Philosophy of Religion

John Herve wonders whether it is all ‘Mumbo Jumbo

Someone tells you that when they speak they always tell lies. That they are telling lies as they are speaking to you now. So are they, in fact, telling the truth?

An interesting philosophical conundrum. But isn’t it really, just like Philosophy in totality, merely intellectual ‘gymnastics’ but nothing to do with real life. Aha! But what is ‘real’ and what is ‘life’? So – we are philosophizing already. We are philosophizing about Philosophy. In recent editions of ND we have been ‘dipping our toes’ into the waters of Religious Philosophy. But why philosophize at all?

Inevitability

Rather a stupid question, for we are philosophizing all the time. We can’t help it. Humans are conscious, thinking (and spiritual) beings. Merely to think is to philosophize. We may try to deny this, but, like spirituality, it is so much part of the ‘esse’ of being human it inevitably ‘bubbles up’ into our conscious lives in so many ways. Denying this is itself a philosophy about philosophy! That being the case, we can either, like spirituality, indulge in it in a shallow, muddled and unstructured fashion, or in a deep, objective and progressive way. First and foremost Philosophy (Greek ‘philos’ – love; ‘sophos’ – wisdom) is about clarity of thought (A .J. Ayer). Thus every discipline has a specific focus on this area which tries to answer the questions ‘What are we about?’ and ‘Why are we doing it?’ Hence the Philosophies of Religion; of Science; of Medicine; of Economics; Politics, and so on. It is interesting that in the discipline of Philosophy itself (what it is to think), the majority of the great Philosophers in the history of thought have been Theists.

And so what?

Delve into any area of Philosophy and you find the second characteristic. Philosophy involves questioning fundamentals; fundamental concepts, principles and methods. Philosophers such as Descartes and Kant have analysed the most fundamental aspects of our existence and human experience (for example, what is ‘real’ and what is ‘life’ – as above). In asking such questions, this is not just an exercising of the ‘little grey cells’ and clarifying concepts but a striving towards a fundamental understanding of ourselves and whatever it is that exists. Religious Philosophy has a major part to play in this. Be careful – the Philosophers of Religion do not attempt to support philosophical arguments with appeals to religious beliefs! A philosophical argument must carry its own credentials and validity; it asks for rational assent, not faith or obedience. Question: So, Philosophy of Religion is not the same as Philosophical Theology then? Answer: Exactly – for the reasons just stated. And also Religion is a wider concept than faith in a divinity, in pagan religions for example, or worship of the natural world.

Ironically, for a discipline whose purpose and primary characteristic is clarity of thought, Philosophy in general, and the Philosophy of Religion in particular, is often felt to be too complex, too profound, too obscure and occasionally impenetrable. But the problem is not with the subject matter, but the difficulties in communicating it! Language is always inadequate, deficient and imperfect when relating ‘thought-concepts’. Try, for example to adequately vocalize or describe being ‘in love’, or the concept of Grace, or the value of Redemption. James Joyce (Ullysses) attempts to reflect the thought process as a ‘stream of consciousness’ – that we think without punctuation. As Philosophy is fully committed to truth-seeking at the deep level of human experience it is not surprising that it finds great difficulties in expressing it.

We cannot choose!

But again, philosophizing it is not something that we can choose to do! We all do it as a matter of course, so we may as well do it as well as we can. Religious Philosophy has its place in all this; continually making us aware of the deeper issues in human religious experience. Not necessarily giving us answers, but helping us to ask the questions. I rest my case. For a no-nonsense, value-for-money entry into Religious Philosophy try Philosophy of Religion (Peter Coles, Hodder and Stoughton, 2004).

Some keywords in the Philosophy of Religion

Anthropic: Needs of humans being anticipated by nature.

Categorical imperative: One acts upon a maxim only if one can will it becomes a universal law.

Contingent: Something which is dependent upon something else.

Cultural relativism: Concepts determined by cultural factors.

Deism: God created the Universe but is not now directly involved.

Dualism: Two-fold distinction (e.g. God/Devil).

Empiricism: All knowledge derives from experience.

Emotivism: Morality expresses emotions and attitudes, not facts.

Eschatology: Study of the end/consummation of the world.

Fideism: Certain beliefs are beyond the sense of reason and must be accepted on faith.

Incorporeal: Without material form.

Mysticism: The experience of having apprehended an ultimate reality.

Myth: A fundamental issue of existence explained by means of a symbolic story.

Naturalism: The world can be explained wholly in terms of natural forms and causes.

Natural theology: Assessing basic religious values (e.g. the existence of God) by use of reasoned argument.

Numen: Something ‘wholly other’ than the natural world.

Pantheism: The whole universe is God or part of God.

Parousia: The second coming of Christ.

Pneumatology: The nature of the Holy Spirit.

Revealed theology: Claims about God derived from revelation or sacred writings.

Synthetic: The predicate is not contained in the subject of a statement. Syncretism: The mingling of differing philosophical concepts.

Soteriology: The nature of salvation.

Teleology: The nature of final causes or ‘ends’, particularly as evidence for design and purpose in nature.

Theodicy: The problem of the existence of evil.