Kevin Timpe on “Is There A Future For The Philosophy of Religion?”

Kevin Timpe is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin 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.

In an earlier blogpost, Troy DuJardin asked “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” I think the answer to this question is, obviously, yes. After all, the excellent book that he, M. David Eckel, and C. Allen Speight recently edited itself is a great example of what I take to be the continued flourishing of the field. One notices that the book’s title doesn’t contain the question mark that adorns the blogpost, and I think there’s good reason for that.

Despite my disagreement with the implied uncertainly from the blog post’s title, I think that DuJardin, both in the post and especially along with his co-editors in the volume’s introduction raise some great issues. This, I take it, is at the heart of the critique of philosophy of religion:

Many problems lodged deep in the roots of our field have been exposed in recent decades, and is has become increasingly clear that rethinking some of its once central aspects is now necessary.

Of course, as soon as one starts talking about ‘philosophy of religion’, one needs to specify what one intends to be captured by the phrase. In its broadest sense, it includes any philosophical reflection on one or more aspects of religion. In this sense, parts of Plato’s Republic, I think, count, though few would describe it as a work in the philosophy of religion. Or consider Alexus McLeod’s work on Mayan philosophy, which includes reflection on religious themes and practices. But again, that’s not what people usually have in mind by ‘philosophy of religion’ (though, I think, they should!). The phrase more typically means something like ‘academic philosophy of religion’, usually but not always done in philosophy departments. Even here, though, there’s variation, both in terms of philosophical approach (e.g., ‘continental’ vs. ‘analytic’) and religious tradition(s) engaged. There’s work being done on Mesoamerican religions, indigenous religions, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam. But as anyone familiar with the academic discipline of philosophy of religion, the vast majority of it focuses on or presupposes either Christianity or a generic ‘perfect being theism’ (which is often Christianity stripped of its unique doctrines, such as the Incarnation and Trinity). I can’t tell if DuJardin is opposed to Christian philosophy or just to the default de facto assumption that almost all academic philosophy of religion is specifically about the Christian religion. In the introduction to our volume The Lost Sheep in Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives on Disability, Gender, Race, and Animals, my co-editor Blake Hereth and I described those doing philosophy of religion from a specific religious tradition other than Christianity as “the exceptions that prove the rule” (23, footnote 8). So the kind of broadening that DuJardin, Eckel, and Speight call for in terms of religious traditions is good, though I think it’s already begun.

In additional to being overwhelmingly Christian, it is also overwhelmingly cognitive—what Kevin Schilbrack refers to as “an intellectualist bias” (43). To again point toward the introduction to our own book, Hereth and I there wrote that

Contemporary philosophy of religion as a whole is also overly cognitive. This isn’t to say that the focus on the rationality of religious beliefs or particular religious doctrines is problematic, nor that any particular author working on these issues is at fault for doing so. Rather, the point is one about the overarching pattern that leaves out important religious practices… Merold Westphal writes that “the primacy of [the] theoretical reasonable” needs to be challenged, as does the “corollary that our chief end is to collect a pocket full of true propositions about God” (Westphal 2019, 79). Philosophy of religion has been criticized along these lines for tending toward a hyper-intellectualism that doesn’t sufficiently connect with, for instance, religions’ commitment to spiritual formation, worship, and other practices. (Timpe and Hereht 2019, 7f)

Here too, I think we find increasing diversification happening, though admittedly not as widely or as quickly as one might hope. So unlike Wesley Wildman in The Future of the Philosophy of Religion, I don’t think that academic philosophers of religion have been “applying our beautiful minds to the wrong questions within our fields” (6). I don’t think the kinds of questions that academic philosophy of religion has asked are ‘wrong’, though I agree that certain questions have crowded out others that should be nurtured and encouraged. I’m a pluralist about valuable philosophical projects. Let’s have more and wider ranging. But that doesn’t mean that the projects that have been perhaps too dominant for the past few decades need to cease. (It’s also not obvious to me that the discipline’s over-narrowness on a number of these dimensions is responsible for its marginalization in the academy, but discussion of that will have to wait for another time.)

Wildman also laments that philosophy of religion isn’t sufficiently multidisciplinary, especially when it comes to engagement with scientific fields. Again, while there is room for it to become more multidisciplinary (as it should!), it’s not as if this trait is not present at all. Officers in the Society of Christian Philosophy (SCP) have been part of the academic cross-training fellowship program sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, and the SCP itself is currently running its fifth year of cross-training fellowships for graduate students. This program has supported philosophers to develop competence in an empirical science, including physics, social psychology, evolutionary anthropology, neuroscience, and empirical linguistics. I can think of philosophers of religion whose work directly engages not only every major branch of science, but also the history of racism, gender studies, trauma, disability studies, economics. In fact, I suspect I know fewer philosophers of religion who don’t engage with other disciplines in their own writing and teaching than I know who do.

Numerous philosophers who for a long time had no interest in philosophy of religion given its narrowness have expressed a change in heart because of seeing some of these changes over the past few years. Now, don’t get me wrong: none of this post is intended as a call to complacency or a preservation of the status quo. Too much philosophy of religion is too narrow in a number of ways. And even the diversification that we’re seeing now has taken too long to get going. But it is going.

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