J. Aaron Simmons is Professor of Philosophy at Furman 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.
Teleology has rarely proven helpful for moral life and social flourishing. Claims regarding the “end of history” or necessary directions in discursive practice are all fraught due to the contingencies that define embodied finitude. History is not best understood as a story about how we got to where we were supposed to be, but about the fragility of where we could have ended up. In this way, prognostication is less about clear vision and more about announcing an invitation that would be worthy of our effort. However, we should own up to the very real difference between what we would like to see and what is likely to be seen. Desire does not serve to constitute actuality. If it did, I would catch more fish and be able to dunk a basketball. Instead, actuality often serves to circumscribe our desire. One of the great benefits of philosophy, though, is that we are not bound by the logistics of what is, but instead are able to pursue the horizons of what could be.
Working through the question “Is there a future for philosophy of religion?” requires that we acknowledge that there is no necessary or obvious future for anything. The future is what we allow to occur. As such, maybe the better question is “What future is worth pursuing for philosophy of religion?” This question moves us away from what we think will actually be the case and instead encourages us to explore what case is worth making actual. When framed in this way, we can both admit of promising aspects in the current discourse and yet better see where problems remain. Philosophy of religion’s future is brighter than it could have been due to an increasing emphasis within the field on religious practice, a concerted effort to think about embodied issues concerning disability, gender, and race, and hints at attempts to abandon the historical opposition between analytic and continental approaches. Nonetheless, challenges remain for the sort of future that I believe is worth pursuing.
The Challenge of Narrowness
The future of philosophy of religion is likely to be narrower than it should be if we continue to focus so exclusively on Christian approaches to religion as the primary object of study. I want to note here that I am a pentecostal Christian and spend a great deal of intellectual energy thinking about the existential implications of such an identity. However, I try to be careful to approach Christianity as merely one particular historical manifestation of how “religion” can be understood. In this respect, I have found radial identity theory and the notion of prototypes to be especially helpful in avoiding the temptation to view one’s own position as normatively definitive for a domain of inquiry. When I position Christianity as a prototype of what counts as “religion,” I must admit that this is not a neutral commitment. It has implications on how other cultural traditions are or are not, thereby, considered “religious.” I want a future for philosophy of religion in which philosophers make better use of the excellent resources in religious studies and critical theories of religion that serve to contextualize the focus on classical theism and Christianity. By moving away from definitional line-drawing with reference to necessary/sufficient conditions, and moving toward radial categories and prototypes that attend to the contingencies of culturally enmeshed linguistic practice, we are more likely to avoid overstatement in our accounts of religion, and narrowness in our intellectual concerns regarding the conversation partners with whom we engage.
The Challenge of Irrelevance
One of the main implications of such narrowness is, I believe, potential social irrelevance. I know that this claim is probably contentious, but I think such irrelevance is likely to occur when we allow the confessional/revelational/ecclesiological specifics of Christian theology (or any theological tradition for that matter) to become grounding assumptions within our philosophical work. When we confuse philosophy and theology, we risk minimizing those who are able to access the evidence being presented within philosophy of religion. In a time when prominent strands within Christianity (especially within white Evangelicalism in the United States) are becoming increasingly nationalistic, engaging in conspiracy theories, rejecting public reason, and eschewing empirical data, it is important that philosophers of religion model robust epistemic virtue. Such virtue needs to present humility and hospitality as key aspects of responsible epistemic and social life. When philosophers deploy theological commitments as assumptions in arguments, rather than as conditional claims worthy of investigation, they threaten to reinforce the broader public phenomenon in which far too many Christians feel no obligation to practice self-critical awareness in a pluralist society. Let me be clear that this is not a slight on theology, which is a crucial discourse all its own and one upon which philosophers of religion should draw. My point is that philosophy operates with different evidential authorities and it is an alternative that our world needs more of right now. As such, I worry that if we continue toward a future in which philosophy of religion is so easily confused for confessional Christian theology, we risk missing the social importance of philosophy of religion as a resource for the social practice of living in community with those who reject your most fundamental beliefs.
Expanding Philosophy of Religion
In the attempt to work toward a future where narrowness and irrelevance are minimized, Kevin Schilbrack and I are now editing a new book series at Bloomsbury called, “Expanding Philosophy of Religion.” Our aim is not to throw stones at the excellent work occurring in more traditional ways, but to try to ensure that philosophy of religion avoids the vices that attend hegemony. We are actively seeking to promote philosophy of religion that engages underrepresented cultural traditions, religious perspectives, and underrepresented voices. Such an approach reminds us that we must always be careful to avoid the temptation to double-down on the supposed obviousness of what has been the case, such that we unintentionally end up reinforcing the power of those who have been benefited by it. Will such work actually be part of bringing about a better, more inclusive, and more socially impactful future for philosophy of religion? I don’t know, but it is worth trying.