The Scope and and Methodology of Philosophy of Religion

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Philosophies-of-disciplines, while not a return to the ancient and medieval view that philosophy encompasses all knowledge, allow philosophy to “invade” other disciplines and discuss their foundational principles. The philosophy of science, for example, discusses such topics as the nature of theory change, the nature of scientific explanation, scientific realism vs. nonrealism, and the demarcation of science from nonscience, among others. Its complexity has grown amidst the recognition that scientific methodology differs from discipline to discipline, and the “unity of science” thesis seems dead for now.

A similar growth in complexity has affected contemporary philosophy of religion. The initial struggle in the establishment of philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline involved separating the field from Christian theology. To what degree should philosophy of religion be tied to a particular religion. After all, if it is the philosophy of religion, rather than the philosophy of the Christian religion, its scope would be broader than a philosophical examination of Christian belief and practice and broader than monotheistic faith in general. However, Western philosophy of religion is dominated by examination of monotheistic claims about the existence of God, the attributes of God, the problem of evil, and life after death. Take most undergraduate (and graduate) texts in the field in the United States and in the UK, such issues dominate the textbook. If someone wants to study the philosophy of East Asian religions, the student usually takes courses in a religious studies department.

Strangely enough, methodology seems to fit such divisions. For example, analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy of religion focuses on monotheistic claims. This has been consistently the case since the 1955 publication of the anthology edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, New Essays in Philosophical Theology. This anthology marked the rebirth of philosophy of religion in Anglo-American philosophy after its short sleep when logical positivism dominated analytic philosophy. The trend of focusing on traditional monotheistic claims continued in an influential anthology edited by Baruch Brody, Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach (first edition 1974) and later anthologies and textbooks as well as most articles in the field. Following Alvin Plantinga’s lead, some analytic philosophers of religion used analytic methodology in the study of Christian theology; examples abound, including Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and Eleonore Stump. Sometimes this approach is labeled “philosophical theology;” and sometimes it is classified as “philosophy of religion.” Neo-Thomists, from the analytic tradition, more traditional Thomistic positions and Transcendental Thomism, followed this focus as well. For those interested in a broader philosophy of religion, the later Wittgenstein offered them the opening of classifying religions in terms of language games. D. Z. Phillips held that religious language does not make truth claims about reality but functions in particular expressive ways within religious communities in guiding worship and practice. The process philosopher Rem Edwards used such a Wittgensteinian approach in his classification of religious beliefs and practices in his 1972 text, Philosophy of Religion.

Continental philosophers of religion took a broader approach and generally did not limit their study of philosophy of religion to monotheistic traditions. Their use of the phenomenological approach to the study of religions allowed them to discover both similarities and differences between disparate world religions without dealing with religious truth claims. A good example is the widely used textbook by James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, now in its sixth edition. Even though Livingston’s book uses phenomenology, a well-established philosophical methodology, it is generally classified as a book in religious studies and not as a book in the philosophy of religion.

Process philosophers who work in philosophy of religion are interested in religious truth claims and often focus on similarities between world religions. Recently prominent have been meetings between Christian process philosophers and Buddhist philosophers in order to foster interreligious dialogue.

In 2014 a book by the Eastern Orthodox philosophical theologian, David Bentley Hart, was published, entitled, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. His own methodology could be called eclectic, and he finds similarities between Hindu and Christian conceptions of God, an interesting conclusion for a conservative Eastern Orthodox scholar. His book could be classified as Christian theology, philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology, given the fluidity of such terms in the West.

My question is, “Is such apparent narrowness in Western philosophy of religion necessarily a bad thing?” I do not believe so. Areas of contact between Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian philosophers are growing, even among traditional Christian thinkers. In addition, India has a rich tradition of Hindu philosophy of religion, which is difficult to separate from religious studies—a similar situation to that in the West. Although American society is increasingly diverse, and religion is in rapid decline, the dominant cultural force religiously remains Christianity and to a lesser extent, Judaism. The inroads Muslims are making only introduces another monotheistic faith into the fray. Students should be, in my judgment, exposed to Western ideas first and then to ideas from other traditions so they can make accurate comparisons between traditions.

Methodologically, in the field of philosophy of religion, pluralism should be welcomed. Whether a philosopher of religion uses analytic methods, phenomenological methods, or the careful but not mathematical logic dominated approach of traditional Thomists—each method has its uses. It would be a positive development if analytic philosophers would study East Asian and African religions using that approach. Another positive approach would be more dialogue between phenomenologists and analytic philosophers. Each should be more familiar with the other’s methods.

My own approach to methodology in philosophy of religion is eclectic. I approach the field as a traditional Scholastic with affinities for both Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. I tend to keep my arguments in English rather than putting them in symbolic form, so I do not share the emphasis of analytic philosophy on formal logic. It seems to me that analytic philosophers are often unaware of the limits of formal deductive logic. It does not, by itself, capture well inductive and abductive thinking and ignores intuitive knowledge and what Scholastics label “connatural knowledge.” Phenomenology is useful in describing religious experience, although eventually I will get to evaluating truth claims. I am not sympathetic with postmodernism with its tendency toward epistemological relativism. Subject-wise, I focus on Christian beliefs, although I am open to insight from other religions if they help solve a problem on which I am working. My first philosophical love is metaphysics, and I tend to approach problems in the philosophy of religion from that standpoint, although I realize that metaphysics influences epistemology and vice versa. Overall, I could pigeonhole myself as a “pragmatic eclectic Scholastic,” although I would never expect or want other people who work in the field to follow that particular approach. Any philosopher of religion, regardless of method or focus, should be willing to learn from anyone, no matter what method he or she uses.

The Possibility of Punishment after Death

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Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Joseph Mengele lives a comfortable life in Argentina, even though he tortured Jews in the most hideous ways in his medical “experiments.” He dies quickly in a swimming accident. Controversial jury decisions put people back on the streets who may be murdering psychopaths. A spiteful person full of hatred tells lies that ruin the reputation of a good person, who leaves town and dies a pauper. The spiteful person gets rich and is admired by others in his community. The good suffer, the evil prosper, and so often there is no justice. How can the scales of justice be tipped in favor of justice in a world that fails so much to be just?

The Christian doctrine of punishment after death offers one answer. This is not to deny that other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a doctrine of suffering for sins after death in a bad reincarnated state based on their aggregated good or bad karma–but this is not the Christian doctrine of punishment. I also deny the gruesome literal pictures of hell pushed on people in conservative Protestant and in some Roman Catholic Churches and schools in the past. The notion of a person suffering in a literal fire for eternity does count against the goodness of God. But C. S. Lewis‘ notion that hell is people who choose against God and refuse to come to God because they desire to do their own will rather than God’s. God just lets them be and withdraws His presence. An evil person in hell could theoretically leave at any time, but some people are so desperately wicked that they will tell God to leave them alone rather than live under God’s terms in heaven. But such a life inevitably leads to misery and a personality that gets more fragmented over time. Eventually only shards of a person remain. Living apart from God is the worst punishment of all–and given a twisted enough will this can last forever. Thus, the Christian Church has affirmed the possibility of eternal punishment as well as the possibility that hell may be empty with only Purgatory existing. I hope the latter view is correct; but the former view makes more sense of human freedom and makes more sense of psychopathy and sociopathy. Some individuals are permanently twisted–and if they are such good manipulators, with the help of a manipulative lawyer, that they “beat the system” on earth, they will not be able to beat the justice of God. In the end their existence will be miserable–they will have no one else to manipulate or hurt and will live only with their immense egos eating away at their souls. Finally their egos will eat their identity, never wholly destroying it, but making a person as near to nothingness as possible. Perhaps there will be a kernel of goodness (beyond the metaphysical good of existing) that leads all these individuals to repent and turn away from the self to God. Perhaps John Hick is correct in his universalism. If a bad person is temporarily punished to the point of seeing the error of his ways and repenting, that is a good thing. We don’t know, and hope beyond hope that the worst people will repent while finding comfort that they will receive justice after this life is over, justice that they can only avoid by repentance, faith, and love so that they are open to the grace of God. I trust that God knows better than any of us what is in a person’s heart, and He will ensure that the injustices of this life are remedied in the Eschaton.

The Problem with Process Theism

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Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

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My first philosophical love is metaphysics, which attempts to discover the nature of being, of reality itself, and the philosophers to whom I am most attracted are those who build grand metaphysical systems: Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Gottfried Leibniz, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. Whitehead and Hartshorne are among many process philosophers, who focus on relation more than on substance. They are not identical in their philosophies–Hartshorne has been heavily influenced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and has done work on arguments for the existence of God, such as the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments. A number of Christian theologians, such as John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, have used process philosophy as a way to understand the nature of God. Since their influence has come primarily through Whitehead, it is on Whitehead’s philosophy of God that I shall focus.

For Whitehead, God is intrinsically related to all actual occasions (bits of experience that are intertwined with one another and make up an interrelated web of reality). God chooses from among Eternal Objects (similar to Plato’s Forms) and offers them to actual occasions to accept or reject. He does not force any actual occasion or society of actual occasions (such as a human being) to accept his offer of positive value from the Eternal Objects. God is not as much a divine judge as “a fellow sufferer who understands” (Whitehead, Process and Reality). God is not a creator, for the universe has always been, and the universe is the body of God. God enriches other actual occasions who accept his offer of greater value, and other actual occasions also enrich the life of God (in God’s consequent, concrete nature, as opposed to God’s primordial, abstract nature). God is not guaranteed to overcome evil, but He works with other actual occasions to limit the damage evil causes and to bring the most good into the universe as he and his fellow actual occasions can.

The late Louis Mackey, one of my teachers during the year I spent at the University of Texas at Austin, was blunt in his opinions, a quality I still admire. I asked him what he thought about process theology, which adopts Whitehead’s (or Hartshorne’s similar view) of God and applies it to Christian theology. His response was something like this: “Well, you end up with a God who appreciates the small amount of help we can give him, and we appreciate the larger amount of help we can give us. God ends up being your favorite great uncle or some such sentimental bulls..t.” As he often did, he hit the nail on the head. A God who is not all-powerful in the traditional sense is unworthy of worship. He could be admired a great deal, but he is not as much God as a more powerful being of the same kind as we are. Such a God cannot guarantee that evil will be overcome–thus, it is possible that evil could triumph over good. We can have no ultimate confidence in such a God. J. B. Phillips once wrote a book entitled Your God is Too Small, and this is precisely the problem with the God of process theism.