J. Aaron Simmons on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

J. Aaron Simmons is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University. 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 norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?

I have described my own approach to philosophy of religion as “mashup philosophy of religion” because I think that there is virtue in drawing broadly on different philosophical traditions, religious perspectives, and disciplinary methodologies.

Personally, I am deeply influenced by continental trajectories in philosophical inquiry, but I often resist the characterization of my work as “continental philosophy of religion” because such a description too often allows for fundamentally different (and largely opposed) norms to be operative in different types of philosophy of religion. Rather than understanding these different approaches as metaphorical streams all feeding into a larger river, what one too often finds are seemingly different bodies of water altogether and each claiming to be the best, or only, river in the watershed. I find this to be unfortunate and amounts to a missed opportunity for robust engagement with others who think about similar questions from different perspectives. That we might come down differently from our interlocutors does not necessarily mean that we are engaging in a different sort of philosophy (though that might be the case), but that we disagree about where the arguments lead us as philosophers.

Despite my deep commitment to such pluralistic “mashup” work, I do think that philosophy of religion must remain self-consciously philosophical, as opposed to claiming theological authority, on the one hand, or attempting simply to provide poetic inspiration, on the other hand. As far as I am concerned, far too much of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion slides too easily into confessional theology, and far too much of contemporary continental philosophy of religion becomes not much more than imaginative creative writing. Although there is significant value in both theology and also in creative writing, neither should be understood as easily interchangeable with philosophy of religion.

Without question, philosophy of religion should be in conversation with a variety of texts (those that claim revealed authority within a particular community as well as those that aim to inspire particular forms of life are both quite valid resources), but philosophy, whether understood as a way of life or as a professional discourse, should be devoted ultimately to offering sound arguments supported by evidence. Such evidence should be, in principle, available to all members of the philosophical community in order for that community to have appropriately functional (even if porous and contingent) boundaries. So, whereas “analytic” theology, say, sometimes seems problematically to limit the community to whom it is speaking to those philosophers already agreed about basic matters of religious existence, “radical” continental theology sometimes seems equally problematically to replace argumentation with rhetorical flourish.

Warning against such tendencies, however, should not amount to a radical rejection of the discourses in which they occur. Hopefully philosophy of religion can appropriate what is right about both theology and also poetics without forgetting its own historical identity as philosophy. Namely, like theology and poetic writing, philosophy of religion should be personally compelling by speaking to where we find ourselves as finite beings trying to find meaning in a complex world.

Theology impressively fosters personal investment, for example, by cultivating a profound sense of humility in relation that which is variously termed “the transcendent,” “the divine,” or “God.” As such, our lived existence is perhaps at stake in theology in a way that is not often true for philosophy of religion due to its frequent attempt to be detached, objective, or neutral. Rather than reminding us of our humanity, such objectivist gestures can sometimes serve to separate us as inquirers from ourselves as existing individuals. Alternatively, creative poetic writing fosters existential awareness, perhaps, by reminding us that existence is never reducible to the conclusion of an argument regarding the content of the good life.

Excellent philosophy of religion understands that arguments matter, but always remembers that such arguments always only matter for someone, somewhere, and for some reason. Like poets and theologians, philosophers are people too!

Theology and poetry, thus, both give concrete expression to the idea that we are beings made for more than symbolic logic-but this very point is something for which philosophers can provide very good arguments. Borrowing slightly from Heidegger, we might say while poetics realizes that we should sing and dance before God, theology understands that it is probably a good idea not just to sing and dance before anything whatsoever. Accordingly, philosophers of religion should care about holding true beliefs about traditionally religious concepts, but also about taking seriously the lived human condition that serves as the existential context in which philosophers find themselves seeking such truth.

So, as a matter of professional identity, how can excellent philosophy of religion strike this balance of being appropriately personal without being narrowly confessional, on the one hand, while being existentially vibrant without abandoning argumentative rigor, on the other hand? Asked slightly more phenomenologically, how can philosophy of religion be “objective” enough to remain a proper academic discipline while also being “subjective” enough to speak to the all-too-human search for meaning, value, and truth? Or, asked as a question about academic disciplines, how can philosophy of religion remain a thoroughly humanistic discourse while also being able to speak with and to the social and natural sciences?

As just a first step toward thinking through these questions, let me recommend two concrete practices in particular that I think are likely to help philosophy of religion to strike such complicated balancing acts.

First, in order to maintain the “objective” traits that ought to characterize academic discourse, broadly construed, philosophy of religion should more self-consciously appreciate the diversity of global religious traditions by drawing deeply on the work done in the academic study of religion. Attending to such work helps to overcome the temptation to think that religion is exclusively, or even primarily, a matter of correct belief. Moreover, by looking to the historical practices of those cultural movements categorized as “religious,” philosophers can overcome the suspicion that philosophy of religion is just disguised theology by becoming a critical conversation partner with the social sciences. Learning from sociology of religion, history of religion, and comparative religious studies, for example, philosophy of religion can remain committed to argumentation as its primary mode of humanistic engagement, but now with a much more expanded social data set from which such arguments might proceed.

Second, the “subjective” aspects of philosophy of religion can be helpfully reinforced when philosophers attend more openly to the conceptual difficulties of the category of “religion” itself. Personal investment is philosophy of religion can be productively invited when individuals see themselves at stake in the arguments being offered. To that end, there is a lot for philosophers of religion to learn from those working in critical theories of religion. The basic terms of our discourse, ‘God’, ‘divine,’ ‘faith’, ‘salvation’, etc., are themselves products of very particular social histories in which our own identities are formed, shaped, and constantly renegotiated. Far from placing the category of “religion” at arm’s length from our lives, philosophy of religion should engage what we call “religion” as an historical phenomenon that invites our intimacy, trust, and investment. In this way, philosophy of religion can, itself, serve as something of a corrective to the objectivist tendencies that so often characterize the academy as defined by STEM priorities.

Philosophy of religion should not seek to eliminate theology or poetics. Similarly, philosophy of religion should engage the sciences without abandoning its own identity and humanistic values. Ultimately, philosophy of religion maximally displays an excellence all its own when it navigates the space between these different areas of human expression without simply becoming merely a subsidiary of any of them.

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