Rafed English

The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age - Part III

The focus on religious experience has led some philosophers, such as William Proudfoot, [9] Steven Katz [10] and Nelson Pike, [11] to an epistemological examination of the reports of the mystics. They ask such questions as whether a meaningful distinction can be made between what appears in the heart of the mystic and how he interprets this appearance, whether mystical appearances must be analogous to sensory appearances, whether mystics of various traditions all have the same sorts of experiences, whether training determines the sort of experience the mystic will have and whether the mystics themselves take these experiences to have epistemological significance. Here we find a number of issues about which the philosopher and the theologian can be of mutual service. The theologian provides the philosopher with the doctrinal setting in terms of which reports of mystical experiences are understood, and the philosopher provides a critical analysis of both doctrine and report in order to place mystical experiences within the framework of a broader epistemological theory.
It is not only epistemology that serves as a source of the problems posed in the philosophy of religion for theology, virtually all the branches of philosophy have some bearing on the philosophy of religion, anti raise questions about theological doctrine.
One of the most distinguished areas of philosophy is metaphysics, and metaphysics has long had an intimate relation to theology, especially to Islamic theosophy (hikmat). Muslim, Christian and Jewish theologians have often utilized metaphysical systems based on ancient Greek thought in order to explain theological doctrines. Many religious philosophers have come to prefer other systems of metaphysics; as a result, they find themselves engaged in an attempt to restate religious doctrine in a way that does not use the language of the older metaphysics. Sometimes, however, doctrine becomes so intertwined with the older metaphysics that they are difficult to separate. For example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was stated in terms of a metaphysics of substances, modes, persons and attributes drawn from Roman as well as Greek philosophy. Many contemporary Christian thinkers are now willing to concede that the traditional statements of the doctrine of the Trinity in these terms has not been successful. But rather than reject the claim that God is to be understood as the Holy Trinity, they have claimed that the doctrine is better explained without the claim that God is three persons but one substance, or with an interpretation of this claim that would have been unthinkable in past centuries.
Robert Cummings Neville, the Dean of the Boston Theological Seminary, completely dismisses the claim, and defends the Trinity as three ways or aspects of divinity understood with reference to the creation. God is the source of creation; He is the end or telos of creation, and He is the very activity of creation itself, according to Neville. Aside from this, there is little left of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity in Neville's theology. [12]
A more traditional defense of the Trinity is to be found in the work of a philosopher who teaches at Notre Dame University in Indiana, Thomas V Morris. Morris uses the methods developed by analytic philosophers to defend a version of Social Trinitarianism from the heretical claim made by some process theologians that God is in need of the world. Process theology itself developed as a reaction against a metaphysics of substances inspired by Whitehead and Hartshome's idea that the world consists of essentially interrelated events. [13]
Another contemporary metaphysical idea which has had an impact on discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity is the theory of relative identity. According to this idea the identity relation is always governed by the category of its terms. Defenders of the Trinity such as Peter Geach and Peter van Inwagen have used the theory of relative identity to defend the proposition that while the persons of the Trinity may be different persons, they may at the same time be the same God.[14]
Other areas to which philosophers of religion have applied ideas drawn from contemporary logic and metaphysics include discussions of Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, the many problems pertaining to the divine attributes, the nature of divine activity, God's foreknowledge and human responsibility, the nature of creation ex nihilo and the problem of evil.
Older than epistemology and at least as ancient as metaphysics is ethics. Philosophical reflections on good and evil, right and wrong and virtue and vice have always mingled with religious thought, and today, as well, philosophers whose primary concern is the nature of value and morality are raising important questions for theologians to ponder. All of the religions systematize moral thought to a certain extent, for all religions issue imperatives disobedience to which is considered morally as well as religiously wrong. Must moral theory conform to the moral concepts embodied in religion? Can there be altruistic ideals that go beyond the moral ideals of religion? Can religion issue orders which nullify moral imperatives? Can a person be morally reprehensible without violating any religious law?
Can a rational ethics put constraints on an acceptable interpretation of religion? How could God, who is perfectly good, order Abraham to kill his son? This last question was forcefully raised by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1885), and it is still a problem frequently discussed among Christian philosophers and theologians. Kierkegaard's answer, of course, was that religion issues orders with a force beyond anything found in morality, orders which from the point of view of reason would be considered wrong. Philosophers and theologians who are not satisfied with this fideist approach to religious commands must find a plausible reconciliation between reason and moral intuition, . on the one hand, and religious rulings and actions of those considered faultless, on the other.
The question of the relation between divine commands and moral imperatives has become the focus of considerable debate among contemporary philosophers of religion largely as a result of the work of Robert M. Adams. [15] In his articles on divine command theories of morality, Adams has sought to reconcile the idea that actions are wrong or right because they are forbidden or commanded by God with the idea that God's commands are not arbitrary. Adams is no Ash`arite, and will not accept the claim that if God were to command cruelty and infidelity then torture and treason would be morally praiseworthy. God's commands have moral force, according to Adams, only because God is perfectly good, just and benevolent; but without God's commands, Adams contends there would be no moral imperatives at all.
Other recent publications in which the relation between religion and morality are discussed include J. L. Mackie's The Miracle of Theism [16] and many of the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. [17] Mackie argues as an admitted atheist that the only ways to make sense of the relation between fact and value is either through Hume's moral philosophy or through a religious theory. He even confesses that if no variation on Hume's theory is ultimately defensible, we should be forced to seek a religious explanation to the manner in which values seem to supervene on natural properties. MacIntyre is also interested in the fact/value dichotomy, and he explicitly seeks to refute Hume's approach to the problem, and to refute most other modem theorists as well. But MacIntyre is not satisfied with the notion that facts are related to values by divine decree; instead he seeks to revive a version of an Aristotelian teleological ethics, but one in which perfection is to be understood by means of attention to the movement of tradition and historical narrative, rather than through biology (as Aristotle sometimes seemed to suggest). Religion becomes paramount in MacIntyre's thinking because it is only religion which is able to support the sorts of traditions and historical narratives which can provide a firm basis for the moral life.


[9]. Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
[10]. Steven Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
[11]. Nelson Pike, Mystic Union: An Essay on the Phenomenology of Mysticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).
[12]. Robert Cummings Neville, A TheologyPrimer (Albany: SUNY, 1991).
[13]. See Thomas V Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
[14]. See Peter Geach, The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), and Peter van Inwagen, "And Yet They Are Not Three Gods But One God," in Thomas V Morris, ed., Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 241-278.
[15]. Robert Adams, `A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness" in Louis Pojman, ed., Philosophy of Religion (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1987), and "Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again" The Journal of Religious Ethics 1:7, 91-97.
[16]. J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
[17]. MacIntyre's most important books are After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Geneology and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). Translations of the first two of these works into Farsi are being prepared, and a Farsi summary of After Virtue may be found in the journal Ma'rifat, Nos. 9-18, and continuing.

Adapted from: "The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age" by: "Dr. Muhammad Legenhausen"

Share this article

Comments 0

Your comment

Comment description

Latest Post

Most Reviews