Travis Dumsday on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Travis DumsdayTravis Dumsday is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. 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.

One word: monks.

That answer may require a bit of unpacking.

To begin, I should note that I’m in agreement with many of the insightful points raised in the blog entries of my colleagues (e.g., Robert Larmer, Diane Proudfoot, and Derek Malone-France), in particular those regarding the critical thinking skills and interdisciplinary abilities fostered by work in philosophy of religion. But I’d like to focus on a point made in an earlier entry (December 22, 2015) by my fellow Albertan, Mark Gardiner (Mount Royal University). As I read him, Gardiner maintains that one of the crucial things philosophy of religion offers to the modern university is an implicit critique of some of the normative assumptions underlying the institution. I’d like to run with this idea, though Gardiner may or may not agree with where I end up.

The ‘modern’ (as opposed to the mediaeval etc.) university, and especially the modern Canadian university, aims largely to supply young people with the credentials needed for their professional advancement and long-term financial well-being. Many jobs that, 60 years ago, required only a high school diploma (if that) today require a 4-year degree. There are a variety of interlocking social and economic causes for this credential-creep, which causes continue to be debated by social scientists.  (There is also a live debate regarding whether credential-creep is, on the whole, a good thing or a bad thing; one worry is that credential-creep has exacerbated economic inequality, insofar as many jobs have been rendered inaccessible to people entirely capable of doing the work but who, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to complete the 4-year degree now erroneously viewed as its precondition.) At any rate, one of its effects is that for many university students today, the central aim is to acquire a credential, which credential is merely a means to financial security. (Note that I say ‘many’, not ‘most’, and ‘central aim’, not ‘sole aim’.)

Philosophy of religion implicitly places this institutional framework in question, by demanding that its students ask some very deep questions: what, if anything, is the underlying Cause (or causes) of the universe? If there is such a Cause (or causes) what is It (they) like? What, if anything, might It (they) rightly demand of us? What, in light of these facts, do we in turn owe one another? What, if anything, is the proper relationship between our answers to these questions and our modes of life as citizens in a modern polity?

Merely asking such questions raises the prospect of there being a good deal more to life, and to education, than the instrumental end of financial security. (Which is not to say that that end is valueless — merely that it’s instrumental.) This is of course understood already by most students, and would be readily admitted by them once made explicit. But the potential implications are enormous, and perhaps not as readily recognized. For what if there is good reason to think that there is, or even just that there could be, a higher Cause(s) underlying reality as we know it, and to whom we have certain moral obligations — perhaps even an obligation of devotion?

This prospect opens up the further possibility of a mode of life very different from (even contrary to?) that to which the modern university is largely oriented.

The example I am thinking of is traditional Orthodox monasticism, though the reader might supply alternative models. The Orthodox monk (‘monk’ in Orthodox terminology is gender-neutral, referring both to male and female monastics) traditionally lives a life of prayer, study, manual labour, and practical assistance to the poor. It is a mode of life that contributes nothing to the national GDP stats, which fact alone renders monasticism massively counter-cultural. It is a mode of life that, from the perspective of contemporary post-secondary education, probably seems crazy. Yet it can come to seem not only rational but perhaps even appealing – after one has engaged seriously with philosophy of religion. For this is a sub-discipline that inevitably confronts people with the radical possibility of there being a Higher Reality, and the further, even more striking possibility of getting in touch experientially with that Higher Reality.  Monasticism in its turn holds out the prospect of fulfilling that latter possibility by adopting a particular mode of life.

I like formalizing arguments premise/conclusion style:

Premise 1: If an academic sub-discipline is liable to make students ponder monasticism as a rational and appealing life choice, then that academic sub-discipline is massively counter-cultural.

Premise 2: Philosophy of religion is liable to make students ponder monasticism as a rational and appealing life choice.

Conclusion: Therefore philosophy of religion is massively counter-cultural.

The first premise seems true, provided one grants that the overall orientation of the modern university is prepping people for productive participation in a capitalist economy. The second premise may seem less obvious, but if so that’s probably because even those of us working in philosophy of religion tend not to grasp fully the existential implications of the ideas we’re engaged with. If good arguments reveal there is (or even might be) a Higher Reality (or Realities), how can that not push us to devote our lives to getting in touch with It (Them), or at least push us towards admiration of those who do thus devote their lives? What could be more important?

Of course, one’s assessment of the relevant arguments might lead one to conclude that there is no such Reality and that those who thus devote their lives are wasting their time. My point is just that the attempt to answer these questions is a radically counter-cultural activity in the context of the modern university. That’s a good thing, and something distinctive that philosophy of religion can offer the modern university, which claims to welcome critical self-assessment.

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