Nathan R. B. Loewen on “Feminist theory and method: A long-overlooked resource for comparative philosophy of religion”

Dr. Nathan Loewen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His research develops publications and collaborations to advance the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project, such as Diversifying Philosophy of Religion: Critiques, Methods, and Case Studies (Bloomsbury, 2023) and Beyond the Problem of Evil: Derrida and the Anglophone Philosophy of Religion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). As part of the REL digital lab, Loewen’s ongoing research also integrates conventional close readings in philosophy of religion with digital tools to develop resources that widen the scope of topics and analytical methods in his field. That work provides Loewen the background to teach seminars on “Public Humanities” for the department’s MA program. As Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts and Sciences, Loewen helps develop online courses, edits the Teaching Hub, supports UA’s Quality Enhancement Plan and AI Teaching Enhancement Initiative, and participates in campus technology committees. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Perusing the entries in this series of brief, online essays seems to demonstrate the possibility of a turn towards theory and method in studies of philosophy of religion. I suggest that to reflect on theory and method is to think about how form informs content. The important contribution of this series is to mark a shift away from the field’s conventional focus on the content of ‘religion.’ Until recently, the topical foci of the field’s discourses have rarely included interrogations of decisions made to arrive at their contents. There are few discourses from within the field that interrogate what interests made those decisions, rather than others, operational for the philosophers of religion. The focus of this series on the evaluation of categories marks an important turn in 21st-century philosophy of religion.

To me, the very recent timing of this turn may explain why philosophy of a religion, as a field, largely failed to engage feminist thought in the 20th century. Doing so would have required more than adding categories, such as “women,” to discourses on proofs of God, problems of evil, and the truth content of mystical or near-death experiences, etc. To focus only on the content of ‘religion’ effectively deflects feminist critiques that might transform the field. To focus on the theoretical and methodological decisions of the field would show how conceptual frameworks are deployed in ways that reproduce and reinforce social conditions. Feminist thought always asks how decisions about form shape the content of scholarship. I suggest that the question asked by feminist theory can form the backbone for robust comparative inquiry. Nancy Frankenberry’s introduction to a 1994 special issue of Hypatia asks twice on the first page: where are the feminist philosophers of religion?1 Frankenberry’s introduction calls for PoRs to, “elaborate new models of interpretation, a broader theory of evidence, a cross-cultural conception of human rationality, and a more complex appraisal of the norms applicable to cases of divergent, rival religious claims.”2 In other words, before the 21st century, certain scholars already realized the need to rethink categories for the philosophy of religion. In 1998, Pamela Sue Anderson asked that PoRs, “take on board the difficulties raised by the multiple differences of agents according to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and material and social conditions.”3 These categories likely require reappraising the topics available for study. Substantive engagements with feminist theory may lead PoRs towards robust comparative scholarship.

A very quick example explains one way feminist theory in general may usefully clear the way for comparative scholarship. Many publications in the field conceptualize “PoR” as studies of systems. The term ‘tradition’ does little to shift presuppositions away from a systems-orientation in philosophy of religion. Sometimes the systems are received ready-made for study, or the scholar does the work of system-building prior to studying the system (e.g., internal/external validity, cross-system comparison). Doing PoR in this manner—by system-building and system-analysis—depends on a prior, favorable disposition towards systems. Such approaches lack the reflexivity that would consider how the imposition of systems onto data plays a role in the production of political economies that may marginalize or occlude differences of gender and sexuality. To approach religions as traditions or systems reintroduces and reinforces the conceptual frameworks with which feminist scholarship takes issue from the outset. Feminist theories analyze the tools by which the proverbial masters build their houses. In contrast, content-oriented approaches that conceptualize ‘religions’ as systems are likely limited to continue producing comparisons of various masters’ tools and houses.4

Paying attention to feminist theory and method, I suggest, is a way for PoRs to investigate the tension between the intellectual commitments of their studies in relation to the scope of their data and the identities of their interlocutors. PoRs might better understand the importance of interrogating their theoretical and methodological interests if they realize that the interests and commitments of their field are not accidental. Frankenberry’s 1994 question about the existence of feminist PoRs sets into relief how histories of scholarly acts could have been otherwise. Other scholarly worlds are indeed possible in the 21st century. (There is some catching up to do.) When PoRs focus on the fallible conditions of their scholarly acts, they can then interrogate, rather than justify, the composition and scope of their categories. If PoRs recognize their scholarly acts produce interlocking contingencies that are just as ontologically unstable as their objects of study (if not more!), then there is good reason to believe that feminist theory may contribute to comparative scholarship in the field. By doing so, comparative work in the philosophy of religion may constructively respond to Beverly Clack’s proposal for PoRs, “to think differently about the world; to problematize that which seems self-evident or which is taken to be ‘commonsense.’”5

1. Nancy Frankenberry, “Introduction: Prolegomenon to Future Feminist Philosophies of Religions,” Hypatia 9, no. 4 (1994): 1.

2. Ibid., 13.

3. Pamela Sue Anderson, A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998), 87.

4. Drawing upon the oft-quoted phrase from Audre Lorde; in Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Feminist Postcolonial Theory, eds. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, 25–28 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

5. Beverley Clack, “Philosophy of Religion in an Age of Austerity: Towards a Socially Engaged Philosophy for the Well-Lived Life,” Political Theology: The Journal of Christian Socialism 13, no. 2 (2012); 171.

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