A religion of the head as well as the heart

21 October 2009

Mark Vernon detects a new approach to the philosophy of religion

There is something odd about the way philosophers tackle religion. They treat faith as if it were a matter of the head more than the heart. They tend to pursue questions that believers are not much bothered about, anyway: it is living a life of faith that confirms religious convictions, not the convictions that must first be proved before the living can begin.

The difference is sometimes expressed as that between the God of the philosophers and the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”, as Pascal put it. The former is the product of reason; the latter is the product of fire.

Hence the philosophy of religion can easily become moribund, turning in ever-decreasing circles of reason and failing to scratch real spiritual itches. Now, though, more productive avenues are opening up. Two recently published books demonstrate as much: Why Believe? by John Cottingham, Professor Em­er­itus of Philosophy at the University of Reading, and Philo­sophers and God: At the frontiers of faith and reason, edited by John Cornwell and Michael McGhee.

Three characteristics of the new approach are striking. First, phil­o­sophy, like religion, is being recognised as a way of life as much as it is a way of thinking. That philo­sophy, at heart, might be a struggle with life rather than with reason was something the ancient Greek phil­o­sophers took for granted. People remembered Socrates because he “brought philosophy down from the heavens”, by which was meant that he redefined it from being a scientific and speculative activity to one that had practical importance.

He got people asking ques­tions about matters such as courage and friendship, not just because it is interesting to explore such things but because in the process you discover much about your own nature. In The Republic, Plato writes: “For our discussion is on no ordinary matter, but on the right way to conduct our lives.”

The Stoics, who also followed in Socrates’s footsteps, used to say that “Thought is therapy.”

For believers, it is fairly obvious that the spiritual life is a way of life composed of rituals, ethics, and commitments. That may or may not then be reflected in a rigorous set of metaphysical arguments.

But philosophers forgot that the proof of the religious pudding is in the living rather than the think-ing, and so they assumed that the heart of belief was to be found in its assertions, not in its fruits. As a result, they nagged at the proofs for the existence of God or the co­herence of the concept of God.

Now, however, as the chief im­peratives of ancient philosophy are being rediscovered, so a model is emerging that brings philosoph-ical practice closer to religious practice: the two find natural sym­pathies once more. Both pri­marily seek life in all its fullness, and, only sec­ondarily, justifications with all the footnotes.

That said, philosophers will not give up on the footnotes, and with good reason; for reason is a vital part of the religious quest. Without it, there is no discernment or refine­ment of insights and patterns of life. But here, too, a different kind of argument is showing itself, one interested in questions about what it is to be good or what it is to be a person.

One central issue is this: how can you account for the moral nature of the way in which people experience the world? The secular approach looks to processes such as evolution, and, frankly, they do not provide very satisfactory answers.

For example, evolutionary psy­chology defines friendship as “reciprocal altruism” — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

That may capture something about the contractual relationships of the work­place, say, but it leaves the best kind of friendship unex-plained, since with soulmate-ship nothing is asked for, although much is given.

A theistic alternative says: if personhood and relationship are written into the fabric of the cosmos, then the desire for and the joy of friendship can be seen to stem from the resonance with that deeper reality. To put it more generally, God, as the source of what is good in life, may be the best hypothesis going.

A third element concerns the apophatic — philosophical theology that focuses on the unknowability and transcendence of God. In some ways, this renewal of the via negativa, as it is also called, can be understood as a response to contemporary atheism.

At their best, atheistic argu­ments can be of value to believers. By attacking ill-considered convictions about God, and the bloodier side of religious practice, they challenge what is a constant risk for the spiritually inclined: making God in their own image.

Believers have always had a tendency to assume that they have got God sussed. One of the most penetrating charges against early Christianity, written by the pagan Celsus, complained that believers bypass the lifelong search for truth and instead form quick convictions based on the sensational witness of miracles, or on the thrill of spiritual highs.

But philosophical theology in­vites us to dig deeper. It pushes at the inherently paradoxical nature of religious language — such as that Christ was both human and divine, or that God is both in the world and wholly other to the world — in order to precipitate an appreciation of the mystery with which faith grapples. When that intellectual effort is coupled to the emphasis on a way of life which is also being rediscovered, the God discerned by philosophers and the God sought by believers might not be so divided, but might even be seen as one.

Mark Vernon’s new book, Plato’s Podcasts: The ancients’ guide to modern living (Oneworld, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-85168-706-0), is published this month.

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