Der Sinn der Welt muß außerhalb ihrer liegen. (‘The sense of the world must lie outside of it.’)
Arguing for God
The conclusions reached in the previous chapter suggest, amongst other things, that there may be reasons to be wary of wholly detached and neutralist models for philosophizing about religious belief. And this in turn has significant implications with respect to the established canon of philosophical arguments about the existence of God that bulks so large in the philosophy of religion as commonly practised. Countless textbooks take the standard arguments for God as their starting point, beginning with Anselm's famous ‘ontological argument’ put forward in the eleventh century, and moving on to the celebrated ‘Five Ways’ of proving God's existence deployed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. As is well known, these two great Christian philosophers take contrasting approaches to their task. The Anselm argument proceeds purely a priori, without depending on observational evidence, and proposes that God, defined as ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’, must exist not just in the mind but in reality. In contrast to this a priori approach, Thomas Aquinas starts from observation of the world around us, reasoning that five features found in the cosmos (motion, causality, contingency, perfection, and purposiveness) allow us to infer the existence of something ‘which all men call God’, which must be the ultimate source of these things, or that on which they depend.
Herr, es ist zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groβ.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
Und auf den Fluren laβ die Winde los.
(‘Lord, it is time. The summer lasted long.
Upon the sundial draw your lengthening shade
And on the meadows let the winds blow strong’.)
The Theistic Outlook and the Human Condition
The characteristic theistic voice of hope in the face of suffering, with which the previous chapter ended, marks a transition to the rather more practical aspects of the religious outlook, which will be our main concern in the remaining chapters. These aspects do not always receive much prominence in philosophy of religion as commonly studied, but no philosophical inquiry into religion can afford to ignore them. For subscribing to a particular worldview is never simply a matter of assenting to certain doctrines or propositions; it characteristically makes a crucial difference to how we live – both to our overall sense of the meaning and purpose of life, and to how we come to terms with the constant stresses and changes that mark human existence, and with the bodily deterioration and eventual demise that sooner or later awaits us all.
Thinking about the human condition inevitably raises questions about what is the essential nature of a human being; philosophers have differed widely on this, and even on the question of whether there is such an essential nature at all. Socrates, in the Phaedo, famously characterizes human life as a ‘preparation for dying’: the goal of our existence is to purify the soul from its damaging attachment to the body and ready it for the pure rational activity that is its ultimate destiny. On this dualistic view, which has of course profoundly influenced much subsequent religious thinking, it seems to follow that illness, old age, and even death are not to be regretted, since they bring us nearer to our proper destination, the life of an immortal soul freed from the body. Our liability to physical infirmity and decay would seem, on this dualistic view, to be a help, not a hindrance, in the necessary Socratic process of learning to despise the bodily pleasures and attachments that hinder the functioning of the immortal part of us.
The philosophy of religion is a growing and flourishing field, as may be seen from the increasing numbers of textbooks, anthologies, and companions now available in the area. This book certainly does not try to cover all the topics that have been included under the heading ‘philosophy of religion’, though it aims to discuss those I take to be the most central. It is primarily a work of philosophy, as opposed to philosophical theology, and does not include detailed discussion of doctrines like the Trinity or the Incarnation that have received attention from philosophers (often very fruitfully and interestingly) in recent years. Nor, apart from one or two brief passing references, does it venture into comparative world religion, which has become a vast and fascinating academic field in its own right. All philosophizing (whether its practitioners acknowledge it or not) is inevitably conducted within a given cultural and historical context, and this book is no exception, being primarily informed by the philosophical tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle, and the religious tradition whose roots go back to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. The audience at which the book is aimed includes colleagues and students working in the philosophy of religion, but I have tried to make the philosophy accessible to as wide a readership as possible. Many of the topics are inevitably complex, but I have endeavoured to avoid technical jargon, and for the most part I have avoided engaging with the minutiae of the debates in the recent academic literature.
Ki-attah adonay tov v'salach; ve'rab-hesed le-kol qoreykha. (‘For you Lord are good and ready to forgive; abounding in love to all who call to you.’)
The Source of Goodness
A theme that has surfaced at many points in the foregoing chapters is the idea of what may be called the primacy of the moral in religion. Religious belief is not chiefly to do with abstract metaphysical theories or the formulation of explanatory hypotheses about the origins and workings of the world, but takes as its central focus the deep structural problems of human life and our pressing need for moral transformation. A pivotal point of difference between a theistic and a nontheistic outlook, and arguably the most important area where the philosophical battles need to be fought, will thus concern the domain of value and morality: what is it that grounds our judgements of value, and what determines how we should act and live our lives?
For the believer, as suggested in the preceding chapter, perhaps the most crucial element in the way God is conceived is his goodness. The God who is the object of worship in the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions is conceived of as the pattern and source of beauty and goodness. In the words of the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonist philosopher Peter Sterry, the ‘stream of the divine love’ is the source of ‘all truths, goodness, joys, beauties and blessedness’. For the worshipper, involved in the praxis of daily or weekly liturgy, this idea is pretty much central, the basis of the sense of joy and exaltation experienced as one turns to God in praise and thanksgiving.
Legoito d'an hikanōs ei kata tēn hypokeimenēn hylēn diasaphētheiē. (‘Our discussion will be on the right lines if it illuminates things in a way that is appropriate to the subject-matter in question.’)
The Nature of the Subject
The philosophy of religion has unique attractions. At a time when academic philosophizing has become increasingly fragmented, separated off into a host of specialisms preoccupied with narrow programmes of ‘research’, the philosophical study of religion has a stimulatingly wide purview and necessarily connects us with a whole spectrum of inquiries. It embraces practical moral questions (about how we should live our lives), as well as more theoretical moral issues about the objectivity of morality and the source of moral value; it takes us into the philosophy of mind – questions about the nature of the self and consciousness, and the extent to which we are ultimately responsible for our character and actions; and it delves into cosmological questions about the ultimate source of our world and of human existence. But perhaps most strikingly, it is concerned with our overall view of the nature of reality. Hence, it necessarily resists division into hermetically sealed subdisciplines, and instead keeps alive the traditional grand vision of philosophy as the attempt to achieve a comprehensive ‘synoptic’ vision of things – one that endeavours to discern how (or how far) the different areas of our human understanding fit together.
These grand holistic questions are ones that many contemporary analytic philosophers are wary of; understandably enough, the needs of gaining a doctoral qualification and making one's career in a competitive academic world are apt to lead people to retreat into specialized niches where they can gain a respected expertise in a narrow area. There is surely nothing wrong with this specialisation as such – indeed, it can yield significant scholarly dividends. But for all that, I suspect that many people still retain something of the drive that led them to philosophy in the first place: an urge to deepen their understanding of what meaning, if any, their lives as a whole may have, or what kind of overall vision of reality may be possible. And sooner or later, this quest, the quest that has always been at the heart of the philosophical enterprise, is likely to draw us into the grand questions tackled by philosophy of religion.
Metamorphousthe tē anakainōsei tou noös (‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’)
Religion as a Way of Life and the Nature of Philosophy
Philosophical inquiry in any area has to be done in a way that is sensitive to the nature of the subject matter, and it should have become apparent at many points in the previous chapters that this is particularly true in the philosophy of religion. The habits of thought that philosophers develop inevitably predispose them to focus on the analysis and evaluation of propositions, the truth or falsity of beliefs, and the degree to which those beliefs are supported by argument and evidence. All this is perfectly valid, and valuable; but a proper philosophical understanding of religion requires us to take account of much more. To be religious is not just to espouse certain doctrines; it is to follow a certain way of life and to take up certain commitments. It is in part a project of formation, of forming or reforming the self, a process of askēsis (training) or of mathēsis (learning), to use two ancient Greek terms. The latter term when translated into Latin becomes disciplina (discipline), a word whose connotations are perhaps more informative for the modern reader. It suggests not just the theoretical acquisition of knowledge, but a structured programme supported by rules and practices.
Do you see yon wicket gate?
To bring our discussion to a close, let us draw together some of the threads of the last chapter and indeed of the book as a whole. Ancient religious imagery, going right back to the Gospels, speaks of the road to salvation as a journey that has to be entered upon by first passing through a gate – the ‘wicket gate’, as it appears in John Bunyan's famous seventeenth-century allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress. In Christian symbolism, of course, Christ himself is the gate, or ‘door’ (thura) to salvation: the entrance the flock must pass through to find ‘pasture’ (John 10:9). Like many symbols, the gate image contains many layers of meaning. But the idea of a transition that needs to be made, or a change that needs to be undergone, in order for certain possibilities to become actual turns out to be a linking thread that ties together many of the themes in this book.
We began by suggesting that the special nature of religious understanding requires a certain methodology if it is to be approached in a philosophically appropriate way. An epistemology of detachment, so far from being the paradigm of proper philosophizing that it is often supposed to be, may be a way of hardening oneself against the porousness and receptivity that is a necessary condition for certain kinds of evidence to become salient (Chapter 1). As we have just seen in Chapter 7, the disciplines of spiritual praxis can be interpreted as a training process that facilitates just the kind of interior moral transformation that will generate the required receptivity, as envisaged in the conversion process as traditionally understood.
Was ist Gott? unbekannt, dennoch… (‘What is God? Unknown, and yet…’)
Speaking of God
In our discussion of the various issues in the philosophy of religion that have been addressed in the two previous chapters, a certain picture of the subject should gradually have begun to take shape – a picture that diverges in important respects from the way the subject has often been tackled by philosophers and theologians. The emerging picture rejects the construal of the subject that assimilates it to the kind of inquiry appropriate to the sciences – the evaluation of evidence from a distanced and neutral standpoint. It mistrusts the way of understanding religious claims that interprets them as explanatory hypotheses about the nature or workings of the cosmos rather than as hermeneutic frameworks for understanding the human moral and spiritual predicament. It casts doubt on ways of philosophizing about religion that confine themselves exclusively to the resources of the analytic intellect, and shy away from literary, poetic, and imaginative forms of discourse as if these are always liable to contaminate our reasoning and distort our apprehension of the truth. It acknowledges that religion is a phenomenon that arises from deep longings of the human heart, often against the background of dire need and distress; and while not supposing that such conditions in themselves validate or support the resulting beliefs, it nevertheless attempts to pay attention to the context within which religion operates rather than always trying to abstract isolated propositions for detached scrutiny and analysis.
Misère de l'homme sans Dieu…Félicité de l'homme avec Dieu. (‘Wretchedness of humanity without God; happiness of humanity with God.’)
The Demise of Teleology?
The philosophy of religion, as was pointed out in our opening chapter, cannot function properly as an isolated specialism but sooner or later must inevitably concern itself with the grand synoptic question of what kind of ‘worldview’ or overall picture of reality we are to adopt. The arguments of Chapter 4 have underlined that the theistic worldview is of a cosmos that is fundamentally benign: a cosmos where the natural world reflects a goodness and beauty stemming from the divine source of all reality, where our human moral impulses orient us towards an eternal and objective moral order, and where the deepest fulfilment of our human nature lies in responding to the imperatives of love and justice.
This is more than a ‘theory’; it is a kind of joyful affirmatory vision, which is a source of inspiration and hope for the believer. It is not something to be accepted or rejected as one might accept or reject the theory of plate tectonics, or a theory of the causes of the Napoleonic wars, but something that has an impact on every aspect of one's life. If it is a true vision, it confers a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life; if it is false, it is the most pitiable delusion. Any philosophical examination of religious belief must take account of these facts: it is no use pretending that the issues involved are not ones in which we have the deepest personal and emotional stake.
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