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.

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