Religion vs Philosophy

Gary Gutting has been doing a series of thoughtful interviews with academic philosophers on the topic of religion.  They’ve been appearing over the months in the N. Y. Times “Opinionator” column.  He’s now brought them to a close by interviewing himself on the outcome  or upshot of these polite ‘confrontations’ between belief and unbelief, agnosticism and atheism, rational grounds for being a believer, and groundless belief, and so forth.  Although I found some of the exchanges over the months quite interesting, I’m overall disappointed — disappointed because the questions asked and answered so seldom touched what has always seemed to me to be the living springs of faith (and disbelief).

Gary conceded, more or less, that the arguments back and forth about evil, rationality of hypotheses, burden of proof, evidence for theism, etc were inconclusive.  But it seemed to leave believers and unbelievers and agnostics at the end of the evening  just shrugging their shoulders, as if to say, “Well, I guess to each his own; we did our best to present our views; but it seems we just talk past each other. What more is there to say?”

Over forty years  ago  in a series of essays collected as a dissertation in the sub-field “philosophy of religion” I tried to evoke the heart of what I called a religious sensibility — the sensibility of believing characters in The Brothers Karamazov and their differences from the disbelievers, say on  matters of love and violence, acknowledgment of another and dismissal of another, — the sensibility of Job amidst his devastation and its difference from the sensibility evinced after his encounter with the Whirlwind — the sense of enveloping mood or attunement surrounding an Iris Murdoch character as she shifts from seeing nothing but the negative in a daughter-in-law to seeing in her something rather precious, or at least not repulsive — the difference in sensibility between a Christ who would kiss the Grand Inquisitor who imprisons him and the Cardinal, the Inquisitor, who is about to burn him, — the difference between a church using fear and theater to keep all its subjects in line and a saint who would free a follower from subservience or servility.

These sorts of differences between those we could call believers and non-believers (and the infinite number of shades of belief-unbelief between extremes) — these matters never surfaced — or hardly ever did  — in the dozen or so interviews Gary Gutting conducted.  I had the feeling that if I were in fact interested as a philosopher in religion, I was not interested in what any of these philosophers thought should be the targets of discussion — and they would no doubt be quite puzzled at why I was doing what I was doing, writing the books I did, teaching the classes the way I taught them.  Was I a bone fide philosopher — with these off-beat or eccentric fascinations and absorptions?  I must say, parenthetically, that I am very grateful that Gary Gutting, as editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, has not only solicited reviews from me, but published flattering reviews of my work, and has a very capacious,’catholic’ view of philosophy.  So at some level he knows that what I do is not inscrutable, is somewhere in the ball park where philosophy and religion (and literature) meet and compete and share bread and beer.

Nevertheless, as Gary Gutting’s interviews came to a close, I had this rather lonely feeling that my excitement about Thoreau’s religious sensibility — or Kierkegaard’s or Dostoevsky’s, Wittgenstein’s or Simone Weil’s, Iris Murdoch’s or Richard Rorty’s or William James’s  — was not even on the map. These interviewed philosophers  didn’t argue that the sort of expositions and evocations of religion I’d  find in texts of these writers and then write about were off the mark, or wrong headed or needed amendment this way or that.  My pleas and evocations would be so far beneath the radar as to be invisible.

Weil and Murdoch and Wittgenstein and Dostoevsky take up religion and philosophy as their daily bread but arguments for this position or that are not loudly front and center for them, nor is practice (which turns out to be the fall back for Gutting and others).  They seem to add as a footnote to their inconclusive discussions, the thought that  “. . . since the rationality or otherwise of belief is not getting us anywhere, maybe practice, not belief is the centerpiece of a religious orientation.  But since practice is just what we do [chant the prayer three times rather than 300 times, drink wine at the rail (or don’t), eat pork on Friday (or don’t)]  — what are we as philosophers to say about that?!?”

As I talk about the deep religious sensibility of Kierkegaard and Thoreau, Ibsen or Rilke, I look neither at practice (as a set of inherited routines or communal expectations of proper observance) nor at belief (about which we can argue pro and con for this statement or doctrine or that one, for this theory or that).

But I’ll leave for another post an example of where I DO think, as a philosopher, I have something to say about religion, where there are ever so many rich streams to fish, ever so many revelations to absorb — that is, I’ll take time to say something about religious sensibilities, about the various, complex, often conflicted sensibilities of Thoreau or Nietzsche, Weil or Arendt, Basho or Emily Dickinson.