Philosophy: Philosophy and Religion

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The two enduring forms of spiritual expression designated by the terms religion and philosophy quite obviously never confront each other as such; they enter into relations with one another only in historical and specific terms. It is in the visions of individual philosophers as they intersect with the beliefs and the practices of particular religious traditions that one finds the living relations between religion and philosophy.

The Nature of Religion and Philosophy and Their Relation to Each Other

A fine example of the interaction between religion and philosophy is found in the thought of Clement (150?215?) and Origen (c. 185c. 254), usually known as the Christian Platonists of Alexandria because their school was located in that ancient center of Hellenistic culture. As this appellation implies, they were engaged in interpreting the basic beliefs of Christianity concerning God, Christ, human beings, and the world in terms of the insights of the Neoplatonic philosophy current in their time. More than a century earlier, the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (d. 4550 ce) carried out much the same enterprise for the Hebraic tradition, drawing chiefly on the thought of the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 429347 bce), and the Pythagorean and Stoic schools. This type of interpretingor dialogue, if you willinvolving the use of the Greco-Roman philosophical systems for formulating the ideas and elucidating the religious insights of the biblical tradition, continued throughout the Middle Ages and lasted until the end of the Renaissance.

Despite the fact that the historical interactions between religion and philosophy must always be concretebecause it is the thought of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy that is interacting with a specific religious traditionboth are themselves enduring forms to be found in every culture, and they are marked by general features that serve to distinguish one from the other. It is on this account that one not only can but must come to some theoretical understanding of how religious faith and philosophical reflection are related not only as a matter of historical fact but as one of principle. To speak of principle means to approach the task of reaching down to the roots of these two spiritual forms, universal in the experience of humankind, in an attempt to grasp what they essentially are and to determine how they should be related to each other. That the task is not easy should be obvious in view of the enormous variety of religious experiences and of philosophical outlooks recorded in human history. The task is, nevertheless, inescapable if one is to understand one's self, and therefore one must not be dissuaded by the knowledge that no one characterization of either religion or philosophy can capture everything or satisfy everybody.

The American philosopher and psychologist William James (18421910), in his epoch-making study The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), quite rightly described religion as concerned chiefly with a strategy for redemption calling all human beings away from the snares and illusions of natural existence and back to their true selves. That such a strategy is needed follows from the fact, not always sufficiently recognized, that every religion offers a diagnosis of the human predicament, a judgment focusing attention on some flaw or defect in natural existence that stands as an obstacle between one's self and the ideal life envisioned by the particular religion in question. Redemption, in short, means being delivered from that flaw through a divine power capable of overcoming it. And the nature of the deliverance is determined in every religious faith by the character of the flaw envisaged. Both the diagnosis and the strategy of redemption derive from the lives and insights of the founders, sages, and prophets upon which the religious tradition rests. The articulated beliefs and practices that define a particular religious tradition are transmitted from age to age through historical communities of faith. Individuals owe their life to the tradition in which they stand, but the tradition owes its life to the continuing community sustained by the spiritual bonds existing between the members.

Philosophy, on the other hand, has as its chief concern the attainment of a comprehensive theoretical understanding of the many types and levels of being in the universe and their relations to each other, including a conception of the place to be assigned in the cosmic scheme to human beings and their experience. As far as Western philosophy is concerned, two different lines of inquiry manifested themselves in the earliest stages of development. On one side curiosity was directed toward the discovery of the most pervasive or universal traits exhibited by everything that is. Such features as unity and plurality, identity and difference, spatial and temporal location, acting and being acted upon were singled out as constituting the universal order holding sway throughout the universe. This line of inquiry can be called the quest for the categories ingredient in both the world and the structure of human thought and knowledge about it. Without pushing the identification too far, one may say that this side of philosophy is one that it shares with science. The affinity is nicely illustrated by the fact that what is called science today went by the name of "natural philosophy" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as can be seen from the full title of the famous treatise written by the English physicist Isaac Newton (16421727), Principia mathematica philosophiae naturalis (1687).

On its other side, philosophy meant a bolder and more speculative inquiry prompted by wonder about the being of things. Wonder in the face of the fact that there is anything at all and wonder about what there might be about things that sustains them and causes them to stand out against nothingness and the void. This concern for what came to be called metaphysics in one of its senses has expressed itself in the quest for a ground not only of the being of things but of human being as well; the latter concern led to the inclusion of speculative insight about the good and ideal human existence within the scope of philosophy. Understood in this sense, philosophy shows its affinity with the concerns of religion, an overlap of interest that has in the past occasioned both fruitful cooperation as well as conflict between them. The two, however, remain distinct by virtue of their different aims and approaches. This difference may be summed up in a way that is symbolic for both: The reality of the divine, however conceived, is always the initial conviction of the religious outlook, while for philosophy that reality remains the final or ultimate problem.

There is yet another difference between religion and philosophy, and its meaning becomes clear when one takes into account what was said previously about the role of the religious community. Philosophical analyses and visions are the products of solitary thinkers whose doctrines have indeed formed the basis of traditions and schools of thought, witness Plato and the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 bce), but such schools do not perform the same functions as a religious community. The latter exists to bring together many individuals in a spiritual unity that transfigures life; schools of thought are primarily focal points of understanding and a place for the meeting of minds.

Much of the foregoing analysis has, of course, been based entirely on the situation in the West, where the three major faithsJudaism, Islam, and Christianityfound themselves confronted with the autonomous philosophical systems developed in the classical world. These systems were autonomous in the sense that they were not developed under the special aegis of religious belief, even if they were sometimes influenced by religious ideas. They represent the reflections of individual minds attempting to articulate a comprehensive vision of what there truly is above and beyond appearances and mere opinions. The case of Aristotle, although in some respects unique, provides a clear illustration. His thought, ranging as it does over the entire spectrum of experience and existence, embraces a profound conception of God as, among other things, the Unmoved Mover. There is, as has often been pointed out, no essential connection between this conception of God and religion. In fact the thought of Aristotle on this point has often been described as the paradigm of conceptions of God without religion.

It is necessary to emphasize the autonomous nature of the classical philosophical systems for at least two reasons. One is the tension resulting from the fact that these philosophies, while useful in providing the concepts and principles through which primary religious experience and insight could be precisely expressed, stood at the same time as rival interpretations of reality to which the biblically based religions had to come to terms. To appeal to Aristotle again for an illustration, his conception of the world as eternal, or as not having come into being in time, posed a serious problem with regard to so central a doctrine of biblical religion as that of creation. Religious thinkers, therefore, could not avail themselves of his thought as a framework for theology without first reinterpreting it at crucial points. It is noteworthy that the tension thus introduced, plus the fear of distorting the religious message by expressing it in philosophical terms, led some thinkers, especially representatives of early Latin Christianity, to reject philosophy as an alien medium and to declare, with Tertullian (160?225?), that "Jerusalem has nothing to do with Athens." This negative attitude, however, did not prevail, and the subsequent course of Western religious thought, at least until the Reformation, was marked by a continuous interaction between philosophical and religious ideas.

The second reason for dwelling on the autonomy of the philosophies that figured so largely in the religious thought of the West is that it opens to view a most important contrast with much Eastern thought. It is generally admitted that there is not to be found in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, for example, any sharp and clear distinction between religion and philosophy. The two are closely interwoven, and there is no clear historical counterpart in the history of these traditions to the situation in the West, where more or less clearly defined religions encountered distinctive and already formed philosophies. It must, of course, be borne in mind that this is speaking in very general terms; one cannot say dogmatically that no distinction whatever was drawn between religion and philosophy in the Eastern cultures, especially in view of some difficult cases such as Confucianism and Daoism. The former is often described not as a religion but as a philosophical system of ethics, and the latter seems to have had its roots primarily in philosophical reflections that in time assumed religious form. Contemporary historical scholars, moreover, in rewriting the history of Indian thought, for example, are putting more emphasis, possibly under Western influence, on the strictly philosophical theories represented by the classical systems of thought and distinguishing them from "salvation doctrines" said to be representative of religion. Be this as it may, the important point is that the problems faced by Western thinkers in relating religion and philosophy were quite different from those confronting their counterparts in the East. It is one thing to attempt to relate two forms of insight to each other starting within a historical situation in which they meet each other as quite distinct, and another to confront the problem of their interconnections in cultures where the two were never clearly separated from the outset.

Impact of Kant's Philosophy and the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning

Concentrating on Western civilization, where the interaction between religious faith and philosophical inquiry has so largely determined the history of both, it is necessary to understand the impact of two decisive developments that greatly disrupted the sort of exchange that had resulted in the monumental philosophico-religious syntheses represented by such thinkers as Augustine of Hippo (354430); Anselm of Canterbury (10331109); Philo Judaeus; Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher (11351204); Bonaventure, the scholastic theologian and philosopher (12171274); Duns Scotus, Scottish philosopher and theologian (1265?1308); and Thomas Aquinas, author of the monumental Summa theologiae (12261274); as well as such Muslim thinkers as Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 11261198) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 9801037), who sustained for Islamic religion the same kind of dialogue with Aristotle carried on for Christianity by Albertus Magnus, the German scholastic philosopher (12001280) and Thomas Aquinas. The first of these developments was the attack by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) on the traditional metaphysics that had so long served as a medium of expression for religious belief; the second was the claim, stemming from the philosophies of empiricism, that there is a single criterion for determining the meaning and truth value of all statements, and that this criterion is found in sense experience and the knowledge represented by science. Relations between philosophy and religion had been determined since the beginning of the nineteenth century by the response to Kant and since early in the twentieth century have been characterized by attempts on the part of religious thinkers to deal with what came to be known as the empiricist criterion of meaning.

Three strategies have been proposed for overcoming the obstacles that arose and impeded a continuation of the classical dialogue between religious insight and philosophical reflection. The first is represented by those religious thinkers who accepted the Kantian thesis that knowledge extends no further than mathematics and what he called the general science of nature, so that metaphysics, and especially the classical proofs for the existence of God, become invalid, because they transcend the limits of what the human understanding can know. Because these thinkers were committed to upholding the validity of religion, their task was to find some new basis for it other than metaphysics and philosophy. The second strategy found expression in those who accepted the theory of one criterion of meaning and who, insofar as they were concerned with religion at all, identified it with emotion, feeling, and attitudes, all of which were said to be devoid of cognitive significance. This was the position of positivism or logical empiricism. Finally, there was the alternative associated chiefly with the name of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), who saw the limitations of the empiricist criterion of meaning and the difficulties involved in justifying it. Consequently, he proposed instead to focus attention not on meaning but on the use of language in different contexts of experienceaesthetic, economic, religious, moral, and so forth. These different uses of language were called "language games," and he described the language of religion as distinctive because it expresses what he called a "form of life." Just as in the preceding alternative, however, no cognitive status can be claimed for religious utterance, although it must be admitted that in shifting from meaning to use Wittgenstein intended to criticize positivism for having gone too far.

It should be evident that each of these alternatives represents a response to the Kantian philosophy, with its restriction of reason to the bounds of sense and of knowledge to science. The proponents of all three alternatives basically accepted Kant's analysis as valid, but with important differences. Those who adopted the first strategy had the strongest concern for preserving religion, and they consequently sought to find new foundations for it, while at the same time leaving Kant's position intact. The positivists, on the whole, regarded religion as outmoded and its utterances as without meaning; in this they went beyond Kant in abolishing his distinction between what can be meaningfully thought and what can be known. Kant, that is to say, held that individuals can validly think the idea of God, because reason demands that they do, but that knowledge of the reality meant is not possible. In identifying meaning with the possibility of verification in sense experience, the positivists had to deny that the idea of God is meaningful in any sense. Wittgenstein, though not alone in his criticism, had, nevertheless, the most influential voice in turning back the positivist approach. He claimed, in effect, that the use of language in theoretical science is not its only use; account must be taken as well of the functions of language in other contexts of experience, including the religious. Thus, he argued, instead of stopping inquiry before it begins by invoking the positivist criterion of meaning and declaring religious expression meaningless, the task is to understand the grammar and the logic of the language and forms of expression actually used by the members of religious communities. One very significant consequence of this approach was the discovery that "religious language" embraces a considerable variety of types of expression and that careful distinctions are necessary if each type is to be understood in terms proper to itself. The devotional language of worship, for example, differs in important respects from the conceptual language needed for theology, which in turn differs from the languages represented by myth, parable, exhortation, and prophetic insight.

Invaluable as this sort of clarification has been in fostering a better understanding of what religion is and means, it does not engage the problem of validity in religion, nor does it go very far in relating religion to other dimensions of experience. In fact the language-game approach in the hands of Wittgenstein and his followers has tended to encapsulate religion in a sphere of sheer faithfideismcut off from all forms of knowledge. So great a gap between reason and faith has been brought about that Wittgenstein could find no way of overcoming it. On the contrary, he even claimed that if there were a single scrap of "empirical" evidence to support what is intended to be a religious statement, it would thereby cease to be "religious." The major difficulty with such a position is that it fails to deal with the most important fact about religious belief, which is that those who adhere to it do so with the firm conviction that it is true, that reality is in accord with it, even if they are unable to give an account of what this precisely means in philosophical terms.

Enough has been said about the second and third alternatives to indicate that they are not ultimately satisfactory. This author should now like to return to the first alternative and mention briefly a number of the proposals that have been made to find a new basis for religion without violating the limits imposed by Kant. It shall be suggested that each of these proposals expresses something important, but that no one of them achieves a satisfactory relation between religion and philosophy. Finally, this article will propse a fourth alternative that is actually a new version of the ancient dialogue between religion and philosophy.

One of the most important religious responses to Kant was the thought of the German theologian Albrecht Ritschl (18221889) and his school, which made its appearance at the middle of the nineteenth century. He sought to free theology from dependence on metaphysics by stressing the essentially moral meaning of religious conceptions. Following Kant in stressing the primacy of practical reason, Ritschl envisaged Christianity as a faith aimed at the realization of a practical ideal of human life. While it is correct to say that Ritschl found the basis of theology not in metaphysics but in a value judgment expressing the practical significance of a divine reality, the value judgment in question is of a complex sort. Jesus, the object in human experience possessing the value of Godhead, is the occasion upon which individuals apprehend him as the bearer of grace, the one who reveals God as love. Insofar as individuals experience and evaluate the action of Jesus in revealing God, they see him as God. According to Ritschl, however, it is not through command or authority that Jesus is effective, but only through his moral teachings. In realizing God's goal, Jesus also realizes one's own goal, which is the fulfillment of one's purpose in life. Ritschl saw in this fundamental evaluation the justification whereby individuals gain admission to the kingdom of God through Jesus in the church. In making the moral dimension central, Ritschl was able to retain a theology unaffected by Kant's elimination of classical metaphysics.

This proposed solution of the relation between philosophy and religion is not, however, without difficulties. Granted that Ritschl's position involves something more than a simple reduction of the religious to the moral, the fact remains that the latter is too limited in scope to do justice to the religious concern. Morality is concerned primarily with what a person is to do, while religion aims at what a person is to be, and the problem of being presents itself at this point in the form of the need to find a basis for the unity and integrity of the person, something not to be resolved within the confines of morality and values. There is, in addition, the fact that the biblical message involves other theological concepts requiring an articulation that takes one beyond the resources of morality and valuation.

A second, and far more influential, attempt to resolve the problem was made by the brilliant Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (18131855). Using the philosophy of Absolute Spirit set forth by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (17701831) as both a foil and the focal point of his attack, and declaring that "Kant is my philosopher," Kierkegaard insisted that Christianity is concerned primarily with the relation of faith between God and human beings and that on this account it stands over against speculative philosophy and all efforts to make Christian doctrine "rational." According to Kierkegaard, the central Christian claim that the eternal has entered time is the "absolute paradox," defying all mediation and rational explanation; God confronts human pride and refusal to acknowledge his status as a creature, so that religion is and must always appear as an "offense." If it does not, says Kierkegaard, then it is inauthentic and conventional for having been made "palatable" or consonant with human reason. From this perspective, rooted in the primacy of existence that is, the individual who finds himself "there" in a time and place confronting the problem of salvationattempts like that of Hegel to use speculative reason to break through the mystery of the eternal entering time succeed only in distorting the essential religious message, for, Kierkegaard insisted, this message is simply "absurd" when considered from the standpoint of human reason. Although not without philosophical acumen of his own, Kierkegaard devoted himself, through his genius for irony, wit, paradox, and profound psychological insight, to the confounding of philosophy, thus opening a wide gap between reason and religion. Kierkegaard could well afford to accept the strictures on theoretical reason dictated by Kant's philosophy, because he was firmly convinced that Christianity neither can nor need be made "rational."

For all of its undoubted insights into the human condition and the meaning of God and faith, Kierkegaard's position is ultimately unstable. In the face of Hegel's massive rationalism, Kierkegaard was undoubtedly right in seeking to discover the reality of the individual and the need to appropriate Christian faith in a personal commitment, something that does not happen by understanding alone. But in equating thought with possibility, so that it necessarily abstracts from existing (the individual's being and situation), Kierkegaard not only lost the basis upon which thought can be said to penetrate and illuminate human life, but he was forced as well to turn existence into a "surd" element"what thought cannot think." As subsequent developments proved, the step from the "surd" to the "absurd" is quite short and contains a pitfall. The withdrawal of reflective thought from existence led ultimately to the declaration that religion is illusory because human existence itself is absurd. That is to say, existence came to be thought absurd, not in the ironic and paradoxical Kierkegaardian sense, but rather in the sense established by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), according to which religion is abolished and no meaning attaches to human existence in itself but is found only in what individuals, through the heroic human will, can succeed in creating for themselves. Kierkegaard, to be sure, is not to be held accountable for this later development, but in his insistence on the irreconcilability of religion and philosophy, he left religion open to dissolution by those who could see no rationality in it and were unpersuaded by his modern version of the ancient proclamation, "I believe because it is absurd."

Yet another alternative framework for the articulation of religious insight took the form of an appeal to "sacred history," or the history of divine redemption. From this standpoint, theology has to do not with the classical doctrine of God expressed, as in the case of the medieval theologians, through philosophical categories, but with the activity of God, discernible through the eyes of faith, in accomplishing the redemption of the whole creation through history. This position finds strong support in the undoubtedly valid, even if sometimes exaggerated, distinction between the fundamental patterns exhibited by Hebraic and Greek thought. The latter, stressing form and the timelessness attached to being and truth, found itself, insofar as attention was focused on history at all, interpreting the course of human events in essentially cyclical terms after the fashion of the continual recurrence of forms in the natural world. Hebraic thought, by contrast, was marked not only by a powerful sense of the reality of time and a linear history, but by the belief that historical development is itself the medium through which the nature, and especially the will, of God is revealed.

Numerous attempts have been made, going back to the German theologians Wilhelm Herrmann (18461922) and Ernst Troeltsch (18651923), to establish the primacy of history as the medium for understanding and interpreting religion; no brief discussion, however, could possibly do justice to all the shades of opinion and differences of emphasis that have been expressed. If these attempts, and those represented more recently by the thought of such theologians as H. Richard Niebuhr (18941962), Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), Friedrich Gogarten (18871967), and John Macquarrie have anything in common, it is the belief that not philosophy but historical experience and the course of history provide both the foundation of Christian faith and the interpretative framework within which it is to be understood. It is, of course, true that this approach has deep roots in the biblical tradition; Christianity followed the faith of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) in recognizing the unique conception of a linear history in and through which the will of God becomes manifest. Wolfhart Pannenberg, the contemporary German theologian, writes, "Indeed, if it is at all possible to compress [the] biblical understanding of reality into a single word, that word would certainly be 'history'" (Faith and Reality, Philadelphia, 1977, p. 10). The strength of this position is found in what it positively accomplishes in highlighting the essential contribution of the temporal and historicalthe incarnation as the disclosure of God in historyas opposed to all static conceptions of reality, wherein no provision is made either for history as a medium of revelation or for the novel and creative increment represented by the course of history itself. If, however, whether under the influence of an exaggerated contrast between the Hebraic and Greek views of the historical, or in an effort to remain within the limits of Kant's philosophy alone, proponents of the history-as-medium view hope to replace philosophy with history, serious problems arise. For, on the one hand, there is the philosophical problem of understanding the nature of historical events, the relation between interpreting and explaining them and, consequently, of having some theory about the connections between history, nature, and God. These are essentially philosophical concerns not to be resolved on the basis of the historical dimension alone. Moreover, there is no avoiding the theological issue posed by the mediating function history is to perform, for it is not only the so-called brute historical datum that is involved, but the all-important fact that this datumespecially the historicity of Jesusmust mean or point to God. This fact leads directly to the vexing problems stemming from the need to appeal to a "sacred" history that bears the religious meaning without thereby losing the historicity assumed to belong ipso facto to the "secular" account of the events in question. Once again, an attempt to respect what the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (18861968) has called the "Kantian terms for peace" in the relations between philosophy and religion, and to find a medium for religious thought other than metaphysics, turns, after the fashion of Hegel's logic, into its opposite, so that new philosophical and theological problems arise in the effort to establish this medium as the successor of meta-physics.

Other religious thinkers, sometimes called the "theologians of encounter," have maintained that religion finds its foundation neither in metaphysics, history, nor morality, but in an immediate encounter establishing a relation with a divine Thou, somewhat analogous to the situation in which two persons are related to each other through intimate bonds of love, compassion, and concern. Central to this outlook is a contrast similar to that between meeting and being acquainted with a person in direct encounter and "knowing about" that person indirectly through abstract concepts.

The small classic written by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (18781965), I and Thou, gave moving expression to this way of understanding the relation between humankind and God and exerted a powerful influence on Jewish and Christian thought alike. Buber, by no means a foe of philosophy, did, however, under the influence of Kant, draw a sharp distinction between the theoretical, conceptual knowledge of objectswhat he called the "it-world"and the experienced relations between persons who meet and acknowledge each other as suchthe world of the "thou." Accordingly, Buber interpreted religion as the special relation established between the "I" and the divine "Thou." Theoretical knowing Buber saw as nullifying the "I-thou" relations precisely because it objectifies its content and leaves the world of persons out of account.

The approach to God through encounter has had its representatives among Christian theologians as well, with, of course, certain transformations necessary to accommodate that tradition. The Divine-Human Encounter, by the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (18891966), is a paradigm of the view that human meets God in a faith that is essentially an "answering" acceptance of the divine word, something that is neither a thinking "about" God nor the communication of information. H. H. Farmer has expressed a similar idea in The World and God, where he declares that the experience of divine encounter "must be self-authenticating and able to shine in its own light, independently of the abstract reflections of philosophy." Barth, although his theological system is far too complex to be subsumed under the encounter thesis, nevertheless insists that God remains forever a subject, and that through the incarnation in Christ he makes himself available to be apprehended in the personal knowledge of encounter.

Some contemporary religious thinkers, influenced by the concerns of developing nations, of minorities and the disinherited, by new and more permissive attitudes in morality, and by conflicts in social relations, have turned away completely from traditional philosophical approaches to God and religion and have looked instead to the social sciences as the appropriate medium for expressing what they take to be relevant in religious belief for dealing with these concerns. A fine example of this trend of thought is found in what has come to be called "liberation theology," which focuses attention on the concerns of the oppressed. There is no doubt that this development has been playing an important role in bringing religious faith into the arena of social, economic, and political problems of the utmost urgency. In the context of the present discussion, however, it is necessary to call attention to a basic problem. A liberation theology must be, whatever else it is, a theology, which is to say that it must remain in touch with both religious and philosophical thought concerning God, because the social sciences themselves do not provide this content.

The most radical position as regards the relation between religion and philosophy finds expression in the claim that religion is exclusively a matter of revelationthe word of Godand stands in no need of mediation through secular knowledge, including philosophy. The theology of neoorthodoxy, as it was called, represented chiefly by the massive work of Barth, is based on the proposition that there is no "point of contact" between reason and revealed truth; every philosophical position is equally distant from and thus equally irrelevant to the theological articulation of religious faith. To take but one example, a secular philosopher discussing the meaning of nothingness, according to Barth, could, ipso facto, not be referring to the same nothing from which, in the biblical account, the creation was called forth. The rupture is complete; philosophy and religion must dwell in two separate and noncommunicating spheres.

The responses to Kant do not exhaust the interplay between religion and philosophy in the period under consideration. One must take into account as well the impact on religion of logic-analytic philosophies, as represented by Rudolf Carnap (18911970) and the proponents of logical empiricism, and A. J. Ayer, whose Language, Truth and Logic had serious repercussions not only for religious thought, but for metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetic theory as well. In fairness to Ayer, it should be noted that he no longer holds the views expressed in his epoch-making book; on the other hand, one cannot afford to ignore the sort of positivism expressed there because it was those ideas that, so to speak, did the work.

Central to the thought of both Carnap and Ayer is what has been called the empiricist criterion of meaning, or the thesis that the meaningfulness of any utterance is to be determined solely by verification (or verifiability) in sense experience, where experience is understood according to the conception of experience made classic by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (17111776). This view conflates meaning and truth in such a way that, in the absence of the sense datum that would verify an utterance, its constituent terms are said to be without meaning. By implication, the position includes the further thesis that with regard to any utterance it is necessary to specify what datum would count against its supposed truth, or, in short, would falsify it.

It is not difficult to envision what the consequences of applying this monolithic criterion to religious statements would be. Basic theological concepts such as God, atonement, sin, salvation, and faith, along with metaphysical concepts like being, reality, necessary existence, personality, and creativity would all be deprived of cognitive meaning, so that statements involving these and similar terms could not even be called false, because they are supposed to be, quite literally, nonsense. Those who accepted the full authority of the one-meaning criterion for all utterances, insofar as they attended to religious utterances at all, had no alternative but to identify religion wholly with emotion, feeling, or attitudes of a certain kind, with the clear understanding that these have no cognitive significance. It should be obvious that no positive or creative interaction between religion and philosophy is possible from this point of view, because it reduces religion to an emotive level at which no articulation of religious ideas is possible. The underlying assumption determining this outcome was that the only knowledge people possess derives from science. The interesting fact, however, is that subsequent discussion of the empiricist criterion of meaning led to its erosion when it became clear that positivism is itself philosophy and cannot appropriate the credentials of science.

The credit for resolving this situation in a way that allowed both for a mode of interpreting religious insight and the preservation of the linguistic approach to philosophy must go to Wittgenstein. He interpreted religion primarily in practical terms as the legitimate expression of a "form of life," but religious language carries with it no cognitive claim. For this reason religion had to become a matter of sheer faithfideismwith the consequence that no religious utterance can be construed as making any assertion purporting to be true or false about any realities whatever. The position is a singular one indeed. Wittgenstein was, on the one hand, rightly aware of the difference between the type of significancepurpose, value, aimembodied in religious language and the theoretical assertions and explanatory theories of science that provided the model for the empiricist criterion of meaning. Hence the shift from meaning to use. On the other hand, this shift was made with the meaning criterion still hovering in the background, so that in the end it remained the determining factor in defining the sphere of the "cognitive," and religion was excluded.

Recovery of the Dialogue between Religion and Philosophy

Nevertheless, as was noted earlier on, the linguistic analysis of religious language proposed by Wittgenstein made one important contribution to current understanding. It served to call attention to the fact that "religious language," though it purports to express a distinctive dimension of experience, is by no means to be regarded as a single, homogeneous form of discourse. The literature of the world's religions manifests a plurality of "uses," or types of expression, and great care must be exercised in distinguishing them. The language of devotion and liturgy, for example, must be distinguished from that of theology, and likewise from the languages of parable, exhortation, lamentation, myth, legend, and historical report. Each has a distinctive function, and only confusion can result from a failure to understand what each purports to express. To take but one typical example, when confronted with parabolic speech, it is a gross misunderstanding to seek the so-called literal meaning of such expressions, because their intent is of a quite different sort. A parable is a vivid and engaging story drawing on familiar experiences and thingsputting a new patch on an old garment, a widow losing her last coin, tares among the wheatfor the purpose of dramatizing some religious or moral insight. Expressing the point prosaically or "literally" can never have the same effect. Important as this source of clarification may be, however, it does not go far enough, because it does not engage those theological questions that stand at the interface of philosophy and religion, nor does a purely critical philosophy provide any basis for determining the relation between religion and cultural life. What limits all critical philosophies in this regard is the absence of any but the most implicit (and sometimes hidden) metaphysics, or general theory of reality and experience, in accordance with which the various dimensions of life can be related to each other. As is learned from history, a truly fruitful interplay between religion and philosophy takes place when philosophy is represented, not by critical methods and analytic programs, but by a substantive vision of reality such as one finds in Hegel or Whitehead.

There remains yet another alternative different from all the preceding, and it is suggested by the point just made about metaphysics. An attempt must be made to recover the classical interaction between religion and philosophy in such a way that the former will once again be intelligible despite the skepticism of the age, and the latter will find its way back to those speculative questions that human beings will never cease to raise. The rationale for such a recovery can be given by showing the adverse consequences that follow for both religion and philosophy from their separation and loss of communication. First, however, it is necessary to challenge a number of philosophical assumptions, assumptions that have been in force for a century and have served to bring about the present unsatisfactory situation. It is an error to suppose that Kant's critical philosophy must be accepted as the final word about the capacity of reason and the possibility of metaphysics while attempts are made to insert religion and theology into what Barth has called the "gaps" in Kant's thought. A more radical approach is called for, which means adopting a far more critical stance to the critical philosophy itself. As Hegel saw so well, Kant's ultimate conclusion is dogmatic in the precise sense that he simply opted for the priority of understanding over reason, and in so doing he employed mathematics and physics as the criterion of knowledge, thus judging the validity of metaphysics in accordance with an alien standard.

The underlying issue is an ancient one, going back to the difference of opinion expressed in the thought of Plato and Aristotle: Is there, as Plato held, one universal method and criterion governing all thought, or, is it not the case, as Aristotle claimed, that method and standards of judgment must follow the particular subject matter in question? It is only the latter position that makes it possible to do justice to the many different spheres of meaning and dimensions of experience that actually exist, and at the same time to develop standards appropriate to a given type of thought. Speculative philosophy is not a special science, like physics or geology, and its aims and criteria of adequacy must not be thought of and judged in terms appropriate for experimental inquiries. The same is true of religion and theology; any attempt to understand either is bound to fail if no attention is paid to the special sort of meaning both purport to express. Clearly what is called for is a broader conception of reason, one that is not modeled on the most abstract patterns of thought, which, essential though they are, must exclude the most concrete and important human concerns. A reason, in short, that extends no further than the spheres of formal logic and empirical science forces beyond the bounds of rationality not only philosophy but religion and morality as well.

Earlier on, it was suggested that the rationale for seeking to recover a positive and fruitful interplay between religion and philosophy is to be found in the unfortunate consequences for both that come as the result of their separation from each other. Consider, first, the impact on religion that follows from this separation. Without the benefit of careful, conceptual articulation and the discipline of critical reflectionwhether in the form of a philosophical theology or a philosophy of religionreligion is in danger of becoming obscurantist or fanatical in its basic orientation. While the central religious insights that define a tradition must be preserved and transmitted in each historical period, the culture in which the tradition finds itself and the people to whom it speaks are constantly changing. New knowledge is forthcoming, novel patterns of thought and behavior emerge, social and political conditions arise that are very different from those prevailing when the religion was first established. The world in which Augustine proclaimed the Christian message, for example, has little in common with the situation in which that same message was set forth by such thinkers as the German theologian Paul Tillich (18861965) or Barth in the twentieth century. A living religion must come to terms with this all-important fact and not seek to preserve itself either by refusing to confront the problems posed by the intellectual climate of the time or by retreating into an inner sanctuary untouched by secular thought and experience. It has, moreover, been persuasively argued that it is precisely through a dialogue engaging the entire spectrum of a culture that a religious tradition comes to realize previously undiscovered implications of its basic faith that further illuminate and help to transform human life. The need to relate the enduring insights of religion to new historical situations and to new generations of people who confront them presents a salutary challenge not only to obscurantism and disdain for intelligence in religion but to fanaticism as well. Having to respond seriously to the critic's question or the skeptic's doubt, as well as to the believer's plea for guidance, must engender in the religious thinker a measure of humility and circumspection not to be reconciled with the fanatic posture, which, as William James was so well aware, is the greatest evil perpetrated by religion wherever it exists. The great ages of faith in Western religion have been those in which faith and intelligence went hand in hand. That religion and philosophy should be separated must be, for religion, the greatest of disasters.

Consider now the consequences of the separation from the side of philosophy. The presence of the religious questionsthe problem of God and transcendence, the place of humanity in the cosmic order and its final destiny, the issue of freedom and responsibility, the problem of evilhas repeatedly served as a goad to philosophy, orienting the thinking of philosophers in the direction of speculative themes. As has been seen, especially in the twentieth century, philosophers motivated by the desire to be scientific and to show that philosophy makes progress have worked to reduce the subject to purely critical proportions, with major emphasis falling on technical issues concerning method, knowledge, logic, and language. Speculative questions were often ignored as either without significance or beyond human intellectual capacities. Without the goad of religion (unfortunately not very powerful in the period under consideration), philosophy runs the risk of formalizing itself and of abandoning its constructive task in treating the most important human concerns. Concentration on technique alone has little value when philosophers fail to confront these concerns. A recovery of the dialogue between religion and philosophy would serve the double purpose of bringing philosophy back to the task of constructive metaphysics and of keeping religious thought within the scope of rationality, thus guarding it from the evils of dogmatism and obscurantism.

That such a recovery is a real possibility finds support in two developments of recent decades whose importance must not be overlooked or discounted. The first was the philosophical theology of Tillich, with its method of correlating philosophical questions and theological resolutions; the second was the process philosophy of the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (18611947), who emigrated to America in 1924, and the several types of theologies inspired by it. Tillich's theological method not only called for a creative exchange with metaphysical thought, but it was accompanied as well by a substantive metaphysical position in the classical mode of correlating the concepts of being and God. While Tillich's thought was marked by an undoubted originality, its appropriation was somewhat hampered because of its dependence on the philosophy of the German contemporary of Hegel, F. W. Schelling (17751854)by far the least known on the American scene of the exponents of German Idealism. Despite this handicap, however, Tillich was a major force in sustaining a theologico-philosophical dialogue, and he did much to counteract the powerful antiphilosophical bias within Protestantism that had its origins in the dogmatic theology of Barth.

Like Tillich, Whitehead had a well-developed metaphysical scheme, including a network of categories for interpreting the many dimensions of experience. In Whitehead one can see how, on the one hand, religious experience and insight were brought into relation to current patterns of thought, scientific as well as philosophical, and how, on the other, these insights were incorporated into his metaphysics as part of the evidence that must be taken into account by a speculative scheme intended to be relevant for understanding everything that happens. The fruitfulness of the interplay between philosophy and religion in this particular case is all the more striking because it coincided with the recovery within the biblical tradition of an emphasis upon time, life, and history in the conception of God, features which had been eclipsed by the great stress previously placed on God as absolute, that is, unrelated to the cosmic process, and as "pure actuality," or a perfection to which the novel increment of history could make no difference.

On the basis of the foregoing analysis, one must conclude that the proper and most satisfactory relation between religion and philosophy is that of dialogical exchange, an exchange of a sort that existed for centuries until it was interrupted by the critical philosophy of Kant and the authority of the empiricist criterion of meaning. But, as has been seen, Kant's reduction of reason to the limits of understanding need not be the last word on the matter, nor should anyone continue to think that it is possible to accept Kant's position while at the same time attempting to find some loophole through which religion can pass. The monolithic criterion of meaning also need not be accepted, because it so clearly fails to do justice to dimensions of meaning not to be fitted into the pattern of thought exemplified by natural science. With these obstacles surmounted, the way is clear for the renewal of the mutual exchange between religion and metaphysics that has borne fruit in the past.

See Also

Analytic Philosophy; Aristotelianism; Deism; Empiricism; Enlightenment, The; Existentialism; Humanism; Idealism; Logical Positivism; Materialism; Naturalism; Neoplatonism; Nominalism; Platonism; Positivism; Scholasticism; Skeptics and Skepticism.


This bibliographic essay focuses on some books dealing with positions and trends noted in the foregoing article. No effort is made to include such thinkers as Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel, James, Barth, Tillich, and Whitehead, because they are the subjects of separate articles.

James Collins's The Emergence of Philosophy of Religion (New Haven, Conn., 1967), both in its historical treatment and its systematic focus on underlying issues, serves to set the stage for the modern discussion concerning the intersection of philosophy and religion. Collins takes note of the important fact that prior to the eighteenth century, philosophical reflection on religious and theological topics took place for the most part within the ambit of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its fundamental doctrines. As Collins shows, however, by discussing three representative thinkersHume, Kant, and Hegelin the succeeding century and a half, the situation was to change radically.

James Alfred Martin, Jr.'s The New Dialogue between Philosophy and Theology (New York, 1966), a clear, well-informed, and perceptive study, is the best overall account of the response by religious thinkers both in America and Britain to analytic and linguistic philosophy and to the orientation of the later Wittgenstein. Martin does not only expose the error of identifying analytic philosophy with logical positivism; he skillfully shows how the twentieth-century dialogue between analytic philosophy and theology is connected with the historical dialogue within Christendom that started with Origen and Tertullian and continued through the centuries into the discussions of Tillich, Barth, and Heidegger. In addition to critical accounts of the major writers, religious and philosophical, the book contains a useful bibliography.

Ian T. Ramsey's Religious Language: An Empirical Placing of Theological Phrases (London, 1957) begins with an account of what situations can legitimately be called "religious" and considers how some traditional phrases in theology"first cause," "infinitely wise," "infinitely good"can be given a logical structure appropriate to these religious situations. Echoing the idea that "religious language" is multiple in character, Ramsey distinguishes the language of the Bible from the language of Christian doctrine, describing each in terms of its functions and aims. In this way he hopes to avoid the many confusions resulting from lumping together under the rubric of "religious language" such diverse forms of expression as that of devotion, on the one hand, and that of theological conceptualization, on the other.

John Macquarrie's God-Talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology (New York, 1967), in addition to an appraisal of the impact of logical empiricism on theological discourse, includes illuminating chapters on different types of such discourse based on case-study analyses of a classical theological textAthanasius's On Incarnation and of Heidegger's philosophical theory of interpretation. The result is the delineation in theology of a plurality of meaning devices, including mythology, symbolism, analogy, indirect language, existential discourse, ontological discourse, the language of authority, appeal to direct experience, and, finally, the language of paradox.

John Hick's Faith and Knowledge, 2d ed. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), is concerned primarily with problems of religious knowledge, the distinction between belief and knowledge, and the relation of both to different conceptions of faith. It is representative of a general trend, which is the attempt to combine an analytically oriented philosophy with a neoorthodox approach to religion generally and to Christianity in particular.

E. L. Mascall's The Secularization of Christianity (New York, 1965) offers an extraordinarily thorough and acute analysis of J. A. T. Robinson's Honest to God (Philadelphia, 1963) and Paul Van Buren's The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York, 1963) in an attempt to show that, while it is essential that Christianity be presented in terms that are both intelligible and relevant to the present day, it is not necessary to jettison centuries of accumulated Christian wisdom for the purpose of communicating what in fact may prove to be merely a substitute for Christian doctrine. Whether one agrees or not with Mascall's conclusions, it is unquestionable that no better account of the topic is to be found.

Ninian Smart's The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (Princeton, 1973) surveys the broad theme of the relation of religion to rationality in light of phenomenology, history, sociology, and anthropology. The author notes, quite rightly, the difference between theology as the systematic expression of the faith of a religious community and various ways of studying religion as a phenomenon involved in the total pattern of life and culture throughout the world. Although too short for an extended treatment, the discussion ranges over a very wide body of material, including references to Weber, Lévy-Bruhl, Otto, Wach, Kierkegaard, Tillich, Barth, Marx, Freud, Eliade, Berger, Jayatilleke, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

H. D. Lewis's Our Experience of God (London, 1959) decries the idea that it is the task of philosophy to construct some form of philosophical substitute for religion, or to provide proofs for religious beliefs supposedly held on inadequate grounds. The positive role of philosophy in relation to religion is to make clearer the meaning and status of religious beliefs actually held and at the same time to show their relation to the larger experiential setting in which they occur.

In The Person God Is (London, 1970), Peter Bertocci, a chief representative of the philosophy and theology of personalism, carries on the tradition of interpreting religious insight in philosophical terms by viewing God, the cosmic person, as the creator of "co-creators." The author considers whether the goodness of God can be empirically grounded, whether grace can be discovered in freedom, and whether religion itself can be understood in terms of the pursuit of creativity.

In the works of Charles Hartshorne, including Man's Vision of God, and the Logic of Theism (New York, 1941), The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven, Conn., 1948), The Logic of Perfection (La Salle, Ill., 1962), Anselm's Discovery (La Salle, Ill., 1965), and Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, N.Y., 1984), the critical interchange on philosophical and theological issues is sustained. Hartshorne's thought may be understood as concentrating on two distinct but closely related focal points. The first is his "neoclassical" theism based on what he calls the "principle of Dual Transcendence," according to which God contrasts with creatures not as an abstract infinite against the finite, but as a concrete "infinite-and-finite," each aspect of which contrasts with fragmentary creatures who are neither relative nor absolute in themselves. In short, Hartshorne finds that despite the great emphasis placed by the biblical tradition on time, individuality, personal responsibility, and historical development, much classical theology neglected these features by conceiving of God, not as living, but as already complete or perfect. The other focus in Hartshorne's writing is restatement and reassessment of the ontological argument as first proposed by Anselm. Here he reoriented the centuries-long discussion of this oft "refuted" argument, not by concentrating on the usual question of whether "existence is a predicate," but by directing attention to what had largely been neglected by a host of previous thinkers, namely, what is to be understood by the idea of Godthe what of the matterand its expression in Anselm's formula. An informative commentary on Hartshorne's work can be found in Existence and Actuality: Conversations with Charles Hartshorne, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr., and Franklin I. Gamwell (Chicago, 1984).

Experience, Reason and God, edited by Eugene T. Long (Washington, D.C., 1980), provides a broad spectrum of opinion by twelve authors concerning the intersection of philosophy and religion on the contemporary scene.

New Sources

Alston, William. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca, 1991.

Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York, 1991.

Bunge, Mario. Finding Philosophy in Social Science. New Haven, 1996.

Faulconer, James. Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion. Bloomington, Ind., 2003.

Kunin, Seth. Religion: The Modern Theories. Baltimore, 2003.

Pals, Daniel. Seven Theories of Religion. New York, 1996.

Schiffer, Stephen. The Things We Mean. New York, 2003.

Store, David. The Plato Cult, and Other Philosophical Follies. Malden, Mass., 1991.

Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul (1997). Reprint, New York, 2003.

Thagard, Paul. Conceptual Revolutions. Princeton, N.J., 1992.

Ward, Graham. Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory. New York, 2000.

Warner, Martin, ed. Religion and Philosophy. Philosophy and Religion series. New York, 1992.

John E. Smith (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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