Clayton Crockett on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Clayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. 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.

For me, values are contextual and relative to practice, rather than universal or apodictic. Norms and values that work best for philosophy of religion are shared with more general academic practices and disciplines, including critical thinking, rigorous scholarship, contribution to knowledge, and openness to alternative perspectives. Most academics, including philosophers of religion, desire that their work benefit society as a whole, but also understand the need to bracket such commitments at least in part for the sake of the integrity of their work. Philosophy of religion is not restricted to the academy, but it functions mainly in institutions connected to higher education.

The more specific values of philosophy of religion then pertain to the two terms, philosophy and religion. Philosophy is a more established discipline in the contemporary academy, although there remain many arguments and disputes about the best methodology and practice of philosophy. The predominant major language of philosophy is Anglo-analytic, although analytic philosophy is not so much an object of commitment as a heuristic language and tool to analyze, evaluate and argue about philosophical concepts. I claim that philosophy functions best when it operates in an environment of plurality that understands and affirms diverse languages and methods of theoretical reflection.

In the modern world, religion generally functions in tension with rational explanation, so a philosophy of religion is charged with explaining the unexplainable, at least apparently. Furthermore, academic religious studies is not a discipline, but rather an inter- or multi-disciplinary field of study. Religion as an object of philosophical (or any other disciplinary methodological) focus can easily be reduced and re-described in terms that are foreign to it. The challenge is to acknowledge both the complexity of the theoretical-philosophical analysis, as well as the complexity of the phenomenon that is being studied. For traditional analytic philosophy of religion, the preposition ‘of’ may function to colonize religion for the sake of philosophical understanding in a way that distorts the integrity of religion as an object of investigation.

In more Continental or existential terms, philosophy may risk going native, because it attempts to do justice to religion as religion, and expresses it in conceptual categories without reducing it to philosophical analysis. Some forms of Continental philosophy of religion operate essentially as religion or religious discourse, and fail to clearly demarcate the lines between philosophy of religion and religion as such. Here the challenge is to adopt and apply a clear philosophical methodology and rigor for defining, interpreting and understanding religion.

What is religion? The most common etymologies involve recourse to the Latin word religio, which in turn is related to religare, to re-bind, or relegere, to re-read. I propose that we consider both of these potential origins as a specific kind of relation. Relation, however, is not a repetition of an original action or lation. Relation is how we relate, or the ways in which we are implicated, enfolded, or entangled in phenomena. If we think about religion as a certain form of relation, then we can reflect on what religion shows or tells us about relations in general. Relations are connections, but they can also serve to disconnect. Religions connect and disconnect, in myriad ways.

We might say that religion tries to diagnose a problem or a disease that makes it harder to live in harmony with the ultimate reality in ontological or ethical terms. If there is a diagnosis, there must also be a prescription, whether or not a complete cure is possible, so there must be some things that religion proposes that humans can do to restore a healthier or more harmonious relationship. Relations, relationships, and religions change, which is both an obstacle and an opportunity. Nothing stays the same, at least in this world. How do relationships change their terms, and are there any things that exist prior to relations? These questions and reflections hopefully contribute to how we conceive of a good relationship, and address the question of what it means to live together.

This is an abstract language of relations and relationships that I am deploying to think about religion. There is no natural, neutral philosophical language in which to write about religion, or anything else for that matter. Words are not safe. Sometimes philosophers and other scholars of religion are tempted to regionalize religion, while universalizing philosophy or whatever methodological academic discourse is considered most effective. But religion is as universal and ontological as anything else, which means that it does not simply fit neatly within the parameters of any conceptual categorization.

For these reasons, I contend that awareness of complexity, humility, open-mindedness, creativity, and appreciation of novelty are as vital to the practice of philosophy of religion as conceptual analysis, honesty, clarity, and rigor. Along with our commitment to critical reflection, we need to be open to learning new things, not just new information about religion, but new modes of philosophical activity, appreciation, and understanding regarding what we conceive as religious. Our values change in relation to others(’). If we are sensitive to these transformations, we can aspire to excellence in the philosophy of religion.

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