The Past of Continental Philosophy of Religion

Recently James KA Smith and Bruce Benson had a conversation that unfolded on the pages of the journal Faith and Philosophy. As Daniel Whistler and I are currently finishing up editing on our edited volume, After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, I read it to see if I could get a sense of where two mainstream Christian philosophers see the discipline. I was, quite simply, disappointed in the dialogue as it continues a rather uncritical discourse on Continental philosophy of religion that perpetuates its status as a kind of ersatz-philosophical theology, but adds a bit of new analytic envy and Christian victimhood. I’m not too concerned with the so-called analytic/Continental split anymore and, like many, hope that some new constellation is emerging that will though whose work is “Continental” to break through the institutional biases of mainstream Anglophone departments and join with post-analytic thought in doing new and interesting work. Still, there is something distinctive about Continental philosophy of religion that differentiates it form both mainstream Anglophone philosophy and philosophical theology. In our volume we locate three distinct characteristics: its coming out of the modern tradition, its concern for the secular, and its speculative character. Perhaps Smith’s account is impovershed because of his focus on phenomenology and hermeneutics. I would argue that, while these philosophical forms can support philosophies of religion, they have tended  to be used as a method for a theological thinking rather than a philosophy of religion. This theologization of Continental philosophy largely goes unacknowledged within those circles, both because figures like Marion are both theologizers of philosophy and respected expositors of the phenomenological method. Thus, the notion that somehow Marion is ostracized by most Continental philosophers, just strikes me as absolutely false. Christians are not kept outside the mainstream of Continental philosophy (how can you even say that when FordhamUP and IndianaUP, publishers of a great deal of Christian philosophy, are two publishing powerhouses of Continental philosophy?), but instead their theological presuppositions are rejected by some. Smith’s description and Benson’s response, strike me as talking about the past of Continental philosophy of religion. The future will have to consider how much it can allow itself to be contaminated by theological material and what its goal is.

Anyway, there is more to respond to here (like the interesting practical discussion of peer-review vs. books, which again strikes me as false), but I’m snowed under at the moment, so why don’t you give it a read and add your own response in the comments.

17 thoughts on “The Past of Continental Philosophy of Religion

  1. I feel that, after reading the dialogue, Smith seems to be perpetuating the very ‘enclave’ he seeks to remove. First, he throws a large group of people under the bus (e.g. ‘religious studies’ departments that do philosophy) without much analysis. Ironically, he points the finger at people like Mark Taylor, Carl Raschke, John Caputo, etc, seemingly ignoring the fact that all of these people have degrees from philosophy departments and, in some cases, work hand-in-hand with philosophy departments (I can personally vouch for at least one of the names in that list). To claim that only a certain group of people can really do philosophy of religion is a bit myopic in my opinion.
    Secondly, he talks about how some groups play the victim card, but seems to do the exact same thing. Benson seems to hint at this (if not point the finger right back) when pointing out that Smith’s critique is largely focused on the group of people that follow French continental philosophy while also objecting to Radical Orthodoxy.
    With that said, I can agree that continental philosophy of religion has been insular, but that can be used for many niche fields (which I think Benson points out with the JAAC). I am slightly more reserved about saying that many continental philosophers of religion have tended to do philosophical theology only because I (as a theologian — I’ll be honest here) don’t see them really engaging with theology. They seem to follow Zizek and talk about Theology as a concept without actually talking theology. It is as much of an odd perception of theology (and I’m not the only one thinking this) as it is of ‘philosophy’. I’d like to see them engage with theology, as I think some of them tend to reinvent the wheel (case in point: David Tracy has been harping about pluralism, difference, and dialogue for over 30 years but I don’t typically see continental philosophy of religion folk talking about him at all).
    In the end, I agree that ‘The future will have to consider how much it can allow itself to be contaminated by theological material and what its goal is.’ I just hope the answer to the first isn’t ‘none’; I don’t think that’s a viable option. Philosophy of religion should be in touch with its sibling (just as much as the opposite), but it should seek to become one with theology. They do (or should) serve different purposes with different goals.

  2. Christopher, I don’t know if I can completely go with you here. I don’t see how people like Smith and Benson aren’t engaging with theology, even if they’re engaging with a certain kind of theology. As for secular philosophers of religion, I agree that the theological engagement of the big names is often paltry, but the younger folks (and I would include people like myself, Dan Barber, Brad Johnson, Rocco Gangle, Daniel Whistler, and, if we allow for a plurality of identities, and Adam Kotsko, who is more obviously a theologian [basically everyone in the volume Whistler and I have put together, yes I realize that can seem like boasting, but we really do have some good people in there) are building off of people like Clayton Crockett and Philip Goodchild who have engaged with theology head on. We may not engage with David Tracy to the extent you want us too, but at some point we’re philosophers and not theologians.

    I agree that the answer to the question I pose should not be “none”, but I am not a Christian theologian and I identify certain aspects of Christian theology as something to be resisted philosophically, so neither will the answer be, as it is for Smith and Benson, accommodation. That said, I have tried to take the task seriously and have given time to reading theologians just as much as I have read philosophy.

    Thanks for bringing up the Religion department aspect of it. I didn’t want to highlight the elitism in the main post, which I take to be part of the “analytic” envy at play, but was hoping a commenter would.

  3. One question I would put to the theologians is, why should philosophers listen to you? The most interesting forms of theology, to my mind anyway, are minor ones (like queer and liberation theologies) while the theological mainstream seems to content itself with a game of “who can re-write the Fathers for the contemporary world”. There is very little challenge from theologians to the Chruch, very little mutation allowed, which is why so many in contemporary theology spend their time with philosophers, either to augment theology or to try and protect theology from some heterodox view coming from philosophy.

    This is all polemical, of course, and just for the sake of a conversation beyond the narrowness of Smith’s essay, so I’m open to your own polemic.

  4. To my mind, Benson’s response countered all of Smith’s points brilliantly, and Smith’s own further response didn’t add much of anything that I can tell — with the exception of his description of his experience at Calvin’s philosophy department, which I really think would’ve been great to put up front. That department’s practice does sound really cool and is much to be admired and emulated, but it’s not somehow the “fault” of continental philosophy of religion that that doesn’t happen everywhere.

    I’m always extremely suspicious of anyone who wants to blame continental philosophy for the lack of dialogue between the two sides of the divide — analytic philosophy in its heyday was ruthless in using every institutional tool at its disposal to create its hegemony, and continental philosophy turned out to be the most durable kind of non-analytic philosophy in that context of constant attack. The true tragedy isn’t that we can’t seem to bridge the analytic-continental divide — it’s that that divide is essentially all that’s left after analytic philosophy’s relentless expansionism. In an ideal world, we’d have a vibrant debate among analytics, phenomenologists, process philosophers, American pragmatists, medievalists, etc., etc. And in fact continental programs have often served as a kind of shelter for those seriously endangered strains of philosophy. We shouldn’t let the fact that analytic types are becoming slightly more open to outside approachs and that analytic philosophy as an “identity category” is breaking down obscure the fact that the current extremely skewed shape of the discipline is the product of a relentless and aggressive program of institutional self-promotion on the part of analytic philosophy. This isn’t to say that analytic philosophy is unworthy of being studied and engaged with — just that it can’t possibly be as good as its continued institutional dominance would imply.

  5. Perhaps the problem is this as I perceive it. While continental philosophy of religion means to Smith the Derridians and a few more, to me this isn’t what I see as being contemporary continental philosophy at all. Now, I haven’t read a great deal of Smith, but the impression I get is that while someone like Derrida serves as a wonderful exemplar for certain Christian concepts (much as people have reacted to Badiou), how much is Derrida seen as able to criticising Christianity in a two way street manner? Of course, one could reverse this question, as Christopher has done above.

    Meanwhile, the International Journal of Philosophy of Religion handles numerous article both sides of the divide. If anything, except perhaps aesthetics and maybe some bits of philosophy of mind, in fact philosophy of religion unusually incredibly porous with regard to analytic-continental collaboration. Compare this, say, to the Rawls dominance in political philosophy, analytic metaphysics or the strict ‘three camps’ in contemporary metaethics (though one should admit, virtue ethics has had a very strong impact on theology).

    I’ll give the analytic philosophers of religion one thing, they actually read each others stuff. Christian philosophers genuinely read atheists and atheist read Christians, while those Christians maintain a very loose barrier between philosophy and theology. Then again, I don’t want to get lost in battles about ‘robustitude’ and get lost here, I’m just saying they read each other very clearly, but this may have something to do with the way analytic philosophy works regarding presenting an argument.

  6. Thanks for posting this and starting a conversation on it. I’m quite ignorant of philosophical goings-on, and I’ve appreciated the helpful criticisms when I’ve taken a stab at musing on some of these issues myself (more often than not I should probably just keep my mouth shut and listen, but on a selfish level it has been a valuable learning experience).

    I have some questions on the idea of moving towards a “mainstream” in continental philosophy of religion… Smith speaks of RS, F&P, and IJPR as the “mainstream” venues. But would there be any benefit in discussing the even wider mainstream of general philosophy venues, of which philosophy of religion itself is a subfield? Does publishing in non-subfield journals occur much in current practice? Is this worth bothering to consider for future practice? I gather that philosophy of religion as a subfield (analytic or continental) often has trouble in the big-pond “mainstream” of philosophy as a whole. Is this accurate? Is it any use pushing against this particular “enclave” (and in using the term, I’m not intending to blame philosophers of religion for its presence)?

    Somewhat connected to that… Dan Arnold at UChicago Divinity School gave a guest lecture at our Intro course this past autumn, and opened by speaking rather candidly about the ambiguous state of philosophy of religion as a field, commenting (as Smith brings up in his reply piece) that many philosophers of religion find themselves in places like divinity schools rather than philosophy departments. I have considered this fact when taking courses alongside philosophy of religion students. As a theology student, I’m obviously quite comfortable with the institutional setting of a divinity school and what that means for my work down the road. But I’ve wondered about philosophers who are here, and how the wider discipline of philosophy receives this sort of set-up. When philosophers come out of divinity school programs, or teach in divinity school programs, how is this institutional home received by the philosophical community?

    I guess I’m wondering… apart from any discussion of continental thought, is philosophy of religion more generally in an “enclave” situation w.r.t. the wider philosophical mainstream? And how should this be dealt with, if such is the case? That strikes me as a potentially more worrisome situation, and worth more attention than the philosophy/theology divide or the continental/analytic divide.

  7. The “institutional home” issue is a very real one not only for philosophers of religion, but for all people who work with continental philosophy in an interdisciplinary way — I’ve heard horror stories of people whose publication records indicate very clearly that they are philosophers by any reasonable definition, yet who are dismissed out of hand when applying for jobs in philosophy departments because their PhDs aren’t from philosophy departments. Perhaps they could switch mid-career, but for assistant professor jobs in philosophy (and perhaps for most other disciplines), there seems to be a one-to-one correspondence between the type of department you get your PhD in and the type of department you will be able to get a job in.

    I didn’t know of this problem going into my PhD, but I feel very fortunate that I made a concentrated effort to dig into the patristic, medieval, and contemporary theological sources and then did my dissertation very clearly in that area — even though I have a lot of philosophy stuff in my publication record, there’s still the basic match-up between my PhD department and the stuff I actually do. There are a lot of people who are doing truly great interdisciplinary work who are completely fucked over by departmental lines. (I may still wind up being fucked over in the long run, but it at least won’t be this particular issue, I hope.)

  8. Evan,

    It has never not been the case that philosophy departments, on the whole, are conservative places. Once an “orthodoxy” takes root there it takes a lot of time and effort to create room there and many, rightly, ask if it is worth the effort. The problem comes from the fact that Anglo-American philosophy as practiced in the States is built on a tradition that survived simply because it was apolitical. Thus you philosophers who may be typically liberal, meaning they vote Democrat and grumble about this or that in government, but don’t do much at their own local level about politics. So you get them ranking themselves, usually along pretty conservative lines (“Wow, I’m so surprised the top rated schools also have the top rated philosophy departments! And that’s where the ruling classes go to university?! No way!”) and trying to pimp themselves out to business interests.

    Philosophy of religion is more at risk from this kind of exclusion because, for one, there is a kind of naturalist orthodoxy reigning in most philosophy departments that is antithetical to philosophy of religion along the lines of, say, Plantinga and, though some of the “culturalist” philosophy of religion done in Continental circles may be more amenable the “Continental” part isn’t.

    I think rankings is a real problem here to be honest. I know they have their upsides, but overall I think what Leiter has done to the field, making it more careerist and more orthodox, has been bad overall. The same things happen with journals, while I think Smith was off base to say that we need more peer-review, the problem is that peer-review teaches people in the Anglophone system to be timid, to chase after micro-problems, to find a way to strike a balance between seeming like you’re saying something and being inoffensive to the majority. Very few journals encourage the kind of work that we’re often engaging with (the French and German establishments are incredibly conservative, but the publishing industry tends not to be so much).

    I’m fine with an enclave situation as long as we aren’t being subjected to an embargo. If I can eat and move around a bit in that enclave while doing work I value I’d be happy.

  9. Anthony, I think that in many instances people like Smith and Benson engage with theology in the same way that someone like Richard Dawkins engages with religion or Ken Wilbur engages with philosophy (well, nearly anything). Sure, it is some theology, but not really a kind that most theologians do (I could draw an very cheesy Venn diagram here). To give Smith credit, however, there are a lot of American Evangelical theologians who don’t really engage with philosophy (let alone philosophy of religion). On the other (or is it the other other?) hand, while I agree with this, I don’t consider these people to be dealing with theology in general (another enclave, if you will).
    I don’t think that philosophers of religion need to engage with all of theology, but if one is talking about a particular subject that a fairly well-known theologian has been talking about for 30 years, one should at least allude to having read something somewhere by that theologian. That would be be the equivalent of a theologian talking today about ontological difference and showing no sign of knowing Deleuze (or Heidegger). I agree with you that philosophy of religion shouldn’t accommodate theology; I envision an approach where the philosopher of religion engages with theology (even if there is disagreement on issues) in the same way he would engage with any other philosopher, literary theorist, etc.
    I think the younger folks you mention are doing that, but oddly, all of the people I recognise from that list (which is about 5) come from religion and theology departments. Now, I think up and coming theologians need to be better at promoting theology — both to the church (wait, I think I had this discussion with Adam before) and to other disciplines (in our case here, philosophy of religion). I would question your portrayal of theology as I don’t know very many in my department who really deal with ‘rewriting the Fathers for the contemporary world’. Off the top of my head, I can only think of only a few folks in the department who even deal with the Fathers regularly and I don’t see them making the Fathers hip (Brad, do you remember anyone doing that in your stay in Glasgow?)…but I’m sometimes rather oblivious to others in my department. I do know that the majority of my department deals with French thinkers on a regular basis (Derrida, Badiou, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Blanchot come to mind). Perhaps I just happen to be in a theology department that does well with the ‘minor’ theologies, but I would strongly disagree with your claim. I’d like to think that my own pet projects engage with philosophy and can contribute as much to philosophical discussions as to theological ones (and I don’t think I mention anyone before 1750 in any meaningful way), but I think a healthy number of the theologians I deal with work from a similar set of ‘usual suspects’ that isn’t simply a dressing up of the same old shit.

  10. In my days at Glasgow we had people doing art projects about Francis Bacon, employing menstrual blood as a medium. So, my experience is perhaps not representative. David Jasper, I suppose, was the closest one came to making the Fathers, in his case, the Desert Fathers, fashionable, if not altogether hip.

    Glasgow really is a different kind of theology dept. So much so, in fact, that most other theology depts. didn’t regard us as disciplinarily legitimate. I think D. Jasper preferred it that way. Perhaps things have changed. I’ve not visited in quite some time.

  11. I’m all for overcoming the disciplinary boundaries, and I agree that a lot of contemporary investigations of religion, etc., could benefit from sitting down with the work of certain theologians to avoid reinventing the wheel. (My advisor often claimed that Vattimo et al. were simply a less interesting version of what Gogarten had done decades ago.) I think the problem is that people tend to assume that theology is, at the end of the day, trying to sell them something they already know they don’t want to buy.

  12. Brad, I don’t think it’s changed much since then. With the arrival of a few more folks who do philosophy and culture/critical theory, I doubt that it will change. However, my experience of religious studies departments in the US (Syracuse, Denver, Columbia, etc), I find Glasgow to fit right in there but with the addition of a decidedly theological side.
    Anthony, I would like to see theology and philosophy of religion take each other seriously. Smith talks about literature reviews, but while I don’t think full-on literature reviews are necessary (which I believe Benson addresses), knowing the literature — across disciplines even — is vital. I don’t think one can avoid interdisciplinary work these days, and niche journals/groups are perfect for this. Groups like the SCPT do fit one location within the niche between theology and philosophy, but there should be more options. I think we’re starting to see this (such as the Zizek/Altizer panel at the AAR a few months ago). However, I want to see more interactions with more disparate groups without devolving to silly debates (such as what I see Ehrman doing these days). I’d like to see both theologians and philosophers conversant with each other — if a theologian is doing an injustice to (insert philosopher), he should be called out on it…and vice versa. Too often the two forget that they may not be speaking the same jargon (I think a good example here is the ‘dialogue’ between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath — same words but very different expressions and languages). And I think that may be why, as Adam said, people assume theologians are pushy, used car salesmen. Perhaps the issue is that the theologians being most vocal are the pushy, used car salesmen (I won’t point fingers)…but that doesn’t mean all theologians are used car salesmen.
    I think a healthy relationship between philosophy and theology would look like any other interdisciplinary relationship, which may be the start of a new discipline (such as the overlapping of biology, psychology, and philosophy of mind to create a cognitive neuroscience hybrid).

  13. Might an interesting approach to this question come from a consideration that for some time, philosophers were just as concerned with philosophy being a way of life as the adherents of religion rather than a purely speculative practice, something I feel that most philosophers would agree with almost intuitively. One only needs to think of various groups of philosophers in ancient Greece to see this. From this perspective, theology and philosophy become far closer, as the intellectual reflection on a particular kind of life, and the mutual co-constituting of that life by theory and theory by practice. This is what is suggested by the rather brilliant work of Rocco Gangle – – who recognises Spinoza as being a recovery of this approach. We should note also that Philip Goodchild is currently researching something along these lines, spiritual exercises for philosophers. Considering it from this angle, might the kind of interplay that people are suggesting be more possible? To try and anticipate responses, this isn’t attempting to say that philosophy is intrinsically and always religious as an activity, but to point out family resemblance between the two disciplines.

  14. In my experience, the “philosophy of religion” approaches its subject matter not as an historic phenomenon, but as a cognitive phenomenon. That is, it asks about the rational justifications for epistemic claims made by “religion,” which is treated as a distinct set of epistemic claims precisely because it seems distinct from the epistemic claims made in science or in everyday language. Now, this way of parsing epistemic claims (those that do and those that do not seem rationally justifiable) and then trying to position “religion” somewhere along the continuum of this parsing (for the boundary is not clearly set at one place) seems to leave a great deal out of account when it comes to the historic phenomenon of religion, which actually does not exist except as certain historical configurations of human beings within various political, social, legal, etc. institutions. I don’t think that philosophy of religion is actually about any one of these configurations, although it does offer itself as able to adjudicate their different creedal positions in terms of their rational justifiability. Is theology any better off? Is Continental philosophy? All of these are “meta” disciplines. I think they only differ from philosophy of religion in not arrogating to themselves the authority of a neutral position of adjudication. They are partisan and political, and they know it, and to this extent they seem closer to (and therefore “contaminated” by) the historic configurations of the religions that their discourse more overtly is tied up with. While there is room for some dialogue, at the end of the day the discourse of theology and Continental philosophy is radically distinct from that of the philosophy of religion. There can be no common ground between the partisan fighter and the “neutral” judge: as Lyotard puts it, there is a here only a “differend.”

  15. That very structure of philosophy of religion mirrors most people’s idea of religion — working up the will power to believe stupid things. Even many religious people think of religion in that way, and want to try to find ways to congratulate themselves for bravely believing things they shouldn’t reasonably believe. Thus it seems obvious that non-religious people shouldn’t be interested in theology, because it’s a discourse that talks about belief in stupid things. And a lot of theologians are really content to let theology be just that.

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