Ronald Hall is Professor of Philosophy at Stetson University and Editor-in-Chief of International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
What is the primary task of the philosophy of religion? Perhaps this question is ill-conceived. After all, there are multiple tasks that have been proposed and pursued. So a better question might be: “What is the first order of business for the philosophy of religion?” I think there might be widespread agreement about this. Like all areas of inquiry, the philosophy of religion must begin with words about its words.
In saying this, I take my lead from a cryptic remark of Wittgenstein’s in Philosophical Investigations (373). Here we find Wittgenstein saying: “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.).” I think we can expand his suggestion and include the philosophy of religion as a grammatical investigation, at least, in part. In saying this, I do not suggest that grammatical investigation has been or should be the exclusive task of the philosophy of religion. However, I do think that it is obvious that work in the philosophy of religion must begin with discussions or assumptions about the meaning of its terms, that is, terms like ‘God’, ‘freedom’ and ‘immortality’, not to mention ‘evil’, ‘creation’, ‘suffering’, ‘existence’, ‘faith’ and so forth. In asking what God is, or evil is (say moral or natural) the “is” here is the “is” of identification, and not the ‘is” of existence. (Existence is not a predicate). Philosophy of religion may not have the last word regarding the “is” of identification, but it must take its first order of business as that of identifying its terms; as I might put this, the philosophy of religion’s first word should be words of conceptual clarification. Questions of existence may or may not come up, but if they do, they should only come up as after-words.
Often it is thought that addressing the question of meaning (the question of what something is) is simply preliminary to addressing the really important work of the philosophy of religion, namely, the work of establishing that something is. The difference between the two senses of “is” is subtle. Consider this difference: “This is evil” vs. “This is evil”. Clearly, the view that the primary business of the philosophy of religion is to argue for or against the existence of God (evil, faith, and all the rest) has, historically speaking, dominated the discipline. I might even say, it carries the current day in the field. We see this in approaches to the philosophy of religion that model it on scientific inquiry. When this approach is taken, the philosophy of religion becomes a kind of “science of God”. The existence of God is taken to be a hypothesis measurable by its explanatory power, coherence, simplicity, and other scientific virtues. Here the grammar of God is taken to parallel to the grammar of empirical theory. And I note that even here, the philosophy of religion begins with grammatical assumptions; grammar has the first word, a first word that sets the parameters of its subsequent existential task. As this approach reckons, what could be more important than the question of God’s existence? If God does not exist, religious language is not about anything anymore than mathematics is about anything. Religious language games need to be tied to reality if we are to take them seriously. For this approach therefore, the most important order of business for the philosophy of religion is the project of settling the questions of existence. Accordingly, its interests are in theistic belief, truth, and reality. As such, the relevant questions are whether or not there are justifying grounds for theistic belief or not, whether or not the claim that God does or does not exist is true, and whether or not God is the name of some independently existing reality.
As I conceive of it, the philosophy of religion as grammar does not make existential assumptions: There is no assumption that the “object” named by ‘God’ exists. Rather, the interest here is in exploring the meaning of different ways of understanding what ‘God’ means. This does not deny that the term God has existential import; rather the focus is on the term’s use in our lives; to take account of this use makes it clear what kind of object “God” is taken to betoken. Grammar tells us that God may not be a something; but it also may tell us that it is not a nothing either. More profoundly, the philosopher of religion’s task is to confess that even though we do not, indeed cannot, grasp fully what not being a nothing comes to, nor can we say exhaustively what not being a nothing is, we can acknowledge the wonder of our confrontation with its mystery and at least declare that how we use these terms (what they mean) is a function of their role in the life of the religious community.
For many, this is simply not satisfying, or not satisfying enough. It is not as though these philosophers of religion are in dispute about the importance of getting clear about the meaning religious language, it is rather that they would find the work the philosophy of religion disappointing if it did not or cannot go further. I do not deny that the drive to settle questions of existence is intense. But, for me, it is intensely personal, not philosophical. At the same time, I am driven by my intense philosophical interest in understanding what the terms of religious discourse mean. For me, getting clear about the grammar of religious terms is gratification enough to keep me passionately engaged in the findings of grammatical analysis. These findings, these clarifications, set the stage for whatever personal settlement on these matters of existence anyone can hope for.