Idealism and Christian Theology: Concluding Thoughts and Table of Posts
April 24, 2017 — 15:48

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 1

Having finished commenting on every chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology, allow me here to offer some concluding thoughts on the book and its aims and scope.

First, some comments regarding scope. The title ‘idealism and Christian theology’ allows for a very wide scope. In the design of a volume like this, a judgment must be made about how broadly or narrowly the title is to be interpreted. Here, the title bears a relatively narrow interpretation in two respects, only one of which is explicit in the introduction. The explicit restriction of scope is that the volume considers only Berkeleian and Edwardsian idealisms and not, e.g., Kantian or post-Kantian idealisms (p. 3). The implicit restriction is that the Christian theology is confined exclusively to conservative/traditional Protestant theology.

By my count, three of the essays focus primarily on Berkeley and five focus primarily on Edwards. Of the three essays remaining, one (Wainwright) is primarily concerned with comparison and contrast between Berkeley and Edwards, and the other two (Wessling and Arcadi) focus on the theological consequences of idealism without engaging in significant exegesis of either Berkeley or Edwards (though Wessling connects his version of idealism with Edwards and Arcadi connects his with Berkeley).

While I’m tabulating things, here are some facts about the authors: four work primarily in philosophy, seven in theology. All eleven authors are male. Six of the seven theologians are affiliated with Christian institutions (colleges or seminaries), all of which have a conservative Protestant orientation. Three authors are affiliated with Fuller Theological Seminary. By contrast, all four of the philosophers (and the one remaining theologian) are affiliated with secular universities. All of the Berkeley essays (and the one comparative essay) are by philosophers, while all of the Edwards essays are by theologians.

These facts are likely connected with a point of contrast between the Berkeley essays and the Edwards essays, which I have been noting as I go along: the Edwards essays pretty much universally pay careful attention to Edwards’ own theological commitments, and the way Edwards himself connects his idealism with his theology. The authors writing about Edwards generally seem sympathetic to Edwards’ theology, as well as his idealism. By contrast, Airaksinen is the only author to pay significant attention to Berkeley’s theological commitments. The other authors writing about Berkeley are generally concerned with how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with certain theological claims they (the authors) take to be important. This observation is not necessarily a criticism; it’s another choice about scope. The two questions (how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with his own theological commitments; how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with our theological commitments) are both perfectly legitimate, provided we distinguish them from one another. However, it is a little odd, and perhaps unfortunate, that all the Berkeley essays are on one side and all the Edwards essays on the other. This probably has to do with the disciplinary divide: the fact that all the Berkeley essays are by philosophers and all the Edwards essays are by theologians (with one comparative essay by a philosopher).

Second, some comments regarding the aims of the volume. In my introductory post, I wrote: “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.” However, there turned out to be a degree of mismatch between my conception of the connection between idealism and Christian theology and the conception that animates this volume. My own account had primarily to do with a certain cluster of problems faced by the Christian idealist, which might be placed under the general heading ‘theology of the body.’ The body has significant importance to Christian theology, and idealism might be accused of running into Gnosticism by devaluing the body. To be sure, these sorts of issues do crop up in several places in the volume, and in some cases are addressed quite insightfully. (See especially the essays by Hamilton, Cortez, and Arcadi.) However, as the editors emphasize in the introduction (p. 3), this volume is more concerned with the value of idealism for constructive theological work than with the compatibility of idealism with basic points of orthodoxy. Of course, the orthodox theologian can use idealism constructively only if it is compatible with orthodoxy, and this is the reason that my question (the compatibility of idealism with ecumenical orthodoxy regarding the theology of the body) does come up in a number of places. But this is not the central focus.*

Finally, an overall evaluation. This volume must be understood as a defence of the harmony (not mere logical compatibility) of Berkeleian/Edwardsian idealism with traditional/conservative Protestant theology. Read in this way, all of the eleven essays are good, and at least six are excellent. The book is important and timely insofar as it stands at the intersection of two trends: the increasing seriousness with which idealism is taken in analytic philosophy, and the increasing engagement between analytic philosophy and theology. I, for one, think both of these trends are positive developments, and I therefore hope that this book will help to solidify both of them and also to begin a larger conversation about the relevance of metaphysical idealism to Christian theology.

Table of Posts

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


* Thanks to Joshua Farris for helpful correspondence on these points.

Arcadi on Idealism and the Eucharist
April 12, 2017 — 17:36

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 10 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealism and Participating in the Body of Christ” by James Arcadi. This article is very clearly written and handles both philosophy and theology well. However, I have some lingering concerns about the position defended.

Arcadi begins with an admirably clear account of the spectrum of Christian positions on the metaphysics of the Eucharist. (I note, in passing, that during the Reformation and the early modern period, this was one of the most divisive questions in Christian theology, and differences over this question were at least as important as difference in soteriology in distinguishing one Christian communion from another. Today, however, these disputes are mostly forgotten by ordinary Christians—including, to a large extent, even clergy—and receive very little emphasis from Christian theologians and philosophers.) Aracadi is specifically interested in views that affirm the corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist for these, one might suppose, are inconsistent with idealism. Corporeal presence theories take Christ to be present bodily in the Eucharistic elements, in contrast to symbolic theories or ‘spiritual’ presence theories. Arcadi helpfully uses the term ‘corporeal presence’ rather than the more common ‘real presence’ on account of the fact that some spiritual presence theologians might like to regard the spiritual presence of Christ as ‘real’. The question with which Arcadi is concerned is whether an idealist might claim that Christ is present in the consecrated elements in a bodily way.

In his discussion, Arcadi successfully avoids a few common pitfalls. First, he avoids the conflation of real presence with transubstantiation. As Arcadi clearly explains, transubstantiation is a specific theory of how Christ is bodily present in the consecrated elements, and this specific theory should be distinguished from the bare claim that Christ is (somehow) present bodily. Second, one might think that idealism is just obviously inconsistent with corporeal presence since idealism denies the reality of all things corporeal. This, however, is not so: idealism (at least the Berkeleian variety with which Arcadi is concerned) denies the existence of matter in a particular metaphysical sense of that term, but it nevertheless affirms the existence of bodies. The doctrine in question is a doctrine of corporeal (bodily) presence, not a doctrine of material presence, so it is not so obviously inconsistent with idealism. So the question is whether the idealist can affirm that Christ is somehow bodily present in the consecrated elements.

To answer this question, Arcadi considers three theories: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and impanation. Now, the doctrine of transubstantiation is standardly explicated in the jargon of Aristotelian metaphysics and this, one might suppose, makes it obviously inconsistent with idealism, a radically anti-Aristotelian metaphysical doctrine. (Indeed, this is precisely what I would have said prior to reading this article!) However, Arcadi argues that this is too quick, for transubstantiation can be formulated without this jargon. What the doctrine claims, at bottom, is that, when the elements are consecrated, the bread ceases to be present and the body of Christ begins to be present, although the sensible qualities of bread remain throughout, and the sensible qualities of the body of Christ are absent throughout. Consubstantiation is precisely the same, except that it holds that the bread continues to be present (201-2). Now these views, Arcadi argues, do turn out to be inconsistent with (Berkeleian) idealism. The reason is that a core principle of Berkeleian idealism is the refusal to distinguish the bread itself from its sensible qualities. Hence, for the Berkeleian, as long as the sensible qualities of bread are present, the bread is present, and as long as the sensible qualities of the body of Christ are absent, the body of Christ is absent (203-4).

According to the third view, impanation, Christ comes to bear to the bread a relation that is somehow similar or analogous to the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ, or Christ’s relation to his human body. Arcadi favors the latter approach, and argues that it is consistent with idealism: the bread (while remaining bread) comes to be the body of Christ in the sense that it comes to be related to Christ in the same way Christ’s human body is related to him. As indicated at 213n26, consistency with the Chalcedonian Definition appears to require that the relevant relation, on this picture, be a relation to Christ’s human soul. Arcadi takes the Berkeleian picture to hold that a given soul is embodied in a particular body just if it bears the right perceptual relation to the sensible qualities of that body (206-8). Clearly, there is no metaphysical difficulty in God’s bringing it about that Christ’s human soul bears this relation to the Eucharistic bread.

So far so good. However, as I said, I have some lingering concerns. First, one may worry that this is a Pyrrhic victory for the proponent of corporeal presence, for idealism would appear to undermine the distinction between corporeal presence views and merely symbolic views. Indeed, this will be particularly true if one holds (as I do) that on Berkeley’s view your body is the word in the language of nature that names you. On this view, that the bread means or refers to Christ (in the language of nature, and not merely by human institution) may be sufficient for it to count as Christ’s body, so there may be no ‘daylight’ between the mere symbolic view and Arcadi’s brand of impanation.

Now perhaps Aracadi’s story about the perceptual relation between Christ and the bread can help here. However, and this is my second concern, Arcadi does not spell out precisely what the perceptual relation between Christ’s human soul and the bread amounts to. If the analogy to our relation to our bodies holds, then one expects that Christ (according to the humanity) experiences pain when the worshipper chews the Eucharistic bread. This strikes me as … troubling. (Perhaps others will think this is not so bad: after all when Christ refers to the bread as his body broken for us, he is talking about his suffering on the cross. This issue merits further reflection, and I’m sure there is a large theological literature on it with which I am not familiar.)

These concerns notwithstanding, this is, as I have said, an excellent essay that handles both the philosophy and the theology with admirable clarity.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Mark Hamilton on Idealism and Fallenness
March 30, 2017 — 4:52

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 6 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “On the Corruption of the Body: A Theological Argument for Metaphysical Idealism” by S. Mark Hamilton. This is easily the best essay in the collection so far, and the most directly focused on the central issues the volume purports to address.

Hamilton provides a carefully documented account of the ways in which mind-body dualism is presupposed by theologies of our post-lapsarian state of corruption in Reformed dogmatics from Calvin to the early 20th century. Jonathan Edwards, he shows, is an outlier with respect to this tradition. Hamilton enumerates a number of theological claims about our state of corruption and explicitly connects them to particular presuppositions about the metaphysics of the human person. He then argues that Edwards’ idealism captures what is important in this theology while avoiding certain metaphysical problems to which the opposing dualist view falls prey.

Like his co-editor Farris, Hamilton lumps together a variety of different views under the heading ‘mind-body dualism’. However, where Farris had done this somewhat sloppily and in a way that I think vitiated some of his arguments, Hamilton has done it carefully, identifying a genuine point of agreement between a number of different views and staying focused on that particular point. What Hamilton calls ‘mind-body dualism’ is simply the view that the mind and body are numerically distinct and the human person is some kind of composite of mind and body (108-109). Thus substance dualism, hylomorphism, and various forms of non-reductive physicalism all count as mind-body dualisms, in Hamilton’s sense.

All of these views can say very similar things about the corruption of post-lapsarian human persons. Hamilton interprets Reformed theologians as holding that the person is naturally a mind-body composite, but can exist in the absence of a body, although union with a body is required for “an immaterial soul’s proper function in a material world” (110). Given such a view (regardless of the metaphysical details) one can go on to say that post-lapsarian corruption is the corruption of the whole person (body and mind), but the primary locus of corruption is in the mind (soul), and in particular in “a disordered desire for things that are not God” (111). If, however, the corruption is to be a corruption of the whole person, it is inadequate to hold that the body and mind each separately or independently suffer corruption. The mind-body dualist (in Hamilton’s broad sense) will, Hamilton suggests, want to account for this in terms of a teleo-functional relationship between mental corruption and physical corruption. In other words, the mental (spiritual) corruption of the fallen person is such that it has certain natural physical consequences. The nature of this mental state is to be (mis)directed toward bodily sins. (I note in passing that Hamilton does not discuss the view—suggested by Augustine and emphasized by Malebranche—that fallenness/corruption consists in a disordered relation between mind and body. I do not know whether this view has defenders in the tradition of Reformed dogmatics.)

Hamilton asserts that Edwards is not, in his sense, a mind-body dualist. Edwards holds, according to Hamilton, “that human persons are essentially minds whose bodies are merely ideas or a collection of ideas in the divine mind” (117). According to Hamilton’s definition, this is not a form of dualism, even though it involves a distinction between mind and body, since it identifies the human person with the mind to the exclusion of the body. However, it seems to me that Hamilton is not totally consistent in attributing such a monism to Edwards since Hamilton’s definition of ‘mind-body dualism’ is in fact so broad that it could be accommodated within Edwards’ idealism: if Edwards thought that the human was somehow composed of mind and body this would make Edwards a dualist in Hamilton’s sense, even though bodies are just collections of mind-dependent ideas. Hamilton sometimes seems to attribute this view to Edwards.

This, however, does not vitiate what I take to be Hamilton’s central point, which is that the doctrine of fallenness as the Reformed tradition (and Augustinianism more broadly) has understood it is located right at the nexus between mind and body. Following the well-known arguments of Jaegwon Kim, Hamilton argues that, even on his broad definition, any form of mind-body dualism will face an interaction problem similar to the one famously faced by substance dualism. This despite the fact that mind-body dualism, so construed, is consistent with physicalism. If this is right, then our ability to spell out, and make sense of, the doctrine of fallenness or corruption depends on our ability to solve the notoriously difficult interaction problem. Edwards’ idealism, on the other hand, does better. According to this view, the corrupt features of the body (and the perceived world more generally), such as “disease, decay, and death” (122), just are corrupt states of mind. This, Hamilton says, provides a superior account of the corrupt fallen state of the human person.

The only point I have to make in response to this is that the Edwardsian view has an advantage over its competitors only if it takes states of bodily corruption to be numerically identical to mental states (or composites thereof). If non-reductive physicalism is coherent, then one could equally develop non-reductive idealisms. (Indeed, my interpretation of Berkeley could perhaps be described this way.) However, if Kim is right that non-reductive physicalisms have an interaction problem, then presumably non-reductive idealisms will as well. Accordingly, Hamilton needs to attribute to Edwards a fairly simplistic version of idealism, and such a simplistic idealism may face difficulties elsewhere.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Yandell on Berkeley and Creation
March 26, 2017 — 10:19

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The fourth chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Berkeley, Realism, Idealism, and Creation” by Keith Yandell. This is an interesting paper on Berkeley which, unless I missed something, did not turn out to be about Christian theology at all.

I say purposely that it did not turn out to be about Christian theology, because it sounds at the beginning as if it is going to be. Yandell begins by noting that Berkeley’s position is rare among Christian thinkers (p. 73), and discussing a particular threat to Christianity from those who take the creation of matter to be impossible (p. 73-74). He also briefly discusses the problem of how Berkeley can accommodate certain core Christian doctrines, such as creation and Incarnation, within his idealism (p. 78-79). Now, this paper is a mere 8 pages in length (plus endnotes), so I just mentioned over half of the pages as having something to do with Christian theology. Nevertheless, the paper does not seem to me to be about Christian theology in any significant sense, because the theology (and especially the specifically Christian elements of that theology) are totally inessential to the paper’s central point. Here’s why: Berkeley’s own response to the question of the compatibility of his view with divine creation is, essentially, that the Bible says God created the sun and the moon and the earth and plants and animals and so forth, but it doesn’t say that God created material substrata. So, in other words, there is not special theological problem here: if Berkeley has an adequate analysis of the real existence of ordinary objects, then he can preserve divine creation.* Yandell also mentions the Incarnation, but he says one might worry about how, on Berkeley’s view, we can say that “the Second Person of the Trinity [became] fully human as well as being fully divine, and thus being embodied, crucified, buried, and resurrected” (78). It sounds like what Yandell is worried about here is docetism, the heresy which holds that Christ merely appeared to be embodied and to suffer. But, again, if Berkeley can preserve the claim that human beings are really embodied—or, if you like, that human bodies are real—then it seems there is no special theological problem. (The case would be totally different if we were worried about avoiding Apollinarianism or Nestorianism or something; there might be special theological problems for Berkeley there.)

Indeed, Yandell does not treat these as special theological problems, for when his paper comes to solve them we are merely treated to an account of the existence of objects unperceived by humans. This account, of course, involves God, but it doesn’t seem to me to involve Christian theology in any interesting way. (Yandell goes for a sophisticated version of the divine idea theory somewhat similar to the ‘single-idea’ interpretation proposed by Marc Hight.)

This paper seems to me to be a missed opportunity, in terms of exploration of idealism and Christian theology. Most importantly, Yandell never discusses what looked at the beginning like it was going to be the central issue: why did many philosophers regard the creation of matter by God as a serious problem, and how can Berkeley’s immaterialism be seen as responding to this problem? In response to this, Yandell simply notes that most theists held that God was able to create matter (and had created matter). What reason is there to be dissatisfied with this view? Yandell gives Berkeley’s reasons for being dissatisfied with this view, which is that matter is (according to him) conceptually impossible. But Yandell quotes Berkeley saying that many of his predecessors had thought the creation of matter by God to be impossible, despite believing in matter (and, in some cases, also in God)! The opponents (according to Berkeley) take matter to exist eternally, since it can’t be created. Why do they think so, and how is Berkeley responding? This is not explored.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


* The objection raised by Lady Percival, which first led Berkeley to address this problem, was a more serious worry: how can God be said to have created inanimate objects before creating human beings? But that is not the problem of creation discussed by Yandell.

Wessling on ‘Idealistic Panentheism’
March 18, 2017 — 14:59

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The third essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealistic Panentheism: Reflections on Jonathan Edwards’s Account of the God-World Relation” by Jordan Wessling. The essay is avowedly not interpretive, but rather aims at an evaluation of a certain view in philosophical theology, dubbed ‘idealistic panentheism,’ which has been attributed to Edwards. This view takes the whole created world—including human minds—to be ideas in the mind of God. It is idealistic insofar as it takes reality to be fundamentally mental. It is panentheistic in a literal and straightforward sense: the created world exists in God’s mind. However, it is not pantheistic since those ideas that make up the created world are not all there is to God. This makes creation, as Wessling puts it in one place, “a proper part of God” (57).

Wessling says this view recommends itself as highly parsimonious and as providing compelling accounts of some of the divine attributes, especially omnipresence. He the considers three objections: (1) that the view runs counter to tradition; (2) that the view implies theological determinism and so undermines responses to the problem of evil; and (3) that the view literally locates evil in God, making God morally imperfect. I will only discuss the first of these here.

Wessling essentially dismisses this worry with the remark that panentheism is an avowedly revisionary conception of God, and yet has many adherents today. In light of the fact that his essay is not intended to be historical or interpretive, this seems to me a legitimate response: although some philosophers and theologians may be inclined to reject the view because it is revisionary, the view will still be of interest to many, since panentheism is already taken seriously in theology.

Nevertheless, this response left me with questions (perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of contemporary theology, or perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of Edwards). How exactly is this Edwardsian idealistic panentheism different from Spinoza? Presumably Edwards wanted it to be, and in fact I’d be surprised if he didn’t address this explicitly. Spinoza likewise takes our minds to be God’s ideas. Further, Wessling interprets Edwards as holding that “Human persons, for example, are what we might call ‘attenuated substances.’ … We might say that, for Edwards, humans (as well as other created minds) are only proximate bearers of properties, but God alone is the ultimate bearer of these properties” (56-57). Again, this sounds very similar to Spinoza. In addition to the fact that the historical Edwards presumably wouldn’t have liked this, it raises the question of whether this sort of panentheism can ultimately be distinguished from pantheism. The fact that there is more to God than these ideas is supposed to do the work of distinguishing it from pantheism. But this is not spelled out. If God somehow had a choice as to which of God’s ideas were ‘real’ created objects, and other ideas were mere possibilia, this would help. But exactly how this works, exactly what makes for that difference, is not explored here.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Spiegel on Berkeley and Orthodoxy
March 8, 2017 — 12:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

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.

Divine Language

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.)

Virtual Colloquium: H.D.P. Burling, “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.”
January 20, 2017 — 6:00

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

Welcome to the first Virtual Colloquium of the spring term! Today’s paper is “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited” by H.D.P. Burling. Hugh Burling is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge (UK) and a Visiting Graduate Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He work has been published in Religious Studies. His research concerns religious disagreement, method in theology, and the concept of God.


Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.

H.D.P. Burling

We instinctively characterise religious disagreement as disagreement either about what there is, or about what the same thing – God – is like. A common dialectical move made in modern theology, both academic and popular, sits between these two possibilities. Often, we read a theist of one stripe claiming that theists of another stripe don’t worship the same God. They are ‘idolaters’, or, more diplomatically, they just so badly misconceive God that they don’t ‘mean’ the same ‘thing’ by His names. It is not easy to explain what is mistaken about this move when it seems mistaken. My first publication concerned a particular version of it, in which natural theology is attacked as having to do with some other being than the God Christianity concerns. ‘Debunking’ local instances of the manoeuvre is worthwhile, but I wasn’t satisfied, and wanted a more general strategy which might show what is wrong with adopting partisan definitions of ‘God’ in order to avoid deeper engagement with others’ claims about God.

The strategy I adopt in the following article is to regard that manoeuvre as just one of the many features of theistic religious language which is curious – one of the explananda for a semantics for theism. So, we start by asking what we ‘mean’ by ‘God’, and answer that question by attempting to infer the rules of the ‘theology game’ by watching people play it. The conclusion I come to is that ‘God’ implicitly denotes, in Russell’s sense, whichever being is worthy of our worship. This secures co-reference between theists of extremely different stripes, whilst explaining the high-stakes nature of theological disagreement, and why parties to it o not just ‘walk away’ when apparent parity is reached, or one party attempts to squirrel his definition of “God” in favour of his claims about God. If both parties implicitly understand something Anselmian by ‘God’, then when the Christian insists that by ‘God’ he just means the Holy Trinity, the Muslim’s response to this makes sense. Rather than walking away (‘If they’re what you mean by ‘God’, I don’t care what you claim about them’), she will challenge him.

The article itself shows how my crypto-Anselmian understanding of God copes better with other desiderata for a semantics for theism than rival theories in the nascent literature. The view I defend makes it very easy for humans to successfully pick out God with ‘God’ because the basic ethics of worship are something we pick up fast, and, plausibly, most of us are introduced to God-talk in an appropriate context to get stuck in with worshipping the One we intentionally pick out with that Name. Kripkean views according to which ‘God’ is a proper name whose reference is passed down via a causal chain, however, threaten ease of access for speakers because the chain is so messy and fragile. Non-Anselmian descriptivist views struggle because their content is often harder for speakers to have in mind.

I hope the article is persuasive in defending a view about the semantics of ‘God’ which, I think, is the best candidate for being ‘the’ traditional view. (I think that Anselmian descriptivisms, and descriptivisms which appeal to lists of metaphysical divine names, only come apart in practice when our axiologies do not reflect those of the theologians responsible for the lists of divine names.) But I also hope it’s persuasive to theologians who lean towards identifying God in a confessional manner. Otherwise, I think identifying God the way I do can help explain a lot about the commonalities between different behaviours and literatures we call ‘religious’.

Within the scope of the article, I do not have space to go through alternative iterations of the ‘Specified Singleton’ view, other than my preferred option. So I’d be particularly curious to hear about alternatives which strike readers as preferable.


The complete paper is available here

Virtual Colloquium: Samuel Lebens, “Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion”
December 9, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Religion and Life  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 6

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

Samuel Lebens

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!

Philosophers and their religious practices: Part 22, Comparative Philosophy, the Unforced Moral Consensus, and the Charms of Expressive Theism
June 30, 2016 — 14:49

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 7

This is the twenty-second 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 these links for links for parts 12345678910111213,  141516171819, 20 and 21

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 Owen Flanagan, James B Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University

Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.

I am James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University in Durham NC, where I am Co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and still have that Catholic boy inside me.  I received a fantastic education from nuns, most of whom had never been to anything that we would call college. I get Catholicism.  It is in my blood and bones. It is familiar.  In Rome last year, my wife and I visited Saint Peter’s, many other churches, went to vespers at a convent, and I was consistently moved, engaged. But I haven’t practiced since I was a young teenager.  I was bothered by hell, specifically the idea that a good God would have such a place, by the emphasis on sexual sins, and by a sincere worry that although Jesus might be understood as a prophet, as he is in the Koran, but was simply nowhere good enough to be God.

So, I am a certain kind of atheist, a philosophical one, who has never heard a substantive conception of God, the sort that is presented in creedal religions (I believe in god the Father almighty…) that I thought the weight of reasons supported belief in. The reasons always seem to weigh against actually believing in THAT God.  This philosophical orientation goes well with a certain resistance to epistemic over-confidence that is needed to speak confidently about the existence or nature of one’s God or gods.

In part, I have been too impressed, in a good way I think, by my interest and study of other great world religions to be confident about the creedal parts of the Catholicism I was raised in, which I was told was the one true religion. Confucianism, which treads lightly on the divinity stuff, and Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism, are beautiful without being theistic in the familiar senses. Some say Buddhism is atheistic, which is true as far as a creator God goes. But Buddhism, like almost every spiritual tradition seems committed to ideas, which are hard to take literally from the perspective of the scientific image such as rebirth and karma. These ideas can however easily be taken poetically and embodied in rituals without literal commitment.

That said, I get the religious impulse, embrace the feelings of mystery, awe, and existential anxiety about the meaning and significance of life that most every religion responds to.  I love the part of most religious traditions that enact, express, and acknowledge the mystery of things.  In fact I preferred the old pre-Vatican 2 masses in Latin with more dramatic music, incense, mystery, drama.

In The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2007), I make the distinction between assertive theism, where one asserts certain supernatural claims as true, and expressive theism, where one expresses various extra-mundane impulses, feelings, emotions, and expansive not-humanly-possible love.  I prefer the latter to the former.

You might think this makes me a familiar type: spiritual but not religious.  Maybe. But I am pretty allergic to New Age style religions because they seem self-indulgent, egoistic, and in addition often assert empirically irresponsible stuff such as one hears in homeopathy.  So to make things maximally confusing and to conclude this part of our interview: When people ask about my religion, I sometimes say I am Catholic.  I say it in the same spirit many of my Jewish friends say and mean they are Jewish.  Catholicism is part of me.  It is like when I go home to Westchester County, New York where I was raised.  The dirt smells right, the way dirt is supposed to smell, the sky, the trees look right; it is familiar, comforting, and grounding.  But in both cases, I don’t live there anymore.

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Philosophers and their religious practices part 19: On Bringing pentecost to Pentecostalism and Diving Deep in Philosophy
March 16, 2016 — 17:06

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 1

This is the nineteenth 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 1234567891011121314151617 and 18. 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 J. Aaron Simmons, Associate Professor in philosophy at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina.

Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?

Currently, I am an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I have been at Furman for five years and prior to coming here I held positions at Hendrix College, The University of the South (Sewanee), and Vanderbilt University.

Most of my work is in philosophy of religion and occurs in light of phenomenology and existentialism. That said, I have also done work in political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and the history of philosophy (especially focusing on the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, and the “new phenomenology” of Michel Henry, Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion).

In general, there are two questions that keep me up at night and continue to cause me to get up every morning and keep working. The first is “What are the possibilities for and the fate of determinate religious belief and identity in postmodernism?” The second is “How might philosophers stop calling for the overcoming of the so-called analytic/continental divide and simply do constructive work that no longer reinforces the divide?” Ultimately, these two questions dovetail together in my thinking and writing.

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