Dale M. Schlitt is Professor of Theology, Philosophy and Spirituality at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. 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.
Perhaps a little musing about religion in relation to lived experience and then about the relationship between it and philosophy of religion would prove helpful. Focusing on religion as arising out of lived experience might help situate anew philosophy’s essential roles in relation to religion. Though religion, like philosophy, pretty well concerns all forms of experience, that to which it relates most basically is the past and present lived experience of an ultimate or, more generally stated, of some way “beyond.” Whether that be a divinity, an ideal way of living, a specific way of relating to reality as a whole or in one or more of its particulars. Such experience may be characterized more by a self-other structure as, for example, in theistic religions and quasi-religious attitudes toward reality or one or more aspects of it. But such experience may also be witnessed to as a pure experiencing, for example, that affirmed in Advaitic a-dualism. Mutatis mutandis, whether structured or not, such experience could be communal, shared, personal, individual, or several of these forms taken together. It could also be them considered cumulatively. It may also be something witnessed to in the past as, for example, by the architecture and sculpture at the immense Angkor Wat temple complex in northern Cambodia, which provides access to, and a certain understanding of, Hindu and then Buddhist experience centuries ago. It may be originary, giving rise, in each case in its own way, to subsequent religious or quasi-religious communities. Such has occurred in Buddhism with Siddhārtha Gautama and his experience, to put it too simply, as extinction of desire, and in Christianity with Jesus of Nazareth and his experience of God as Father and Spirit. Experience of an ultimate or a “beyond” may be affirmed as occurring in the present, which is the case with the seven-hundred-year-old tradition of entrancing Dervish whirling or with Pentecostal/Charismatic experiences of the Spirit renewing the first Pentecost experience. And such experience may continue to be witnessed to as well as further encouraged in the singing of Charles Wesley’s thousands of often lilting hymns. It may live on as expressed in indigenous attitudes toward sacred reality, for example, the case of aboriginal respect for and honoring of the perhaps 500-million-year-old sacred monolith Uluru in north central Australia.
Might we not, then, consider specific religions to be codified, to use the word in a very wide sense, and at least quasi-institutionalized remembering and celebrating of various past and present experiences of some ultimate or “beyond”? In so remembering and celebrating them, they would generally encourage their continuance within specific communities and, as is often the intention, their occurrence in wider segments of humankind. Religion as such would, then, be the remembering, celebration, and further encouragement of experiences of some ultimate or a “beyond” like these and so many other such experiences throughout the world.
Given this possible understanding of religions and of religion in general, the philosophy of religion would take on a series of roles, at least three in fact, specifically its own. Though in each of these roles, it would call, as helpful, on fields of study as varied as physics, history, psychology, and those treating of mediums such as architecture, painting, various forms of writing, music, sculpture, and so forth used to express experience of an ultimate or a “beyond.”
First of all, an appreciative role. It would approach a specific religion with an initial respect accorded to such experiences and to witnesses of them. These experiences and testimonials would deserve respect due to their serious nature, frequent long-term duration, and offer of meaning to those who adhere to a specific religious or quasi-religious tradition.
A second role for philosophy of religion would— in line with its overall character as reasoned study and analysis of the reality to which it attends—be to review, in both negative and positive critical fashion, a religion and its continuing expression of past and present experiences of some ultimate or a “beyond.” This review would proceed in at least three steps. First, it would involve paying careful attention to experiences insofar as they are made available through various means employed in the religion concerned. These would include, for example, writing, architecture, art, voice, music, as well as religious, social, and ethics-related practices encouraged in the religion. Such attention would raise questions concerning internal coherence of experiences in themselves and in relation to one another. Second, it would bring to bear scientific study, for example, of human psychology and physiology on the possibility, character, and quality of such experiences (while reminding itself that various experiences may, at the same time, call into question the relevance of, even the viability of, aspects of such study and resultant information). Third, it would embark on an admittedly very difficult and complex task of suggesting whether and to what extent experiences lived in the religious tradition enrich the lives of those who participate in them and contribute to the overall flourishing not only of the religious community in question but, in principle at least, of humankind as a whole. Criteria for such critical evaluation would take into consideration the goals of the religious tradition. And the philosopher or philosophers of religion making such an evaluation would make explicit, in all self-reflexive honesty, specific points of view and values they bring to the evaluation.
A third role for philosophy of religion would consist in further reasoned reflection, this time in a more constructive mode, developing insights brought forward in the previous appreciative and critical reflections. For example, this development might well consist in greater clarification of such insights, in suggesting interconnections among them, in proposing ways in which they might be expanded to describe reality or aspects of it in a more philosophically expressed vein, and in bringing forward the potential truth-value of the religion concerned in its remembrance, celebration, and encouragement of past and present lived experiences of an ultimate or a “beyond.” Bringing together constructive reflections on a series of religions might lead to an appreciation of religion-as-such’s constituting a form of truth for humankind.
Musings concerning the relationship between religion and philosophy of religion invite further musings, thus reflecting the often playful and, one hopes, ultimately fruitful character of imaginative reflexive thought.
A background reference: my forthcoming Testimonials to Experience of the Trinity, Peeters Publishing.