy of religion on a par with other disciplines in the modern university, and makes it more acceptable as a discussion partner. But unlike most other disciplines at the university, including many other philosophical sub-disciplines, philosophy of religion has a close connection with the specific kind of rationality and truth that is prevalent in religion, but differs substantially from what counts as sustainable truth claims in ordinary fields of research at the university. To be more precise, religious truth is not so much a theoretical or doctrinal kind of truth, but an existential one: religions claim to offer humans a truthful orientation in their lives that will enable them to lead a fulfilled life. Hence, religious truth can only be discovered through a reflection that is closely connected to a religious way of life. Through its sensitivity to the atypical, but also intriguing, character of religious truth as existential, philosophy of religion has something vital to offer to the modern university: by pointing to the existential character of religious truth, philosophy of religion can deconstruct the problematic univocity that dominates the university discussions about what counts as sustainable truth claims, thus offering a clarification of the current confusion.

Secondly, and in connection with the previous point, by interpreting religious truth as existential, philosophy of religion can contribute in putting up a defensive wall against the ‘functionalistic barbarity’ that has such devastating effects on the place of the humanities in the university. Such an approach of the humanities has led to reducing the humanities to what is economically useful, while disregarding the role of humanities as a study of the expressions of human culture for its own sake. As Rowan Williams points out, the barbarity of functionalism is not confined to the university, but spreads to human culture overall. Functionalism deprives human life and culture of their substance, and interprets them as instrumental for something else. Among many other social philosophers, Jürgen Habermas has warned against the dangerous effects of such a colonization of the life world. Religion has always resisted a functionalist reductionism, since it is essentially about the very substance of human life and the world. Against this background, it is no wonder that Habermas, especially in his more recent work, draws attention to religion as a safeguard of substantial values that tend to be forgotten in our functionalistic age. They are not only relevant for believing people, but also for secular ones. The task of philosophy of religion, not only in the university, but even more importantly in society as a whole, is to ‘translate’ these substantial religious values and truth claims into the language of reason, which can be universally understood.

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