Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Religious Philosophy

"Religious philosophy" is what I put down as my "interests" in my profile. It is not "philosophy of religion". The term is a generalization of "Christian philosophy" (as used in the opening chapter of Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy), or "Buddhist philosophy", etc. That is, it is philosophizing from a religious perspective, or "faith seeking understanding". But, it may be objected, there can be no such thing as a general religious philosophy, since the faith of one religion is different from that of another. To this I respond that I think of myself as religious, but since I am not a practitioner of one or the other of these more or less established faiths, I have no choice but to, in effect, define my own religion, though of course drawing on the wisdom of the established faiths. As I see it, this is one way of responding to the problem raised, for example, in Peter Berger's The Heretical Imperative. We live in pluralist society, and if I am unable to bring myself to, say, choosing some Christian denomination, or some Oriental tradition, then this is the only way forward for me -- given that I reject the agnostic option.

William James characterized religion (in Varieties of Religious Experience) as (my paraphrase)
1. Acknowledging that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, and
2. Seeing the fix for that wrongness in reconnecting to something transcendent.

What I shall be doing in these posts is taking that characterization as a definition of religion. (By "definition", by the way, I only mean to indicate that when I define X, that this is how I shall be using the word 'X'. Others may use it in other ways, which is ok as long as one is aware of the different usages.) And what I see myself as doing is carrying out a religious experiment. Could it be that -- now that modernism is failing, yet there are good reasons to not fall back into a pre-modern monocultural form of religious practice, that the time for "being a Christian (or whatever) is passing? To be clear, I do not think it is wrong to belong to a religious tradition (on the other hand, I do think it is wrong to be without religion altogether), so the experiment is to see if being religious without signing up for a particular tradition works out. Not that I expect anything conclusive to come of it.


Caryl said...

Hi Scott-I'll do myself the honor of being the first to respond. My problem with this pragmatist definition of religion, in a nutshell: it's subjectivist and does not embrace nature or the redeeming of nature occasioned by the Fall into Sin. It seems to be concerned only with the personal and individual soul. But the true teachings of religion are that we are all involved in the project known as mankind. No exemptions!

scott roberts said...

Hi Caryl,
My definition was defining religion, but does not in itself define good religion. There are a bunch of ways one could understand the two points that fall into your criticism, but also ways that don't. For example, in early Buddhism it was considered sufficient to aim for one's own nirvana-hood, but the Mahayana reformation altered that with the Bodhisattva Vow ("I will postpone my final Awakening in order to work for all sentient beings to be saved"). Of course, there is more to it than that, but I would call both parties religion, but prefer the Mahayana view.

However, I do see what I am doing as working out a pragmatic approach to religion, but explaining that requires a new post. I will mention now that I do not see it as being inevitably subjectivist (though that is a danger).

Matt said...

What the hell, Scott? You gonna' keep this blog a secret from me?

I like what you're doing. I think you're right, that a pragmatist approach doesn't necessarily fall into subjectivism. The way I see it, if a pragmatism isn't going to fall into a subjectivism, it has to be agonistic--which is to say: in practice, everything is agonistic. One can be overtly concerned with only their own salvation (however one unpacks that notion), but all paths are in natural tension with others simply by virtue of being alternate paths (if you come to a fork in the road, you have to make a choice, made choices are based on something, what they are based on get called the upshots of this tradition vs. another).

And since I don't see myself as traditionally religious (i.e., I don't yelp about God at all), I was wondering if, by your definition's lights, a religion based around literature is possible? Like the romantic polytheism Rorty was envisioning towards the end of his life?

scott roberts said...

Hi Matt,

Rats, you found me out (just kidding).

I don't know about a religion based around literature. It would seem to violate both parts of the definition, though as mentioned, this just means I don't find much of anything of value in that which claims to be religious but doesn't meet these criteria. The folks I meant to exclude with this definition were people like Spong and Cupitt, perhaps many Unitarians, and so forth. It might exclude Vattimo and Caputo, though I'm not sure -- in this case it might just be a difference of style that I'm objecting to.

Which, of course, is not to say that I find no religious value in literature. Given the premise that there is something fundamentally wrong with people, literature can help one see how that wrongness manifests. Furthermore, there is the fact that literature is a reflection on whatever the story is, and self-reflection is (to my mind) a required religious practice. But whether literature by itself that does not presuppose that the wrongness is fundamental, and that the way out is with reconnection to the supernatural -- I would be inclined to doubt that it can add up to religion according to my definition. But there is grey area. I find Vonnegut, for example, to very effective, though he obviously had no truck with religion. I guess the more ironic the author, the more I see it as useful, religiously speaking.

scott roberts said...


I think 'detachment' was the word I wanted, not 'irony'. Though irony is good too.

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