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.

God and Judgement

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Икона "Страшный суд"

Икона “Страшный суд” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today many people desire a God who is nonjudgmental. This God will not judge anyone for their behavior. Even if He does judge, He always forgives, whether or not a person is repentant. He never condemns any act as intrinsically wrong. If the Bible or church teaching that something is essential for salvation, this God says, “Religion gets in the way of a relationship with me. Be spiritual, not religious.” This God demands no religious duties. This God is easygoing when it comes to moral rules. For this God, Hell is an impossibility. All people will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

One of the amazing facts about contemporary America is that some people will actually worship a deity like the one described in the above paragraph. This pusillanimous being is as worthy of worship as Santa Claus dropping down a chimney. A God without judgment is no God at all. He can be merciful–and mercy only makes sense in the context of judgement anyway.

If God is our Creator, it is reasonable to suppose that He would reveal Himself to man, not only though natural revelation but also through special revelation. He would have further reason to reveal Himself if human beings are fundamentally flawed. Now human beings are fundamentally flawed–it does not take the mass killings of the twentieth century or the conflicts of the twenty-first to see that this is the case. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Gulag Archipelago:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

God would, if He is the personal God in which Christians believe, provide information essential for deliverance from this flawed state. For Christians, God reveals Himself in Holy Scripture (in Roman Catholic thought, through Holy Tradition as well). Both sources of authority for Christianity reveal a God of both judgement and mercy. God holds people responsible for both their moral and religious lives. Humans all sin–they all do things morally wrong–sometimes not knowing an action is sinful, sometimes being controlled by a force such as lust, and sometimes they plan to perform an action they realize is wrong. All sins are forgivable under the condition of repentance. An obstinate lack of repentance yields the judgment of God, and Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition make is clear that God will allow those who wish to sin to keep to themselves. It is not as much that God withdraws from them–He allows them to withdraw themselves. Since God is the source of all being, goodness, and happiness, their state can only lead to misery. Saying to the sinner, “THY will be done” is a form of judgment, for it says that the sinner cannot live in the presence of God. The attitude of rebellion against God can be fostered by a rebellion against the moral law (which is a subset of the natural law that is available to all people who are able to use their reason). Rebellion against religious limitations, especially against the “scandal of particularity” of Christianity, can also influence someone to stop following God’s revelation to man.

The Church sets theological limits through the Creeds, short statements of belief that summarize the fleshing out of Scripture via Holy Tradition. There are certain beliefs Christians must affirm–if a Christian openly denies these key beliefs (the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance) and teaches that error, he is liable to be excommunicated. This does not imply he is going to Hell, but the attitude underlying heresy, a pride that refuses to submit to the Church’s teaching, may reflect a character that would not enjoy being in God’s presence.

Holy Scripture and Tradition also make moral demands–no one can keep them perfectly, and they are challenging. “Love your enemies” is almost practically impossible to follow, though some Christians have done so. Avoiding hatred, envy, spite, jealousy, and excessive anger are imperative on the Christian, but no one avoids practicing at least one of these flaws at some point in one’s life. The church states that abortion and active euthanasia as well as physician-assisted suicide are morally wrong–and there is an arrogance to the claim that “I have the right to determine the time and manner of my own death.” Such arrogance is spiritually dangerous. The refusal to follow the Church’s sexual morality can occur due to weakness–or someone may be sexually immoral on purpose yet realize it is wrong. There is spiritual hope for such individuals. But God’s judgment may fall upon those individuals who say that “wrong is right” and “right is wrong” concerning the Church’s sexual ethics. This also reveals an arrogance, a refusal to submit to legitimate authority. Such arrogance may result in God’s judgment in the sense that God may allow those people to do what they will on their own. I am sure He will always be open to receiving them, but they, due to their free will, could decide to eternally reject God. “The doors to Hell are locked on the inside,” said C. S. Lewis.

The Christian God is worthy of worship not only because He is Creator of all things, but also because He is our ultimate judge. He is also a God of mercy–but mercy extends to those open to correction and repentance. Others will refuse to receive such mercy, and God’s judgment is to allow them to live in such a state in their own world–that is, Hell. I personally do not want to worship Santa Claus. God in His glory, justice, and mercy is the only being worthy of worship.

Richard Land and the Censoring of Discourse about Race in America

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English: Vectorized Southern Baptist Conventio...

English: Vectorized Southern Baptist Convention logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Land‘s radio show has been canceled by the Southern Baptist Convention. Although Mr. Land was cited for plagiarism, which he apparently did commit, this was not the focus of the SBC’s statement. The SBC was concerned about Mr. Land’s allegedly inflammatory remarks concerning the Trayvon Martin case.

What did Mr. Land say that was so horrible? He said that Mr. Obama was taking political advantage of the situation. One can make a good case for this claim–Mr. Obama said that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin–this could be construed as an attempt to shore up support among his base. Political charges similar to Mr. Land’s claims have been made quite frequently in conservative circles, though perhaps with more tact than Mr. Land used. Mr. Land also referred to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as race baiters. An even more solid case can be made for that claim–are Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton beyond criticism? Should they escape the inevitable criticism that those in the public eye routinely face? Surely not except in a liberal fantasy world. Does anyone remember the Tawana Brawley case or the Duke Lacrosse case and how Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton stirred emotions to a dangerous level in cases that turned out to be other than Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton claimed?

Discourse about race has become so emotionally charged that the range of politically correct things to say has narrowed to the point that one cannot say anything outside the liberal party line without being labeled a racist. Now I don’t know if Mr. Zimmerman is guilty of manslaughter or not–I will wait until the facts of the case come out. Pointing out the fact that some individuals are using the case to agitate others and to stir up dangerous emotions is not irresponsible or wrong. The more the left and the pseudo-right shut off discourse, the more frustrated those silenced become. If those silenced already had wrong attitudes, they will only be hardened in them. If they did not have wrong attitudes, they are far more likely to gain them after being silenced. Cutting off discussion of race will most likely lead to an increase, not to a decrease, in racism.

I have noticed a leftward trend in conservative Evangelical churches over the last few years, fueled by liberals in their academic institutions. These colleges, universities, and seminaries train ministers and other church officials. They may be technically “conservative,” but they buy into much of the left’s beliefs, including supporting politically correct speech on race. If Mr. Land had used an obscenity to refer to another race, he should have been fired and disciplined by the church. If he had claimed that one race was intrinsically superior to another, then he should have been disciplined. He said neither of those things. Yet he lost his radio show and was forced to apologize–I do not doubt the sincerity of his apology. What I doubt (without defending everything Mr. Land said and not justifying his plagiarism)  is the apparent belief of Southern Baptist officials that any criticism of Mr. Obama, Mr. Jackson, or Mr. Sharpton is tantamount to racism, which is an absurd position.

“Stop all that Negativity”

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I have read a number of online posts on controversial topics such as abortion or the nature of marriage. Almost invariably, when a traditionalist posts against abortion or in favor of marriage being only between a man and a woman, a liberal will protest, “Stop all that negativity!” This is another tactic that social liberals use to cut off rational debate. Instead of taking the time to think through the issue of when human personhood begins or the nature of marriage, these “liberals” attempt to stop debate with a rhetorical ploy. “Negativity” is an emotive word; it has the connotation of opposing everything, even good things. Americans like positive people, and thus the screed, “Stop all that negativity” appeals to emotions and poisons the well against the person allegedly presenting the “negative” message.

Of course any rational person realizes that issues such as abortion and the nature of marriage should be discussed based on the best scientific, philosophical (and in the case of people sharing a religious tradition), theological reasons both sides can present. Such issues are far too important for one side to try to intimidate the other with the “negativity” label. If the social liberal is confident in his position, he would argue based on empirical and rational arguments, and he would avoid using such an emotive and below-the-belt rhetorical tactic to halt debate before it can begin.

This is not to say that conservatives cannot be guilty of the same crime. They also have a duty to rationally and empirically debate issues rather than using only appeals to emotion or attempting to cut off debate. But lately it has been the social liberals who have been most guilty of this particular appeal to emotion by labeling social conservatives “negative” people. And in that respect, they should change their tactics or admit that their positions are irrational, based only on their emotional wants.

 

Survival Research and Culturally-Based Conclusions

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I have just returned from an excellent talk presented by Dr. Pamela Rae Heath, a medical doctor and leading researcher in parapsychology, at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke on a number of issues in mind-matter interaction (MMI) or what is also termed psychokinesis (PK). I was pleased that her talk, while containing some of her conclusions that go beyond current evidence, was for the most part based on the best current research in parapsychology.

However, prior to her talk, I browsed her book, Handbook to the Afterlife. The quality of her talk was a surprise given the loose extrapolation from the survival evidence I saw in her book. Basically, life after death is envisioned as a process of personal growth that parallels growth and development (at least mental and spiritual development) in the present life and which includes a reincarnation component. This goes way beyond the actual survival evidence and was based, to some extent, on “channeling.”

How could someone give a scholarly presentation to the lay public and yet have a book that would fit into any fluff-brained New Ager‘s library? I fear that Dr. Heath was guilty of the same thing of which she accuses religious interpreters of MMI–that they interpret their experiences in terms of their cultural expectations. Now if Dr. Heath said, “That’s okay–we cannot avoid cultural expectations when interpreting data,” I would have no problem. But she seemed to assume (and I may have misunderstood) that parapsychological lacks such cultural expectations when it examines the data. That is simply false, and when we are dealing with survival research, cultural assumptions are unavoidable.

Take Dr. Heath’s position on the afterlife. It fits well into the American idea of evolutionary progress which has continued, unlike in Europe, to heavily influence American thought. Europe has suffered through two World Wars on its soil; America has 9-11, which was but one attack, and the War Between the States, which is distant to most Americans. Thus Americans buy into the idea of progress–and a life after death of continual evolutionary progress fits into American culture. The notion of multiple reincarnations, which in Eastern religions is something to be avoided if possible, becomes a positive thing in American New Age thought. A Hindu or Theravada Buddhist would be horrified by the American New Age interpretation of reincarnation.

I will be the first to admit that I am biased against reincarnation. As an orthodox Anglican Christian, I cannot accept reincarnation unless the evidence for it were so overwhelming that only a fool would reject it. That is not currently the case, even with Ian Stevenson‘s research. Stephen Braude has pointed out serious methodological flaws with the Stevenson research (for which see his book Immortal Remains). The problem of super-psi also plagues survival research; it seems to me that the best mediumship evidence (Leonora Piper‘s readings, for example) and the best near-death experience cases support at least a minimal survival of death of the individual personality in some form. But this does not justify a specific picture of the afterlife, at least at this stage of the research. Current research would be incompatible with non-survivalists and with the “no-self” view of Theravada Buddhism in which only five aggregates survival with no survival of the self. Beyond that, the research paints a picture of survival that is compatible with some Jewish views, some Christian views, with Pure Land Buddhist views, and even with the American progressive view that Dr. Heath espouses. But the evidence does not clearly support one of those views over another. For me, the evidence is a preparation for faith–it removes a barrier to my acceptance of the full Christian revelation on life after death. For Dr. Heath, the evidence supports a more “secular” or “natural” developmental view of life after death in which we evolve to higher levels of human accomplishment, with reincarnation being a part of that process. My point is that both Dr. Heath and I, to some extent, interpret the survival evidence in terms of our own cultural expectations. To expect that anyone could do otherwise is naive.

Suboptimal Design, Evolution, and Anger at God

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C. S. Lewis once said that modern man places “God in the dock.” That is, moderns, instead of humbly submitting to God as the “clay to the potter,” they put God on trial and call Him to account for the evil and suffering in the world. Although Job, the Church Fathers, Augustine, and the other Medievals dealt with the problem of evil and suffering, it was modernity that developed full-fledged theodicies, broad-based explanations of why God created a world in which He permits evil and suffering.

A woman was driving down I-95 near where I live and was in an accident. She was rescued from her burning car. Only a few weeks later she choked to death on a piece of bologna in her home while her small children were asleep. This is one of those stories almost too painful to hear (like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the soldier holds up his helmet that had been shot through and said something to the effect, “Hey look here! How lucky can that be” before a bullet hits him square between the eyes and kills him).

I have struggled with religious doubt all my life. I have also struggled with anger at God for the suffering of the world, especially (though not exclusively) the suffering of children. When I thought about the woman choking to death I thought of the suboptimal engineering of evolution. We walk upright and have developed the ability to talk, but that makes it anatomically more likely that we will choke to death. A human engineer would be fired for putting the food pipe and the windpipe where food can easily go down the wrong way. The epiglottis does not have a fail safe. I confess that my feelings were fury at God that He would use such as sorry a..ed process such as evolution to produce a suboptimal product that even a human engineer could design more efficiently. Other instances of suboptimal design can be mentioned: our mouth being too small for all our teeth, or our backs suffering pain because originally backs were meant for walking on all fours. There are young people who die suddenly and unexpectedly of a “primary electrical event” in the heart, some defect so small that our autopsy techniques and microscopic studies cannot yet identify it.

I do not know that there is an answer to the mystery of inefficient design this side of heaven. Some people might explain it in terms of a primeval Fall, but it is difficult to place that story in an evolutionary framework (although C. S. Lewis has tried). Given the sometimes violent behavior of our close relatives, the chimpanzees, toward one another, it seems that humans were always “fallen.” If that is the case, isn’t human suffering, pain, and death a part of the suffering, pain, and death that occurs in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” to use Lord Tennyson‘s words?

The Eastern Orthodox Church has the approach that makes the most sense to me–that the ultimate answer to evil and suffering is eschatological, beyond this life. Ivan Karamazov could not live with that answer in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, but like Ivan’s brother Alyosha,  I do not see that there is a choice if one wants to hold onto sanity. If God is evil or does not exist, then the world is absurd. I, at least, cannot live my life believing that. So my anger fades and I trust that God understands and will forgive this “miserable sinner.”

Should Christians Pray as Christians?

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A Baptist pastor, Ron Baity, was told that his services were no longer needed at the North Carolina House of Representatives after he led a prayer in the name of Jesus. This brings up an interesting point about those who scream “intolerance” at Pastor Baity and other Christians who insist praying in the name of Jesus. They are intolerant and offensive themselves. There is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer.” Prayer by its very nature is bound to a tradition. Traditional Christians are more tolerant than liberal Christians or atheists since they generally do not protest if a Jewish Rabbi does not pray in the name of Jesus. Christians recognize that Jews have a different understanding of the nature of Jesus than Christians, and the vast majority are not offended if a Jew leads a prayer without using Jesus’ name in a public forum. There are Orthodox Jews who understand that if a Christian is praying in the name of Jesus, that Christian is only following his own religious tradition. What is so intolerant about allowing all who lead prayers to pray according to their tradition–this is fair to all religious groups and does not perpetuate the fiction of a “nonsectarian prayer.” It is usually liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, or liberal Jews, some of whom are de facto atheists, who protest the loudest against Jesus’ name being spoken in prayers. Only people who do not believe in the distinctive claims of their religious tradition could claim that prayers could be nonsectarian.

A friend of mine, The Rev. Ervin Crain, led a prayer about fifteen years ago at the University of Texas at Austin commencement. He finished the prayer in the name of Jesus. When a liberal rabbi protested, The Rev. Crain quite sensibly replied that as a Christian he felt duty bound to pray according to the beliefs of his tradition. He said that if a Jewish rabbi led the prayer, he would not be offended at his not using Jesus’ name, since he realized that the rabbi would pray in accordance with his tradition. Liberals are infected with selective tolerance–they tolerate every expression of religious faith except the traditional Christianity that they hate. They are the truly intolerant ones.

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