This is the twenty-fifth 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.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
My current work focuses on rectificatory justice and argues that the negative social and moral perceptions of Black Americans work to prevent Blacks from gaining rectificatory justice. This is because of connections between American colorblind liberalism and gaining rectificatory justice within the liberal paradigm. Liberalism is a political philosophy that espouses the mutual equality of persons, individual liberty, and that a set of moral rights flow from their mutual equality. Rectificatory justice is the branch of justice concerned with setting unjust situations right, which may require a number of different actions. Within the liberal tradition, injustice is violating someone’s rights. When one’s rights are violated, the victim has the right to have their injustices rectified in some manner. I plan to defend these positions: rights have a social dimension that is based in being recognized as one’s equal; that Blacks have not received rectificatory justice; and that racial reconciliation (which includes the dominant group changing their negative perceptions about Blacks) is a necessary step for Blacks to receive rectificatory justice.
A particular institution that has indoctrinated and educated millions about ethical behavior, respect, and following the moral law is the Christian Church. My father is a Baptist (his side of the family having faithfully attending Christ Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church for decades), and his side of the family introduced me to what Baptist church services were like. My mother’s side of the family, however, is Catholic. Something I find interesting is how quickly I identify with having an upbringing in the Catholic Church, and yet I have little memory of choosing to be Catholic rather than Baptist. My older brother and I would attend church often as children, going to Dad’s church some weeks and Mom’s church (St. Bridget’s) other weeks. I surmise it was a decision more or less made by Mom that her sons would grow up in the same kind of faith that she did. Since the difference is more in how people praise rather than who people praised, Dad acquiesced on this issue. That said, it was never unheard of for the whole family to go to both churches on holidays or important services.
I was never confirmed, but I was baptized as an infant by the priest at St. Bridget’s. When I learned that being baptized meant that I chose to take God in, it struck me as peculiar that it was a choice made for me. Not that I wasn’t happy that the choice was made – I have an unwavering belief in the existence of God, thanks in no small part to God’s existence being indoctrinated in me from birth. The conviction in the value of a church community that my parents held meant St. Bridget’s to be my first church home: where I did a confession for the first time; I sang in the choir; I learned hymns and songs to affirm the story of Christ and the glory of God; and I knew church to be where I would see many of my cousins, aunts, and uncles regularly. My family loves to get together, and church was another excuse to get together as I grew up. The building itself was supposed to be respected as a place of worship, a concept that taught me how important the worship was to any sort of faith practice that I would adopt.
In my early teens, St. Bridget’s closed. This destabilized my sense of church community and led me to seriously consider the purpose of attending church. By that time I understood certain theoretical differences between Baptists and Catholic, such as the existence of Purgatory, and had chosen Catholicism as my preferred brand of Christianity. For one, I figured that Heaven takes way too perfect a person to get in but that I wouldn’t be evil enough to deserve Hell and thought Purgatory would be a nice middle ground for eternity (at least it’s not Hell). The other thing that swayed me was how short the services were in Catholic churches; we come in, say a few prayers, sing a couple of songs, hear a good message from the priest, have communion and we’re done. In my mind, as long as we were genuinely engaging in religious rites that heaped praise and respect upon God then it shouldn’t necessarily take all day to do so. And man, Baptist church services just go on forever.
Most of my account has focused so far on my relationship with the church and how that helped me forge my religious view of the world. Losing St. Bridget’s put things in perspective for me about what the important part of going to church is – building a relationship with God. Attending church wasn’t a requirement for building a relationship with God, prayer was. So I went into my parent’s bedroom around 15 or 16 and told them I didn’t want to go to church anymore because I didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. At least as a youngster, I knew that church meant family time in a sacred place. Without a church community, it felt like I was going to church to sing songs and hear a story and none of it made sense. God exists, that made sense. Jesus story? Sure, I can roll with that. But I wasn’t very clear on the point of church any longer, and that moment of truth with my parents emboldened me to my newfound beliefs. I was nervous that they would be upset or even punish me for not wanting to go to church, but church felt like a chore that was not providing me any benefit. I distinctly remember my parents asking me if I still believed in God, which was met with a crystal clear, “Of course!” God wasn’t the issue – church was the issue.
Since that moment, I really avoided taking on any labels regarding my belief structure. If asked, I respond that I’m a Christian, and that I was raised Catholic. It doesn’t concern me if I’m considered nondenominational, Catholic, or whatever someone thinks of me. The only thing that matters is maintaining a relationship with God, which I do through prayer and appreciation. Since May 1, 2009, I try my best to say daily, “Thank you God for today, thank you for yesterday, and thank you for a chance at tomorrow.”
Your religious practices are mainly individual (prayer and giving thanks) as compared to communal church practices. Can you say a bit more about what these practices mean for you, and how they shape your life?
The most important thing about having a spiritual or religious aspect of one’s life is, to me, building a relationship with whatever Grand Creator one believes in. If there’s no Grand Creator, then whatever spiritual force that permeates and guides the universe is the being with whom one ought to develop a relationship. There are plenty of ways to develop this relationship, including communal worship practices. I think there’s great value and purpose for many people to be spiritually engaged within a community – it gives people access to other interpretations of the spiritual or religious world we inhabit, provides a shared space to bring questions and concerns about our understanding of the spiritual or religious, and we don’t live in a vacuum. That said, we can’t take anyone with us when we pass away and the big questions that undergird our faith are for us to grapple with in order to develop our own answers. I think of things like the Problem of Evil, or arguments on the existence of God, or even theological determinism as the kinds of vitally important conceptual questions that frame how and why we worship. At least to me, it makes great sense to address those questions personally rather than communally, because it does not matter if your answers line up with – what matters is what you come to believe through developing a personal connection with God.
I don’t talk a ton with other people about my faith in God because it’s a relationship that is tied directly to my lived experience in the world. As my cousin Lisa says, “We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.” As a result, people may arrive at different conclusions about their relationship God. For some people, experiencing trauma reinforces their belief in God. For others, it reinforces the non-existence of God. I consider these to be individual decisions that should be made by the individual with as little external pressure as possible. I know it seems a bit hypocritical to say in one answer that my belief in God was formed because of external pressures like my family and then say that decisions about one’s relationship with God should be personal. My faith practices, while initially informed by my family, began to be decided by me when I really started questioning what the existence of God means to me. What that God looks like, acts like, God’s powers and abilities, and ultimately how that produced the world we have. For example, I don’t believe in free will as a result of my belief in the existence of an all-powerful, all knowing, and omnipresent supernatural prime creator. God knows everything and has already laid out the path; this signifies to me that we make decisions but that we could not do otherwise. The social and moral implications of this view aside, it took time thinking about God for me to gain a concrete view of what God’s existence means to me. I believe everybody should take their time and truly think about God’s existence and what it means to them.
Something that is amazing about an individualized process of knowing God is how clear the relationship becomes. I hold an eternal level of gratitude to God, amidst struggles and triumphs, because I don’t have an expectation of what God should give to me. God didn’t have to make me, create me, allow me to live, allow me to experience human emotions, or anything. The way I figure, I’m gambling with house money every day.
Given the value you place on personal worship, and addressing religious questions individually rather than communally, do you think philosophy of religion can be a form of religious practice? If so, how does it relate to other individual religious practices, such as petitionary prayer?
I think philosophy of religion can be a form of religious practice, but it depends on what we understand what philosophy of religion to be. My view is that philosophy of religion allows us to grapple with the meaning of religion and undergo philosophical dissection of religious concepts. One need not subscribe to a particular religion in order to believe in one of their religious concepts, but believing in religious concepts (e.g., God or faith) is a different experience than studying it or dissecting it via philosophical treatment. I can imagine that performing philosophical work can serve to confirm someone’s belief or disbelief on many religious notions. I don’t, however, think these questions can replace the spiritual experience of the certainty that God exists.
I’ll give you an example. Earlier this year I had an epiphany. As I was driving down Interstate 55 in Missouri on my way down to Memphis in January, I found myself thanking God for everything I live for: my family, for help I have received, for helping someone by listening and responding with a genuine answer as best I can, for where I am in life and ultimately where I want to go. I felt nothing but pure gratitude for it all. After a moment it was as though God responded and opened my mind to what was to come for me and why certain things have happened to place me in the position I’m currently in. It felt like my soul received a hug and a massage at the same time. That experience showed me my value in the world as a helpful and supporting person. Tears streamed down my face uncontrollably for nearly 15 minutes because I felt God and knew that to be God. As soon as it happened, I knew I had to bear witness to God’s power and let others know about the incredible awesomeness that God can inspire within us. I don’t know if you get that kind of moment trying to understand the arguments behind the metaphysics of God’s existence, unless doing so is part of how you build your relationship with God. I think you get those moments performing rites that connect you to the higher power that you believe in, arguments be damned. Some people may use philosophy of religion as their rites but at least for me, engaging these arguments helped deepen my desire to know more about the philosophical implications of certain religious concepts while firming my belief in the existence of God. I love teaching arguments about God, particularly in conservative areas, because students often recoil. “God has to be good!” “The Bible says…” “It’s against my beliefs to even think God can’t exist.” What takes them a moment to grasp is that none of the arguments about, say, the Problem of Evil, are perfectly sound.
I do think that whatever belief system one takes up, our behavior should justify the position we take. In other words, practice what we mentally preach. If I am somebody who believes God exists and is good, for example, then I shouldn’t act like I don’t believe in a good God existing. This doesn’t mean people who believe in a good God must act like saints themselves. People are human and while we can be awfully frustrating because of that, the vast majority of people I have encountered have a conscience. That said, acting like a good God exists means being aware that our actions have consequences, both good and bad, depending on what we do. Personally, I can’t act like God doesn’t exist or that consequences from God’s existence are not real because I know God exists.
I should make it clear that I have nothing against communal worship but I do think that the big questions regarding most religious concepts shouldn’t be answered communally. Those are questions that each individual needs to work out for him or herself. Imagine if you went with group consensus and they were wrong? This is probably not the kind of thing you want to leave up to other people to decide for you.
Some analytic philosophers of religion, in particular Plantinga and Alston, have argued that spiritual experiences of God’s existence, such as the example you mention, provide some form of justification or warrant for religious belief. What do you make of this claim?
I agree but only to an extent. I hate having to hedge like that! I think spiritual experiences of God’s existence provide justification for belief in God. For many, their understanding of God is founded in their religious background – epiphanies serve as confirmation for what they already believed to be true. I would say that I fall in that camp. I think I hedge for two reasons: it depends greatly on what we mean by religious belief; and because religious belief seems to be different in kind to the phenomenological experience of interacting with God. Picture this: a tried and true atheist who purposefully avoided any religious texts or rituals (as much as one can in current times) for her entire life has the same kind of spiritual experience that I described and at the end, she is completely aware of God’s existence and her connection to that higher power. She certainly has a justification for the existence of a higher power, but it is not clear that she should conclude that a world religion is worthy of following. Believing that God exists doesn’t necessarily ground belief in religious tenets.
Given all I’ve said, of course I believe that the experience of God can certainly justify religious belief! I take a genuine experience of God as an overwhelming justification for believing in a religion with a higher power, provided you are exposed to or inclined towards religious belief. At the very least, having an experience of God may open one’s eyes to the possibility that a world religion may be on to something. More than anything, the experience of God should justify your position in the world and spur you to do what God placed you here for, whatever that may be. Something interesting to me about faith, which is ultimately what differentiates the believers from the non-believers, is that we have to have faith that our future will be better than our present. Whether we’re talking about our society or our religious beliefs, faith is not just held about what happens now but it’s held, more importantly, about what’s to come that we cannot foresee. The experience of God should justify your faith in your future, whether or not that future contains religious beliefs.