The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Jerusalem not a suburb of Athens

Bill Vallicella posted this today. I think it is wonderfully clear on the subject.
Where do you fit in?


People come to philosophy from various ‘places.’ Some come from religion, others from mathematics and the natural sciences, still others from literature and the arts. There are other termini a quis as well. In this post I am concerned only with the move from religion to philosophy. What are the main types of reasons for those who are concerned with religion to take up the serious study of philosophy? I count five main types of motive.

  1. The Apologetic Motive. Some look to philosophy for apologetic tools. Their concern is to clarify and defend the tenets of their religious faith, tenets they do not question, or do not question in the main, against those who do question them, or even attack them. For someone whose central motive is apologetic, the aim is not to seek a truth they do not possess, but to articulate and defend a truth, the “deposit of faith,” that they already possess, if not in fullness, at least in outline.

  2. The Critical Motive. Someone who is animated by the Critical Motive seeks to understand religion and evaluate its claim to truth, while taking it seriously. To criticize is not to oppose, but to sift, evaluate, assay, separate the true from the false, the reasonable from the unreasonable. The critic is not out to defend or attack but to understand and evaluate. Open to the claims of religion, his question is: But is it true?

  3. The Debunking Motive. If the apologist presupposes the truth of his religion, or some religion, the debunker presupposes the falsehood of a particular religion or of every religion. He takes the doctrines and institutions of religion seriously as things worth attacking, exposing, debunking, unmasking, refuting.

The apologist, the critic, and the debunker all take religion seriously as something worth defending, worth evaluating, or worth attacking using the tools of philosophy. For all three, philosophy is a tool, not an end in itself.

The apologist moves to philosophy without leaving religion. If he succeeds in defending his faith with the weapons of philosophy, well and good; if he fails, it doesn’t really matter. He has all the essential truth he needs from his religion. His inability to mount an intellectually respectable defense of it is a secondary matter.

The critic moves to philosophy with the option of leaving religion behind. Whether or not he leaves it behind depends on the outcome of his critique. Neither staying nor leaving is a foregone cnclusion.

The debunker either never had a living faith, or else he had one but lost it. As a debunker, his decision has been made and his Rubicon crossed: religion is buncombe from start to finish, dangerous buncombe that needs to be unmasked and opposed. Strictly speaking, only the debunker who once had a living faith moves from it to philosophy. You cannot move away from a place where you never were.

  1. The Transcensive Motive. The transcender aims to find in philosophy something that completes and transcends religion while preserving its truth. One way to flesh this out would be in Hegelian terms: religion and philosophy both aim to express the Absolute, but only philosophy does so adequately. Religion is an inadequate ‘pictorial’ (vortstellende) representation of the Absolute. On this sort of approach all that is good in religion is aufgehoben in philosophy, simultaneously cancelled and preserved, roughly in the way the bud is both cancelled and preserved in the flower.

  2. The Substitutional Motive. The substitutionalist aims to find in philosophy a substitute for religion. Religion, when taken seriously, makes a total claim on its adherents’ higher energies. A person who, for any reason, becomes disenchanted with religion, but is not prepared to allow himself to degenerate to the level of the worldling, may look to invest his energies elsewhere in some other lofty pursuit. Some will turn to social or political activism. And of course there are other termini ad quos on the road from religion. The substitutionalist abandons religion for philosophy. In a sense, philosophy becomes his religion. It is in her precincts that he seeks his highest meaning and an outlet for his noblest impulses.

Some Questions

A. What is my motive? (2). Certainly not (1): I seem to be constitutionally incapable of taking the religion of my upbringing , or any religion, as simply true without examination. I can’t suppress the questions that naturally arise. We have it on high authority that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That examination, of course, extends to everything, including religion, and indeed also to this very examining. Note that I am not appealing to the authority of Socrates/Plato since their authority can be validated rationally and autonomously.

Certainly not (3): I am not a debunker. Not (4) or (5) either. Hegel is right: both religion and philosophy treat of the Absolute. Hegel is wrong, however, in thinking that religion is somehow completed by or culminates in philosophy. I incline to the view that Athens and Jersualem are at odds with each other, that there is a tension between them, indeed a fruitful, productive tension, one that accounts in part for the vitality of the West as over against the inanition of the Islamic world. To put it starkly, it it is the tension between the autonomy of reason and the heteronomy of obedient faith (cf. Leo Strauss). Jerusalem is not a suburb of Athens.

Nor do I aim to substitute philosophy for religion. Philosophy, with its “bloodless ballet of categories,” is not my religion. Man does not live by the discursive intellect alone.

My view is that there are four main paths to the Absolute, philosophy, religion, mysticism, and morality. They are separate and somehow all must be trod. No one of them has proprietary rights in the Absolute. How integrate them? Integration may not be possible here below. The best we can do is tack back and forth among them. So we think, we pray, we meditate and we live under the aegis of moral demands taken as absolute.

This theme is developed in Philosophy, Religion, Mysticism, and Wisdom. -end-

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