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.

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The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

Christian Nonbelievers

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When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I believed that I would fit in well. At Harding University Graduate School of Religion, an excellent Churches of Christ seminary in Memphis, I had shed my Fundamentalist belief in Biblical inerrancy and had accepted a historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. I had come close to losing my faith–although I claimed to be agnostic, I was more of a doubting believer.

I quickly discovered that I did not fit in at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many professors (though all all) denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, something I have always believed essential to Christian faith. In fact, to insist on the reality of the bodily resurrection would not have been good for my future there. And forget about the Virgin Birth–to most professors, that was not even an option to be considered (again, I’m sure there were exceptions). The school promoted a radical political agenda–to even question it was to invite censure. VDS was where I discovered that liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics could be every bit as dogmatic and bigoted as Christian Fundamentalists.

I asked Professor Clement Dore, who taught in the philosophy department, what he thought about the Divinity School and its professors. He said I could quote him, and so I will–“Most of them are atheists, but they read the Sermon on the Mount and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if society would be this way’. So they try to change society.” Thankfully, I took most of my courses in the philosophy department which was more open to genuine discussion of ideas. There, an atheist was an atheist, a theist a theist, and I could tell the difference between the two.

Why are seminaries which are devoted to training Christian ministers filled with teachers who do not believe even one of the doctrines of traditional Christianity? Ultimately, this situation is the effect of the eighteenth century Enlightenment combined with the rise of modern science. Although Newton was a theist (though not an orthodox Christian–he tended toward Unitarianism), the world view of his science seemed more consistent with naturalism. According to naturalism, the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect with no room for supernatural intervention–all that exists is matter and energy. Even if there were a God, He would not interfere in the causal chain.

It is this view that led the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann to propose “demythologizing” the Bible so that the really important message is one of gaining authentic existence. His project was a continuation of the project of liberal Protestantism to find subjective value in Christianity since the objective truth value of its traditional claims was considered to be “false.” So Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century said that religion is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Contemporary liberal Protestants have moved to a more political agenda with such movements as liberation theology, which interprets Christianity according to a Marxist framework.

I have no problem with denying inerrancy or with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. But alleged Christians who deny the existence of a transcendent-immanent God, who deny the Incarnation of Christ, who deny His bodily resurrection, are hypocrites in calling themselves “Christians.” I have infinitely more respect for a crusading atheist like Kai Nielsen than I do for a liberal Protestant who does not believe in God, even though he may hide his lack of faith in the complex language of Continental philosophy.

The good news for traditional Christians is that many younger theologians are more theologically conservative than their older counterparts. Hopefully this trend will continue. As Christianity begins a slow decline in the United States that parallels the radical secularism in Europe, hopefully those Christians who remain, including Christian scholars, will support the fullness of the faith and not some shallow, shadowy substitute.