Draft of a review article published in: The European Legacy, vol। 12, no. 1, pp. 87-92, 2007.
Works discussed in this review:
The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. Edited by William J. Wainwright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), x + 550 pp., $ 74.00.
Le Religieux après la religion. Par Luc Ferry et Marcel Gauchet (Paris : Grasset/Nouveau collège de philosophie, 2004), 144 pp. 12 €.
Varieties of Religion Today. William James Revisited. By Charles Taylor (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002), 127 pp., $ 19.95.
A wealth of recent publications has merged philosophy with religion. In them, readers might encounter scholarship through which to be up-dated on theological traditions, the reformulation of religion’s role in shaping community and State, and the evermore refined art of argumentation as applied to the field. Also to be found are works on the divine and the spiritual, avatars of the sacred, and attempts at crafting new religious offspring from either art or culture. In short, philosophy of religion has proved to be one of the most active fields in academic research today.
William J. Wainwright’s Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion is an outstanding compendium addressing many of these issues, albeit from within the respectable horizon of Christian philosophy of religion. It is a vast, brilliant undertaking on thinking religion in its current complexity. So vast, in fact, that the presence of critique, analysis and even radical doubt – to which the work as a whole is otherwise devoted – seems to lead atheistic persuasions toward evisceration.
If the latter path still leaves much to be resolved in our times, it is plain that atheism has also lost its direction. By the same token, facing off the refined rationalism of the Handbook with the secularist impulse that has taken hold of Western Europe, the picture readers are led to project is how substantially the face of religious thought has changed since the 1960s. The causes of these changes are actually much older. For decades they had stood merely as potential. Notwithstanding the debate on the role of religions in history, its thought now flaunts renewed bravura as it flexes its mettle in the field of reason.
Yet religious philosophy is hardly the only domain within which theological and divine considerations are discussed. Writing from within the so-called “unchurched” lands, one of Marcel Gauchet’s most valuable statements is how faith today is something about which we can debate and argue. Gauchet, who is editor-in-chief of Le Débat, was among the first in France to integrate religious history into the rigorous radical political thought crafted by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort.
Whether Gauchet’s idea is the outcome of a descriptive approach to cognitive phenomena or an explanatory position on historical turns is the theme of considerable discussion in his encounter with Luc Ferry, Le Religieux après la religion. Indeed, his conception of “man” (l’homme) is that of “a being who is turned toward the invisible or is required by alterity” (61). Through speech, as it were, human beings encounter the invisible in the midst of their own words. As such, we show an anthropological structure based on the investiture of the invisible. The nature of this investment is what is really up for debate, be it in sense, for example, or higher meaning, transcendence, the divine, thought, or being. Gauchet tautens this string up in an oxymoron: “the practical absolute”.
Both Gauchet and Luc Ferry have written considerably on the issue of religion, albeit from markedly different angles. Through commitment to moral discourse in the vein of liberalism, Ferry aims to evacuate philosophy from its task of thinking and explaining the higher categories. In conceptual terms, his project amounts to delimiting the divine expunged of the sacred, to say nothing of the theistic. Better known to English-speaking readers as the embittered fashion-conscious moralist who helped liberalism cross la Manche by basically accusing the thinkers of May ’68 of plagiarism, Ferry is in fact committed to a regressive Kantianism. Therein transcendence is collapsed into the transcendental, or stated in his terms: “the religious is no longer part of the heteronomous order, i.e. of radical dependence, but of the order of transcendence in immanence” (41).
Ferry argues that the higher categories belong not so much to a moral field, but to the religious one. Modern philosophy basically boils down to translating into a secular vernacular what arose from within the creative genius of religion (31). Religion’s destiny would be wound to this genius. It thus remains something to be invented, eternally as it were. For it is undeniable that religion’s scope and nature have changed. They have done so due especially to the shortcomings of the God that has been thought from within its horizon.
Although Ferry intones his object with future promise, his reduction of conceptual thought to the field of religion goes by the name of some unspoken populism. What he comes up with is replete with nostalgia when it is not fed by the general ressentiment expressed throughout his work toward the thinkers of the generation preceding him. For through philosophy these minds sought to redraw the conceptual map in the name of a radical undertaking whereby no category was sustainable when not referred to the emancipatory desires of the collective whole. In the end, Ferry’s commitment to transcendence and the divine remains shaky faced with Gauchet’s wager that if there were transcendence, it ought to be considered as part of the autonomous impulse and creative spontaneity typical to the anthropological structure of human being. In other words, Gauchet issues that we must break with arguments that try prohibiting, either latently or manifestly, with the “thought of transcendence in its real mystery of self-transcendence with no metaphysical exteriority or supernatural donation” (78).
Wainwright’s Handbook gives a solid and near exhaustive picture of the philosophy of religion. A large portion of the book’s first part, “Problems”, amounts essentially to dealing with the various arguments about God’s properties. William Rowe deals with omniscience, perfect benevolence and omnipotence. Using a formalist style, William Mann takes on the neutralization of historicism in the perfection of arguments on God’s necessity by refining the claim of aseity (metaphysical independence).
Paul Griffiths’ section on the divine, not limited to theistic conceptions, matches up with Luc Ferry’s assertions, albeit with less of the ambivalence that is often characteristic of statements on faith crafted within the context of French “laicité”. As Griffiths writes, if the philosophy of religion as understood in the Handbook is a largely Christian enterprise, it is that “philosophy of religion is shaped by its history and should make no pretense at transcending or escaping it” (61). Thereupon, he leads the reader through a vast portrayal of the Vendantic texts of India up to Samkara, and continuing into Buddhism.
Brian Leftow takes on the modal logic specific to aspects of Anselm’s Proslogion 2 argument. His scope absorbs Descartes and Leibniz, as well as Kant. All standard fare for a review of the ontological argument, just that suddenly then enters Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s addendum to the ontological argument is rendered in Anthony Anderson’s version. Gödel’s objective was to step beyond the objections raised about the term “existence” and aim for clarifying the potential of the term “perfection”. As such, he integrated the qualifier of “positive property” to a type of existence that, in the final analysis, ought to be deemed necessary as well.
Still in the first part of Wainwright’s Handbook, most ambitious among the contributions is perhaps Paul Draper’s essay on “God, Science, Naturalism”. Draper tries to cut through the “warfare view” that has pitted science against theology. Indeed, theology is given an adequate re-description that integrates all of its sophistication—something the Handbook as a whole masterfully confirms. Moreover, Draper manages to redesign science’s relation to theological themes by sifting through naïve conceptions on the implications of its metaphysical naturalism.
More esoteric themes of Christendom are not spared rational elucidation either. The discussion on miracles, revelation, Christ’s resurrection, the afterlife up to and including the feminist critique of Christendom’s patriarchal history are all rendered in the most sober, analytical and non-dogmatic argumentation one could generally hope for in such a compendium.
For all that, the openness to debate and fineness of argumentation do not remove the disconcerting feeling that some readers may experience regarding the “theological turn” occurring within sectors of Western philosophy. With political thought steeped in liberal conformism, and the politics of emancipation succinctly sideswiped by corporate mass media, a philosophical disposition might ask: what purpose does renewed interest in religion(s) hold for philosophers? Have we so soon forgotten the shattered careers, prison terms, summary executions, and slides into madness and poverty experienced by philosophers and scientists alike for having ruffled the Vatican’s edicts? Not only should such data force scholars to deal with power and politics in the context of religious faith, but they ought to also underscore how the leading issue surrounding religion may be something far from divine goodness, and much closer to the gratuitousness of the human penchant for evil deeds. At least on this point philosophers and the faithful have often seen eye-to-eye.
None of the historical battles, however, can dismiss the fact that even decisions to resist and counter-attack go by way of argumentation. Arguments, like concepts, share little with the absolute. Contingent to the point of evacuating any essence, arguments are also continually crafted. If there is one thing that adversaries to religions thus cannot afford, it is to find themselves “a quarter century out of date” (443), as William Hasker jabs in his chapter at the objections stemming from the “post-modern” regarding analytic philosophy of religion (APR). For this purpose also, the Handbook is of great utility.
In a sense, the existence of a school of thought named “analytic philosophy of religion” could only have arisen by bracketing the aforementioned social-scientific and historical data. By substituting them with sophisticated formal argumentation, aspects dividing plain old analytic philosophy from its continental next-of-kin are reiterated. From APR’s perspective most questions addressed by continental philosophy of religion (CPR), as it were, cannot be distinguished from a field better known today as the sociology of religion. Yet the very organization of the Handbook seems to dictate otherwise, claims its editor Professor William Wainwright. In his general introduction, he emphasizes that the task of his compendium is to seek for “topical and methodological comprehensiveness” (10).
Other chapters in the Handbook intelligently wade through elementary game-theory modeling of the comparison between Pascal’s wagers and James’ attack on the agnostic imperative. Closer to the APR research program lies the study of religious language and epistemology with discussion of Wittgenstein also opening the possibilities of inter-traditional discussion, in this case with Heidegger.
This latter aspect of the philosophy of religion is given fuller treatment only in the Handbook’s second part, “Approaches.” Merold Westphal’s contribution appropriately offers an in-depth though cursory review of Heidegger, Ricoeur, Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion’s work, all generally lodged in CPR. Such limits between APR and CPR do bear out a further, though unsaid, horizon of the Handbook. Marcel Gauchet, Luc Ferry and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor are all philosophers by education and training. Judging by the Handbook’s scope, their approach to discussing religion precisely seems to place them into the sociological framework—though it is far from clear why. If their interest in history is what keeps them beyond the divisional lines, it does not explain why they fail to even be mentioned in Westphal’s segment.
By contrast, Westphal rightly points out the importance of the work of Dominique Janicaud, the late professor of Université de Nice. In the early 1990s, Janicaud called attention to the “theological” turn in phenomenology, which has determined the picture forged abroad of recent French philosophy. Despite persistent scientific research within phenomenology – let us recall that one of the rare thinkers Derrida could not reach an end with in his deconstructions was Husserl, and perhaps Merleau-Ponty – theological concepts are now prominent in French thinkers of that tradition. It is now so widespread a phenomenon that, no matter how we choose to look at it, French thought is flirting with another phase (see, for example, the January-February 2006 issue of Critique, on “God”, no. 704-705). That is also why media philosophers such as Luc Ferry are able to shamelessly take on the issue by denying any links to Samuel Huntington’s fallacy or the bloated topos of the rise of fundamentalism. For if the latter claim does refer to a real movement, it is one to have affected all institutional religions bear no exception, and thus requires a political explanation.
It should not be forgotten that there do lie some important differences even within the continental tradition. Philosophers have tended toward a confrontation with theology on grounds of the conceptual tension between language and apophantic encounter with God, -- thus Derrida’s avowal “I trust no text that is not in some way contaminated with negative theology” (489). By contrast, the work of Gauchet, Ferry, and Taylor tries to track the hands-on adventure of religious metamorphosis as it now seems to be occurring.
That said there is no need for a separate heading in the Handbook devoted, as it were, to “sociology of religion”. The scope of inquiry issuing from philosophy of religion clearly demonstrates a capacity to speak of themes such as the feminist critique of divinity and the question of religious diversity all within the horizons of philosophical argumentation itself. However, omissions of another nature are blatant here. Omission of the atheist, for example. For all its common background to the history of Christendom, atheism really only makes a cameo appearance in Peter van Inwagen’s chapter on the problem of evil. Needless to say, this is a shame.
There is no denying that ours is a time in which faith can be debated. As Gauchet established long ago in a brilliant development on Weber, religion has “exited” from the Western European Christian world, leaving it in “disenchantment”. What Gauchet means is that religion’s tie to the State has been split in a way that extends broader than even secularism is willing to picture. For if there is a term he seeks deliberately to avoid, it is the specific French concept of the secular state, l’état laique – rather discreetly celebrating its hundredth anniversary of legal existence in France in 2005. It is common knowledge that religion used to dominate all aspects of life in Europe. Out of its centralization, the groundwork of the modern State emerged. Today, in France especially, religion is a civil society movement, argues Gauchet. It works alongside any number of autonomous groups formed in civil society, to which it both draws and lends its architectonic pedigree.
For all that, one should not draw hasty conclusions about the influence of the ars teologica. Philosophy of religion is clearly not part of philosophy’s mainstream. In the former, as shown in the Handbook, God remains a necessary presupposition, or at least needing to be shown as such. In the latter, concepts and arguments tend to break down in the name of experience, though hardly do they manage to negate the religious impulse. Few of the pious think in the conceptual and argumentational terms of philosophy of religion. The truth is that for many of the faithful, the God submitted to discussion by philosophers seems more akin to a heresy or to the spirit first promoted by the French Revolution. Reason—and not faith—appears to be the presupposition to philosophy of religion.
In the end, do we seek for anything else than a truer form of the divine with respect to God? And when we do want to reformulate God in human terms, do we seek to do anything else but reduce the truer divine to something more proportionate to the foolishness of human thought?
By addressing these questions, Taylor’s Varieties of Religion Today continues the social orientation set out in his “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition”. His work strives to counter the limitations and restrictions of libertarian arguments on individual will and creed. Although in admiration of William James’ Varieties of Religion Experience, Taylor cannot help but feel the shortcomings of its individualist slant, portrayed in chapter after chapter of James’ masterpiece. For the all the brilliance of the cognitive make-up of the passionately religious individual, Taylor considers the work as still falling short on understanding religion as a “place for collective connection through a common way of being” (24).
Employing a hermeneutic stance, Taylor laments James’ reduction of faith to an ecstatic experience. “Faith and hope are in something” (26), he stresses. He then goes on to force James into the linguistic turn, i.e. emphasizing the social nature of language insofar as “all experiences require some vocabulary” (27), which “are never those simply of an individual” (28). As a series of lectures at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences, the book is perhaps too concise a setting for Taylor to unpack his argument. Namely, it is worth contrasting his assertions on the private sphere of religious concerns with the thorough counter-examples put forward in Jerome Gellman’s “Mysticism and Religious Experience”, in Chapter 6 of Wainwright’s Handbook. To the credit of its author, the feminist critique of mystical experience is also discussed, whereas Taylor does not include it in the present work.
Even more than the libertarian/communitarian debate in which Taylor has busied himself, James comes to the fore here as a landmark for the complexity of “religious” thought in the twentieth century. Recall that the last time James’ book had so closely been considered was in the 1960s. Unlike the prominence his psychological and pragmatic contributions still holds for philosophy of mind studies, The Varieties of Religious Experience has always edged toward an unorthodox readership. Back in the sixties, its approach provided many key notions to the “spiritualist” extrapolations that were propelling the expansion of the Haight-Asbury movement through North America.
Half a century earlier, James had similarly dared to argue for the acceptability to believe, indeed the right to believe, over and above reasoned conviction. Taylor considers this as his third and most engaging venture into the abyss (44-46). Perhaps James’ was not of a nature to unconceal the framework of an ideal society in the way of his hippy brethren. But in the virulence of his critique of institutional theology and his embracing of the self-coined and self-referred “sick soul”, a rejection of late 19th century America lay only a step – or ocean – away.
It is notably in its individualism that James’ inward stance appears naïve, if not limited, to Taylor. The latter reminds readers that religion’s role is to perform an “integrating function” (79). While Taylor does not clash with the thought of Marcel Gauchet, it is clear from his perfunctory remarks (41) that Gauchet’s perception of “the exit of religion” takes us too close to a non-theistic position for his liking—and this, despite Taylor’s promotion of the translation of Gauchet’s major work, The Disenchantment of the World, in English. As if in a bid to counter Gauchet, Taylor formulates a tri-Durkheimian conception of religion in recent history: paleo-, neo- and post. The hypothesis he upholds is that we have slid into a post-Durkheimean age in which collective forms of the sacred lie fragmented, the ultimate effect of which is corruption of the understanding of collective being as a whole. This fragmentation’s receptacle would be brute consumerism, at best. At worst, the only group thought that reaches effectivity would seem to be the managerial projections of the ideal, but ultimately socially restrictive and economically exclusive, corporate environment.
By contrast, Wainwright’s Handbook emerges as an example of just such a collective work in thought. It counters the absurd and utterly dangerous media obsession with religious fanaticism that has underscored the so-called return of the religious in the wake of the Soviet empire’s collapse. Here we have conceptions of religion that are philosophical and rational, but post-Kantian. Secularized philosophy may have taken a lead on an aspect of the natural sciences insofar as theories of the Subject have shown greater analytical and constructivist depth than the theological flirtations and astrophysical megalomania of many scientists. By the same token, the philosophy of religion as here shown to be at work has clearly regained territory from the critiques of it made by either philosophy or science.
With such solid work being done in academe, the deception is only the greater to see the hard dogmatic turn of the most recent Roman Catholic pope. This former grand inquisitor considerably resembles the mythical portrait made of his kin in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamasov. In public at least, despite his occasional hobnobbing with Habermas, Benedict XVIth has turned way from the intelligence portrayed amongst the authors of the books reviewed herein. Ergo, questions of power and cynicism have never been separate from faith – regardless of tired claims on the corruptibility of the earthly heavens.
This tension between philosophy of religion and institutionalized churches cannot be merely argued away. Indeed, if there were another major omission in the Handbook, i.e. in addition to silencing atheists, it would surely be the lack of arguments from Latin American Liberation Theology. Two decades ago, during the height of the rightwing dictatorships, its advocates were virulently condemned by the Vatican and left to fend for their own faced with death squads. The political involvement of liberational theologians is not over yet. This makes its absence somewhat symptomatic of an attitude questioned earlier, and whose memory is often quite rife. The two gaps – atheism and liberation theology – merely underscore the fallacy and danger of restricting religious teaching in public education to the faithful, or what amounts to the same move, (r)ejecting from the professor’s pulpit those who confess their atheist or political persuasions.
What lacks from the Handbook, thus, is the drift from the immediately recognizable religious motif. More perhaps than other theorists, Gauchet pins this issue down when stating that “the human being encounters (…) what until now she could only designate and understand as divine, but is destined to be understood and assumed in categories other than religious ones” (138-139). The question ultimately comes down to whether we as thinkers can harmonize the referential reality of the absolute as it bears itself here “in practice” with the novel categories whose objective is to embody it.