Evan Fales on “Comparative Philosophy of Religion”

Evan Fales is Emeritus with the philosophy department at the University of Iowa, where he taught for 43 years. His work includes articles on various topics in Philosophy of Religion, and two books in the area, Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Problems (2015), and Reading Sacred Texts: Charity, Structure, Gospel (2021). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When I began the semester in my Philosophy of Religion course (I am now retired), I would read students part of the creation story of the Bushongo kingdom, an African tribal group:

“In the beginning, in the dark, there was nothing but water. And Bumba was alone.
One day Bumba was in terrible pain. He retched and vomited up the sun… The heat of the sun dried up the water until the black edges of world began to show… But there were no living things….
Still Bumba was in pain. He strained again and nine living creatures came forth: the leopard named Koy Bumba, and Pongo Bumba the crested eagle… and one little fish named Yo.”1 And so on…

To my students, this sounded pretty strange. A friend of mine, a distinguished philosopher of religion, observed that the myths of such peoples are full of all sorts of “fantastic, ridiculous stories, unlike the Bible.” Really? But the Bible has a talking snake in the Garden of Eden and a talking donkey that sees an angel with a flaming sword; a band of trumpeters, who play a Louis Armstrong number and the fortifications of a major city crumble; a god, Yahweh, who pranks Abraham with a demand that he kill his son, ambushes Moses et famille while en route to Egypt, holds an all-night wrestling match with Jacob at Peniel, and, for no apparent reason, interdicts Baalam en route on a divinely ordered mission to Balak, etc. Perhaps in our culture all this seems quite sober. (Though one expects that a sensible psychiatrist would judge Yahweh to be “not normal.”)

Religious stories are, then, often undeniably “weird.” Yet, charity and fairness surely recommend that we consider the authors of the Torah to be sane, sensible, and learned people. Should we, then, not judge the authors of Bumba Vomits the World similarly? Or are we to conclude that both works arise out of the fever-dreams of authors not well anchored in reality? Philosophers of religion are, by profession, committed to the task of evaluating the rationality of religious texts, traditions, beliefs, and practices. Doing so requires that we first be able to make sense of them. And that is not easy. Texts that hail from traditions that are culturally alien remind us of this – and my aim, of course, was to jog the complacency of my students. But our own complacencies – and I think we have some – may also be jogged.

It is one thing to engage in dialogue with thinkers who are rooted in other major religious worldviews with developed philosophical traditions that are academic, at least in the broad sense, and have had considerable contact with their Western counterparts. Such opportunities for engagement and exchange should by all means be sought out and pursued. It is quite another – to imagine the extreme case – to attempt to engage religious thinkers and practitioners from remote tribal societies who have little or no familiarity with Western thought and no academic institutions or cultural traditions that are recognizably analogous to our own.2 The consequence of the foreignness of their religious thought-world and social institutions has unsurprisingly led to a dismissal of the notion that they might have interesting reflections to contribute to our philosophical discourse. I think this is a mistake.

I have some general grounds for thinking this, and a couple of specific grounds. First, it is well understood that traditional tribal cultures, while they make distinctions between sacred and profane, recognize nothing much like our distinction between the religious and the secular – in particular, between “church” and “state.” This is reflected in the fact that there are complex relationships and isomorphisms between their religious ontologies and their social structures and institutions. As one example among myriad: the reincarnation in later generations of what corresponds roughly to our conception of souls of the dead tracks the generational transmission of social roles in contexts ranging from Australian Aborigine tribespeople to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that their social thinking, at least, can be quite sophisticated. What accounts for the isomorphisms?3

Second: Contemporary philosophy of religion concentrates a lot of attention on the existence and nature of God – e.g. Perfect Being theology – and to problems that arise from that kind of monotheism. But that, important as it is, represents a very narrow slice of the range of personae that populate religious narratives; besides one God or many, there are angelic beings, demons, demiurges, demigods, powers and spirits, all manner of mythical creatures with unusual powers, and so on. Quite aside from whether any of these exist, how are we to understand them and the roles they play in religious thinking? Why are they there? Anthropologists have long pursued such questions, but there is, in my opinion, a role here for philosophy, especially ontology and epistemology. Are these beings simply the progeny of an overheated imagination?

Third, the hermeneutic problems that beset efforts to interpret tribal religious beliefs and myths continue to raise challenges with respect to questions about how universal human thought processes are and how tightly they constrain imposition of a principle of interpretive charity upon cross-cultural comparisons of religious thinking. In short, I suggest that there may be much to be learned, not only by philosophical interaction with the religious traditions of post-industrial societies, but also, if possible, by discussions with anthropologists and native informants about the beliefs of simpler tribal cultures.

1. See Barbara C. Sproul (1979) Primal Myths: Creating the World. NY: Harper and Row, p. 44.

2. Of course, there are “hybrid” cases – and they are by now far more common than the “pure” cases of tribal cultures that have experienced little cultural impact from so-called civilized/industrial societies. It will be more realistic to look to them for interesting dialogue.

3. Emile Durkheim ((1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Joseph Ward Swain, transl., Free Press) was among the first to reflect on the question. But he had little sophistication in matters of social ontology.

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