Anna Djintcharadze on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Anna Djintcharadze specializes in history and philosophy of the religious mind. Her main research interests are Neoplatonism, medieval reception of Neoplatonic heritage, modern philosophy, history of scientific ideas, and existentialism. She has taught a variety of subjects at Boston College, the Institut de Formation Théologique de Montréal, the Saba Orbeliani Institute for Philosophy in Georgia, and the Dominican University College in Ottawa. She is currently working on a book project, entitled:”God or Nature? An attempt of Anthropocentric Theodicy”. We invited her 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.

I think the spontaneous answer would be – justify the university’s claim of universality.

The university’s many disciplines are the reflection of man’s mental and spiritual activity. Philosophy, however, is a reflexive activity on all these reflections, which is the reason why it transcends them all and we can have a philosophy of health, of art, of economics, etc. The university thus draws its universal character from the humanistic idea of being an anthropologically holistic enterprise – of yielding a portrait of the best of contemporary man, both factual and ideal.

Religion, whether it is understood as a culturally crucial institution, recognized by a given society as a mediating instance between the transcendent world and immanent society, or as a personally chosen stance vis-à-vis the transcendent, is as much an inalienable and organically produced instance of what it means to be human, as is the practice of mathematics, the writing of poetry, or the building of skyscrapers. Religion is a formally necessary ingredient of humanness, since it has been organically generated by humans throughout history. Hence, not only should religion occupy an equal status among the other disciplines philosophically reflected upon at a university, but it should be recognised as one of the most proper and necessary human activities. For it is not reason that distinguishes humans from animals, but spirituality; while beavers possess enough of intellect to build dams, spiders display calculative powers to weave intricate patterns, ants build highly structured communities, etc., none of the animals has ever produced a religion. Thus, homo religiosus is a label that captures what is distinctively human better than the term homo sapiens. Moreover, since in order to give justice to man one must describe him in a truly universal manner, the university’s anthropocentric curriculum should be crowned with the study of man’s religious dimension.

One certainly could retort that the human unique capacity to produce religion is not qualitatively different from animals, because it is due exclusively to man’s quantitatively greater rational powers, so the concept of God would be the result of greater rationality that also makes fantasies possible. However, it is impossible to defend the claim, because, although religion always receives a certain rational formalisation, the source of its very existence is not in rational discourse; no convinced religious person subscribes to his/her religion for the sake of mere rational schemes derived from unconditional premises that describe that religion. Whilst the question “How and why I am/I am not religious” is a rational, reflexively discursive question about one’s state of mind, the very formal presence of the capacity to be or not to be consciously religious definitely transcends mere reason, since the fact of being/not being religious is not the result of a choice based on merely rational conclusions. This is so because the essence of religion, unlike the essence of analytic philosophy or classical metaphysics, is never to be “about” something, but to be “that” very something; religion is never a ratio, a bit describing the whole — it wants to be the whole itself, its experiential reality, and so the primordial nature of its self-understanding is to go beyond both immanent experience and formal discourse towards a transcendent experience. When such an experience, real or claimed, receives later a logical description and justification, this discourse is always a secondary, conditional part of the religious phenomenon as such. Hence, man can rationally accept or reject the reality and possibility of a transcendent experience, but this rational choice is not the effect of a rational cause: it is rather the result of a qualitatively different order. In fact, no one accepts or rejects transcendent experience on the ground of mere logical consistency or non-consistency of the concept, but on the ground of having or not having transcendent experience(s).

This moves us closer to a definition of man as “self-transcendence”. As long as humanity is alive, it will strive to go beyond itself and to look for transcendent experiences, be it in lofty forms, such as mental and artistic creativity, or in other forms that go beyond what is strictly natural to being “human”. Especially in our times we notice a frantic drive towards everything that is trans-…. The ethics of transgression, by the way, is another abstruse form of the quest of self-transcendence.  This means that even when – and perhaps especially when – existing religion is not capable of satisfying such a going beyond oneself into the divine, man will necessarily find other outlets to outdo himself and in this sense to be religious – whether in a cyborg, or even in suicide. Thus, religion is an inescapable human reality.

Now, what about the philosophical reason that is to deal with religion? It seems that it also needs a transcendent definition, if it wants to deal with religious content. Semyon Frank – a Russian 20th century thinker has defined reason as “a rational transcendence of rational thought”. And it remains true that in order to reinvent a whole man, it is reason that urgently needs to acquire the capacity of self-transcendence, and go beyond the safe and boring petty-bourgeois soul of formal thought. Otherwise, it risks self-transcendence into folly. Modern thought has inherited a less than self-evident division between faith (religion, transcendent experience) and reason that itself is a fruit of a reductionist view of man – a peculiar reduction indeed, since aiming at extolling both reason and faith, it leaves both humiliated: reason is broken and impoverished, because it is denied the capacity of anything that goes beyond formal, calculative functions; and faith (religion as transcendent experience) is broken too, because reason is excluded as a witness of the content of faith, leaving faith  withou any rational approval. The question then is: with such a schizophrenic self-image, how do we hope to be able to be true to ourselves in a universal way? The healing of this self-image is the main challenge that the university agenda should take up if universality is what it claims to offer. Might the philosophy of religious experience contribute to activating reason’s self-transcending possibilities?

Today we live amidst a plethora of religions and spiritualities. Each arises from a particular transcendent experience which finds formalization in a particular rationality that, being borne by experience, provides the latter with logical justification. Since it is eventually this justification that conditions humans to act in very different and contradictory ways, forming different and contradictory cultures, we need to take ourselves seriously as religious-capable subjects   and mend the rend between reason and religion. We must accept that it is not “pure” reason that drives man’s decisions, such reason being an empty formal tool, but a live (or claimed) content of self-transcending experiences to which reason testifies and in which it participates. Kant was more than right when he said that concepts are empty without experience and experience is blind without concepts; only, we must go beyond Kant and add “transcendent” to “experience”.

If modern university curricula are not able to recognize spiritual, religious phenomena as core driving forces behind humanity’s self-image, then it’s the modern university that needs to answer the question asked here, namely: what does the modern university offer to the world? What do humanities offer to humanity and humanness? A broken reflection of man, apetty cog, several thousand times less powerful than a computer, who vainly tries to escape himself in sheer self-dislike? Man is there for the magnificent and for the dauntlessly grand, so the agenda of holistic anthropocentrism is the university’s first and foremost function; if thinking “humpty-dumpties” are not able to put themselves together again – if the prejudicial reductionism of reason versus faith  continues to reign in the university’s mental culture and yield its bitter fruits, then the university’s pretense to promote human dignity, true self-knowledge, creative joy, and self-betterment, will be a pretentiously vain and damaging pursuit.

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