More on philosophy of religion

I brought it up in comments, but it seems worth highlighting: Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, arguably the founding documents for philosophy of religion as a specific subdiscipline, represent a much more capacious kind of reflection than that found in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. Despite its obvious flaws, it does make an effort to reflect on the nature, role, and origin of religion and does so through a systematic reflection on as many religions as possible, as opposed to the contemporary focus on monotheism and proofs of God’s existence. For all that, it also seems to be clearly different from mere “sociology of religion” (something that the relatively new commenter Jim H. brought up but that has come up multiple times before in similar discussions), whatever “sociology” might be.

Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is another example of philosophy of religion rather than what I’ve called “philosophy of God” or “philosophical theology.” Continue reading “More on philosophy of religion

Derrida and Pedagogy

I am teaching philosophy of religion this quarter, my first attempt at a philosophy course. In my courses on contemporary theology, I have tended to emphasize dialectical thought as a pedagogical key, using Cornell West’s summary, “negate, preserve, transform.” What is emerging in my teaching of philosophy is the pedagogical usefulness of Derrida’s idea of “binary oppositions.”

Already in a couple different texts, I’ve brainstormed with the students what the main categories and contrasts are, and repeatedly it turns out that they line up pretty well into two columns, governed by some overarching opposition. In book one of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, for instance, the opposition between “perfect and imperfect rights” (essentially “coersion vs. persuasion”) governs all other oppositions, causing them to come out in unexpected and even counterintuitive ways — most notably the claim that religion belongs entirely to the sphere of imperfect rights or persuasion. And that opposition then gives me a structure to help guide their reading, telling them to watch for the opposition between speech and writing and how that falls into the established governing opposition.

Derrida is often regarded as “obscure” (or “abstruse”), and certainly his project of overturning received oppositions is “advanced” when you’re dealing with students who are coming to philosophy for the first time — but for me at least, it’s clear that the notion of “binary oppositions” has an immediate pedagogical appeal.

On “statements of faith”

Job listings are starting to trickle out, a few of which require statements of faith. My reading of Mendelssohn earlier this summer makes me very skeptical of the whole concept, particularly as the statements get longer and longer (I’ve seen statements of faith so detailed that not even the most hardened fundamentalist could necessarily agree to literally all of it). I understand that a faith-based institution wants to have everyone on the same page, given that one of the major appeals of a faith-based school is that the students presumably will not “lose their faith,” and I understand how making everyone sign onto a statement of faith might seem like a good filtering mechanism.

The problem, though, especially when the statements start to include more and more things that seem incidental or questionable, is that you’re basically filtering for people who are willing to compromise their convictions (i.e., “officially” deny something they either affirm or are open to) for the sake of their teaching calling or else lie about believing something that, at the gut level, they either don’t believe or don’t actually care about.

To me, the more efficient model would be to just prohibit instructors from contradicting certain key beliefs. You don’t want me to tell the students that there probably wasn’t a historical Adam and Eve? Fine, I can do that — I can’t imagine how it would even come up. You want me to always teach a certain book in the gen-ed theology course? Awesome — that way the students will easily be able to find used copies. It could reach a point where it becomes too constraining, but that point is probably further along than most people would assume.

Why this concern, though, for whether your faculty actually believes in the constraints? Why do we need to go that extra step from obedience to one’s employer (authoritatianism) to being made to affirm that we like obeying (totalitarianism)? Something similar is at work with the widespread trend toward discussing behavioral standards in terms of a “lifestyle covenant” or “community covenant” — as though the rules you have to follow to play a role in a given institution are some kind of holy ordinance established by God. For instance, I know people who teach at Nazarene schools who have no personal objection to drinking, but who follow the rules because that’s part of what being a faculty member at a Nazarene school entails. The language of “covenant” (as opposed to “rules”) seems to imply that being willing to obey an arbitrary rule isn’t good enough — you have to like it, too.

Every institution has goals it wants to achieve, and they should be able to require that faculty members contribute to those goals. Setting up standards and rules is totally acceptable, and saying “you can’t contradict the following beliefs in your teaching and you can’t violate these rules as part of your contract” would provide clear expectations and allow for clear standards as to whether everyone was complying. But going the next step and making people affirm that they’re agreeing to all this spontaneously, out of personal conviction — that’s just inviting people to lie. What kind of foundation is that for any kind of community?

Language and Idolatry

At Bruce Rosenstock’s suggestion, I read Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism (1783) this week. The goal of the work is twofold. First, Mendelssohn wants to demonstrate from natural law that there can be no such thing as “ecclesiastical law” (i.e., religious coersion). Second, he develops a compelling reading of Judaism as essentially the religion of reason.

In the second half, which is where the real emotional charge lies for Mendelssohn and where he was taking the greatest risks, he proceeds by means of a series of reversals. Where people have claimed that Judaism is the very pinnacle of religious coersion, he wants to show that the observances point toward universal religious truths. Similarly, where people have claimed that Judaism is a pure particularity and an example of “special revelation,” he wants to show that the doctrines of Judaism are at bottom identical with the general truths of religion that are equally available to all — the Jews would hence be a kind of living reminder of the truths of monotheism during the inevitable periods of decline and idolatry.

The reversal I’d like to talk about, though, is his claim that, far from being the ultimate “religion of the letter,” Judaism (at least in its earliest and most authentic form) is designed from the ground up to be a religion of living spirit. My Derridean radar was set off by a lengthy discussion of the origin of language, which at first seemed to be a self-indulgent aside but then revealed itself to be a crucial part of his argument. Though falling broadly within the tradition of privileging speech over writing, Mendelssohn adds his own twist: the problem with writing is that it leads to idolatry. While writing is useful and necessary, in the inevitable progress of human folly, the symbol is worshipped and its authentic meaning is lost. Hence the role of the Oral Law in Judaism: while the basic points are preserved in writing, it must be continually supplemented with the living human voice, with living deliberation, in order to be applied. This oral element keeps the law from ever being a dead letter — instead, the religion is structured in such a way as to prompt reflection and debate that will continually push for ever deeper meaning. (Mendelssohn views the codification of the Oral Law as something of a fall from grace.)

This brings us back to one of the major points of the literature on religion from Mendelssohn’s era: for them, religion is — perhaps paradoxically to our minds — considered strictly the realm of persuasion. Judaism in its original form (or what Mendelssohn claims as its original form) was explicitly structured around persuasion, as the living deliberation around the meaning of the law essentially requires that everyone living under the law be continually persuaded to follow it — and in fact, the observance itself means that this persuasion goes beyond simple mental affirmation to involve the body as well.

Judaism, then, is for Mendelssohn simply what religion should be, a living reminder of what religion should be — and for practical purposes in his setting, the Jewish law and supposed “special revelation” are, paradoxically to his readers’ eyes, precisely the best reminder that religion cannot and should not be subject to coersion. Indeed, extrapolating somewhat from his argument, any religion that loses that persuasive element, that fails to engage the spirit in an authentic way, can only be idolatry. So in the end, Mendelssohn is not just asking for religious tolerance: he’s asking the European nations to renounce their idolatry.