Peter Jonkers – “Philosophy of Religion: Alive and Kicking!”

Peter Jonkers is emeritus professor of philosophy at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has published extensively on questions regarding religion in the public space, in particular religious truth, pluralism and identity, religious violence and tolerance, and wisdom. From 2008 to 2020 he was member of the board of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion, and from 2010 to 2012 he served as president of that Society. 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.

My response to the question whether there is a future for philosophy of religion is definitely affirmative. I would even argue that nowadays philosophy of religion holds a more prominent place on the philosophical scene than, say, during the second half of the twentieth century. This has to do with a transformation of the place of religion in many societies around the globe, to which philosophy of religion is reacting by developing some new, promising approaches and rephrasing some of its old questions.

Let us start with the changes in the religious landscape. Although the secularization theory was correct in predicting the gradual decline of the number of church-goers and the decrease of the influence of the churches in most modern societies, its more speculative assumption, namely that religiosity as such would fade away in modern societies and be replaced by a scientific worldview and a procedural ethics of (individual) autonomy, has turned out to be empirically invalid. What we see is not so much a disappearance, but rather a transformation of the religious landscape: in most modern societies, people have not stopped searching for spiritual nourishment and substantial values to orientate their lives.

The difference with earlier days is that this search takes them far beyond the confines of the traditional religious denominations, resulting in a situation of radical religious pluralism. So, even though church membership counts less and less as an identity-marker, people still pick and choose from familiar religious traditions those elements that fit into their socio-cultural identity. This shows that another assumption of the secularization theory (or even of the modernization theory), namely that socio-cultural identity would not matter anymore in our enlightened times, has turned out to be empirically invalid as well.

This situation of increasing (religious) diversity in combination with people’s strong attachment to socio-cultural – including religious – identity implies that some of the insights of modern philosophy of religion need to be revised. An important one regards the complex relations between religious diversity, religious truth, and identity.1 Modern philosophy of religion (e.g. Kant’s idea of a reasonable religion) held that all religious denominations rest on a reasonable common ground, so that the differences between them are only marginal and not deserving of philosophical attention. Contemporary philosophers of religion have criticized this view, arguing that the differences between religions are irreducible, just like differences between individual languages (Ricoeur). This implies that philosophy of religion has to give up the idea that reasonableness can serve as universal criterion for evaluating religions, because this idea rests on some unjustified Western, in particular Christian, assumptions about religious truth. In a similar vein, the conviction among many theologians and philosophers of religion that doctrinal truth is the cornerstone of every religion is no longer generally accepted, since this also shows a typically Christian bias. Therefore, the predominantly doctrinal approach to religious truth needs to be revised; it is replaced by a more existential one, namely that religion is primarily a spiritual way of life that leads the whole of creation to flourishing and bliss. This existential approach does not mean at all that the question of religious truth would have become obsolete, but rather enables philosophy of religion to approach this issue with a fresh view, by rephrasing old philosophical questions: Are people merely on psychological grounds attached to their substantial (religious) values and practices or does this attachment implicitly comprise a claim to truth and, if so, what kind of truth is this? How ought we to set up inter-religious encounters and dialogue in a context of radical pluralism, which often appears like a Babel-like confusion? How shall we conceive the currently popular idea of multiple religious belonging in relation to the importance people attach to their socio-cultural – including religious – identity? How can we prevent the idea of religious truth from being used as a pretext to justify an exclusivist conception of (religious) identity, leading to intolerance and violence?

These examples of revisions of the old philosophical question about (religious) truth refer, from a broader perspective, to the need for a transformation of philosophy of religion. In fact, the need for a transformation of this discipline is a response to the ongoing transformations of the religious field as a whole. In my view, only if philosophy of religion succeeds in accommodating itself to the transformation of the religious field will there be a future for this discipline. This takes me to some of Troy DuJardin’s questions at the end of his essay. Evaluating religious truth claims and beliefs has indeed become much more complex, because the very ideas of truth and normativity are challenged by the rise of radical pluralism. Yet, philosophy of religion should never stop asking these questions, because they make up the essence of what philosophy is all about. Rather, philosophy of religion should accommodate the question of religious truth to the transformations of the religious field. This means, among other things, that philosophy of religion has to broaden its idea of religious truth, not focusing exclusively on religious doctrines and beliefs, but also paying attention to lived realities and practices. A promising way for such a broadening is to approach religion as a tradition of wisdom. Wisdom essentially combines a theoretical knowledge of the true, the good, and the beautiful with a spiritual way of life that is oriented by these ideals. By taking this approach philosophy of religion does justice to the existential aspect of religion without reducing it to something merely pragmatic or technical. Furthermore, wisdom is not a solitary affair, but has a dialogical character, which is in line with the communal character of religion. Third, wisdom is a kind of knowledge and praxis that is able to relate a deep and broad knowledge of the world to all kinds of contingent situations and experiences, thus doing justice to the fact that religion aims to give a truthful orientation to people’s individual lives. In my view, this transformation can help philosophy of religion to develop a global perspective, bridging the divides between Christian and non-Christian religions, as well as between religions and secular philosophies of life.

1.This is the central topic of a book I recently edited together with a colleague of mine: Peter Jonkers and Oliver Wiertz (eds.), Religious Truth and Identity in an Age of Plurality (London: Routledge, 2020).

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