Robert Cummings Neville on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert Cummings Neville is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Boston 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.

To recall my previous blogs here, I believe that the primary meaning of philosophy of religion is when someone with a really big philosophy says something interesting about religion. A secondary meaning is when someone lacks the big philosophy but deals with some aspect of religion. The former is what we usually teach, the latter is what we publish, those of us who lack big philosophies.

What is the future of all this? Let’s project a 15 year future and a 50 year future, beginning with the 15 year one.

In 15 years, I suspect that the concern for critical theory will die out or fall into the background. Philosophers have always been interested in the normative topics of critical theory, e.g. Plato, and I would agree with this. But as Plato showed, and Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita, the normative aspects are always there. The narrow-minded normative concerns of critical theory would be missing. Also, I suspect that the differences between Continental philosophy and analytic philosophy will be much less pronounced. Because philosophers are now being educated in Continental or analytic departments, those differences will still be present; but people in those departments now feel guilty about the differences and will pass that on. I doubt that things will be much changed in 15 years regarding the global and multidisciplinary aspects of philosophy.

In 50 years, however, scholars who are trained in all the non-Western ways will be listened to by Westerners and participate in philosophy of religion, whatever it is called. They will make philosophy of religion genuinely global in its approaches to religion with all the insights that will bring. This will start with making philosophy in the “big” sense pay attention to the many different religions on those religions’ own terms. In about 30 years, it will be common for all philosophers to acknowledge that the Western religions approach ultimacy with intentional metaphors, South Asian religions with consciousness metaphors, and East Asian ones with naturalistic metaphors, discarding both personal intentionality and consciousness as not relevant. In 50 years, I suspect that any education in philosophy would be genuinely global and count all the different religions as part of the global mix, not distinguishing them by geographic regions but by doctrines. Also, all philosophers with big ideas will conceive of religion as on scales moving from very specific and particular historical locations toward more transcendent and indeterminate forms. Those scales might mark off particular religious groups, or they might mark off the movement of particular individuals. Understanding religions to be scaled like this will have obvious effects on membership in one or several of them, and even on the meaning of membership. It’s one thing for Abhinavagupta to carry his deep devotion all the way to his indeterminate goal and another thing entirely for a scholar to carry a deep intellectual but rather passionless mind that far.

In 50 years, I suspect that philosophy of religion will carry the multidisciplinary aspect of it rather far as well. This will be because religion itself will be understood to be a harmony of essential and conditional components. The essential components have to do with ultimacy, and the study of ultimacy is a “big” issue that will carry a lot of weight. But the conditional components are those that religion needs or accidentally has that can be studied on their own terms and also in terms of their relations with religion. For instance, every religion has a social setting. Religious organizations can be studied in social scientific and political ways, with terms that relate those organizations to many aspects of things. But they also can be understood in terms of how they relate to people engaging ultimacy and these are the religious aspects of how religious organizations function. Or, for instance, a biologist can study an environment for ways in which its natural elements hang together, or fail to do so. But this misses how a religion finds ultimacy in various aspects of that environment; this is the religious aspect of the environment.

In 50 years, philosophy with big questions will have a wide field to cover in contributing to philosophy of religion. It will need to study all the elements of ultimacy, and how it is found and practiced in various local and world religions, globally and in particular locals. But it will also need to relate all these aspects of ultimacy to the various social embodiments of religion, to its political forces, its anthropological characters, its diverse environmental embodiments, its macroscopic and microscopic aspects, its multiple roles in history from the local to the global levels. Philosophy of religion will also include the diverse kinds of accidents of religion, the kinds of things that arise someplace but do not last. Finally, philosophy of religion will have to relate religions to philosophy itself, to its various achievements and failures, and to its ongoing adventures with the “big” ideas.

The largest issue for philosophy of religion in 50 years on my account is what happens to the “big” ideas. I am assuming here that the global conversation will gather steam and be genuine with altered modes of education in 50 years. I am assuming also that religion will be recognized, at least Neville’s version, as having essential and conditional components. Because of the essential components, religion cannot be reduced to sociology, economics, anthropology, journalism, or any other discipline that might turn out to be good for analyzing the spheres with which religion is related. Who can say what those disciplines will be? What will be the new “big” ideas that apportions them their work?

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