Monday, September 07, 2009


I was talking to one of my colleagues recently about our shared concern for demonstrating to students that "philosophy" and "religion" (or theology, or religious studies, or whatever) are different disciplines. Although they sometimes address the same subject matter, and although there is much in religion that is philosophical and much in philosophy that is religious, they are nonetheless NOT the same. As disciplines, they operate with different rules, and what is permitted by one is often forbidden by the other.

Actually, that's not completely true. I mean, insofar as (capital-R) Religion and (capital-P) Philosophy are both academic disciplines, many of their rules are quite similar. I mean the kinds of scholarly, peer-review rules that dictate to we eggheads that we can't get away with saying completely crazy stuff. But, in the grand scheme of things, those rules of "scholarship" are first and foremost Rules of Philosophy. They are rules designed to ensure that our products of thinking most closely approximate the "truth" of what we're thinking about. They are rules to which reasonable people, thinking reasonably, can all agree. Rules like the law of noncontradiction, rules about the soundness and validity of arguments, rules that insist on repeatable (i.e., non-idiosyncratic) results. Those are OUR rules, left over from the halcyon days when Philosophy was the grand synoptic discipline, before all the hyper-specialization, when all learning was "philosophical" inasmuch as it was the product of a love of wisdom. The "scientific method"? Yep, that was really ours, too. To all the natural scientists, social scientists, historians, and scholars of the arts and letters, I say:

It's the philosophers' sandbox. You're just playing in it.

So, I hope my esteemed colleagues in theology and religious studies will forgive me for what might seem like a somewhat reductive comparison of our disciplines, but there are certain things that I think can be taken seriously in theology and religious studies courses that are, quite simply, verboten in philosophy. Of course, the line between faith and reason is never as clearly identifiable as we like to think it is, but where philosophers are obliged to Reason (even and especially when it doesn't "make room" for faith), theologians operate with a different sort of litmus test. Becuase both disciplines are ultimately concerned with questions of meaning and value, the procedures for making those determinations are often confused by students. And it's that entirely common confusion that my colleague and I were discussing when considering the best ways to reinforce to students the difference between Religion and Philosophy courses.

Perhaps it's best to consider an example. Let's take the "rapture."

Here we have a story-- a myth, really-- about the end of times. According to the Christian Bible, Jesus (the Son of God) told his disciples: "In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:2-3) Saint Paul confirmed this in many of his letters, most especially his letters to the Thessalonians (at 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-7), the Phillipians (at Phillipians 3:20-21), and the Corinthians (at 1 Conrinthians 15:49-55). The Gospel of Matthew also confimes this story, where we get the somewhat scary account of two men standing in a field or two women grinding with a hand mill during the Rapture: one disappears and the other is "left behind." (Matthew 24: 36-41) Of course, these accounts of the Rapture are entirely speculative, as even Christians will acknowledge that the Rapture has not yet happened and so we can't really know what it will be like. Nevertheless, the belief that the Rapture will happen is a matter of faith. In the same way that I may believe that a friend who makes a promise to me will follow through on that promise, I cannot possible know in advance whether s/he will or will not, and so my belief in that promise is a matter of faith and not knowledge. The discipline of Philosophy is primarily concerned with the latter and not the former, so dealing with speculations about the future is where things get complicated.

Of course, I don't really know that the sun will rise tomorrow, either. But we generally agree that I have better evidence for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow than believing that my friend will keep his or her promise. The reason that I take the staircase down in order to exit the building from my second-floor classroom, as opposed to just stepping out of the window, is that I have strong and compelling reasons to believe that what I call "natual laws" (like the law of gravity) don't admit of exceptions and, consequently, my "belief" that I would fall to my death from the window comes to occupy a place in my mind analogous to "facts" that I know from direct experience (like, for example, that my cat's fur was soft when I just touched it). When we're talking about more- or less-"justified" beliefs, we have all sorts of criteria for determining the merit of speculative claims, but (in Philosophy, at least) none of those criteria are (or should be) tempered by our investment in the outcome. I may consider the promises of Jesus (and his disciples) to be as reliable as a the promises of a good friend of mine, but that still leaves them a far cry from the "promise" of Nature that I will fall to the ground if I step out of a window.

Let me say that I am all for encouraging (careful and moderate) belief in "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," which is the definition of "faith" according to the Christian Bible (Hebrews 11:1). But I think, in the classroom, it is important to recognize the difference between faith in things like my friend's promise and faith in things like the Rapture. The difference, of course, is that if my friend breaks his or her promise, I will be disappointed and maybe (depending on how close the friend is) I will lose a certain amount of confidence in humanity, but it won't completely alter my world-view. Belief in the Rapture, on the other hand, is a kind of belief that fundamentally structures all other moral and political considerations. If I believe that there will be a Last Judgment in the same way that I believe in the law of gravity, that faith constitutes a world-view that is entirely based on a unverified and unverifiable claim, and is by every standard of philosophical reasoning... well, unreasonable. I can't make an argument for it other than by appeal to myth or revelation, and I can't reasonably expect others who do not already share my faith in that myth or revelation to be compelled by it.

And so, this is the important difference between Philosophy and Theology: namely, in Philosophy, faith is allowed, but not privileged. One may have compelling and persuasive reasons for believing lots of things that do not permit of sound and valid arguments in their defense, but the burden will always be on the believer to make his or her case to the unbeliever, and not the vice versa. And the believer will be further saddled with the responsibility of making his or her case in spite of the unbeliever's disbelief. The trick, I think, is convincing students that such standards do not constitute a devaluation of their beliefs, but rather a different and rigorous standard of measuring the proper use and efficacy of those beliefs.


Scu said...

I get that teaching in the south (and let me say, I was born and raised in south GA, and did my undergrad work in ATL) can carry with it a problem about the distinction between philosophy and religion. My mother, who teaches high school in south GA, has her students do a project on outlining their personal philosophy, and she has the hardest time making her students understand the difference between presenting on their philosophical outlook on life, and witnessing. I can only imagine the constant frustration.

With that said, what do you do with traditions like the scholastics and Talmudists who are both philosophers and theologists. These, of course, are not the only people who make such a distinction hard. Not to mention that much decolonial philosophy is both done by theologians and often studied the most in theology departments here and in the UK (maybe elsewhere, as well). People like Enrique Dussel continue to make a clear and easy division between philosophy and theology extremely problematic.

Art Carden said...

If I may, here's where economics can contribute to the debate!

anotherpanacea said...

It's amazing how Fall semester with an intro course always puts us in the mood to justify the existence of philosophy at all. Our sandbox indeed! Damn right.

I wondered at your claim that you're "all for encouraging" faith. Why so? Why encourage what you've acknowledged to be unreasonable, especially if it "fundamentally structures" the rest of our moral world? I don't generally care for anti-theists like Dawkins or Hitchens, but why *encourage* theism?

I think I may have designed my course this semester so as to illicit plentiful analysis of arguments for and against God's existence with nary a profession of faith among them, and to me that's a victory. I doubt that there's much encouragement of faith going on in the Religion department, either: there wasn't when I was an undergraduate vacillating between the two disciplines, though admittedly that's a small sample. Which faith would they encourage, and how could they justify the preferential treatment?

DOCTOR J said...

@Scu: I think that scholasticism and the Telmudic tradition are clearly theology, though they may abide by more rigorous philosophical standards than other branches of theology, and they may also address issues and questions that are not immediately "God"-related. As for liberation theology-- at least insofar as it engages in social/political prescriptions, like postcolonial/decolonial critique-- I would say that what's going on there is not so much BOTH philosophy and theology, but NEITHER. In fact, that is why many people are drawn to liberation theology... precisely because of it's "problematic" blurring of the clear lines between philosophy and theology. Even still, I think that scholastics, Talmudists and liberation theologians alike would all agree that when they are talking to "philosophers" (or purporting to "do philosophy"), they are obliged to follow the rules of philosophy, or else account for their breach of those rules.

@AnPan: I didn't exactly say that I encourage "faith" in my classes, even less so that I encourage "faith in God." What I said, precisely, is that I encourage "belief in the substance of things hoped-for, the evidence of things not seen"... which just so happens to also be the definition of "faith" according to the Christian Bible. I like to think that I encourage students to believe in all kinds of (unseen and hoped-for) things, like "Democracy" and "Justice," but only insofar as they can articulate clear, consisten, coherent, and compelling reasons for doing so. I would be no more inclined to accept a belief in Justice that was defended by reference to (mere) faith or revelation than I would accept belief in the Rapture. Both are premises that "fundamentally structure" one's world-view, I think, but one allows for a "reasonable" philosophical defense where the other clearly does not.

Anonymous said...

Nice reflection, Dr. J.

I've tried this approach with students: Theology is an act of self-clarification that happens within a particular faith tradition. Theological truth is tested by the norms of faithfulness in that tradition, and its claims are warranted by the canons of evidence established by that tradition. It is a game played by the rules of a tradition-specific rationality (leaning heavily on Lindbeck and MacIntyre here).

Studying theology, which is what happens in Religious Studies classrooms that focus on theology, however, is different. To *do* theology, you must be a person of faith (of a particular faith tradition, that is). But to study theology, you need not participate in the faith tradition in question -- or, really, in any faith tradition at all. The student of theology simply learns the rules of the game.

So...when studying theology, there's no sense in judging faith claims by philosophical standards, unless the tradition being studied accepts those standards as its own.


Tracy said...

It seems you are conflating theology and religious studies. In fact, theology is merely one subset of religious studies and one with entirely different rules from the rest of the discipline. Religious Studies overall is a historical discipline with shades of textual criticism, anthropology, and sociology. Theology need not be any of these. I actually find your differentation in this post between philosophy and religious studies problematic. If students come into my classes--or those of any of the biblical scholars in the Rhodes RS dept.--thinking RS and theology are the same, they are going to have problems. In in fact teach students the norms of the discipline of history in my intro classes.