This is the twelfth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Amber Griffioen, a US-American postdoctoral researcher at the University of Konstanz (Germany), where she has worked since 2010. She currently has a 5-year fellowship from the Margarete von Wrangell Program aimed at completing the Habilitation (which would qualify her for a full professorship in Germany). Her primary areas of research are Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Action, and Philosophy of Sport, and her current research focuses on non-doxastic models of religious faith. She is also currently working on a side project with an Iranian scholar on Christian and Islamic mysticism and will be affiliated with a project on Religious Minorities next year in Konstanz.
Can you tell me something about your religious affiliation/self-identification?
Both my religious background and current affiliation/identification are rather complicated. Both my parents come from conservative Dutch Reformed backgrounds, and my primary and secondary education was (for better or worse) in the CSI school system (first in Milwaukee, later in West Michigan). However, “unofficially” I had a very ecumenical upbringing, which profoundly informs my religiosity (or what remains of it) to this day. My father (a theologian) received his Ph.D. from a Jesuit school, and as a young child I was often surrounded by his Catholic colleagues, many of whom were priests and nuns. We ended up attending a Missouri Synod Lutheran church that was known for its music, and we also attended an Episcopal church for a time. Importantly, I also received what one might consider a “religious” education in baseball (i.e., American civil religion), and I’m pretty sure the closest I’ve ever come to what people tend to call a “religious experience” has occurred at the ballpark. All of these factors instilled in me a deep reverence for (and aesthetic attraction to) religious symbol, ritual, and liturgy – much of which was in tension with the heavily Protestant (and increasingly Evangelical) traditions associated with my formal schooling. So I’ve always been a bit of a “religious outsider” wherever I found myself.
Today, I am not officially affiliated with any tradition or denomination. I don’t pay Kirchensteuer (German church taxes), and I don’t really self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant. I hesitate to even call myself a Christian, except insofar as what (non-baseball) religiosity I do have unsurprisingly involves mostly Christian concepts and practice. By American standards, I am hardly religious. By German standards, though, I’m still more religious than the average person. I probably attend church services (usually Catholic mass) more here in Konstanz than I did during my studies in the States, but a large part of that has to do with my having access to the kinds of sacred spaces that “speak to me” in certain ways. Celebrating mass in a cathedral that dates back over 1000 years in a city that has so much religious history (think: the Council of Constance, Jan Hus, etc.) allows me to place myself in a certain relationship to historical Christianity in a way that I never felt in America. And although much of this history is violent and oppressive, it also gave birth to the music of the Mozart mass that wafts through the halls of the Konstanz Minster or the “Man of Sorrows” who sits woefully behind the gates of one of its side chapels. My personal “High Feast Days” are Christmas Eve, Good Friday, and “Schmotziger Dunschtig” (a weird Karneval mash-up of Christian, pagan, and just plain sinful traditions in which “fools” and “witches” guilds parade around in ceremonial masks and create mischief while the entire city enters a weekend of pre-Lenten drunken revelry).
In all, I think I’ve grown more religious here in Germany (during my stays both in Marburg and in Konstanz, though in different ways). I have a deeper reverence for religious practice, and a deeper philosophical interest in the value of such practice. I refuse to join any church or denomination, largely because I reject the political stances taken up by many of the institutions that underlie them. I prefer “high-church” traditions like Catholicism (both aesthetically and theologically), but I cannot in good conscience endorse an institution that restricts reproductive rights, actively discriminates against gender and sexual minorities, and enforces celibacy among its (all-male) clergy. I don’t think people who join or remain in the Church are bad people by any means. There is more than one way to effect social and religious reformation. But as a current outsider, I cannot (at this point in my life) make myself an official part of it.
The reader may notice I have not yet made any mention of God. This is not an oversight. My views on the best way to conceive of (or in my preferred term, to imagine) the Divine are complex and still evolving. I find myself constantly waffling between cataphaticism and apophaticism, and between ideas of God as a personal, interactive Being and those of the Divine as a wholly transcendent level of reality – the “Ground” of all Being as it were. Do I think the God of classical theism exists? Probably not – or at least not in the way we tend to imagine that being. I might even be a metaphysical naturalist. But I hesitate to identify myself as an atheist, agnostic, non-believer, or disbeliever. This is partially because I think the question of whether or not God exists might commit a kind of category mistake (and here, I think I’m actually in good historical company). But it’s also because I think belief – while important to religion – is not the central feature of religious faith. Further, I don’t want to be confused with certain groups of people with whom I explicitly do not identify (e.g., the so-called “New Atheists”).
I don’t think I’ve even ever really had a so-called “crisis of faith”. I’ve never “decided” to give up religion or to commit myself to something new. You might call me a “seeker”, but that could make one think I’m somehow looking for the “right religion” (or the “right religion for me“). In the end, I’m ultimately interested in the different ways in which people conceive of the Divine and how these ways inform practice (and vice versa). I am attracted to mystical understandings of the Divine and the imaginative metaphors used to describe experiences of that Divinity. I think a lot about suffering and Divine hiddenness and the way our experiences of these phenomena shape our religious outlooks. I’m interested in different forms of meaning-making (Sinnstiftung) and in the ways we orient ourselves in the world according to them. And I find that I end up being profoundly influenced by various strands of the religious imagination. I am deeply attracted to the idea of the Incarnation and the suffering and death of Christ – and ultimately of the value of imitatio passionis. Yet I will be spending some time in Iran this summer researching Islam and Islamic Philosophy, and I suspect that I will be profoundly affected by what I find there as well. What I “identify” with, then, is more the search for a meaningful way of understanding and interacting with reality – one which takes seriously suffering, loss, and lamentation – than with any particular creed or tradition. In this sense, then, I am not really a “faithful” anything.
As a religious outsider (as you call yourself), what do you feel you get from attending Mass at the Cathedral and other religious activities? You mention aesthetic and theological aspects, for instance?
I think this is an interesting question, especially because it’s one we don’t generally pose to “insiders”, even though the question could be just as legitimately directed at them. For me, religious participation is a many-layered activity (or series of activities). In part, it is aesthetic: I find certain rituals, hymns, spaces, and words beautiful and moving. These preferences are, of course, due largely to my experiences with religion as a child, but – as with all matters aesthetic – they have become cultivated, honed, and more particular over the years. Well, perhaps ‘more particular’ is a bit misleading, since I’m certainly more open to various religious traditions than I used to be. But it’s accurate in the sense that I know what I specifically don’t like – e.g., a drum-set in a church (unless it’s a jazz mass), a complete lack of structure/liturgy in the service, so-called “praise music”, some forms of liturgical dance, politicking in sermons…well, you get the picture. I’m also a very image-oriented person, so I lean away from iconoclasm and toward more image-heavy traditions, though I am very sympathetic to worries about idolatry – and I also have strong affinities toward heavily calligraphic traditions, where the emphasis is on the beautiful portrayal of the word and not the image.
There are also historical reasons for my religious participation. First, it connects me to my family’s and my community’s religious history – even if sometimes only by setting itself up in contrast to the religion of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Indeed, there is a religious dialogue (and tension!) there that is interesting and exciting. Second, it allows me to place myself within a tradition that goes back thousands of years, one which has evolved and developed over time (even if not always for the better). Being part of a history – even if a problematic one – and developing a historical consciousness is something religion allows us do. And it seems to me that only with a sense of the history of a religious tradition can one locate where that history is problematic and what needs presently to be changed. Third, religious traditions take place within an imaginative narrative that they sees as unfolding in history and which they take themselves to be a part of. (Here, I don’t mean to set up ‘imaginative’ as a contrast to ‘reality’. I just mean a narrative with strong imagery – imagery that resonates with us in certain ways.) Now there is an obvious tension between the actual history of, say, the Catholic Church and the soteriological narrative that grounds it. But I think one can have an honest, non-self-deceptive view of the history of the Church as a socio-political institution without jettisoning the mythological narrative that drives the religion itself. Of course, it might turn out that being more honest about the morally problematic facets (past and present) of a religion qua socio-political institution might change the way one thinks about major figures and concepts in the religious narrative (e.g., GOD, salvation, grace, prophets, etc.), such that the latter require some re-imagining. But this is one way reform actually works. And more often than not, the religious narrative accommodates such re-imaginings quite well.
But I digress. There are theological reasons for my choice of religious participation as well. These are very closely tied to the aesthetic and historical reasons, but I find certain theological propositions, concepts, and ideas very significant. For example, traditions that take seriously the notion of suffering – and the idea that Godself might actually suffer: this is something I find very important. I’m also very attracted to the theological tension between oneness and multiplicity in the various religious traditions and the way it finds theological expression. Finally, I think it important that someone who participates religiously understand (or come to understand – perhaps through participation) the key theological underpinnings of the practices in which they engage (or from which they refrain). What do we take ourselves to be doing when we celebrate the Eucharist? Why do we think it important for women to cover their heads? Why do we engage in merit-making? Etc. Perhaps this is too much to require of the average practitioner, but there’s enough Protestant in me to think that not only practice, but also theology and discursive religious thought, is something people can be brought to understand, especially when couched in language and ideas that incite the imagination. (Think here of the role of the prophet according to some medieval Islamic philosophical traditions.)
The strongly-committed believer might object here: “But you don’t even believe these things are true! And you can’t just pick and choose what you like from the various religions! Faith is an all-or-nothing kind of thing, not just the practice you cobble together for yourself out of your own subjective preferences.” In one sense, this is right. Since I understand faith as a form of commitment, and since I am not a fully committed anything, I’m not a fully faithful “anything” either. But I don’t think this commitment need hinge on belief, and I’m not sure it need be limited to the confines of orthodoxy, such that it can make room for divergents, reformers, multiple religious participation, and the like. I also think faith comes in degrees, and is not an all-or-nothing property you either have or you don’t.
I get the force of the worry about picking-and-choosing what you like, leaving the rest behind. And it’s something I grapple with both personally and philosophically. But I think there’s a difference between practice and allegiance, even if the two are very closely related. Joining the Catholic Church would mean “swearing allegiance” to it or “publicly endorsing” it in a way that I’m not comfortable with. But participating in certain meaning-conferring practices or engaging in particular (perhaps autotelic) activities is not necessarily the same thing as swearing allegiance. Of course, there is the question of the implicit endorsement of the institution inherent in practice (and commitment to practice). If I cheer for my favorite college football team, am I implicitly endorsing the morally problematic practices of the NCAA? If I watch the World Cup, am I contributing to the problem of corruption in FIFA? This makes things rather tricky. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for someone to engage in religious practice as such, and I would hope that committed religious believers would agree with me on this point. But it’s definitely not as clear-cut as one might think. Thus we need to have a discussion about the potential value and disvalue of religious practice and commitment.
Can you tell me something about how your philosophical work explores religious practice (e.g., your habilitation and recent papers), such as on the potential value and disvalue of religious practice and commitment and related issues?
I guess there are three general “strands” of my research in Philosophy of Religion right now – first, philosophical models of religious faith; second, the role of emotion in religious experience; and third, mystical theory and practice. These topics all connect up nicely, however, and they are all related in some way to religious practice. However, here I’ll focus mostly on the first, since it’s the most pertinent.
The manuscript I’m currently working provides a practical, non-doxastic account of religious faith. In it, I claim that the relevant attitude in religious faith is not belief but rather something more like commitment. That is, what is central to faith (especially if we want to understand it as a virtue) is not something like belief in God or belief that certain propositions are (literally) true. Instead, it is a practical attitude – a kind of commitment to sincere engagement with a religious tradition, including its practices, rites, norms, and propositions. Thus religious practice takes center-stage on my view of faith. Still, I don’t want to deny that faith has a cognitive aspect. It’s just that I think the relevant cognitive feature of faith has more to do with imagination than belief. Faith is perfectly compatible with belief – and it might be easier both to engage in sincere practice and to have certain paradigmatic religious experiences if one does believe – but belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for faith. Imagination, however, is necessary, since in order to engage with (and commit to) certain religious and theological propositions, one needs to (at least minimally) understand those propositions. And I don’t think we can get at the relevant concepts we need for that understanding without the exercise of the religious imagination.
Where I differ from many other philosophers putting forward non-doxastic views is that I think faith is not only compatible with non-belief (e.g., with degrees of doubt or agnosticism) but also with full-on disbelief. This may sound shocking to Christian ears, but in other traditions this might come as no huge surprise. (For example, there are a lot of practicing Jewish atheists.) To be sure, one has to have some sort of positive attitude toward the tradition in question (otherwise one’s commitment might not be rational – or even psychologically possible). But I think we can easily imagine a metaphysical naturalist who thinks it would be good if a certain religious narrative were true, or who believes that certain practices and propositions are important or valuable even if false, or who holds that religion can help us do things we care about, etc. And just as one can take fictional propositions and contexts seriously (and be emotionally affected by those contexts), one can take religious propositions and contexts seriously (and perhaps even have emotional religious experiences) via the active exercise of the religious imagination. The savvy reader will notice, then, that my account is very similar to theological fictionalism, but I resist the fictionalist label because fictionalism is usually employed to argue that certain areas of discourse – even if false – may be useful. That is, fictionalism is generally taken to be an instrumentalist view about the fictions (or fictional discourse) in question. Now I certainly do think that religious engagement can be instrumentally valuable. It can be morally beneficial, or help us expand our emotional repertoire, or open ourselves up to new aesthetic, practical, and epistemic possibilities. (Of course, it can also be instrumentally bad, as we all know.) But – and this is where my interests in Philosophy of Sport and Philosophy of Religion intersect – I think that religious engagement, like sports, may be an autotelic enterprise – that is, something we value doing for its own sake. Thus, my “religious imaginativism” goes beyond the instrumentalism of theological fictionalism and focuses on the fact that religion is something human beings (or at least many human beings) care about, and not only as an instrumental good. We enjoy religion and religious practice – at least some of us; we think it’s a valuable and worthwhile activity in and of itself. And this might be just as true of the religious disbeliever as the believer. In fact, we might even think that religious practitioners who do engage in religious practice for its own sake might be more praiseworthy than those who engage merely for instrumental reasons. (In fact, I sometimes think something like this is what drives my students’ adverse reactions to Pascal’s Wager.)
There is a decline in church attendance in the US and Europe for mainline churches such as the Catholic church, Episcopal, and other mainline denominations. Given that at least some of these denominations place a lot of emphasis on ritual etc, would an emphasis on non-doxastic faith be a solution?
This is a tricky question because the turn to secularism in Western society hinges on so many factors. Some of them have to do with a (often justified) moral distrust of the social and political institutions themselves. Some have to do with a dissatisfaction with answers to the problem of evil. Further, the growing divide between science and religion has made it difficult for many individuals to reconcile a religious life with the mechanistic, naturalistic outlook promoted by the natural sciences. At the same time, the emergence of so-called “atheist churches” and other similar groups demonstrates an awakening of the awareness of the instrumental value of religion, especially religion’s ability to bring people together in a setting of mutually-supportive fellowship. Indeed, recent discussions with a Muslim colleague of mine have pointed me to the value of the religious community and shared experience in religious contexts. Although still very public and communal, religion in the Christian West (as with many aspects of Western life) have taken a largely individualistic, experiential turn. Now in itself, the idea of religion as ultimately focused on one’s inner spiritual life is not necessarily a bad thing – as my explorations of religious mysticism have taught me. Yet to make religion solely about one’s internal states – especially when the relevant attitude is taken to be one of belief – fails to take the intersubjective value of religion seriously. I think one of the reasons for the rise of the evangelical mega-church is that it does place emphasis on the importance of shared experience. At the same time, even in such churches the nature of “true faith” is assumed to be more about the internal attitudes of the individual and less about one’s interactions with others. To be fair, my own view places sincere commitment at the heart of religious faith, and commitment is also a kind of attitude or disposition of the individual. However, the relevant kind of commitment is, to my mind, not just one that pertains to the individual herself and her own values or well-being but rather also (and perhaps primarily) to engagement in and with a community of the faithful. That is, the commitment is necessarily intersubjective. This commitment can take many forms, but it is not one that can take place within a social vacuum.
At the same time, I think “mainline” strands of religion are also struggling because they contain imaginings of the Divine that do not speak to the modern individual. There is much in mainstream religion that still triggers the religious imagination in meaningful ways, but there is a lot that is irreconcilable with contemporary moral and aesthetic values we are coming to share as our knowledge of the universe – and of our fellow human beings – expands. And I think we need to think hard about revising our imaginings the transcendent in helpful and meaningful ways. To be clear, I do not endorse a reductivist or purely “ultimist” move in religion that does away with all the imaginative resources of particular historical religions. But I think we need to start thinking in broader swaths – e.g., we need to start thinking about the larger soteriological narratives that incite the religious imagination and how particular imaginings can contribute to our lives here on earth in beneficial ways. This doesn’t mean rejecting all doctrine as it stands, but it does mean pushing for moral and imaginative reform within religion. I also think it means taking a hard look at the imaginative resources in religious traditions other than our own. One reason I think we see more multiple religious participation these days (apart from the mere fact of globalization and greater access to communication) is that people are finding elements of other religions that speak to them, even within the context of their own religious upbringing. We also see a big shift from organized religion to something more like “spirituality” or “esotericism”. Yet I think a spirituality without concrete content is deeply unsatisfying. The religious imagination needs some structure, some story with which it can identify, and we need to move more productively in this direction. Still, this story should not (and probably cannot) extract itself from the particular stories we have told ourselves in the past. Religion is a historical phenomenon, and when we fail to treat it as such we do a disservice both to religion and to ourselves.
There are often worries about “cherry-picking” from religious traditions (or even from within a particular tradition) – an accusation we often also launch at fundamentalist religious believers who reject things like slavery and dietary laws but who decry, say, gay marriage on Deuteronomic grounds. I am sympathetic to this worry, but instead of taking an “all or nothing” approach to particular religious traditions, I suggest that we consider focusing on religion as an inclusive enterprise – one that aims at bringing people together in a context of shared meaning and imagination. Yes, this may involve revising or even rejecting certain propositions a religious tradition has staunchly maintained in the past. But it may also involve resurrecting very old ideas that may contribute to our understandings of ourselves in the world in meaningful ways. (For example, I think certain medieval mystical understandings of suffering and divine hiddenness may help us grapple more honestly with these issues than merely viewing them as skeptical problems for the existence of God.) Does this threaten the classical theistic doctrine of God? Yes and no. It is a view that is very sympathetic to open theism and/or process theology. At the same time, it admits that metaphors of maximal or omni-properties as applied to God might be helpful ways of thinking about the Divine. And insofar as we continue to reflect upon what it might mean to be omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent, we might come to certain important understandings of our own limitations and our relationship to that which transcends us. Still, we need to start thinking about (and re-thinking our assessments of) other important categories, such as gender and sexuality, the role of the body, our relationship to animals and the environment, and many more issues, when thinking about God and our being images of God (a metaphor I find extremely moving). Religion in part dictates the way we view the world, yet how we view the world also affects the way we view the Divine. And we need to start focusing on this dialectic with an aim to widening (and perhaps “bettering”) our imaginative understanding in the religious sphere.
This is obviously not a very practical answer to the question of how we “put butts in the pews”. But I do think a shift from views that place heavy emphasis on the cognitive aspect of religion to one that focuses more on the affective, practical, communal aspects of religion may help us move forward – both in Philosophy of Religion and in religion on the ground. It has been suggested to me that Rumi thinks of human beings not fundamentally as “rational animals” but rather as “loving animals”. I like this idea very much, but I would add to it the qualifier “imaginative”. And insofar as we are a complicated mixture of all three (rational, loving, imaginative), our understanding of the Divine will be equally complicated. But perhaps self-consciously allowing this complexity to inform (and reform) our imaginings of the Divine – replete with paradox and difficulty – we can uncover (or “dis-cover”) new ways of being religiously in the world, ones which remain embedded in historical narratives we care about while at the same time moving us to better and more meaningful ways of being with each other.
Thank you to Amber Griffioen for participating!