Mariana Alessandri is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas Pan American. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
A letter to my 12-year old niece, Hannah, who still knows that stories can be true—
Elie Wiesel wrote: “God made man because he loves stories.” What I love about this quote is that “he” is ambiguous. Does God love stories or do humans love stories? Both, I think. We come up with outrageous and magical stories, and the best ones I know are philosophical and religious. These stories help me breathe better, like when I come off of the Verrazano bridge and smell the ocean where I grew up. They make me want to live in this world, even when it’s ugly. In fact, the stories that move me wrestle with the ugly: why normal people can be so mean to each other, why people die or leave. They also try to explain the fun stuff—like how and why the world was created and whether there is life after death—and the tricky stuff like God, love, memory, time, and sadness. Great stories don’t always have satisfying answers, but they push us to be brave and keep asking questions.
Just because I call them stories doesn’t mean that I think they are false. The most beautiful stories ring true, first in my ears and then down the rest of my body. Sometimes this reverberation is pleasant and soft, but usually it comes in like thunder after lightning and rattles me. Religious stories remind me that I am permanently tied to—and therefore responsible for—other people. This ethical dimension is what makes a good story great, but when it strikes, my eyes close and my body instinctively turns away. I don’t like feeling bound, but since truth hurts sometimes, I stay and absorb it. Pain and permanence make religious stories analogous to big colorful tattoos: the only way to have the forever kind is by committing, and it’s always easier to live without one. Religious stories and tattoos require stamina, which feels right even when it feels bad. But with lots of detail and color, good stories and tattoos are filled with symbols and images that lie beneath the outer layers of self and skin.
Miguel de Unamuno says that philosophy and religion are enemies but that they desperately need one another. They fight like brother and sister but also love each other. I believe that religious stories are philosophical, and philosophical stories are religious. Since philosophers and religious people tell stories about what is and what should be, sometimes they try to poke holes in one another’s stories. Many philosophers think religious stories are silly, and many religious people think philosopher’s stories are false.
Scientists also tell stories, but few people realize it. When people take scientific stories as plain facts, they fail to see that science requires faith. Faith means believing in something unseen or uncertain, and scientific stories are just that. They stem from the unknown and require us to approach with the eyes of faith. Unamuno says that we begin with doubt—we don’t and can’t know a whole lot—and that’s where faith gets involved. Our job as humans is to choose what to have faith in. But not blind faith. Søren Kierkegaard believes that if you are going to leap you have to do it with eyes open. Belief is a risk, but not a random one.
In general, philosophy’s job is to rummage through different stories to understand them, analyze their pieces, and reconstruct them so they make the most sense. Philosophers of religion study religious stories, and philosophers of science study scientific stories. Sometimes the stories are coherent and all of the parts go together, but sometimes the pieces don’t quite line up. Philosophers of religion try to make sense of the story as a whole, and if they are good philosophers they reveal the story’s depth and nuance. Great philosophers of religion approach stories generously, with reverence. Some philosophers of religion are religious—they are convinced by a particular story and believe it is true—and some are just fascinated by many different stories but wouldn’t be willing to call any one true.
As humans who love stories, I believe that our job is to find the most beautiful story and, during the day, to work it over like a dog with a chew toy. We should play with it, study it, question it, bite it, toss it in the air, and catch it. At night we should be like a child with a tattered stuffed animal. We should take our story to bed with us and hold it tight, snuggle it and inhale its magic until we fall asleep. Finally we should memorize it and tell it to others.
I urge you to choose a story and commit to it with all of the passion and courage you can. Without staking your life on a story the world is just a mess—a boring mess. If you are armed with a good story, the world gets filled with colors and reasons and meaning. But, be aware that the world will never lose its uncertainty—there are still many questions that philosophers and religious people and scientists won’t answer or might get wrong—but that uncertainty gives life three dimensions. No one can force you to believe a story that they think is true, but neither can anyone stop you from believing a story that you think is true. None of us can prove beyond all doubt which stories are true and which aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist. Seek it and find it. Don’t fall for easy answers, though. Punctuate your life with questions marks instead of periods, and you will never mistake yourself for finished.