Nathan Eric Dickman – “Beyond Comparing to Sharing Questions for the Sake of Understanding”

Nathan Eric Dickman (PhD, The University of Iowa) is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of the Ozarks. He researches in hermeneutic phenomenology, philosophy of language, and comparative questions in philosophies of religions, with particular concerns about global social justice issues in ethics and religions. He has taught a breadth of courses, from Critical Thinking to Zen, and Existentialism to Greek & Arabic philosophy. His book titled Using Questions to Think (Bloomsbury, 2021) examines the roles questions play in critical thinking and reasoning, his book titled Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Priority of Questions in Religions (Bloomsbury, 2022) examines the roles questions play in religious discourse, and his book titled Interpretation: A Critical Primer (Equinox, 2023) examines the role of questions in the interpretation of texts. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

It’s probably worthwhile to ask “Which ‘philosophy of religion’?” As it has taken shape in Anglo-American departments of philosophy? As it is undertaken in confessional seminaries? Or, as it is coming to be in secular religious studies programs?

Disciples run rampant in philosophy departments, but discipleship is discouraged in religious studies programs. It’s rare to meet a religious studies scholar who willingly self-identifies as a (Jonathan Z.) Smithian, or a (Russell T.) McCutcheonian, or even a (Rudolf) Ottoian. Yet philosophers espouse loyalty to masters before they get into a topic, saying that they are a Kantian, or Platonist, or Plantingian, or Deleuzian. These tendencies can help keep the fields distinct from one another. What “comparison” can mean for philosophy of religions depends on which field’s assumptions and norms are guiding the discussion. (Bureaucratically speaking with regard to academic programs and departments, religious studies is an interdisciplinary field unified by the subject matter, whereas philosophy is a single discipline. I will leave confessional seminaries to the side.)

Many religious studies works confront limitations of and develop methods for comparison in the academic study of religions (see Hughes 2017; Freiberger 2019; Poole 1986; and Alexander 1976). However, comparison has been a staple subject of philosophical examination for millennia. Zhuangzi, the ancient Chinese master of paradox, critiques bases of comparison as anthropocentric or even self-centered (Zhuangzi 2009, 30-32). Aristotle specifies comparison as both a mode of rhetoric and a function of substance categories (Aristotle 1995, 1089a15-30). With regard to religions, however, categorization took on a seeming urgency with the nineteenth century rationalization of colonialism. It is at this moment that—as Masuzawa explains—“the protean notion [category!] of ‘religion’… came to acquire the kind of overwhelming sense of objective reality, concrete facticity, and utter self-evidence that now holds us in its sway” (Masuzawa 2005, 2). In this context, many philosophers of religions—or perhaps we should really call them liberal natural theologians—developed perennial pluralist theosophies (see Hick 2004, Nasr 1984, and Thich 2007). Masuzawa raises the question of whether these are still complicit with Eurocentric colonialism, further naturalizing European subjectivity’s rage for order and categorization.

Religious traditions do not really exist. Taxonomic terms such as “Islam” or “Buddhism” or “Atheism” are reifications of complex and highly differentiated cultural phenomena. If someone were to ask, “What do Muslims believe?” the only proper initial response is, “Which Muslims?” If someone were to ask, “What do atheists believe?” again the only proper initial response is, “Which atheists?” These questions serve as an antidote to our tendencies toward reification, bringing our orientations back down to earth, back to actual people doing things. Since this is so, what does it even mean fruitfully to compare “different religious traditions”? Are there different religious traditions? Whose interests are served in claiming yes or no? Whose interests are served by demarcating this as exclusively tradition X and that as exclusively tradition Y?

Of course, many self-identifying Christians or Buddhists believe that there is such a thing as “Christianity” or “Buddhism.” That is, it is perfectly ordinary for members of a religious group to believe that there really is such a thing as a “religion” and that they belong to or participate in such a thing. It is based on their conception of their religion that they distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. For example, some self-identifying Christians claim not only that their denomination correctly embodies “Christianity,” but they also deny some other groups even are Christian—such as the mainstream Protestant prejudice against the Church of Latter Day Saints or even Catholicism. Many Theravadin Buddhists see some Japanese Buddhists as distorting “true Buddhism,” such as raising concerns about monastic celibacy when some Japanese monks and abbots marry. That is, they see their version of Buddhism not as a mere version of it but as its only instance. Moreover, we know that throughout history and in many contemporary cultures, people have participated in what often now are called different religious traditions without experiencing any existential contradictions. For example, temples in Taiwan include elements of Confucianism, popular Chinese spirits, Daoism, Buddhism, and more. In a traditional Japanese home, there are both Shinto and Buddhist shrines. As recent surveys show, many contemporary Christians believe in reincarnation, which is typically associated with Indian religious traditions such as Hinduism even though reincarnation proliferated throughout the Hellenistic world in which Jesus-movements emerged.

What is there to do in such a scenario that could count as “comparison” in philosophy of religions? J. L. Metha says we can only compare questions. He writes, “[Shankara] and Kant, it is obvious, were not asking the same questions, and therefore it is senseless to compare just their answers, as if they could be meaningful apart from the questions to which they were answers and could be taken as absolute statements. One can thus only compare questions, strictly speaking, and go on to look for similarities and differences between the procedures adopted to arrive at the answers” (Mehta 1970, 304; my emphasis). Because questions are only meaningful within horizons of intelligibility, they are often “hidden under the answers…” and so we need to bring them to the surface through interpretive effort. By unearthing the ontological presuppositions that silently frame them, we gain a deeper understanding of the questions these philosophers were asking.

While I find Metha’s point productive, I want to encourage going beyond comparing questions to sharing them. As I have explained elsewhere (see Dickman 2021a; and Dickman 2022), the hermeneutic priority of questioning entails that only by sharing questions can we come to understand what we have to say to one another. That is, to consider a question is to ask it, and understanding happens only when what someone says answers to a question we are actually asking. Like reading a page of a book, getting to the end, and wondering “What did I just read?”, when we do not ask the questions to which the sentences respond, what is said will be lost on us. To understand what others have to say, we have to ask their questions with them. Only in this way can we receive what they have to say as meanings we can understand. Consider the question: “What year is it?” It is not impossible to imagine one person asking this, and another responding with, “Yeah, what year is it, really?” Such a conversation might unfold into exploration of varying conventions of era-dating systems, metaphysics of time, and more. While we know it is only 2023 CE relative to one era-dating system—one complicit with Euro-Christian global hegemony—there are other era-dating systems found in other religious traditions, such as the Islamic and Jewish calendars. Such a shared asking of the question opens up the possibility for exploration and critique of colonialist conventions. A problem with many contemporary people who identify as religious is that they seem not to be asking the questions to which their religions respond. For example, one question asked by many first century Palestinian Jews was, “Who will be my messiah?” That is, they lived in a culture where the term “messiah” played a role in their interpretive horizons. It is not clear that the concept plays any role at all in the lives of most people in US society. Part of what grounds questioning’s hermeneutic priority is precisely this possibility for shared asking of a question that allows for a dialogue rather than a compulsive conclusion with “the” answer. It suspends answering rather than demanding the answer.

One worry about such an approach is whether sharing questions with an exploratory disposition suspends any and all “truth claims.” It seems that many scholars of philosophy of religions take evaluation of truth claims as a fundamental task of philosophy (see Schilbrack 2014; and Knepper 2013). To what degree might many analytic and continental philosophical approaches to evaluating truth claims be complicit with the Eurocentric and patriarchal status quo? I am inclined to agree with Masuzawa and others that—at least at this point in the institution of philosophy’s reckoning with its history of bias—the task of adjudicating truth claims perpetuates patriarchal Eurocentrism. I am advocating that we suspend this need for “the” answer, which will not only help to destabilize Eurocentrism, but it will also help us to share questions concerning “truth” and to put our culturally specific prejudices about truth itself at risk of critique. By sharing questions, we can shift our understanding of “comparison” as a method for discovery toward “comparison” as a critique of the very categories we use to analyze, explain, and interpret phenomena (see Nicholson 2009). By sharing questions, we reveal the predicative radiance of subject matters ripe for interpretive play and re-creation (or redescription).

A few scholars have attempted to perform this sharing of questions in philosophy of religions. Anh Tuan Nuyen (2011) brings together Kantian obligations-based ethics and Confucian role-based ethics to address concerns about expanding the moral community to include the environment. Ian Almond (2002) places Ibn ‘Arabi and Derrida into conversation on the positive functions of bewilderment, such as its opening us to see things we miss when we believe we know what we are doing. I have also tried to undertake this in discussions about the origin or creation of the universe, integrating insights from Nagarjuna, Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, Tillich, and more, on the question of queering the edges of space and time (2021b).

Works Cited

Alexander, Laurence L. 1976. “Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil and Cross-Cultural Comparison: The Representation of Evil in Maya Indian Culture.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 44(4): 705-714.

Almond, Ian. 2002. “The Honesty of the Perplexed: Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi on ‘Bewilderment.’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 70(3): 515-537.

Aristotle. 1995. The Complete Works of Aristotle: Revised Oxford Translation, Vols I & II. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton University Press.

Dickman, Nathan Eric. 2021a. Using Questions to Think: How to Develop Skills in Critical Understanding and Reasoning. Bloomsbury.

Dickman, Nathan Eric. 2021b. “Where, not When, Did the Cosmos ‘Begin’?” Sophia 60(1): 67-81.

Dickman, Nathan Eric. 2022. Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Priority of Question in Religions: Bringing the Discourse of Gods and Buddhas Down to Earth. Bloomsbury.

Freiberger, Oliver. 2019. Considering Comparison: A Method for Religious Studies. Oxford University Press.

Hick, John. 2004. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (2nd edition). Yale University Press.

Hughes, Aaron W. 2017. Comparison: A Critical Primer. Equinox Publishing.

Knepper, Timothy D. 2013. The Ends of Philosophy of Religion: Terminus and Telos. Palgrave Macmillan.

Mehta, J. L. 1970. “Heidegger and the Comparison of Indian and Western Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West. 20(3): 303-317.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1984. The role of the traditional sciences in the encounter of religion and science: an oriental perspective. Religious Studies. 20(4), 519–541.

Nicholson, Hugh. 2009. “The Reunification of Theology and Comparison in the New Comparative Theology.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 77(3): 609-646.

Nuyen, Anh Tuan. 2011. “Confucian Role-Based Ethics and Strong Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Values. 20(4): 549-566.

Poole, Fitz John Porter. 1986. “Metaphors and Maps: Towards Comparison in the Anthropology of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 54(3): 411-457.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Thich Nhat Hanh. 2007. Living Buddha, living Christ. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Zhuangzi. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Brook Ziporyn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

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