Robert C. Roberts is Professor Emeritus at Baylor University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
I am not a professional philosopher of religion, and am not up to date in my reading in the field. I am writing in response to an invitation from the editors, who apparently think some remarks will be of interest to the blog’s readers. Many of the questions the editors posed as topics of a possible blog post are ones I am unqualified to address.
I am not a philosopher of religion, but I am a Christian, am a philosopher of sorts, and write about Christian topics, especially topics in Christian ethics and moral psychology. I taught philosophy in philosophy departments from 1973 to 2015. I’ll take this opportunity to describe for you what I do by way of applying philosophy to the religion that I know something about.
The people in the history of philosophy to whom my thinking is most indebted are Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Aristotle. I am also inspired by other ancient philosophers, in particular Plato (Socrates) and Seneca. My most recent book is Recovering Christian Character: The Psychological Wisdom of Søren Kierkegaard, forthcoming next spring from Eerdmans. I am currently at work on Attention to Virtues, the third volume in a trilogy on the moral psychology of emotions. The first volume is Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge, 2003) and the second is Emotions in the Moral Life (Cambridge, 2013). Another book, in a somewhat more popular vein, is Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Eerdmans, 2007). The trilogy is less explicitly Christian than the last book mentioned and the book on Kierkegaard. Attention to Virtues treats generosity, gratitude, compassion, forgivingness, truthfulness, patience, perseverance, self-control, courage, justice, the sense of duty, temperance, humility, pride, and the sense of humor. I take it that this list of moral traits, which is pretty representative of what people in our civilization would count as virtues, are arguably of Christian origin or inspiration. Some of them are downright un- or anti-Aristotelian. Some of them are not specifically Christian, but have Christian variants. One of the things I do, which might count as philosophy of religion, is to compare the Christian variant with other variants.
Philosophy, as I understand it, is not in itself ideological. There is no such thing as philosophical morality or philosophical religion as a kind of morality or religion. Philosophy is just a careful sorting-out of ideas, of concepts. It is a skill or practice that a person can become adept at, some people being more adept at it than others. A philosopher is a person who is “good at” the practice of philosophy. Wherever there are concepts, philosophy can be there to think them through. Some concepts, such as those belonging to ethics and one or another religion, are concepts that shape people. They do so by being paradigmatic ways that people “see” the “world” and by doing so affect how adherents of an ethics or religion judge and feel about events, situations, characters, and institutions, and consequently act on and in response to these.
So philosophy, as a careful and skilled sorting-out of concepts, can be useful in the service of a religion or an ethical point of view in making clear how that ethics or religion “works” conceptually, and how it differs from other ethical outlooks or religions with which it might be confused. It can thus serve a religious or ethical community in “defining,” and thus preserving and propagating, that community’s outlook and way of life.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which addresses the question what it is for human beings to live a “happy” (eudaimōn) life, can be read as a conceptual clarification of a certain post-Homeric ethical outlook, and thus as a sort of handbook for educational and political leaders who adhere to that outlook. Seneca’s On Benefits can be read as an extended conceptual analysis of the virtues of generosity and gratitude as these are practiced and lived by Stoics. Søren Kierkegaard wrote an entire literary corpus devoted to the project of “reintroducing Christianity to Christendom.” He thought that the Christian community of his day was conceptually degenerate and thus not living the Christian life. He called himself a “poet-dialectician.” ‘Dialectician’ was his word for philosopher. He thought that conceptual clarification, if it was to speak to people’s hearts, had to be also the work of a “poet,” and so he embedded his conceptual analysis in works of literary art. For him, conceptual clarification of matters of moral and religious character, to be fully adequate as conceptual clarification, needed to evoke pathos — interest, enthusiasm, caring, and emotions. Kierkegaard was clearly aware of the possibility of outlooks other than Christianity with which Christianity might be confused, and built into his writings philosophical explorations of alternative world-views. He was insistent on distinguishing Christianity from the alternatives that were especially attractive to his contemporaries. Famously, Wittgenstein thought that philosophy, well-practiced, would untangle knots in our understanding that hobble practitioners in our pursuit of human living. Philosophy is thus a liberating enterprise.
I am attracted to the idea of philosophy as therapy or tool of human “upbuilding” (Kierkegaard’s word). This is also the ancient ideal of philosophy as a humanizing enterprise (see the writings of Pierre Hadot). And since I think of Christianity as the ultimate humanizing “philosophy of life,” my approach is to use philosophical skills to clarify and commend Christianity as a way of life.