Philosophy of Religion, History of

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It is not easy to say when strictly philosophical thought about religion began, for religion has always involved thought or belief of some kind. Even in other fields much of our thought is incipiently philosophical, but this is much more so in an interest that tends to be all-embracing. Religion has always had a cognitive factor, observances of various kinds had a meaning and these would often be of a far-reaching kind, involving beliefs about an afterlife or the influence upon us of beings other than those who inhabit this world. At what stage such beliefs come to be questioned, and not just accepted as a matter of course or tradition, is difficult to determine. But there is evidence of early questioning of this kind, and of the consequent defense and speculation, in some cultures, for example in India. It is a moot point how much of this we would consider strictly philosophical. But it is certain that the period, from the eighth to the fourth century BCE, which saw such an upsurge of intellectual interest and culture simultaneously (and seemingly without much mingling of cultures) in different parts of the world, produced philosophical thought of a very explicit kind, including philosophical reflection about religion.

Eastern Traditions


Perhaps the earliest example of philosophical reflection about religion is found in the Upaniads. These were committed to writing about the eighth century BCE but they reflect much that had been going on before. They are part of the corpus of Indian sacred writings known as the Vedānta. Even the earliest and simplest of these contain distinctive and shrewd anticipations of the views about life and the universe that came to be explicitly formulated in the Upaniads, and it would thus be misleading to say that religious thought began in India with the composition of the Upaniads. But it is in the body of writings known by that name that we have the first sustained and deliberate thought about religion in a form that has affinity with what we know as philosophy.

The Upaniads vary much in quality and purpose. There is also much variety within their more strictly philosophical content, but the dominant theme is that of the unity of the universe. This is sometimes thought of in a sense that eliminates all plurality, anticipating much that some mystics have held at later times. For others "the One" is involved in all things in a way which is transcendent and absolute but which leaves it vague what status is to be accorded to finite things. This comes closer to the way God's transcendence has been understood generally in Western thought. But on occasion the Upaniads venture to be more explicit; some of their themes come close to those of G. W. F. Hegel and of post-Hegelian idealists in the nineteenth century; there is a clear insistence on the interdependence of whole and part in an all-inclusive system of reality, and this led also to speculations about the nature of the system and the function of the parts within it which suggest much that we read in idealist writings in our own times. There are also parts of the Upaniads that come closer to the Western notion of God as creator of a world of beings distinct from Himself and from one another. This is not unlike Christian theism and, in this respect, some passages of the Upaniads anticipate much which has since been central in Christian thought.

"The One breathed breathless" is a typically cryptic summing up of much of the teaching of the Upaniads. What it expresses is the profound and persistent sense of some ultimate nature of reality which escapes our understanding. The world does not wholly explain itself, it is rooted in mystery, and this means more than that there are things which are beyond our particular understanding at a certain time. All things point beyond themselves to a mystery that is in principle beyond our grasp or to some unity of things in the universe which is in some way more complete and final than the interrelations of things as we trace them in our normal understanding of the world. This is the significance of the terms that occur so often in Indian thought"not this, not that" and "I am that." In this context these reflect a sense of some ultimate transcendent reality which is very vigorously presented in the Upaniads and whose implications are sometimes very explicitly set forth. It is indeed a very significant fact that there should be so shrewd a philosophical grasp of this notion at such an early date, and this makes the Upaniads a work of considerable significance for our understanding of religion in general. They contain also much explicit philosophical argument that is highly relevant to philosophical controversies about religion today. This covers many aspects of religion besides those that directly concern the dominant theme of the unity of all reality.

The Upaniads contain also much reflection upon our practical attitudes. This tends to be of the "world-denying" type and severely ascetic; that is not surprising where the dominant theme is the ultimate oneness of all things. But we find also in the Upaniads much emphasis on social service, on compassion, virtue, and welfare. Even if the views adopted on such matters seem to Western eyes too strictly determined by the sense of ultimate union with the whole, and even if it is true, as even some leading Hindus have stressed, that the otherworldly feature of Indian religion has led to apathy and indifference to present concern, there is also much to be learned from the insights we find in the Upaniads, as in later Indian thought, about the true nature of compassion and selflessness.

daoism and confucianism

Not much later than the time the Upaniads were committed to writing, there appeared in China philosophical teaching and writing about religion which had also at the center of it a sense of some ultimate unity of all reality. This is the essential significance of the doctrines of Dao (expounded in the Dao-de Jing traditionally ascribed to Laoziborn 604 BCEand in later writings like those ascribed to Liezi and Zhuangzi); and this in turn reflects a generally more basic notion that lies behind most early Chinese thought about religion, the idea of a "heaven and earth relationship." What this implies is that there is some character of reality beyond what we find in the world around us but which cannot be explicitly defined or grasped. We can only know it in its requirements and in the sense of some kind of justice operative in the universe at large. The "beyondness" of the power which works for righteousness in this way is deliberately softened; it is almost as if it could only be known from within. But this is itself a very significant fact, and the elusiveness of the influence to which our lives are subject in this way in Chinese thought is no mean indication of the subtleness of their philosophical and religious insights. It has in fact led sometimes to the view that Chinese religion, and especially Confucianism, is entirely a moral or religious system. That impression could easily be derived from The Analects of Confucius (551478 BCE), since they are concerned mainly with ethical and social matters, especially those which concern the appropriate "orders" in society. But Confucianism is in fact extensively determined and overlaid by notions like that of a heaven and earth relationship mentioned above. The distinctive thing, for philosophy, about early Chinese religion and thought about religion is the shrewd sense that the nature of what lies beyond present existence and gives it meaning is best discerned by following a Way or path. The goal is, as it were, best reflected for us in the way it is to be attained. If this is not the whole truth, it is a significant pointer to it.


At a slightly later date we have the founding of the Buddhist religion in India. This led to the composition of the Pali Canon, containing, it is alleged, the substance of the teaching of Buddha. The canon was closed in the reign of King Aśoka (273231 BCE) but not committed to writing until the first century BCE. It is not implausible to conclude that it does reflect fairly closely the actual teaching of the historical Buddha. The Pali Canon is of exceptional interest to philosophers today. It contains acute philosophical thinking, and some incline even to think of Buddhism as being more a philosophical system than a religion. That is certainly a mistaken impression, but we have in Buddhism a very shrewd grasp of the nature of religion as philosophy illuminates it. The purport of this has often been grievously misunderstood, not least in the assumption that Buddhism is a religion without God. The mystery of transcendent being is at the center of Buddhism and has remained so through most of its history and in its many varieties. This may not take quite the same form as in the West or find closely parallel expressions elsewhere, but it is unmistakable to anyone who knows his way about the subject.

A peculiarly distinctive feature of the doctrines of the Pali Canon is the subtle understanding of the difficulty of characterizing a reality that is "beyond" in the sense in which the infinite must be. It is in this context that we are told that we must not say that God exists or that He does not exist. At one point we have a list of sixty-two typical metaphysical questions that must not be asked. This is closely in line with much that has been maintained today in various forms of antimetaphysical philosophy, and it is strange how little appreciation there has been, on the part of recent positivists and agnostics, of how much grist of a sort there is to their mill in the doctrines of the Pali Canon. But it might all the same not be grist they could altogether accept, least of all if they fully grasped its implications in its contexts. For here we have skepticism and positivism with a difference. It springs less from a radically empiricist outlook than from a profound sense of the elusiveness of transcendent reality, and this makes much of the teaching of the Pali Canon uniquely relevant to philosophical controversies about religion today. The account of such matters as Buddha's enlightenment reinforces this, for while this can plausibly in fact be given an atheistic interpretation, it does point suggestively to a subtle grasp of the transformation of present reality through the invasion of it by a reality of an entirely different order which beggars all description. In these and kindred ways the Pali Canon, like related further aspects of Buddhist and of Hindu thought, has close and instructive points of affinity with the cruxes of religious thought today; and this is being increasingly understood by some experts in this field.


There has been a long line of impressive Asian thinkers who have attempted variations and refinements on the themes just outlined. Among the most important are Śankara (c. 788) and Rāmānuja (c. 1017). In recent times the more traditionalist type of Hindu thought is well represented in the works of Radhakrishnan, while we have in the very liberal writings of Śri Aurobindo an attempt at reform that is sharply opposed to the objectionably otherworldly aspect of Hinduism and that tries to come to grips with the notion of some divine disclosure which leaves the individual a free and responsible creature.


In the Western tradition philosophy begins with the Greeks, and to give a full indication of the course of religious philosophy in the West would be to outline the main continuous progress of philosophy from the Greeks to the present day. For almost all the main philosophical notions and the main divisions of opinion in philosophy (realist, nominalist, idealist, and so forth) have entered into religious controversy in one way or another. The matters that can be noted in the remainder of this entry must thus be highly selective.

parmenides and heraclitus

In Greek thought, as in that of the Orient, there has been a central preoccupation with the problem of the one and the many. In the work of Parmenides this took a very distinctive and influential form. He proceeded by way of analysis of the nature of thought. This he found to involve predication, the affirmation of one thing about something else. To think is to say of an identifiable A that it is B ; it is some relating of terms in a system that makes the relations possible. But there is an element of exclusion in such predication. If I say that this book is blue, that precludes its being black, although of course it says nothing about its being round or square, etc. All determination, as it is put, is negation. But does not this raise peculiar problems? For negation seems to be some odd sort of affirmation of what is not the case. It appears thus to deal with what is not. But what is not, Parmenides thought, is just altogether unrealand no one can think or affirm this. But if negation becomes impossible in these ways, affirmation appears also to stand condemned, and there seems thus to be something radically unsatisfactory about thought itself and about the world as thinking apprehends it. Parmenides concluded that it was a mistake to suppose that the universe was a system of terms in relation, of the many which change and come into being and go, and that we must therefore think of all reality as one undifferentiated wholeconceived by him also as a sphere extending in the same way in all directions. There was given in this way a logical form to a profound religious sense of some ultimate all-embracing unity.

By contrast we find, in the work of other Greek philosophers, an emphatic insistence on the reality of the here and now and the world of variety and change. Protagoras took this to the length of insisting, in anticipation of much later empiricism and relativism, that nothing is real except as it appears. Neither the external world nor our moral ideas have any independent or objective reality; and this view of things received distinctive expression also in the thought of Heraclitus, who insisted that all things were in flux and that "we cannot step twice into the same river." But this was supplemented by Heraclitus by the notion of a pattern of change in which some principle or "logos" was expressed. For him, as for Parmenides, this carried with it a poetically mystical religious undertone. The idea of fire, as a central element, functioned as a symbol of that.


In due course Plato was to take up the problems presented in the way described above. He carefully restated and developed the difficulties that troubled Parmenides and Heraclitus and started a program of reconstruction by dealing firmly with the problem of negation. He observed that this does not involve reference to a wholly unreal, to mere nothing. It could be amply provided for within the notion of terms in relation, for to say that something is not is just to say that it is other than something else, to indicate precise location within a system of interrelations. But if thought, as involving determination of this kind, is to function accurately, the system within which it operates must be a strict and tight one. Where is this to be found? Plato thought he found it preeminently in mathematics, and he thus came to regard mathematics as the true propaedeutic to philosophy and a paradigm of its method. The realities which could be properly thought and known had thus to be quasi-mathematical ones, and they consisted of general forms or principles which were real in their own right and bestowed on all other things whatever reality those could properly claim. This left Plato with the hard problem of accounting for the particulars and the changing course of things in the world, and it is not certain that he arrived at a view of this question which contented him. He sometimes spoke of particulars imitating the forms and sometimes of their participating in the reality of the forms, but the individual and unique existent had never more than a problematic place in Plato's philosophy.

Difficulties also arose in yet another way, for even in its more rarefied instances, as in mathematics, there appears to be something essentially inadequate about the process of relating terms in a system. Every relation, including the relation of whole to part, seems to require yet another, or another system, to make it possible. All explanations of one thing in terms of others leave us with further questions and matters unexplainedthere is no natural limit to the process of thoughtand for the Greeks in particular that which is without proper limit is unsatisfactoryevil, they said, is of the infinite. Plato was led in this way to the notion of some yet more perfect reality, some quite different mode of unified existence in which present imperfect relatedness disappeared, and he held that everything had its reality exhaustively determined by this ultimate nature of the universe. To this he gave the name "the Good," and he declared that, in the sense indicated, this Good was "beyond being and knowledge." He did not mean that it was not real, or a mere notionfar from it. But it could not be given the sort of determinate existence and intelligibility which we ascribe to the sort of entities our minds can understand and encompass.

This is the first explicit formulation in Western thought of the idea of transcendence as it came to dominate much subsequent thinking. It is evident that it owes much, not only to Parmenides' puzzles about predication and nonbeing, but also more directly to Parmenides' insistence on some ultimate all-encompassing unity of being. But it does not involve the elimination of all plurality. When his system seems to involve that, Plato turns back on himself in vigorous protestas in the famous passage in the Sophist where he insists that there must be "place in that which is perfectly real" for "change, life, soul, understanding." The specific forms, metaphysical as well as mathematical, had their place in the one universe in which everything derived its significance from the central all-encompassing reality of the good, and these forms lent some sort of reality to the particulars and to individual lives in the normal sense. The relation of particular to universal and of this to the Good, the ultimate supreme reality, may not have been worked out in a satisfactory way. But at least we have the notion that all we find in the world derives eventually from some one transcendent source in which all imperfection is resolved.

The formulation of these ideas owed much to the influence upon Plato of the Eleusinian mysteries and Orphic cults with which he came into contactand also to the religiously orientated teaching of Pythagoras. In turn, it affected his teaching on what may appear to be more specifically and recognizably religious conceptions, like his doctrine (in the Timaeus and the Laws ) about the Demiurge who fashions the world according to the eternal patterns and his belief in preexistence and immortality. But it is not primarily in what he says about these more conventionally religious notions that Plato shows his main penetration or had his more abiding influence on religious thought. His notion of a system of forms held together in the transcendent unity of the Good was a more radically instructive and formative notionalthough the teaching of the Laws and the Timaeus prescribed much of the form of later natural theology. It accorded best also with the element of mysticism which tempered the rationalism of his precursor to whom he was deeply indebted, namely Socrates. It is thus in the notion of the Form of the Good that Plato comes nearest to the idea of God in subsequent theism, but his approach to the subject left him no way in which his supreme and central principle of the Good could acquire the character of a person. That was precluded by the severely rationalist nature of Plato's main approach to his task and the consequent exclusion of any kind of revelation of an active concern, which could only be mediated through the actual particulars of life and history that figured in such an ambiguous and unimpressive way in Plato's philosophic outlook.


Our next main landmark is the philosophy of Aristotle. He did not separate the universal as completely as Plato did from the particular, although it is a moot point, still much debated, how ultimate is the difference between Plato and Aristotle here. But the difference did lead in due course to notions of the union of form and matter and of mind as the informing principle of the body by which much subsequent thinking on questions of this kind was directed. For Plato the properly mental side of human life was sharply separated from the body, and along with this went a low estimate of the bodyalthough the body was not thought to be evil, as in much subsequent teaching. The mind is apt to be thought of by Plato as imprisoned in the body and awaiting its release. On the slant given to the subject by Aristotle there is a much closer integration of mind and body and this has been the model for a great deal of later thinking about human personality and the belief in resurrection. The mind is thought to require at least some kind of body, and there are philosophers who regard mind and matter as coextensive in the universe in general. Others have taken the Platonic lead in propounding a very sharp dualism of mind and body.

In strictly religious matters the difference between Plato and Aristotle here seems to become narrow; for although we have no strict equivalent to the Form of the Good in Aristotle or the same insight into the transcendent character of the ultimate religious reality, we do have an "Unmoved Mover" whose relation to the course of events He affects is a somewhat remote and detached one. The God of Aristotle is little involved in the world; it would have been a sign of inferiority and imperfection for Him to be so. This reflected a typically Greek attitude. To be affected by something external to your self is an indication of weakness, and in Aristotle's ideal of the "Great-Minded Man" this is very markedhe will not be cruel to his inferiors just because they are beneath such notice.

The Stoics came later to pride themselves on their independence and self-sufficiency. Likewise the God of Aristotle is absorbed in contemplation of His own perfection; He takes no overt interest in other things, but He moves all other things by attraction. This is in sharp contrast with subsequent Christian teaching and represents the main way in which Christianity is "foolishness to the Greek." But the idea of an Unmoved Mover did nonetheless have a very extensive influence on later religious thought: It provided the model for the famous causal arguments for the existence of God. We have somehow to account for the world, and since we cannot account for it in terms of the way events determine one another within the world, we must have recourse to some altogether different mode of determination and explanation; and in due course this consideration became one of the main ways in which religious thinkers presented the idea that the world as we find it is dependent on some reality which is altogether "beyond" or transcendent. Here, as elsewhere, Aristotle determined very closely the style, if not always the substance, of later religious arguments.

This is evidenced specially in the way some of the further leading notions of Aristotle's philosophy, such as his distinction of potential and actual and his analysis of four types of cause and his notion of substance, became formative ideas in the religious thinking of later Christian times. It is in these ways, more than by very distinctively religious insight, that Aristotle made his main contribution to the philosophy of religion.

There is one further notion of great importance which had its place in Aristotle's system and became subsequently very influential. It is the idea of a law of nature. At times this was understood in a very relativistic way. To "follow nature" was taken to mean abiding by your own whims or impulses. It was sharply contrasted with convention, and the latter came to be much derided in some quarters in the period after Aristotle and Plato in Greeceindeed earlier to some extent among the Sophists. Here we see again, in an extreme form, the ideal of being self-sufficient. This was carried by some of the Cynics and Epicureans and the early Stoics to the extent of trying to "return to nature" and doing without society and its irksome restrictions altogethera cry that was sounded vigorously again in the seventeenth century. But it came to be realized that this policy led to absurdity and chaos, in personal life and in society; and thus the idea of "Nature" underwent complete transformationit came to be taught that there was a nature to the universe at large ("Nature" with a capital N, as it were) and that this disclosed itself to men's reason. This led, in the fusion of the idea of law of nature with the Roman idea of a "law of nations," to the conception of a number of basic moral principles which were bound up with our rational nature and which, for many, further owed their firmness and objectivity to their foundation in the ultimate nature of the universe. This notion had a long and varied history and played a very important part in Christian accounts of morality and its relation to religion. It has a close affinity with the teaching of early Chinese religions and the notion of some power from beyond the world working for righteousness within it and prescribing our basic moral principles. Reflection upon this affinity can be very fruitful in seeking the way forward with such problems in the way they present themselves today.

Early and Medieval Christianity

The thought of early Christian times was extensively affected by Greek philosophy. This is evident even in the New Testament itself, not only in the way its authors write about matters like soul and body, but also in the central theme of "the Word" or Logos which became flesh. The Greek notion of Logos provided the basic concept in terms of which the doctrine of the Incarnation was to be understood. Directly, the concept of Logos came into philosophical thought in Christian times from the Stoics, for whom it meant originally an immanent World-Soul. But it was later combined with the Platonic idea of nous and so was conceived as acting in accordance with archetypal patterns. The basic problem was how is it possible to have knowledge of a strictly transcendent being, and for this a solution was sought in terms of an intermediary, in this case a logos, which was also induced in due course to fill other roles and help in the solution of further problems. These procedures came into Christian thought in the first place through the work of a gifted Jewish philosopher of the first century, namely Philo, and it had a prominent place in the subsequent Christology of formative thinkers like the Alexandrians, of whom Origen has most interest for philosophers. But what we have in the main during early Christian centuries is not so much philosophy of religion in the strict sense as theological writings that make extensive use of philosophical concepts. There were also some theologians of this period, as there have been of later times, who resented the intrusion of philosophy into the domain of faith. Of these the most outstanding was Tertullian.

The main exception to the normal course of thought in the early Christian period was Neoplatonism. Here we revert again to a profound sense of the Oneness of the Universe in a way that puts particulars and plurality in jeopardy, as they had been to some extent in the philosophy of Plato. But some account must be given of particulars, and there was developed in this way the difficult notion of emanation. God is the ultimate unity and He transcends all the categories of thought, but finite beings exist in the form of some falling away from the original perfection. This comes to terms in some fashion with the facts of finite existence and the reality of evil that occupied the minds of thinkers of this period a great deal. But it is very hard to make sense of the notion of emanation without calling in question the all-embracing nature of the one ultimate reality. The insistence on the latter notion did, however, influence the course of mystical thought and practice extensively. It also led, as in the case of Oriental mysticism, to attempts to draw away altogether from our present existence, with its limitations and evil, and to pass beyond the world of intellect as well as sense into total union with ineffable Being.

In sharp contrast to this teaching we have the position of thinkers who reflected anew on the significance of the Hebrew-Christian doctrine of creation. The Hebrews had come early to understand the elusive and transcendent character of God, and this had found very remarkable expression in parts of the Old Testament, the most famous passage here being the story of Moses at the burning bush. But this carried with it in Hebrew thought a subtle appreciation of the way a true discernment of God's transcendence required the recognition of our own distinctness as beings dependent on God. This sharpened, however, the question how such beings could in any way come to know God. The Hebrew answer was in terms of God's disclosure of Himself in history and experience, and this was deepened and extended in specifically Christian claims about the work and person of Christ. In this context the problem of revelation becomes a crucial one, and it has remained at the center of Christian philosophy at all times except when insistence on the distinctness of faith precluded all rational consideration of it.


Preoccupation with the way human beings, being finite, can come to know an Infinite Being lies at the center of the more specifically philosophical parts of the writings of Augustine. In his attack on the problem Augustine gives prominence to our reflection on what we find our own souls to be like as a clue to our understanding of the relation of God to the world. He set the pattern for much subsequent reflection on our own nature and started a concern for the inward aspect of personality which persisted through formative later thinkers, such as René Descartes and George Berkeley, to such nineteenth-century theologians as F. R. Tennant and the phenomenologists and existentialists of the present day. This side of Augustine's achievement is, however, often obscured by another. For although he emphasized the distinctness and freedom of finite beings, he came in another way to put these ideas in considerable jeopardy. In seeking to account for the redemptive work of Christ he posited the notion of an initial abuse of man's freedom leading to subsequent enslavement to sin. This gave considerable impetus to a doctrine of the Fall which, although not prominent in this form in earlier Christian times, became a central theme of much later theology and Christian profession of faith. The personal experiences of Augustine and his African background are thought to have greatly influenced his view in these respects, and there have certainly been voices, like those of Pelagius in his own time and Abelard later, raised in sharp protest against the rigors of the Augustinian doctrine of humanity's sin. The doctrine of the Fall has also been invoked to simplify the problem of our knowledge of God by blunting the strictly epistemological character of the problem; this came about through emphasis on the way our own allegedly corrupted nature made us spiritually blind and stood in the way of a vision of God. In the same context the idea of a law of nature became the idea of what is practicable in the present sinful state of humankind and society by contrast with the ideal law of God. This distinction was given much prominence by St. Augustine and has been reaffirmed, in the sense in which he understood it, by his most notable followers to the present day.


The question of particulars and universals became prominent again in the controversy of realism and nominalism in the early Middle Ages. It had many implications for religious thought. For example, the view that individuals do not exist in themselves was thought to culminate in pantheism in the sense that "all visible things pass into intellectual, and intellectual into God." This period also saw further attempts to provide a rational defense of the faith, although without denying that faith had a firm foundation of its own. An outstanding feature of this activity in philosophical thinking is the formulation of the Ontological Argument by St. Anselm. This was intended to show that sound understanding of the idea of God yields us the necessity of His existence. The idea of God, it was urged, is the idea of a being than whom nothing greater can be conceived. But a being that does not exist is inferior to one who has the additional attribute of existence. Many changes have since been rung on this argument and it is being much canvassed at the present day.

thomas aquinas

The most impressive achievements of the Middle Ages in religious thought came about initially through the work of Muslim scholars (Mohammad al-Ghazali and Averroes in particular) who were much concerned about the question of reason and revelation in their own faith. Among these there had also been preserved important works of Greek philosophy, especially those of Aristotle, which were not properly known by Christian scholars. There came about in this way a revival of the study of Aristotle and a new concern about the way a transcendent being could be known by limited finite ones. This culminated in the very comprehensive work of St. Thomas Aquinas, which ranged over most religious questions, seeking a synthesis of religious claims and established philosophical principles. It set up firmly one of the main forms of natural theology. For Thomas this covered two things. First we have the attempt to establish the existence of God by argument. This took the form of the famous "Five Ways." The first three of these are variations on the Cosmological Argument, as the term came to be used in due course. They seek to pass from the limited or contingent nature of finite things to an ultimate First Cause or Ground. The least elaborate, and also the most plausible, is the third way, which proceeds directly from the contingency of the world to its absolute Source without presupposing any particular view of cause and effect as we understand it. This argument, in one form or another, has been central to a great deal of subsequent philosophy of religion. Many hold today that it gets us at least very near the truth about the initial relation of God to the world and the way we know this. The other two "Ways" depend on notions of a scale of being and value and on the adaptation of things to their purposes, which are at least alien to the way we normally think about the world todaythough they have their defenders.

The second prong of natural theology was that which sought, through an extremely subtle and cautious doctrine of analogy, to determine the attributes of God more precisely. It was urged that we cannot know God as He is in Himself, we can only know that He must be; and because God is a transcendent Ground of all things, He cannot be mirrored in the world He has made in the way an effect normally tells us something about its cause. Thomas and his followers were therefore well aware of the need to move very circumspectly here, and what they maintained was that God must be thought to have certain attributes, like goodness or power, in whatever way is necessary for Him to be the Author of those in the form in which they appear in the created world. In presenting this doctrine some very careful distinctions were drawn between various types of analogies. The main difficulty which this approach involves is that of determining whether anything of substance is added in this way to what is originally claimed in regarding God as a transcendent Being. There is in any case needed in addition extensive recourse to revealed truth to supply the particular affirmations of a faith like the Christian one. These truths of faith could not, according to Thomas, conflict with the truths of reason, but they go beyond them.

william of ockham

The most formidable opponent of natural theology was William of Ockham, who questioned the ability of natural reason to discover in any measure the inscrutable will of God or reduce the mystery of transcendent being. His methods of procedure, involving the reduction of our postulates to the minimum that the facts require, anticipates many features of modern thought where skepticism about affirmations and alleged entities which pass beyond the facts of sensible experience and science is sometimes combined with a dogmatic affirmation of faith in which reason plays no part.

Modern Philosophy

Outstanding formative philosophers of the modern period, roughly the last five hundred years, were of two main sorts, rationalists and empiricists. The former, including Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, had great confidence in the power of reason alone to establish ultimate metaphysical truths.


Descartes claimed to prove his own existence by the power of reason alone and drew a sharp distinction between mind and body. He then sought, by severely rational arguments, to prove the existence of God. Two of these arguments invoke the causal principle, although they require also our having the idea of God; the third is a special form of the Ontological Argument; it contends that if we think of a being who does not exist we are withholding from our conception of it a "perfection," namely existence, which is essential to our conception of a perfect being. These arguments are not usually thought to succeed as they stand, but they can nonetheless be thought to be significant as indications of the insight into there having to be an ultimate reality in which essence and existence are one. They also illustrate the futility of seeking to establish the existence of such a being by arguments involving consideration of what limited finite things are like. Descartes's causal arguments are particularly illuminating in this way, as he imports into his premises, at every step in an elaborate argument, certain considerations derived from the notion of an infinite being which it is the aim of the argument to defend.

A further feature of Descartes's work is the insistence on the freedom of the individual"liberty of indifference." This is bound up with the insistence on the distinctness of persons as nonmaterial entities. The same theme is taken up in Leibniz's monadology, in which every being is a distinct mental monad. But the genuineness of our freedom is jeopardized by Leibniz in his doctrine of preestablished harmony and the way each monad consistently unfolds in its history some destiny which its own nature prescribes for it from the start. In the ingenious monistic system of Spinoza freedom comes to be thought of in terms of accepting our place and destiny in the universe with adequate understanding and forbearance rather than in the form of genuine "liberty of indifference." Descartes's doctrine of the self as a distinct mental substance has been subjected to considerable criticism from time to time, not least at the present day. But there are many also who consider it an essential ingredient in a sound understanding of the relations of God to man and who stress, as did Descartes, the "interiority" and unextended character of the mind.


Empiricism inclines to skepticism and is severely skeptical in its stricter forms. The great British empiricists did not all hold to their principle with the same consistency. We find John Locke departing from his avowed aim of showing that knowledge derives from sense impressions, not only in his theory of knowledge and his account of material and mental substances, but also in his expressly religious thought where he claimed, for example, that the existence of One Infinite Mind can be proved with the same certainty as we find in mathematics. There is much in fact in Locke's presentation of the causal argument in Chapter X, Book IV, of his Essay concerning Human Understanding that has close relevance to controversies about the subject today. Likewise Berkeley, while dispensing with the notion of independent material substances, found in his account of the world of nature as dependent on its being perceived a firm foundation for the belief in a Divine Being on whose Mind the whole world of nature depends. To Berkeley we owe also a subtle appreciation of the distinctiveness of the way minds are known and the essential inwardness of personality which is so central a feature of religious philosophy today.

David Hume, however, was little attracted to these compromises and, although he confessed to some admiration for the argument which seeks to prove God's existence from the evidence of design in the universe, he adhered generally to a ruthlessly empiricist position. This involved total skepticism about God, immortality, and all properly religious notions. Hume contended that religion had started in a thoroughly naturalistic way with the personification of natural objects and so forth and that only at a late and sophisticated stage of culture did people arrive at some unification of religious notions and the belief in one God. His presentation of this view is delightfully lucid and it set the pattern for much of the anthropological treatment of religion later in the nineteenth century. In Hume's Dialogues there are also canvassed some of the main arguments that are used to support or reject religious beliefs, ranging from the general belief in God to belief in miracle.

kant's criticisms

The "critical" philosophy of Immanuel Kant sought to arrest the skepticism of Hume without retreating to the strict rationalism of Descartes and his followers. Kant's main contention was that the sort of experience of the world which we undoubtedly have presupposes a unified world of objects presented to an abiding subject. The modes of unification thereby involved, the necessary conditions of experience, provided a new basis for confident belief in causality and substance, though not in the same sense as that of Descartes; but it was also implied that knowledge is confined to the world of our experience and the principles involved in this, sometimes thought to be imposed by the mind itself. This did certainly yield us the belief in an unobservable subject of experience, but nothing could be known of this beyond its being required to account for the sort of knowledge we have of the external world. There was also a tendency to isolate this inner self so completely from the external world of known reality that the functioning of the "pure self," especially as will or active agent, became very hard to conceive and set for Kant some of his main difficulties, especially in his ethics.

The limitations involved in the alleged "critical" account of knowledge were, however, extensively corrected by Kant in his insistence that we have certain grounds for "faith," which supplements what we can strictly know. These grounds of faith are found in the operation of our practical reason or moral awareness which sets before us certain moral obligations, largely in the form of strictly universal rules, which have in turn far-reaching implications. It was urged, for example, that there is a moral requirement that justice be rewarded, but that, since the ethical motive would be impaired if we set our own happiness as the aim of moral actions, God must be postulated to guarantee the eventual relation between happiness and virtue in the universe. Freedom and immortality were similar postulates of practical reason. These contentions have been subjected to much criticism, and doubt has been cast on the success of even the limited undertaking of postulating certain principles of a unified world of experience. Religious thinkers have urged that "faith" in its Kantian form has little in common with properly religious faith and that the severely rationalist character of the appeal to postulates of practical reason neglects the distinctively religious element in religious belief. On the other hand the prominence given to moral considerations in religious thought has been widely welcomed, and many writers have sought to provide versions of the moral and teleological arguments which are not open to the difficulties of those provided by Kant.

idealist responses to kant

A great deal of post-Kantian philosophy was concerned with the gap in the Kantian system between the world as we apprehend it and the ultimate or "noumenal" reality of the world as it really is. For Kant these tended to be two separate worlds, but many thought this unsatisfactory and sought in various ways to understand the ultimate reality or "thing-in-itself" as some completion of the world as we find ita notion that is in many ways anticipated in some of Kant's own reflections. There were thus initiated various metaphysical enterprises concerned especially with finding within the world of our own experience some reliable clue to the nature of the universe as a whole. The most influential of these was that of Hegel, who found the ultimate principle of reality in reason. We cannot exhaustively understand the universe but the universe is in principle capable of being understood through and through as a system where everything has its place and nature determined by rational necessity. Others (like Arthur Schopenhauer) gave to will the preeminent place as a metaphysical clue.

There were many variations on these themes in the nineteenth century, including the work of British idealists such as Thomas Hill Green, F. H. Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet and of American thinkers such as Josiah Royce. Idealism became the dominant philosophical view, and within the perspective of it many views were advanced about the relation of God to the world, taking distinctive features of our own experience as the clues to what lies beyond it. This tended to leave nothing essentially or irreducibly mysterious about religion. But the leading post-Hegelian idealist, namely Bradley, argued that there were radically contradictory features of present experience which implied that the ultimate nature of the universe was suprarational. And with this emphasis we come back again to the idea of some transcendent reality on which everything depends in some way that in principle we cannot understand. It was argued also, in criticism of the more rationalist type of idealism, that it left little room for the distinctness and freedom of the individual, since all beings came to be regarded as elements or "phases" or "appearances" of an ultimate all-inclusive systemand in the same way the problem of evil became a very acute one for idealist defenders of religion.

natural theology

In correction of the rationalist temper of idealist philosophy many voices were raised from time to time during the nineteenth century, stressing the mystery and elusiveness of religion. The most impressive and influential of these were those of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Otto, the former giving prominence to the "feeling of absolute dependence" in religion and the latter stressing our sense of the holy or the numinous, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Otto claimed, in sharp contrast to the earlier naturalistic theories of Hume and his nineteenth-century followers, that there was ample evidence of this sense of the holy in the rawest beginnings of religion and he sought to describe the way it became schematized and moralized to give riper and more distinctive forms of religion. Other writers sought to correct the somewhat a priori approach of idealist philosophers by resorting to what they described rather incorrectly as an empiricist defense of religion that consisted in drawing out the implications of various features of our experience. This was the form that much natural theology took in the late nineteenth century, exemplified especially in the work of F. R. Tennant. Even if this approach fails to do justice to the factor of transcendence in religion, it could nonetheless be thought to have provided many of the ingredients of a sound understanding of religious experience.

Toward the close of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century there appeared, however, a strong reaction against what was thought to be the facile and too liberal rationalization of religious philosophy at that time. This found expression most of all in the insistence, by Karl Barth and other eminent theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Emil Brunner, on the "wholly other" character of God and the need, as they understood it, to fall back on a dogmatically orthodox theological position in which the central place was accorded to the idea of an exclusive revelation. This presented considerable difficulties, not least on the ethical side where elementary ethical principles seemed to be put in serious jeopardy. But it did give prominence again to the idea of God's transcendence, which is a focus for controversies about religion among philosophers of the present day.

philosophy of religion

The philosophy of our time has become extensively empiricist again. This trend had been preparing for some time in America in aspects of the work of William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. But it gathered its momentum in the work of the Vienna circle and those, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, who extended its influence in England, notably at Cambridge and Oxford. Recent empiricism represents a sharp reaction against the ambitious and occasionally turgid speculations of nineteenth-century metaphysical philosophers. It set a premium on clarity and claimed to be tough-minded and down to earth. Its policy was extensively that of Hume, and it reflected much of the skepticism of the period subsequent to World War I. To Hume's empiricism was added, however, an alleged linguistic technique which was intended, in its main early forms at least, to account for the persistence of seemingly bold nonempirical notions, like the idea of the soul or of God, by ascribing them to confusions engendered by misleading forms of speech. This set off a spate of philosophical criticism of religion aimed at showing that its basic conceptions were logically improper. This is sometimes known as the linguistic veto. A desperate attempt to save religion was undertaken by several other empiricist philosophers who seemed willing to sacrifice the strictly nonempirical elements in religion and reinterpret the main features of religious belief in terms of present experiencefor example, by regarding religion as a matter of satisfying certain distinctive emotions or by identifying it, in essentials, with ethics.

There have been considerable recent variations on this theme of the attenuation of religious faith. The same method of apologetics has appealed also to many theological writers, some equating religion with morality and others finding the essence of religion in a certain depth and earnestness of our own activities. The most outstanding of these theologians have relied heavily on the work of existentialist philosophers who have brought into prominence the importance of certain searching present experiences and of deep inner aspects of them. Neither they nor their existentialist mentors are very systematic or lucid thinkers, and it is thus not very clear how far they mean to go in interpreting religion in terms of our human experience in the here and now.

religious existentialism

A typically elusive representative of this kind of philosophical theology was Paul Tillich. It is never quite clear whether he meant by his central conceptions of "the Ground of Being" and the "New Being" a transcendent reality (or some impact of this upon us) or some profound depth of our own experience and natures. Nor is it clear how far this skepticism about traditional beliefs, reinforced by much skepticism in the field of biblical scholarship, is meant to go; for the writers in question often give expression to seemingly skeptical views in the language of orthodoxy. The position is not made easier by considerable borrowings from phenomenological thinkers like Martin Heidegger who combine unusual perceptiveness with a veritable genius for elaborate and obscure modes of utterance.

linguistic apologetic

Equally uncertain and difficult is the work of certain more strictly philosophical thinkers who take their start from a new emphasis in linguistic philosophy derived largely from the later and much modified form of Wittgenstein's work. They stress the open texture and varieties of language and, on this basis, press the claims of religious language to a status not impaired by its not complying with the conditions of ordinary language or scientific language. This leaves the door open for a cautious but less skeptical approach to religion. But the question remains how much is accomplished unless we indicate how the distinctive language of religion is to be understood and what criteria may be applied to it. There is a tendency for some linguistic apologists of religion to be content with stressing the alleged oddity of religious language and thereby also to conflate major notions, like freedom and immortality, and to leave it very unclear in what sense the various affirmations made in religion are to be understood. These writers also tend to draw much support from existentialist insistence on the importance of formative and challenging present experiences. The details of their work, as in the case of I. T. Ramsey, is illuminating and imaginative, but it is not clear how much it can accomplish until their kind of sensitivity to religious language is accompanied by rigorous heed to the centrality and discipline of the more strictly epistemological considerations.

response to empiricist criticisms

Epistemological considerations have again been uppermost in the work of a further body of recent philosophers who have taken up the challenge of empiricist and linguistic critics more boldly. They have welcomed the challenge in particular as a way of sharpening the question of the place of evidence in religious belief. They maintain that evidence is not strictly relevant to the question of the existence of God; we apprehend the necessity of God's existence in the contingent character of everything else. This, they maintain, is the element of truth misleadingly presented in the traditional arguments. Pioneers of this position in recent philosophy are Austin Farrer and E. L. Mascall, while another severe critic of linguistic empiricism, C. A. Campbell, has arrived, by way of some modifications of Bradley's thought, at a not dissimilar renewal of the emphasis on the suprarational character of the object of religious worship.

This takes the sting out of the challenge, given sharpness by John Wisdom and later by Antony Flew, to indicate what would count for or against the existence of God. The answer, it is said, is "nothing," for we are not here accounting for the way the world goes or some particular feature of it, but for there being anything at all. The question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is regarded even by some skeptical philosophers as a significant one. This new appreciation of the uniqueness of the idea of God and of God's relation to the world has opened the way also for subtler understanding of religions other than Christianity, especially Buddhism, and with this has come a renewed philosophical interest in world religions. This is a more discerning interest than the one motivated by superficial notions of syncretism at the turn of the century.

But there has been accentuated in turn the problem of particular religious affirmations. Some have attacked this afresh through new presentations of the traditional doctrine of analogy; some, like A. C. Ewing, persist in a cautious restatement of idealism; others turn to fresh examination of the nature and sanction of religious imagery. There has also been much recourse to the analogy with our knowledge of one another, and in this context it has been thought, by the present writer among others, that a fresh examination of the nature of religious experience and of features of it that could afford justification of the claim to revelation in Scriptures and history, holds the best promise of a solution of the epistemological problems of religious faith. Some who follow this course are apt to lapse from a steady epistemological study, which their initial problem requires, into a psychological or phenomenological one; but when they do so, in the case of Gabriel Marcel for example, they may nonetheless provide highly relevant material for those who manage to keep the epistemological task steadily in mind. That may also be supplemented by the perceptive analysis of those whose concern is not mainly religious or who may be strictly atheistic like Jean-Paul Sartre. The work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty is thought by many to be especially suggestive and illuminating in this way.

Consideration of religious experience may thus prove the point of convergence of many of the approaches to religion which hold most promise today of deepening our understanding of its perennial problems. Advances in fields other than strictly religious studies, most of all perhaps the study of paranormal phenomena, will have much relevance to the present tasks of the philosophy of religion; and some writers, such as H. H. Price, C. D. Broad and C. J. Ducasse, have considered closely the implications of matters like paranormal phenomena for our general view of the world and for relevance to specific questions like immortality. Psychological studies, notably those that investigate the unconscious and the unconscious matrix of conscious imagery, have considerable relevance to the philosophers' problems. A further major preoccupation of those who study the philosophy of religion today is the relation of ethics to religion, not only in the form of fresh examination of the problems of freedom and grace or of variations on the traditional "moral argument," but also in reflections on the role of moral experience within the totality of religious experience. There have likewise been fresh examinations of the claims made for mystical experience, and one writer at least, namely W. T. Stace, is prepared to defend a very extreme form of monism as the ultimate truth about the universe to which mystical experience points. Other philosophers, including some such as J. N. Findlay who took their orientation at one time from Wittgensteinian philosophy, are beginning to embark on boldtoo bold?speculative ventures in the field of religious thought.

In these ways the philosophy of religion, of which fashionable philosophers fought very shy about twenty years ago, has become again one of the liveliest interests of philosophers. It is of considerable significance also that some of the major themes of contemporary fiction, including those that seem to have little overtly to do with religion, are found to bear closely on aspects of religion that have most importance for the philosophy of religion. In the blend of new philosophical investigations of religion, sharpened in the challenge and discipline of tough-minded philosophy, and a perceptive understanding of contemporary cultures (in their limitations as well as in their achievements) in other regards may be found a means of genuine advance in the life of religion itself which will enable it to have its place effectively in the sophistications of a developing culture and rapidly changing state of society.

See also Islamic Philosophy; Jewish Philosophy.


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