The first paper in Idealism and Christian Theology is James Spiegel’s “The Theological Orthodoxy of Berkeley’s Immaterialism.” This piece was originally published in Faith and Philosophy in 1996, though I must confess that I had not read it before today. I found the essay rather odd, partly because I have some confusion about the nature of its project. Contrary to my expectations, it does not really address any of the questions I outlined in my last post. On the whole, I think the essay makes problematic unexamined assumptions about Berkeley’s religion, and it relies on a controversial characterization of Berkeley’s analysis of body with which I disagree, but it emphasizes the role of divine language in a way I find helpful and also makes some interesting and original points about this topic. I will address each of these in turn.
Berkeley and Orthodoxy
Spiegel does not really address the question of what Berkeley might have meant by ‘orthodoxy’. At one point (endnote 26) Spiegel defines ‘theological orthodoxy’ as adherence to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, but this clearly isn’t really what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ since these creeds play no further role in his examination of Berkeley’s ‘orthodoxy’. Rather, as is quite clear beginning at the first page of the article, what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ is consistency with the Bible. The creeds do not come into it at all. Having defended Berkeley’s orthodoxy (in this sense), Spiegel goes on to say that Berkeley’s ultimate conclusions “would undoubtedly please a theologically conservative Anglican so sensitive to heresy” (27). The trouble is, Spiegel’s characterization of Berkeley as a theologically conservative Anglican is (in the historical context) inconsistent with Spiegel’s assumptions about what ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ mean for Berkeley. A defining feature of conservative (‘high church’) Anglicanism in Berkeley’s time was adherence to tradition, in both faith and practice. For a conservative Anglican, ‘heresy’ would be departure from the creeds and the tradition. A conservative Anglican would not just interpret Scripture however he or she pleased, in the ‘just the text’ fashion Spiegel employs. If Berkeley really was a theologically conservative Anglican, then he ought to be far more worried about how immaterialism can be rendered consistent with, for instance, the Chalcedonian Definition, but neither Berkeley nor Spiegel addresses this. This is an inauspicious start to a book purporting to deal with issues in Christian theology: Spiegel characterizes Berkeley as a conservative Anglican, but (implicitly) ascribes to him a Baptist conception of orthodoxy.
Having been a little hard on Spiegel in the preceding paragraph, let me make two more conciliatory points on this subject. First, Spiegel’s question of the consistency of Berkeley’s philosophy with Scripture is certainly an intrinsically interesting question and one that mattered a lot to Berkeley. Second, Spiegel primary mistake here is his characterization of Berkeley as a theological conservative, which occurs in a passing remark on the last page of the paper. In fact, the approach Spiegel employs in the article is not as far off the mark as it would be if Berkeley were a theological conservative. Let me expand on this last point.
It seems pretty clear to me that Berkeley is a latitudinarian Anglican and a religious populist. The term ‘latitudinarian’ is one that was in use in Berkeley’s lifetime and it is a description I believe Berkeley would be happy to accept (though I know of no text in which he applies the term to himself). Latitudinarians supported the status of the Anglican church as ‘established’ (i.e., state-supported), though most of them (including Berkeley) also supported toleration for dissenting Christians. They thought that the established church was important for social unity and the promotion of individual virtue, as well as (of course) for the spiritual salvation of their fellow citizens. Latitudinarians believed that the best way for the church to accomplish this was to keep doctrinal requirements to a minimum—that is, to allow broad latitude in individual belief. But not unlimited latitude. The established church was still to be a specifically Christian church, holding to the Bible and to Christian distinctives like the Trinity and the Incarnation. This perspective is in evidence, in particular, throughout Berkeley’s Alciphron.
Berkeley’s latitudinarianism is closely connected with his religious populism, that is, his view that “the Christian religion is … an institution fitted to ordinary minds, rather than to the nicer talents … of speculative men … [so that] our notions about faith … [must be] taken from the commerce of the world, and practice of mankind, rather than from the peculiar systems of refiners” (Alicphron, sect. 7.13). If the main justification for the established church is the moral and spiritual health of the nation, then the religion taught by the established church had better be a religion that benefits the ordinary people of the nation, and not only ‘speculative men’.
Now, to Spiegel’s credit, he quotes in full, on p. 13, Berkeley’s notebook entry 405: “All things in Scripture wch side with the Vulgar against the Learned side with me also. I side in all things with the Mob.” This entry makes clear what Berkeley is doing in the discussions of Scripture in the Three Dialogues Spiegel addresses later: he’s resisting the importation of metaphysical subtleties into the text of Scripture. Scripture, Philonous insists, never talks about material substrata (which Berkeley rejects). Instead, it talks about “the sun, moon, and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals” (Luce and Jessop, p. 250). Berkeley believes in all of these things. So Berkeley’s view is that if we set aside “the peculiar systems of refiners”—i.e., traditional systems of metaphysics and philosophical theology, such as that of Thomas Aquinas—and read Scripture as speaking in plain language to plain people, then we will see that it is not only consistent with but actually deeply harmonious with immaterialism. But actual conservative Anglicans in the 18th century, such as Peter Browne, would hardly call this ‘theological orthodoxy’.
So in the end my complaint here is that Spiegel has characterized Berkeley’s theological orientation in a way that is deeply flawed relative to Berkeley’s historical context. Berkeley would certainly count as theologically conservative relative to the Anglican churches of England, Ireland, and North America today, but in his own time he was not a conservative. If he had been a conservative, the entire approach Spiegel takes in his essay would be deeply flawed. However, because Spiegel is wrong about this particular point, much of the rest of what he says is actually correct. In general, though, the essay would have benefitted from a more careful characterization of Berkeley’s view of theology and Scripture. This would also have helped at the end of the essay, where I think Spiegel underplays the extent to which Berkeley takes his philosophy to be useful for the promotion of virtue, and not merely cold intellectual assent to Christian doctrine.
Bodies and Divine Ideas
I’ll be brief here. In his discussion of Berkeley’s treatment of creation, Spiegel interprets Berkeley as identifying bodies with divine ideas. Following Dancy, he takes these ideas to be of two kinds, private archetypes and public ectypes. The ectypal ideas are immediately perceived by us. While Spiegel is not the only one who interprets Berkeley this way, I am far from convinced that Berkeley holds that the ideas we perceive are numerically identical to ideas perceived by God. Further, I am not convinced that this reading of the divine archetypes avoids collapsing into a form of representative realism (how can I know that the idea I experience corresponds to the archetype?). I develop a very different interpretation of Berkeley on bodies in my book. Of course nothing one could have said on this point would have been uncontroversial, but this controversial interpretation plays a large role in this paper.
The strongest point of the article is its emphasis on divine language, and the extent to which Berkeley takes literally, or almost literally, the large number of Biblical passages that talk about God speaking things into existence. For on Berkeley’s view the perceived world just is God’s speech. I think Spiegel is correct that Berkeley sees this as a key point where his views are more consonant with Scripture than materialist views. Further, Spiegel suggests that Berkeley might regard our capacity for language as very important in the interpretation of the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God. This is an interesting and original point that’s well worth consideration.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
I have been asked to review Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton’s Idealism and Christian Theology for Faith and Philosophy. In accord with a previous practice I have found useful, I will be blogging through the book, one post per chapter, in preparation to write the review. This post will be not so much a discussion of the book’s introduction as my own way of framing and approaching the issues in the book.
The fundamental paradox of theological anthropology in the Abrahamic tradition is the understanding of the human being as the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth (see Genesis 2:7). The philosophical/theological task is to unpack or spell out this evocative metaphor. It is widely believed in the broader culture (and perhaps also to a large extent among Christian analytic philosophers) that the Christian view (or, often, more generally the ‘religious’ view) of the human person is substance dualism: the breath of God is to be understood as an immaterial soul, and the dust of the earth as a physical body. The human person is an embodied soul. Yet, historically, this has not (at least in its straightforward Platonic/Cartesian version) been the dominant view in Christian philosophy and theology, and has often been regarded with suspicion by Christian philosophers and theologians. The reason for this is that the substance dualist has difficulty explaining how the human being can be a genuine unity of body and soul (or, indeed, how body and soul could be in any sense united). The breath of God must be taken to dwell in the dust of the earth; we must hold, as Descartes said, “that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship” (Sixth Meditation). The human being, the tradition has held, is a unity of mind and body. The true self is not to be identified with the mind or soul rather than the body, but with the unity of both. The human being is formed from the dust of the earth. Contrary to Plato, I am not an immaterial soul trapped in a body. I am fundamental a corporeal being.*
This has broader theological consequences. For the Abrahamic tradition generally, it has been connected with the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The majority of this tradition holds that disembodied existence is possible but bad for human beings, and that we exist in a disembodied state after death only temporarily: in the end, we will again be embodied beings. There are also specifically Christian concerns following from our understanding of embodiment: the Incarnation of Christ and the doctrine of the Eucharist.**
Now, metaphysical idealism—particularly the Berkeleian sort—has often been thought of as a doctrine friendly to religion. After all, its chief proponent went on to become a bishop, and he himself sold the doctrine in large part as an aid to religion, since it supports the existence of God and the natural immortality of the human soul. All of this can be seen as an affirmation of the human person as the breath of God, an affirmation that was crucial for defenders of traditional religion at a time when Descartes’s ‘beast machine’ was gradually developing into La Mettrie’s ‘man machine’. Yet there is reason to fear that Berkeley, like many other modern Christians, in his zeal to defend the status of the human person as the breath of God has fallen into heresy by denying that the human person is also the dust of the earth.
This particular heresy, the denial of the fundamentally bodily nature of the human person, is usually considered a form of Gnosticism, and in fact Berkeley’s last (and strangest) major philosophical work, Siris (1744) explicitly connects his philosophy to the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism (and especially Ralph Cudworth). Though this tradition has some exponents whose orthodoxy is unquestionable (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine),*** it has also often veered into Gnosticism.
So there is reason for suspicion about the theological orthodoxy of Berkeleian idealism. But Berkeley himself is of course not unaware of these issues, and he insists at length, especially in Three Dialogues, that his view preserves the reality of bodies and, indeed, does so better than materialist competitors. Just as the theological orthodoxy of Descartes’s dualism depends on the success of his (virtually non-existent) account of the union of mind and body, the theological orthodoxy of Berkeley’s idealism depends on the success of his defense of the reality of body. Further, the resulting view needs to be able to accommodate the specific religious doctrines mentioned above.
We now come, finally, to the present book. This is the first of two volumes in Bloomsbury’s Idealism and Christianity series edited by James Spiegel. The second volume, Idealism and Christian Philosophy, ed. Steven Cowan and James Spiegel, is already out. Volume 1 contains two previously published essays and nine new essays addressing theological questions arising from Berkeley’s idealism and the similar idealism of Jonathan Edwards. Judging from the introduction and table of contents, it appears that every one of the issues I have outlined above will be addressed. Over the next month or two, I will record my thoughts on each of the essays in the volume, so stay tuned!
* Since one of the main aims of Descartes’s Meditations is to make mechanical philosophy (science) acceptable to the Catholic Church, he repeatedly affirms this. I am not denying that a substance dualist can affirm this, but only observing that philosophers and theologians have sometimes been suspicious of the dualist’s ability to do so. In Descartes’s particular case, for reasons noted by Elisabeth of Bohemia, no account has been given (or, I think, can be give) of how the soul is united to the body.
** Even for traditions that reject the Real Presence (e.g., Zwinglian or Calvinist interpretations) there remains the question of why such a bodily act as eating should be an appropriate form of worship.
*** The orthodoxy of a creative and original philosopher or theologian is never unquestionable in his/her own lifetime; it becomes unquestionable only when later generations come to regard that thinker as to some extent definitive of orthodoxy, as is the case with both Gregory (one of the architects of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity) and Augustine.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)
CFA: Third Annual Theistic Ethics Workshop
College of William and Mary
October 5-7, 2017
Laura Ekstrom (College of William and Mary)
Dan Moller (University of Maryland)
Mark Murphy (Georgetown University)
Mark Schroeder (University of Southern California)
Rebecca Stangl (University of Virginia)
Goal: Contemporary philosophy of religion has been richly informed by important work in metaphysics and epistemology. At the same time, there has not been nearly as much work done at the intersection of philosophy of religion and meta-ethics or normative theory. To help inspire more good work in this area, Christian Miller (Wake Forest), Mark Murphy (Georgetown), and Chris Tucker (William and Mary) organize a series of annual workshops on theistic ethics.
Logistics: The third workshop will be held at the campus of William and Mary. We will begin with dinner and the first paper on Thursday, October 5th and conclude at the end of the day on Saturday, October 7th, 2017. There will be five invited papers and four spots for submitted papers. All papers will have 40 minutes for presentation and at least 40 minutes for discussion.
Themes: “Theistic ethics” is to be understood broadly to include such topics as divine command and divine will theories; God and natural law; ethics and the problem of evil; moral arguments for a theistic being; infused and acquired virtues; the harms and benefits of theistic religions; what mainstream moral theories imply about divine action; specific ethical issues in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; and many other topics as well.
Applying: Those interested in participating should submit an abstract of up to 750 words and a current C.V. to Chris Tucker (firstname.lastname@example.org) by May 1, 2017. Word or PDF file formats only. Please prepare abstracts for anonymous review. For although the organizers seek to have a balanced program both in terms of topics and presenters, the initial stage of review will be done anonymously. Questions about the workshop should be sent to the email@example.com.
Notification will be made by June 1, 2017 at the latest. If your abstract is selected, we will cover your accommodation, meals at the conference, and travel expenses of up to $1200 (and possibly more). Co-authors are welcome, but only one author’s expenses can be covered. You do not have to send your paper in advance of the workshop, and it certainly can be a work in progress.
Supported by generous funding from William and Mary’s philosophy department, Theresa Thompson ‘67, William and Mary Arts and Sciences, and the Carswell Fund of the Wake Forest University Philosophy Department
Welcome again to the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! This week’s paper is “Proportionality, Maximization, and the Highest Good” by Craig E. Bacon. Bacon is a PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina. His dissertation is entitled The Life of Virtue: Moral Progress and Kant’s Idea of the Highest Good, and is scheduled to be defended in May. While the dissertation itself answers a variety of problems in the scholarship on the highest good and works out a coherent account of the role played by the religious postulates, Bacon also maintains research interests in the relationship between happiness and morality in the Early Modern period, and in contemporary Kantian approaches to the intersection of ethics, philosophy of religion, and civil life.
Proportionality, Maximization, and the Highest Good
Craig E. Bacon
In this paper, I argue that the contemporary scholarship on Kant’s highest good has mistakenly framed the discussion in a way that confuses the true content of this idea and obscures the role of the religious postulates of God and immortality. I suggest an alternate framework that begins with Kant’s own thought experiment from the Critique of Practical Reason and the First Preface to Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (and, more subtly, in the Critique of Pure Reason). In this thought experiment, the context for thinking about the highest good centers on a morally committed agent who takes on the viewpoint of an omnipotent world creator. This context establishes the content of the idea of the highest good, and the religious postulates arise in connection to this idea.
Beginning with Andrews Reath’s influential 1988 paper, much of the scholarship on Kant’s idea of the highest good has focused on the assertion that Kant has both a “secular” and a “theological” conception of the highest good, where the theological conception considers the postulates of God and immortality to be essential to the realization of the highest good, but the secular conception either sidesteps the postulates or at least finds Kant’s commitment to them waning. This distinction largely (but not without exception) maps onto another division in the literature between a “maximization” thesis and a “proportionality” thesis. The maximization thesis claims that the highest good consists in the concurrent maximization of happiness and virtue–whatever that maximum might be–whereas the proportionality thesis understands the highest good as a state of affairs in which happiness appropriately matches virtue, i.e., whatever one’s level of virtue, one’s enjoyment of happiness occurs proportionately. Both theses ‘hedge’ on the highest good as ideal, since less-than-complete happiness and/or less-than-complete virtue comprise the ideal. The common assumption is that the religious postulates (and most importantly for this paper, the postulation of God as an author of nature) arise from the proportionality thesis but not from the maximization thesis. The further common assumption is that God’s role is to actively ‘set’ the proportion between happiness and virtue, i.e., that divine agency supersedes human efforts to bring about the highest good.
I argue that (1) these common assumptions are mistaken and (2) that secular/theological and maximization/proportionality dichotomies exist because scholars have taken these mistaken assumptions about the religious postulates and ‘read them back’ into the content of the idea of the highest good. That is, the scholarship has assumed an interpretation of the religious postulates’ role as more or less obvious, and has interpreted the highest good accordingly. To correct this mistake, I argue that we should turn things around: the content of the idea of the highest good must be set first, then we can understand how the religious postulates support the realization of the highest good.
In the Second Critique and in the Religion, Kant introduces his discussions of the highest good with a question: what kind of world can I will? The thought experiment assumes an agent who is already committed to the moral law; as such, this agent would choose a world in which everyone is committed to the moral law and does what they should. But this fidelity to the moral law (‘virtue,’ for the purposes of this paper) is what constitutes worthiness to be happy, since happiness itself is only conditionally good while moral goodness fulfills this condition. Therefore, Kant’s idea of the highest good consists in truly universal happiness proportioned to truly universal virtue. Lesser degrees of happiness or virtue are inconsistent with this ideal.
My argument in this paper is a slice of a dissertation chapter that argues for an understanding of ‘proportionality’ as ‘conditionality’ rather than as a calculable, mathematical apparatus. This chapter also situates Kant’s use of proportionality against the background principle of ‘ought implies can,’ and sets up later chapters on the role of the postulates of God and immortality in relation to the highest good. Most interestingly for my future research, I think my argument here has important implications for Kant’s claim that morality expands into religion through the highest good. Any lesser ideal than what I argue for here does not generate the same (subjective) need for God that results in religion as a way of conceiving of/representing “all our duties” as divine commands.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below.
This week’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “The Shattered Spiritual Self” by Michelle Panchuk. Dr. Panchuk received her PhD from the University of South Carolina in 2016, and is currently a research fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Her previous work, some of which has been published in International Philosophical Quarterly, has focused on the relationship between classical theism and the metaphysics of universals. Currently, she is working on a monograph on the topic of religious trauma.
The Shattered Spiritual Self
Philosophical Reflections on Religious Trauma, Worship, and Deconversion
In this paper I argue that we should understand religious trauma as a kind of transformative experience that diminishes the individual’s capacity to engage in religious life, and that this diminished capacity is sometimes so severe that it constitutes an all-things-considered reason for the individual to deconvert, whether or not she maintains the beliefs associated with her former religion. In the first section I provide an introduction to trauma in a general sense. In the second I suggest two criteria that trauma must meet to count as religious trauma and then sketch a working definition of it. In the third section I narrow the scope of discussion to the non- cognitive effects of religious trauma and analyze two case studies relative to those effects. In the final section I argue that the non-cognitive effects of religious trauma may place worship out of reach of some survivors of religious trauma, and that this can give them an all-things-considered reason to deconvert. Even if this last argument fails to persuade the reader, I believe that this paper will successfully demonstrate that religious trauma is a kind of experience that deserves serious philosophical and theological consideration.
In its most severe forms trauma has devastating effects on the individual’s ability to function and flourish. Trauma theorists divide the effects of trauma into two categories: the epistemic/cognitive effects and the non-cognitive—emotional and physiological—effects. Examples of the former are things like believing oneself to be fundamentally unsafe in the world, while examples of the latter include intrusive memories, hyperarousal, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbances. At least two conditions must be met for an experience to count as religiously traumatic. First, the trauma must be inflicted by some aspect of the religion, and second, its effects must have a religious object. The fact that only a portion of the individuals who experience trauma more generally develop a post-traumatic disorder suggests that only a portion of those who endure a religiously traumatic experience will develop religiously significant post- traumatic distress, but there simply isn’t enough research to say exactly how common it is. It is enough for our current purposes that religious trauma exists, and as I will show below, raises philosophical questions about religious faith in those cases. Thus, I will define religious trauma as: any traumatic experience of the divine being, religious community, religious dogma, or religious practice that transforms the individual, either epistemically or non-cognitively, in such a way that her ability to participate in religious life is significantly diminished.
According to our definition, trauma is a kind of lived experience. It does not result from theoretical reasoning when someone contemplates the ontological argument and infers that it is invalid. The experience itself transforms the individual, and that transformation involves both epistemic and non-cognitive changes. Epistemically, the subject gains knowledge of what the experience is like, which would have been impossible for them to gain otherwise. Though this is knowledge gained, we may include it as an aspect of the shattered self because it does not involve propositions inferred from the experience. Personally, they may experience a range of changes in their values, preferences, and non-cognitive responses to religious life. For the most part, these results are outside of the individuals’ conscious control.
In most religions, maintaining the relevant set of propositional attitudes is not a sufficient condition for counting oneself an adherent of the religion. What is required beyond the appropriate propositional attitudes, we may call worship in a broad sense (e.g., religious rituals, proper attitudes toward the sacred and the divine, etc). However, there is another sense of ‘worship’ that is much more narrow, referring only to the attitudinal aspects of worship, so we can distinguish between the practice of worship and the attitude of worship, for the sake of simplicity. In this narrow sense, worship involves loving, adoring, revering, and desiring the divine being. Survivors of religious trauma may find themselves unable to worship according to the demands of their religion in both the broad and the narrow senses. If a survivor experiences intrusive memories while engaging in religious rituals, it may become physically and psychologically impossible for her to fulfill them. This would be an obstacle to worship in the broad sense. If, however, she experiences deep revulsion and utter terror toward the divine being, then even worship in the narrow sense may be out of reach, because the proper emotions are partially constitutive of this sense of worship. I argue that not only is the survivor of religious trauma nonculpable for these non-cognitive effects of trauma, but that in cases where they are severe enough to preclude that attitudinal state constitutive of worship, they may constitute and all-things considered reason to deconvert.
The complete paper is available here.
Welcome again to the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! This will be our last paper of the fall term. The Virtual Colloquium will return beginning Friday, January 20. There are still plenty of slots open for the spring, so please send me (Kenny) nominations (including self-nominations)!
Today’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion” by Samuel Lebens. Dr. Lebens received his PhD in philosophy from Birkbeck College, London in 2010. After completing his PhD, he attended Rabbinical Seminaries in Israel and received Rabbinical Ordination in 2013. Currently, he is Research Director of the project on analytical Jewish philosophical theology at the University of Haifa, and also chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism. His papers have appeared in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Religious Studies, and International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Additionally, Dr. Lebens in a contributing blogger for Haaretz.
Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion
This paper was born during a summer seminar on the nature and value of faith run by Baylor University and Western Washington University, hosted at the University of Missouri. Accordingly, it owes its existence to Trent Dougherty, Daniel Howard-Snyder, and Jon Kvanvig, who ran the seminar. I won’t name all of the participants, but it was conversations with them that really helped me to hone my ideas into their current form. So I’m grateful to them all.
The paper was, initially, going to be a work of Jewish philosophy. I was interested by a number of Rabbinic texts that made it seem as if feeling alienated from the community, and setting yourself aside from the community, was in and of itself an act of apostasy. That struck me as counter-intuitive because apostasy is supposed to be an intellectual crime. I was interested in bringing those texts into conversation with Midrashic portrayals of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism. The authors of the Midrash seem to go to great lengths to downplay Ruth’s theological commitments, and to present her conversion as stemming first and foremost from her personal relationship with Naomi. These somewhat surprising threads of the Jewish tradition jibe well with work I had already published that sought to downplay the role that belief plays in the religious life, and to emphasise the role of the imagination. These new sources were downplaying belief in order to emphasise, not imagination, but communal affinity. It was these reflections that lead me in the direction of the central tri-partite distinction in this paper between (1) the propositional content of a faith, (2) communal belonging, and (3) imaginative engagement.
Before long, I realized that the picture wasn’t peculiar to Judaism at all. For that reason, the paper has evolved and barely contains any reference to the Rabbinic texts that inspired it. The paper considers religious traditions as far apart from one another as Zen Bhuddism and Quakerism. My idea is simple: all religions require (1) propositional faith, (2) communal belonging, and (3) imaginative engagement. There are putative counter-examples to this claim, but I think that they can all be dealt with (I try to deal with many of them in the paper). What’s more, I think that failure to conceive of religion in these terms stems either from a failure to recognize that religion is a sociological phenomenon, or from the failure to appreciate that religiosity has a distinctive psychology. The paper then became about the philosophical merit of regarding religiosity in terms of these three elements. The basic conclusion is that philosophers conceiving of religiosity in this way opens up new ways for thinking about what could make religiosity rational and/or reasonable.
In its own small way, I hope that this paper contributes towards a move within philosophy of religion to concentrate upon religion as a lived human experience. I love philosophical theology. But philosophy of religion needs to have broader horizons than mere theology. Religions often come along with theological commitments, but religions are much richer than that, and the philosophy of religion would do well to relate to religions as sociological and psychological phenomena too. The paper is still a little rough around the edges, and I look forward to hearing people’s comments and suggestions.
The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
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.”
|Today’s colloquium paper is “How to be Omnipresent” by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. Dr. Cowling received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He has published papers on a variety of topics in metaphysics, and his first monograph, Abstract Entities (Routledge) is scheduled to be released on March 1. It’s available for pre-order now!|
How to be Omnipresent
Sam Cowling and Wesley D. Cray
Thanks to Kenny Pearce and everyone else here at the Prosblogion. We are Sam Cowling (Denison University; firstname.lastname@example.org) and Wesley Cray (Texas Christian University; email@example.com), and we’re excited to be a part of the new Prosbloglion Virtual Colloquium series. Today, we’re presenting the penultimate draft of our paper, “How to Be Omnipresent,” which we’re happy to say is forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly.
Though the topic of omnipresence itself is perhaps one most naturally located within philosophy of religion, we hope that the paper is of interest to metaphysicians more generally—especially those who are invested in questions about occupation and location. We also think it has the potential to lead into neat discussions about abstract entities. And even among philosophers of religion, we hope that the paper will be of interest to those working outside of the constraints of philosophy of Western, monotheistic religion. Discussions of omnipresence do, of course, show up in other religious traditions—and we take it to be a virtue of our account that it stretches across (and even outside of) traditions, rather than remaining bound to any particular tradition.
Anyway, we develop and defend a new account of omnipresence, which, we argue, is preferable to more familiar views, such as the Occupation View (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it occupies every region) and the Dependence View (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it can exert its will or power at every region). Our view, which we call the Existential View, takes an entity to be omnipresent iff it exists at every region.
Consider a version of necessitism along the lines of the views endorsed by Williamson and Linsky & Zalta. On such a view, the stock of entities is modally invariant, with all entities existing at all worlds. Despite enjoying necessary existence, (many or most) entities are only contingently concrete. When not concrete, they exist as abstract entities. We take it that these entities occupy regions only while concrete. For any world w, they still exist at w while abstract, even though they don’t occupy any region at w. So, the existence facts are separable from the occupation facts. We can make parallel comments and observations about the temporal case, looking to versions of permanentism.
In developing the Existential View, we repurpose the machinery of necessitism and permanentism and explore a spatial analog. If necessitism and permanentism are coherent—and we think they are—then, again, existence facts are separable from occupation facts. Now, just apply that to the spatial case: an entity might exist at a spatial (or spatiotemporal) region without occupying that region. An omnipresent entity is just an entity that exists at all regions, regardless of which regions, if any, it occupies.
On necessitism and permanentism, the stock of all entities is modally or temporally invariant, respectively. We don’t want to go that far in the spatial case. Instead, we take omnipresence to be a metaphysically distinctive feature, rather than one enjoyed by all entities. In fact, we take it to be an open question whether any entity actually enjoys omnipresence in the sense we develop. But we do think that it is metaphysically possible that an entity be omnipresent, and, by our lights, it’s good to have a account of what that means.
We call our view the Existential View because we tie existence to quantification, a la Quine. We might say that an entity exists at a world iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that world. Likewise, we might say that an entity exists at a time iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that time. By extension, we find it natural to go on to say that an entity exists at a region iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that region. To be omnipresent, then, is to be within the scope of the existential quantifier, regardless of regional restriction.
The biconditionals above are certainly not meant to offer reductive analyses. We leave it as an open question whether existence-at-a–world/time/region is something that can be reduced to more basic notions or whether it itself should be taken as basic. But even if we opt for the latter approach, the Existential View is still informative: an entity’s status as omnipresent depends, not on facts about its power or on facts about which regions it occupies, but on facts about where it exists. Omnipresent entities exist everywhere, even if they have no power or will or no regions that they occupy.
So, that’s the idea. In the paper, we go into more detail in developing the account, and give reasons why one might prefer it over the Occupation and Dependence Views. We also defend against a few objections. Maybe we’ll get the opportunity to try to defend it against a few more in the comments section here. We’re looking forward to the discussion!
The complete paper is available here. Discussion welcome below!
In the coming weeks, I will begin running a new feature on this blog which I am calling ‘the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium’. Like a real philosophy department colloquium, the virtual colloquium aims to be a weekly discussion of a philosophy paper. This being the Prosblogion, these will of course be papers in philosophy of religion. However, this term will be construed in a very broad sense to include philosophy papers in any field and any tradition that are relevant to religion in general or to any particular religion. I will be trying, as much as possible, to span the full diversity of philosophers, philosophical projects, arguments and positions that fall within that very general characterization of philosophy of religion. The colloquium will primarily feature the work of junior scholars.
I have several aims for this project. First, I hope simply that this will foster interesting discussion of philosophical issues related to religion(s). Second, I think it is an unfortunate feature of the academic discipline of philosophy that many excellent papers are barely read and commented on at all. I therefore hope that the virtual colloquium will help a variety of philosophy papers to be part of a genuine conversation (and maybe not wait years to be cited for the first time!). Third, I hope that the series will help to bring attention to the diverse kinds of work being undertaken in contemporary philosophy of religion and the variety of positions and arguments being defended. Finally, I hope that this will provide an opportunity for philosophers who don’t get to attend conferences and colloquia on a regular basis to engage in helpful back-and-forth philosophical discussion at a high level.
I am open to suggestions about format, but my current plan is as follows. Just like an in-person colloquium, I will briefly introduce the colloquium ‘speaker’. Following this, the ‘speaker’ will give an introductory summary of the paper under discussion (recommended length about 800 words, but flexible). Then there will be a link to the full text of the paper. The paper may be a draft or a recent publication, but must be online somewhere. Open access is of course preferable, but where this is infeasible for copyright reasons a link to the journal (or PhilPapers) to allow those who have access through their university would be acceptable.
If there is sufficient interest, I hope to run the first virtual colloquium on Friday, October 14 and hold subsequent colloquia each Friday through at least the end of the present academic year. I am beginning to contact potential presenters right away. I would appreciate receiving nominations particularly of junior philosophers who have a draft or recent publication in philosophy of religion to discuss. These can be left in the comments below, or sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Receiving plenty of nominations from lots of different people will help to ensure the schedule does not end up unduly biased toward my own philosophical propensities. Self-nominations are also encouraged!
For the past few years, I have organized a lively philosophy of religion work-in-progress group at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto.
– If you would like to be added to the mailing list for this group, please email me: email@example.com
– If you are (or plan to be) in the Toronto area this semester, and would like to present a paper to this group, please let me know.
– If you would like to present a paper to this group via Skype this semester, please let me know. (We have an 80″ screen in our department’s meeting room!)
Department of Philosophy