Virtual Colloquium: Amber Griffioen, “With or Without You”
May 12, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God Religion and Life  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

This week’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “With or Without You: ‘Post-Metaphysical’ Religion and the Religious Imagination” by Amber Griffioen. Dr. Griffioen received her PhD from the University of Iowa in 2010 and is currently Margarete von Wrangell Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Her papers on self-deception, superstition, and religion have appeared in journals such as Religious Studies, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, and European Journal for Philosophy of Religion.

With or Without You: “Post-Metaphysical” Religion and the Religious Imagination

Amber Griffioen

This paper represents the (still very rough) skeleton of a paper, adapted from a recent conference talk at UNISA on The Resurgence of Metaphysics in Science, Philosophy, and Theology. I am currently working to expand my thoughts from this talk into a full-length article. The paper begins with a sort of overview of one of the gulfs that seems to separate analytic and continental philosophers of religion (at least in my experience), namely the insistence of the former on continuing to focus on religious epistemology and the metaphysics of classical theism and the resistance of the latter to engaging in any sort of metaphysical or “ontotheological” enterprise. I do not mean this introduction to cover the entire spectrum of analytic or continental philosophy of religion; I merely want to gesture at a point of contention that often arises when I (as a participant in the more analytic tradition) engage in dialogue with continental philosophers of religion. The paper itself is (ideally) supposed to use the instruments from my more analytic conceptual toolkit to suggest a way in which the analytic desire for a deeply “metaphysical” religion can be made commensurate with the continental demand that we go “beyond” metaphysics.

The middle part of the paper draws on some other work I’ve done (published in German) on demarcating the realism/anti-realism debate and the cognitivism/non-cognitivism debate, which are sometimes run together in what I think are unhelpful ways. On the assumption a) that many continental philosophers of religion are anti-realists about the God of classical theism and b) that many analytic philosophers of religion want to hold on to some cognitivist understanding of religious language, I move on to talk about the promise that fictionalism might hold for the development of a “post-metaphysical” theological semantics. At the same time, I think fictionalism is limited in at least two ways: a) it generally assumes a kind of anti-realism about the objects of discourse, and b) it usually represents an instrumentalist approach to the arena of discourse in question. I thus think the development of an alternative semantics is warranted—one which is cognitivist, expressivist, and non-error theoretic, and which moves us past the somewhat stagnant realist/antirealist debates. It also allows that religion, like sports or music, may be an autotelic (not mere instrumental) enterprise, one engaged in for its own sake. This is a view I am calling “religious imaginativism”. It claims that the cognitive attitudes expressed by religious language are not, strictly speaking, beliefs but rather imaginings, combined with the more volitional attitude of acceptance. I argue that religious concepts require the implementation of the imagination, such that believers, agnostics, and non-believers alike must employ the imagination to get these concepts off the ground in the first place. The view is thus supposed to allow that—even if antirealism about God turns out to be true—it might still be legitimate to employ the term ‘God’ and to engage in “metaphysical” debate about the appropriate way to talk about God and God’s nature from within the imaginativist framework. At the same time, so long as we’re operating within a particular religious “model”, religious realists and religious antirealists who care about the model itself should be able to successfully communicate about God. That is, religiously committed believers, agnostics, and even atheists can successfully employ religious language without necessarily talking past each other.

I am treating this online colloquium like I would a live colloquium presentation. The text is thus still quite short and not fully fleshed-out. It is intended more to elicit questions, discussion, and constructive suggestions (for further reading, directions to take this in, ways to address objections, etc.). I haven’t laid out the entire view here. In fact, I’m still working the kinks out of it. I also have not inserted references to the relevant literature yet, so what you see are really my developing thoughts on a complex issue. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it, and I look forward to your comments!

The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!

  • Tim Perrine

    Hi Amber,

    Thank you for the paper. There’s a lot going on and I doubt I fully understood it, but I want to make a comment or two.

    First, as I see it, you want an account of religious language that has at least the following features: (i) it is truth-apt, (ii) it permits genuine disagreement between participants of different religions, (iii) it is consistent with our language failing to refer to some being(s) that exist independently of the language we use to talk about them, and (iv) the reason for engaging in it are not purely instrumental. To this end, you propose a “imagination” account that is a revised version of a fictionalist account. On the face of it, this looks like an account that will meet these conditions. If I say that ‘Kirk was born in New York’, you can say that I’m wrong; likewise, when I say ‘Kirk was born in New York’ this is not just a claim about me but a fictional character, and thus permits genuine disagreement; the term ‘Kirk’ does not refer to any flesh and blood person; etc.

    I have one question. I’m not sure I fully understand the distinction you draw between a fictionalist approach and an “imaginativist” approach. More specifically, it seems that the distinction you are drawing is between reasons for engaging in a certain discourse and not the semantics of the discourse. So it seems to me that, from a point of view of semantics/understanding particular expressions, they may not be any difference. Am I wrong about this?

    Second, I’m worried about the analogy with fiction. Once a fiction is created, it is plausible that we can evaluate assertions about it as truth apt, have genuine disagreements, etc. But it also seems plausible that we can evaluate the creation of the fiction to begin with. For instance, many people might criticize (e.g.) a comic book for creating a story in which the female character is treated too violently, or a racial minority is depicted in a stereotypical way. In these situations, we can not only utilize the relevant discourse concerning the fiction, but also describe how things get into the fiction in the first place and whether that is appropriate.

    My worry is that nothing analogous to that appears in religions. To pick one I’m familiar with, I find bizarre a modern day Christian saying the following: “Yes, I know that God is all-good and creator of the world, but I wish that early Church Fathers hadn’t spoken in a way in which that would come out true.” By contrast, it makes more sense to me for someone to say: “Yes, I know that Kirk cheated to get out of the Kobayashi Maru, but I wish the writers had opted for some other sets of events.” Put otherwise, the language of fiction has many of the features you are interested in; but it also has this other feature: what we describe using that language is also created by and us and has its features in virtue of us. And I’m not sure that this is a feature you want. But I guess I’m picking more up with this analogy with fiction than the particular proposal concerning the semantics of religious language. So maybe that’s problematic or otherwise laying outside the issue you are interested in.


    May 16, 2017 — 14:54
  • Heath White


    Thank you for an interesting paper. Here is what I came away with: your imaginitivism is like fictionalism in that discourse is evaluated as true or false [according to the story]. It differs in that the metaphysical and epistemological status of the story is left open: it might be a literally true story (the traditional, metaphysical view) or a cultural concoction or an expression of feelings or some mix of these. Also, the point of telling this story to ourselves is left open: it might be a attempt at a description of reality, or a device for the strong to control the weak, or the weak to control the strong, or a form of cultural glue, or whatever.

    Does that capture the idea? If not, what am I missing?

    For what it’s worth, I think this approach allows people of quite different persuasions to talk to one another. But I also think that many of the key (and religiously important) differences between them will be on precisely the points that the model is agnostic about.

    May 17, 2017 — 23:20
  • Amber Griffioen

    Hi Tim, Hi Heath!
    Thank you both for your comments! I apologize for my slightly delayed response. Our internet was down all day yesterday, so I’ve only just now been able to get out this response. Here’s Part One of my response.
    Tim: You are right about my four features, though I’d modify (iv) to say “the reasons for engaging in it *need not* be purely instrumental. This also relates to Heath’s question: I am personally very resistant to reductionist attempts to say things like “Religion is ultimately just about [‘expressing ressentiment’ or ‘assuaging the masses’ or ‘helping people grapple with contingency’ or ‘encounters with transcendence’ or whatever]”. So what the imaginativist account allows us to do is to say that religious language really is about the objects of discourse it actually talks about (God, sin, salvation, virgin births, miracles, etc.). That is, I’d like what religious language is about to be distinct from the functions that religious language may serve.
    At the same time, I’m still in some sense inclined to say that religious language is as religious language does. Just as, say, one might adopt a fictionalist approach toward scientific theories or mathematical objects because they think appealing to “fictional” models or objects contributes to our understand the world or doing things we care about doing, etc., adopting religious imaginativism might also be a way in which we can pursue activities we care about, even if that pursuit is autotelic and not (purely) instrumental. I take it this is just Tim’s point: From a semantic standpoint, we can say that religious language is “about” certain imaginative constructs (whether or not those things correspond to reality or not); however, our reasons for adopting a certain semantics (or our interpretation of what those semantics *do*) might differ.
    So maybe imaginativism *is* just a cosmetic version of fictionalism, especially if you think fictionalism is compatible with both model-independent realism and model-independent antirealism about the objects of discourse. My reasons, I think, for wanting to label it differently are largely pragmatic. First, the relevant point is that – regardless of whether or not one is a model-independent realist – religious assertions are made true or false by reference to imaginings and imaginative models, but I don’t want to commit myself to saying that those models are “fictions”, where ‘fiction’ connotes something’s not corresponding directly to reality. This is a very restricted understanding of ‘fiction’, I know, but I think lots of people associate ‘fiction’ with ‘literally false’. So basically I don’t want to be saddled with the presumption of antirealism. Further, the term brings out the idea that the religious imagination plays a really important – but oft overlooked – role in the religious life, and this is something I want to bring out in the book I’m writing. I really like the idea of talking about reform as a matter of re-imagining and even heresy as a kind of judgment about inappropriate imagining, and so on.

    May 19, 2017 — 4:18
  • Amber Griffioen

    Ok, here’s Part Two re: the analogy to fiction: I think there are a few things to note here. First, *of course* you can call certain features of the model into question! And I actually think it’s true that “what we describe using [religious] language is [largely] created by and us and has its features in virtue of us.” But I don’t think that’s so bad. In fact, if you think that there is a God and that the Divine transcends our capacity to know it, then we are limited by our finite language and imagination to begin with.

    But, of course, doing so means stepping outside the model to critique it. And this is something we can (and do sometimes) do. So I think it totally makes sense to say, “Yes, I know that according to the Christian model God the Father and God the Son are represented in masculine terms, but I really wish it weren’t that way, and – maybe – it need not be that way going forward.” In fact, I think this is just how religious reform often works: It is a matter of *re-imagining* the model or its features in certain ways. If we really think of religious traditions as living – and not as set in stone – then there is room for both re-interpretation and new imaginings that mold and shape the tradition (hopefully, though certainly not always, for the better). Heck, even the Star Trek Universe has grown and changed since we moved from the Cold War into the present day. Further, for canonical Scriptures which are more-or-less set in stone, there’s still always room for interpretation and debate about which imaginings can appropriately apply to them. (See also: The Dumbledore controversy.) So that’s actually a feature I *do* want. 🙂 Further – and this is perhaps another reason to resist the ‘fictionalist’ label – I think we (myself included) often tend to think here of literature as the relevant paradigm. But I think we might do better to think in terms of ‘imaginative play’ (where religion is, of course, a very serious form of play). I think it might be instructive to think about other types of “fictional” contexts – RPGs, cosplay, interactive gaming, fan fiction, and so on – when thinking about religion. (I think Rachel Wagner’s work is great on this subject.)

    Now regarding Heath’s potential worry about allowing different people to talk to each other: When it comes to interreligious or even interdenominational dialogue – as well as dialogue between theists and atheists – we are going to encounter competing models. For these forms of dialogue to get off the ground, then, a *meta-discourse* will have to be created – one which asks about the appropriateness or commensurability or compatibility of the relevant models in question. I endorse a version of non-reductive epistemic pluralism and follow Muhammad Legenhausen in proposing that instead of aiming at agreement or getting people to change their minds, the goal of such dialogue should be to promote mutual understanding. So I think we need to try to find imaginative resonances that can serve as points of contact between models and then create a discourse that will contribute to this kind of understanding. This may result in changes to the respective models, or it may not. And various criteria can enter into these debates, including which models are more epistemically reasonable, internally consistent, or even – as best we can tell – closer to the truth, but these need not be the only criteria. Moral and aesthetic considerations can (and perhaps should) play a big role here as well.

    May 20, 2017 — 1:56
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