Rafed English

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

No discussion of the way religious narratives can contribute to our understanding of who we are and where we are headed would be complete without some attention to the issue of religious language, and this brings us to another area in which the philosopher may be seen as posing questions for the theologian.
One of the areas of most intense activity in twentieth century Western philosophy is that of the philosophy of language. The German mathematician, logician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) initiated a research program in the philosophy. of language concerned with such problems as sense and reference, the failure of substitution of co-referential terms in various 'intensional' contexts (for example, it, may be true that S believes that a is F and true that a= b, although S fails to believe that b is F), and the logical analysis of various sorts of semantic functions commonly performed in ordinary language by demonstratives, proper names, definite descriptions, and other kinds of terms and expressions. Frege's programme was carried on by Russell (1872-1970), Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Camap (1891-1970), Quine (1908-) and Kripke (1940-), to mention just a few of those whose ideas about the logical analysis of language have provoked extended debate. The program of logical analysis was soon extended to theological statements. Philosophers of religion began to ask questions about the logical analysis of such claims as "God is eternal" [18] and "God is omnipotent," [19] and the ways in which we may succeed in referring to God. [20]
Although these discussions may be fruitfully compared to medieval .discussions of related issues in Islamic as well as Christian theology and philosophy, many contemporary Christian theologians find the attention to logical detail a bit boring, and irrelevant to their primary concerns. Many of these theologians have been more favourably impressed by Wittgenstein's later writings, and his suggestion that religious language may be compared to a game or a form of life significantly different from scientific language to prevent the possibility of any conflict between religion and science. [21]
Wittgenstein's doctrine of language games also has attracted theologians who sought a response to the positivists' charge that religious claims were meaningless. Although the verificationist theory of meaning advocated by the positivists has been generally rejected, the Wittgensteinian slogan, "meaning is use," provided theologians with a basis in the philosophy of language for turning their attention to functionalist theories of religious language which seemed to dovetail rather neatly with the anti-reductionism popular in Protestant theological circles. These theologians felt that any attempt to base religious claims on theoretical reason (as in the traditional proofs for the existence of God, called natural theology), or on practical reason (as in Kant's theology), ought to be rejected as reductions of religious claims to metaphysics or ethics, reductions which failed to appreciate the fundamental originality of the religious view, what Schleiennacher (1768-1834) called the religious moment of experience.
These tendencies among many (although by no means all) of those who have been attracted to functionalist explanations of religious language are largely anti-philosophical tendencies, even when they turn to the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein for support. Although there are many disagreements among those who find themselves supporting some variety of fideism, there is agreement among the fideists that religion does not need any philosophical explanation or justification.
So, after our tour through the philosophical territories bordering on theology, we find ourselves back where we started, at epistemology and the question of the rationality of religious belief, for functionalist approaches to religious language, including theories according to which religious language serves to express attitudes rather than to describe reality, are often attempts to escape rational criticism of religious beliefs. No justification is needed, the fideist proclaims, because the language of religion is independent of and irrelevant to the language of justification.
Here the reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga, or the related ideas of William Alston may be seen as a sort of compromise between those who would justify religious claims by rational proof and those who deny that any such justification is needed or desirable. What Plantinga and Alston offer is a philosophical argument as to why religious belief may be considered warranted and rational, even in the absence of direct evidential support.
Today's Christian theologians, however, are often unimpressed by the works of Christian philosophers such as those mentioned above. These philosophers are primarily concerned with the issues of rationality and the justification or warrant that can or cannot be provided for assertions of the truth of various- religious claims. The theologians, on the other hand, often seem to be more interested in the effects in the lives of believers which are associated with adhering to various beliefs and participating in the Church. Religion is not a collection of truths about God, they insist, but a way to salvation. Religious symbols are important for many contemporary Christian theologians not as they serve to disclose religious truths which might not be expressible in non-symbolic language, but rather because they present a framework within which meaning for human life is to be found. [22]
Another reason Christian theologians have given for their antipathy toward philosophy is related to the problem of religious pluralism. In the past, Christian theologians claimed that the doctrines of Christianity were true, and that all those doctrines inconsistent with Christian dogma were false. Among the dogmas of traditional Christianity is the claim that there is only one way to salvation for Catholics, the Church, and for Protestants, participation in Christ's redemption of sin by faith. In short, traditional Christianity would exclude Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists from salvation and eternal felicity unless they would accept Christianity on learning of its gospel. As Christians are becoming increasingly aware that there are good people, even saintly people, who follow a path other than that of Christianity although they are familiar with the gospel, they are finding it difficult to accept the traditional dogma that would bar the non-Christian from paradise. A number of Christian theologians are even beginning to take the view that Christian theology has been too preoccupied with the truth of dogma altogether. In reaction to the exclusivism of traditional Christianity, according to which the acceptance of certain truth-claims is a necessary condition for salvation, some have gone to the extreme of thinking that the truth of religious doctrines is insignificant, and attempts to justify religious beliefs or show them to be rational are irrelevant to the issue of salvation.
Instead of occupying themselves with the central questions of traditional theology, constructing proofs to support doctrines, analyzing the logical structure of various religious concepts, and defending their interpretation of doctrines against rivals, many if not most contemporary Christian theologians have turned their attention to questions about how religious concepts develop and change, how they function in religious communities, how religious ideas inform religious experience, and how Christian symbols, practices and institutions have been used and abused by Christian communities in various historical and social contexts. When these theologians turn their attention to questions of ethics, they are concerned about how to prevent the future abuse of Christian symbols, practices and institutions and how to encourage what they consider to be the positive and morally responsible development of the various elements of Christian life, although there is often a lack of critical reflection on the philosophical perspective which informs their own moral standards. Many believe that claims to have religious knowledge or certainty reflect a sinful desire to gain intellectual control over what must remain ultimately a mystery.


[18]. See, for example, Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, "Eternity" in Thomas V Morris, ed., The Concept ofGod (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
[19]. See the articles in Linwood Urban and Douglas N. Walton, eds., The Power of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
[20]. See William P Alston's, "Referring to God," in his Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Comell University Press, 1989).
[21]. See D. Z. Phillips, Religion Without Explanation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976) and Norman -Malcolm, Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
[22]. See Gordon Kaufinan, "Evidentialism: A Theologian's Response," Faith and Philosophy, 6:1 (January 1989), 35-46, and the response by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, "Theologically Unfashionable Philosophy," Faith and Philosophy, 7:3 (July 1990), 329-339, and the defense of Kaufinan's position by James A. Keller, "On the Issues Dividing Contemporary Christian Philosophers and Theologians," Faith and Philosophy, 10:1 (January 1993), 68-78 and James A. Keller, "Should Christian Theologians become Christian Philosophers?" Faith and Philosophy, 12:2 (April 1995), 260-268.

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