Can Philosophy Come Forth As Prophecy?

By J. Aaron Simmons and Zachary Jolly
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

In 1984 Alvin Plantinga’s landmark essay, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” appeared in print in Faith and Philosophy. This widely celebrated essay can rightly be said to have crystalized the early gestures toward what has become known as contemporary “Christian Philosophy,” and stands as an important moment in the resurgence of philosophical theology more broadly in academic discourse at the end of the twentieth century. Though this single essay’s influence can surely be overstated (among others, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, and Plantinga himself were doing work that could rightly be considered as “Christian Philosophy” prior to 1984 – for a good synopsis of Plantinga’s influence, see Wolterstorff (2011)), this essay has received something like mythic status as part of the founding narrative of contemporary Christian philosophy, at least as largely embodied by the Society of Christian Philosophers.  Though granting the significance of Plantinga’s essay and concurring with the historical assessment of its importance, we want to highlight another, less familiar essay, an essay that, while calling for something quite similar to Plantinga, predates “Advice to Christian Philosophers” by a decade: Merold Westphal’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy of Religion Which Will Be Able to Come Forth as Prophecy” (1973). Westphal’s essay offers a significant challenge to the “scientific” presumptions of the philosophical study of religion (both as natural (a)theology and also as phenomenology of religion).

For Westphal, the main characteristic of such a scientific approach is “objectivity”—or, at least, the attempt to achieve such objectivity.  Drawing heavily on the work of Kierkegaard, Westphal suggests that approaching philosophy of religion in an objectivist manner is problematic because it fails to appreciate the radically subjective aspect of religious existence. As Westphal explains: “It appears that the notion of scientific objectivity, even without the ideals of mathematical precision and general laws, when torn from its natural habitat and transferred to the religious realm, reveals the fundamental incongruity between itself and its newly assigned subject matter” (1991, 5).  Unlike the relation between natural science and the philosophy of science in which “the same pursuit of detached objectivity is fundamental to both” (1991, 11), religion and the “scientific” approach to philosophy of religion, Westphal suggests, do not admit of such “harmony” (1991, 11).  Instead, “it appears that the phenomenology of religion can be justified only in terms of interests that are foreign, even hostile, to the subject matter” (1991, 11).  In light of such a tension between “methodology and subject matter,” Westphal advocates articulating possible alternative methodologies that are more appropriate to the content of our inquiry as philosophers of religion.  While admitting that there might be a variety of such alternatives, Westphal suggests that one promising model that stands in contrast to the scientist is “the Hebrew prophet” (1991, 11).

According to Westphal, prophetic discourse is characterized by four qualities.  It is personal, untimely, political, and eschatological (1991, 12).  Detailed analysis of each of these aspects is beyond our scope here, but, in brief, personal discourse occurs “in the mode of direct address” (1991, 12) such that objectivity is displaced with subjective investment in one’s context and community. Untimeliness expresses the idea that prophetic speech is always “conspicuously out of step with the spirit of its times” and, hence, “it is always the speech of a minority” (1991, 14). Here we can see that untimeliness requires the quality of personal discourse—one is only out of step with the time in which one finds oneself and represents a minority only in relation to some historically constituted majority, etc.  The political aspect might more properly be understood as a challenge to the power structures operative within a community. Prophetic speech is political insofar as it contests the established order.  Again, this is in relation to the other aspects: one challenges power structures with an eye toward the status of the marginalized (“the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”) and from within the community in which those structures continue to claim legitimacy.  Finally, the eschatological dimension of prophetic discourse amounts to the fact that such discourse is “penultimate” and affirms the “priority of God’s future” (1991, 17). As Westphal explains, there is always a “Gospel” to which the prophecy testifies.

With this brief overview of Westphal’s account in place, we might notice that it shares quite a bit with Plantinga’s own “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”  First, both Plantinga and Westphal call for philosophy of religion to abandon modernist pretentions to objectivity such that philosophers of religion fully appreciate that they operate within the communities in which they always already find themselves. While we think that there are important points of difference between the way Plantinga and Westphal will cash out the idea of community, that fact should not overshadow the way in which they both advocate philosophy of religion that is “personal.”  Second, given the general state of the philosophical discipline in which Plantinga and Westphal were writing, a call for “Christian Philosophy” or “Prophetic Philosophy of Religion” is untimely indeed.  Third, both Plantinga and Westphal are eschatologically oriented in that they call for philosophers of religion to think in light of the “Gospel” such that there is a positive content toward which the philosopher of religion might strive.  The only one of the four qualities outlined by Westphal that is noticeably absent from Plantinga is the “political” dimension.  Yet even Plantinga might be read as politically engaged if one understands the “power structures” being challenged to be those of mid-century American philosophy still under the influence of some problematic forms of classical foundationalism and the lingering traces of positivism.  Despite these points of resonance, however, Plantinga does not articulate his account in terms of “the prophetic.”  Indeed, even in later essays where Plantinga returns to the idea of what would constitute Christian philosophy, he does not draw primarily on the idea of prophetic discourse, but instead seems more motivated by the idea of shifting the epistemic starting points of philosophy from non-Theistic/Christian assumptions to Theistic/Christian ones (see Plantinga 1998, chapters 12, 13, and the afterword).  Accordingly, Westphal’s project is, as we see it, broader in its scope and potential impact since it is not simply a epistemic defense of “Christian” starting points, but instead stands a call for a revised mode of philosophical discourse itself—a mode that will hopefully remain open to the radically subjective/experiential/dispossessing way in which that which we call “religion” shows itself both in culture and in personal practice/belief.  In this sense, Westphal remains quite rightly in line with the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions in which he primarily works.

(As a parenthetical remark, we should note that in his regrettably titled The End of Philosophy of Religion (a better title would have been, The Reconstruction of Philosophy of Religion, or A Revision of Philosophy of Religion, etc.), Nick Trakakis (2008) turns to “prophetic” alternatives to what he considers the continuing appeals to objectivity within analytic philosophy of religion.  In particular, Trakakis looks to Westphal’s prophetic philosophy of religion and John Caputo’s notion of “prophetic postmodernism” (see Caputo 2000) as “literary” alternatives to the “scientific” mode of discourse in mainstream philosophy of religion.  Unfortunately, Trakakis overstates the impact of stylistic differences.  Importantly, Westphal’s point was not that philosophers of religion should be more poetic, but that they should challenge the criteria governing their discourse such that objectivity and detachment are assumed as ideals. One can challenge such criteria without, thereby, writing more poetically.  Indeed, we think that there might be less perceived distance between and analytic and continental philosophy if such stylistic differences were viewed as secondary matters of form rather than primary matters of content and conviction.)

So, what does the distinctly “prophetic” dimension get Westphal that might remain lacking in Plantinga?  Without being able to argue this at length, we want to propose that by appealing to the prophetic, Westphal allows for a distinction between what we can term “prophetic philosophy of religion” on the one hand, and “prophecy” on the other hand.  Namely, when Westphal first turns to the Hebrew prophet as an alternative to the scientific philosopher of religion, he states that prophets (“like apostles”) were originally distinguished from “geniuses” insofar as “the listener is asked to accept the message not because of its profundity, eloquence, or beauty, but because ‘thus saith the Lord’” (1991, 11).  Here, Westphal is in agreement with the basic description of the prophet given by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In speaking, the prophet reveals God.  This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible. He does not prove or argue.  The thought he has to convey is more than language can contain.  Divine power bursts in the words.  The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal. There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham.  There are only witnesses” (1962, 22). For Heschel, the authority of the prophet comes from the authority of God. Though making it clear that the prophet is something far greater than a mouthpiece of the divine, Heschel insists that “God is raging in the prophet’s words” (1962, 5).  While Westphal admits that “thus saith the Lord” is the hallmark of prophecy, he claims that “I do not wish to suggest that philosophers of religion seek to imitate prophets in this respect” (1991, 12). This move is key.  Following Kierkegaard, Westphal is rightly hesitant to allow philosophers, as philosophers, to speak with the authority of the prophet/apostle. Yet Westphal’s halt here is made not in the name of philosophical supremacy, but of religious humility.  In order to make room for the possibility of prophets, Westphal calls only for “prophetic philosophy” and not for philosophers to be prophets.  For, as Heschel explains, the prophet does not care primarily about proofs and argument, but revealing the glory of God.

In this way, Westphal’s call for philosophy of religion that would “come forth as prophecy” can be read as a limitation of philosophy itself.  Simply put, lest it give in to the very sorts of objectivist/scientific assumptions that it attempted to overcome, philosophy of religion cannot deny the possibility of prophets who speak with an authority other than that of philosophical argumentation.  Yet, philosophers of religion who recognize this limitation are, thereby, far from limited.  Indeed, they are now opened onto the possibility that their own discourse was merely a primer or prolegomena.

The philosophical humility invited by prophetic philosophy of religion is something that stands, we believe, as a possible corrective to the temptation to which much of contemporary Christian philosophy yields: arrogance regarding philosophical ability and scope. This might play out as the idea that philosophers really make the best theologians (see Plantinga 1998, 341; this also seems to be a danger of some of “analytic theology,” we believe)—let’s term this the temptation to philosophical arrogance.  Or, it might show up as the idea that there are philosophical limitations on what prophecy might proclaim (consider John Caputo’s seeming dismissal of the some of the key miracles of Christian Scripture as either poetic parables or magical presentations of God as merely “the ultimate laser show at Disneyworld” (2006, 16))—let’s term this the temptation to theological reductionism.  On the one hand, when philosopher’s leave room for some people legitimately to speak with the authority of “thus saith the Lord,” a more radical openness to “the impossible” is countenanced than would (ironically) otherwise be possible internal to a “religion without religion” (Derrida/Caputo).  Virgins might really give birth.  The dead might really walk out of their graves.  Justice might really “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).  And, if we have really abandoned the modernist conception of scientific objectivity and naturalistic presuppositions, then why should we think that the last example is any more “possible” or “less miraculous” than the former?  On the other hand, when philosophers realize that, as philosophers, they cannot claim the authority of “thus saith the Lord,” they stay far from the temptation that philosophy is really all that is needed for religious existence. Now, importantly, we are not saying that Plantinga (or analytic theology) gives in to this temptation to philosophical arrogance. And we are not saying that the only way to interpret Caputo is as giving in to theological reductionism (for other readings of Caputo, see Olthuis 2002; Dooley 2003; Simpson 2009; and Zlomislić and DeRoo 2010). Our claim is more modest: Westphal’s notion of prophetic philosophy of religion, as distinct from prophecy (and the attendant authority structures operative therein) allows for philosophy to be open to more than itself.  This seems to us like a good methodological first step in both philosophical and religious truth seeking.  It is not clear what carefully attending to Westphal’s account as a similar, but different, approach to philosophy of religion than that offered by Plantinga will yield in the contemporary debates, but we think that it is well worth finding out.

Works Cited

Caputo, John D. 2000. “Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernity.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly LXXIV, no. 4: 549-67.

Dooley, Mark, ed. 2003. A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1962. The Prophets. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Olthuis, James H., ed. 2002. Religion with/out Religion: The Prayers and Tears of John D. Caputo. London: Routledge.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2011. “Response to Nick Wolterstorff.” Faith and Philosophy 28, no.3 (July): 267-68.

Planginta, Alvin. 1998. The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader. Ed. James F. Sennett. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1984. “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1: 253-71.

Simpson, Christopher Ben. 2009. Religion, Metaphysics and the Postmodern: William Desmond and John Caputo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Trakakis, Nick. 2008. The End of Philosophy of Religion. London: Continuum.

Westphal, Merold. 1973. “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy of Religion Which Will Be Able to Come Forth as Prophecy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4, no.3 (Fall). 129-50.

Westphal, Merold. 1991. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. University Park: Penn State University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2011. “Then, Now, and Al.” Faith and Philosophy 28, no.3 (July): 253-66.

Zomislić, Marko and Neil DeRoo, eds. 2010. Cross and Khôra: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo. Eugene: Pickwick Publications.


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