Theses on a Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion: Part 1

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I made a promise during the inaugural seminar on the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion that met last week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion: to apply Bruce Lincoln’s theses on method to the philosophy of religion.

The seminar itself has the objective of producing a new philosophy of religion textbook that”thoroughly integrates non theistic religious philosophies and critically engages the methodological and theoretical issues of religious studies.” Why? As I have written elsewhere, a review of the TOCs of any group of introductory philosophy of religion textbooks, from any time period, reveals a stunning degree of conformity of topics and issues that fall squarely within the confines of theism. Thus, an organization with the title “Center for Philosophy of Religion” is no outlier when its mandate includes, “to encourage the development and exploration of specifically Christian and theistic philosophy.”

My promise is partly inspired by Wesley Wildman’s call for the field to demonstrate its relevance to higher education. Elsewhere, Professor Wildman asks those of us working in this field, “call a spade a spade. Liberate the phrase “philosophy of religion” so that it can stand for what it says it is: philosophical reflection on religion—not just Christianity (or any other particular tradition), not just theism, but religion in all of its forms.”

Depending upon the scholar to whom you speak, philosophy of religion is either a sub-field of philosophy or a sub-field of religious studies. In either case, both disciplines have a fairly well-developed discourse on theory and method. Based on my knowledge of works in the philosophy of religion, the sub-field takes up no discourse on method from either discipline. My hope is that this seminar is one means by which philosophers of religion start applying the extant and ongoing work on theory and method among scholars of religion.

What follows is my initial attempt to apply Lincoln’s theses on method to the philosophy of religion. What I found is that these theses do not map easily. Therefore, this is Part 1, where I apply the theses as a criticism of current discourses among philosophers of religion. I have put text into bold-face where my application is criticism.

1. The conjunction “of” that joins the two nouns in the disciplinary ethnonym “Philosophy of Religion” is not neutral filler. Rather, it announces a proprietary claim and a relation of encompassment: Philosophy is the method and Religion the object of study.
2. The relation between the two nouns is also tense, as becomes clear if one takes the trouble to specify their meaning. Religion, I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal. Philosophy of religion, as it is currently practiced, often fails to contrast sharply, as it involves discourses speaking of things both eternal and transcendent as well as things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice. The sharp contrast is that philosophers of religion stake their claims to authority on rigorous critical practice.
3. Philosophy of religion is thus a discourse that may have trouble resisting and reversing the orientation of that discourse with which it concerns itself. Too many who practice philosophy of religion do so in a fashion inconsistent with the discipline’s claim of title. There is a lack of insistence on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.
4. Thus, philosophers of religion rarely ask the sorts of destabilizing and irreverent questions one might ask of any speech act ought be posed of religious discourse. The first of these is “Who speaks here?”, i.e., what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, “To what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through what system of mediations? With what interests?” And further, “Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience? What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?”
5. Reverence is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail. Philosophers of religion, for the most part, reserve a theological reverence for religion. Their arguments take as normative the question whether a case can be made for the existence and attributes of God. 
6. While many philosophers of religion insulate their own or their parents’ religion against critical inquiry, little or no attention is given to other people’s faiths. One can appreciate their good intentions, while recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as the guilty conscience of western imperialism.
7. Most discourses among philosophers of religion are predicated on the dubious–not to say, fetishistic–construction of religion as “theism” with little regard for groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices they share. Insofar as this model stresses the continuity and integration of timeless theism, the consideration of internal tensions and conflicts, turbulence and incoherence, permeability and malleability are largely erased, it risks becoming a religious and not a historic narrative: the story of a transcendent ideal threatened by debasing forces of change.
8. Those who sustain this idealized image of religion-as-theism do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant fraction (theologians) of a given group for the group or “religion” itself. At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favoured and propagated by the dominant fraction for those of the group as a whole (if only this could be an e.g. for philosophers of religion: when texts authored by Brahmins define “Hinduism”, or when the statements of male elders constitute “Nuer religion”). Scholarly misrecognitions of this sort replicate the misrecognitions and misrepresentations of those theologians that philosophers of religion privilege as their informants.
9. Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.
10. Understanding the system of ideology that operates in one’s own society is made difficult by two factors: (i) one’s consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (ii) the system’s very success renders its operations invisible, since one is so consistently immersed in and bombarded by its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing other than “nature”.
11. The ideological products and operations of other societies afford invaluable opportunities to the would-be student of ideology. Being initially unfamiliar, they do not need to be denaturalized before they can be examined. Rather, they invite and reward critical study, yielding lessons one can put to good use at among philosophers of religion.
12. Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many philosophers of religion, who, should they encounter it, denounce it as “reductionism”. This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion”–that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status–may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as philosophers of religion.
13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as a critical philosopher of religion. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (theologian, amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

I think the first iteration of applying Lincoln’s theses demonstrates the potential importance of the global-critical philosophy of religion seminar. There is plenty of work to do over the next five years!

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