The Relevance of Philosophy of Religion to Religious Studies

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

In 1996, William J. Wainwright edited a book entitled God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture: A Discussion between Scholars in the AAR and the APA.  That book features contributions from some of the most influential philosophers of religion and theologians in recent history: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Merold Westphal, Walter Lowe, Stephen Crites, Philip L. Quinn, C. Stephen Evans, Wayne Proudfoot, and Robert M. Adams.  In the introduction to that volume, Wainwright notes that despite important steps toward engaged dialogue and productive collaboration, “the gap between APA philosophers of religion and their counterparts in the AAR remains” (p.3).  It has been 16 years since the publication of Wainwright’s book and I think that it is well worth considering whether this “gap” has been, as Wainwright hopes, “overcome” (p.3).  Further, it is also worth considering whether such an “overcoming” is really an appropriate goal to continue to advocate.

Perhaps the dialogue between philosophers of religion in the APA and “their counterparts in the AAR” is more productively fostered by maintaining some distinctions, even if those distinctions are tenuous and continuously revisable as the dialogue itself continues to progress and new questions begin to be asked.  Moreover, it is important to ask whether the AAR/APA “gap” is really the most pressing “gap” about which scholars working in the philosophy of religion should be concerned.  Perhaps with the increase of a wide variety of philosophers working, at least in part, within the AAR, there has emerged a different “gap” internal to philosophy itself.  Namely, it is worth considering whether the more troubling “gap” might be seen as existing between, for example, the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Yet, it is certainly plausible that this alternative “gap” might itself still be merely a reflection of the more traditional AAR/APA divide regarding methodology and historical appropriations.  If so, I think that it would be productive to explore the relationship between the philosophy of religion, on the one hand, and what is sometimes called “theories of religion,” on the other.  Some of the most prominent voices in the “theories of religion” camp, and here I am thinking of Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Jonathan Z. Smith, among a few others, have occasionally encouraged the exclusion of anything that might seem “theological” (including much of traditional philosophy of religion) from the academic study of religion.  Importantly, they do not advocate the elimination of theology, as such, but simply suggest that it should occur within the confines of seminaries and not academic departments in universities.  Their reasons are sophisticated and worth serious consideration by philosophers and theologians, but, unfortunately, their work can be sometimes be read as stopping such a conversation before it could even get started.  Yet, what can perhaps be overlooked is that scholars working in the theories of religion might have more in common with philosophers of religion, and theologians, than is often realized.  When it comes to their all making something of a methodlogical common-cause as distinguished from those who want to approach religious studies from a decidedly “scientific” direction, whether that be understood as sociological, neuro-scientific, anthropological, etc., the theories of religion challenge to “religion” as a sui generis category characterized by determinately “religious” phenomena is itself a challenge that should invite and encourage philosophical and theological interlocutors.  My hunch is that many philosophers and theologians would be willing to grant such a rethinking of what is called “religion” while resisting the notion that this should yield a professional and institutional separation of philosophy/theology from religious studies.

Since I am a member of the Midwestern Regional Committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Philosophy of Religion Section Chair for the Southeast Regional AAR, and someone who draw both upon 19th and 20th century European philosophy and also contemporary analytic philosophy, I am quite invested in thinking carefully about the “gap” identified by Wainwright and also about more recent “gaps” that may have begun to mark the contemporary landscape in the philosophy of religion.  With that said, I do not have the space here to even begin to think through such things in any detail (though I am working on some longer essays in which I do try to move forward in that direction). So, as merely a suggestive, and hopefully productively provocative, short set of reflections, I will offer just a few ideas about where I think that philosophy of religion continues to be a crucial resource for the academic study of religion (which I mean to be inclusive of the AAR very broadly, but to include the scientific study of religion and theories of religion camps within it). My hope is that these reflections will stimulate some discussion about the often complicated and overlapping professional allegiances and identities of contemporary philosophers of religion and encourage the sort of dialogue called for by Wainwright.

Whether or not scholars end up “overcoming” the “gaps” between the AAR and the APA, or the SCP and the SPEP, or between philosophy of religion and theology, or between philosophy of religion/theology and theories of religion, or even philosophy of religion/theology/theories of religion, on the one hand, and the “scientific” study of religion, on the other, etc., there are reasons, both intellectual (as it relates to our research programs) and political (as it relates to our hiring practices and tenure decisions) for a serious and sustained meta-philosophical conversation on this front.  I am not sure where such a conversation will lead, but I do think that it will quickly demonstrate that answers to questions concerning the boundaries of disciplinary or methodological communities are not easy and are certainly not obvious.  Accordingly, there is hard work to do as we continue to ask Wainwright’s important questions in our contemporary context.

As a conversation starter and a critical reply to those who would attempt to exclude philosophy of religion/theology from the academic study of religion, below I offer three ways in which I find the philosophy of religion to be deeply relevant to the academic study of religion.

  • The very question of what should count as “theology” as opposed to something else is itself a question that philosophers are very good at considering.  However, the majority of scholars in both the APA and the AAR realize that any clear demarcations separating theology from philosophy are fraught with difficulty.  Now, this might simply indicate to some, working in the theories of religion, especially, that this is why philosophy is no better than theology and departments of religious studies should avoid them both.    But, I think that a more sustainable understanding is that those who see a hard and fast distinction between theology and philosophy, or philosophy/theology on the one hand and something else (sociology? Anthropology? cognitive science?) on the other hand, are overstating (and oversimplifying) things.  Now, this is not to say that distinctions cannot be made, however.  I have argued elsewhere (see Simmons 2011) that there ought to be a difference made between the authorities to which different communities of discourse appeal.  So, while I think theology rightly appeals to such authorities as sacred texts, ecclesial history, priestly proclamations, etc., such authorities are unlikely to gain traction within philosophical discourse, as philosophical.  Yet, this is not to say that theology appeals to authority while philosophy remains neutrally and objectively detached or some such thing.  Rather, all inquiry presupposes authority structures.  As Wolterstorff so rightly notes, in a passage that just as easily could have been said by Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida, “we are profoundly historical creatures” (1984, 97).  As such, philosophical appeals to logic and reason, say, are not neutral or objective, but simply a different way of affirming an underlying authority structure within an historically located community of inquiry.  In this way, dismissing philosophy of religion and/or theology as biased, confessional, subjective, question-begging, etc., itself requires an appeal to the actuality of some sort of questioning that is not biased, not subjective, not question-begging, etc., which I think is likely to be hard to find.   This is not to say that philosophy has abandoned the affirmation of objective truth, say, although some have.  But, it does mean that philosophers are especially likely to realize the stakes and complexities that attend to such an affirmation or its denial.  Scholars working in the academic study of religion would do well to be in conversation with philosophers minimally because philosophers can help those scholars to get a better handle on the stakes of their own academic practice as both normative and descriptive such that theology and philosophy of religion may not be as much of a problem as is often thought.
  • In his contribution to Wainwright’s volume, Merold Westphal (1996) entertains the hypothesis that one of the reasons that some in departments of religious studies might want to do away with philosophy of religion and theology is because it admits of too close a relation to actual religious persons who are viewed as dangerous for political stability and social progress (pp.24-25). Having been raised in a Pentecostal Christian tradition, I am certainly sympathetic with the worries about particular kinds of religious belief and practice for social order.  However, those who would quickly advocate that religious believers are “unreasonable,” as do many defenders of political liberalism, and are thereby justifiably excluded from public discourse, simply fail to attend to the serious objections that have been offered to this view within the philosophical literature from a variety of perspectives. Indeed, even Richard Rorty, who famously referred to religion as a “conversation stopper” (Rorty 1999) revised his view (Rorty 2003) after having been largely refuted by Nicholas Wolterstorff (2003) in an exchange that occurred in the Journal of Religious Ethics a number of years ago.  If we are really committed to reason-giving, as we should be, then we should be willing to reconsider our views about whose reasons get to count as legitimate.  This is not something that could ever be settled by philosophical analysis alone—power-play is always part of any question of legitimacy—but scholars working at the intersection of philosophy of religion and political philosophy are making great strides in problematizing the ease with which one would rest comfortable in one’s own reasonability as opposed to one’s unreasonable neighbors.  Additionally, lest one worry that these debates continue to be narrowly circumscribed into a very American and classical theist framework, let me recommend the exceptional book by John Witte Jr. and M. Christian Green (2011) entitled Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction, which has chapters considering Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Indigenous Religions.  Those working in religious studies would do well to draw upon the philosophical work being done addressing the important questions of how what is called “religion” can signify and function internal to the various political contexts in which it is claimed to show up.
  • As just one final point, let me turn to my own area of specialization. Despite the serious critiques of classical phenomenology of religion, most of which I endorse, it is important not to throw the Levinasian baby out with the Eliadean bathwater, as it were. Simply put, regardless of what one thinks about whether there is or is not an essence to “religion” and regardless of whether or not one thinks that religion is sui generis, the new phenomenological inquiry into the conditionality of phenomenality, givenness, and appearance is important for getting clear on what we are talking about when we talk about something often termed “religious phenomena.”  Now, by this I do not mean that there is a “what” that exists of itself as religious.  I think that it is likely the case that a phenomena counts as “religious” because it is classified as such by determinate historical communities, whether academic or not.  But, involved in such classification, in such naming, in such recognizing, and even in the criticism of such classification, naming, and recognizing, is a tacit view about what counts as a “thing” (consider Martin Heidegger’s famous essay devoted to this topic), what the conditions of experience are (consider Edmund Husserl’s focus on the centrality of intentionality, Heidegger’s notion of “worldliness,” and the debate between Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida regarding the necessity of horizons), and the way in which both things and experiences are themselves always already implicated in interpretive frameworks.  Accordingly, phenomenological considerations of ontology, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and hermeneutics are not abstract and secondary considerations of that which we engage in some sort of naïve realist encounter.  As Kevin Schilbrack (2010) has demonstrated, naïve realism need not be the other kind of realism within religious studies.  Rather, phenomenology helps us to wrestle with what is going on when we consider all that is going on in the world.  I would suggest that the lack of critical self-reflection and epistemic awareness that one finds in Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade and Gerardus van der Leeuw is importantly contrasted to the approach of contemporary philosophical phenomenology.

In light of these three points, I suggest that whatever it is that is called “religion” is more likely to be appropriately considered, though probably not adequately considered, when those working in the academic study of religion begin to draw upon the work being done by philosophers, and especially by philosophers of religion.  Yet, this relationship should not be viewed as a one-way street.  The philosophy of religion will be dramatically improved as a normative and descriptive discourse if it attends more concretely to the diversity and complexity of what does get called “religion,” which can be productively enriched by working with scholars drawing upon alternative methodological backgrounds.  Philosophers need scholars of religion.  Scholars of religion need philosophers.  To think otherwise is either to be a disciplinary essentialist, which I think faces problems on numerous fronts, or to be an essentialist about “religion” itself, which I think faces even more problems.  Ultimately, many of the “gaps” occurring in scholarly debates dealing with “religion” are not due to such essentialism, but instead are better understood as reflecting often unacknowledged political decisions about who will be part of “us” and who will not.  Such decisions might be necessary, I think that auto mechanics and hot dog vendors, for example, are unlikely to fit very comfortably in either the AAR, APA, SCP, or SPEP, but the burden is on those who would advocate such exclusion to provide reasons for it that are not merely arbitrary reinscriptions of their own power.   Or, at least, to own up to the fact that it is power that they are concerned about.

16 years after Wainwright’s important book, problematic gaps do remain, but dialogue and collaboration also remain as constructive possibilities.  Such possibilities are productively explored when scholars work together to explore the gaps.  In this way, perhaps philosophers of religion should, ironically, be grateful for the very gaps themselves, because they demonstrate that work still needs done in thinking about what it is that philosophers of religion do.

Works Cited

Clayton, John. 2006. Religions, Reasons and the Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

________. 2003. “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration.” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, no.1 (March): 141-49.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2010. “Religions: Are There Any?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78, no.4 (December): 1112-1138.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Wainwright, William J., Ed. God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture: A Discussion Between Scholars in the AAR and the APA. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996.

Westphal, Merold. 1996. “Traditional Theism, the AAR, and the APA.” In Wainwright 1996, 21-28.

Witte Jr., John and M. Christian Green. Eds. 2011. Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1984. Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

________. 2003. “An Engagement with Rorty.” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, no.1 (March): 129-39.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s