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Big issues, boys and girls

16 August 2013

John Saxbee enjoys two books in a new philosophical series


Intensities: Philosophy, religion and the affirmation of life
Katharine Sarah Moody and Steven Shakespeare, editors
Ashgate £19.95
Church Times Bookshop £17.95 9 (Use code CT567)

Re-visioning Gender in Philosophy of Religion: Reason, love and epistemic locatedness
Pamela Sue Anderson
Ashgate £19.95
Church Times Bookshop £17.95 (Use code CT567)

EVER enterprising, Ashgate has launched a new series of books on contemporary Continental philosophy of religion with these two volumes. The overall title of the series is Intensities, and this also serves as the title for the opening symposium, edited by Katherine Sarah Moody and Steven Shakespeare.

The book addresses what are, quite literally, vital questions about what it is to live a life, and what it is that makes life worth living. The editors have done well in their choice of contributors, who, between them, display a broad-based command of recent Continental philosophy of religion - "Continental" as relatively non-analytic when compared with Anglo-American approaches. But they do less well in their introduction, which is not as accessible as most of the essays that they seek to contextualise.

Among the key questions are: What is life in relation to death? What is immanence in relation to transcendence? What does it mean to say "yes" to life, and to intensify lived experience, given the socio-political context within which European philosophers ply their trade? What philosophy of religion and life can be promoted now that the hegemony of Kant and Hegel has given way to a post-modern take on what the novelist William Nicholson describes as "the secret intensity of everyday life"?

Following Derrida's lead, the overall message is that life is duplicitous, complex, and conflicted. It cannot be reduced to purely mechanical organic matter, but neither can it be outsourced without remainder to an objective spirit or life-force. It can (should?) be affirmed and intensified, even if there is no shortage of philosophical and religious tendencies towards its negation and commodification.

The book is in three sections dealing with politics, thought, and spirituality respectively. Each contributor has something important to say, but John Reader's plea for a greatly enriched politics of life, John Caputo's robust and flesh-affirming incarnational theology, and Neil Turnbull's rehabilitation of the later Wittgenstein are especially en-lightening. Kenneth Jason Wardley's espousal of "a theology of boredom and fatigue" is certainly intriguing.

Mary Oliver's "Instructions for living a life" serve as an appropriate epigram for this demanding but worthwhile series-opener: "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."

Pamela Sue Anderson is Reader in Philosophy of Religion at Oxford, and, besides contributing an essay to Intensities, she is also the author of the second volume in the series.

Re-Visioning Gender in Philosophy of Religion seeks to show how the myths of patriarchy have inhibited or even prohibited women from writing philosophy and theology. She draws on the writings of Michèle Le Doeuff to expose how philosophy of religion has been gendered by the dominance of patriarchal perspectives, so that there is now a need to re-vision - i.e. to see with fresh eyes, feminine eyes - the issues addressed by philosophy of religion and philosophical theology.

Anderson argues that there has been a reluctance to acknowledge the influence of what she calls "epistemic locatedness" when it comes to evaluating philosophical texts. Being a white Anglo-Saxon male clearly makes an impact on how one handles, for example, truth, reason, love, beauty, and, of course, God, as concepts in the philosophy of religion.

It is not just that women are from Venus and men from Mars, so that we simply settle for gender differentiation and accept what male-dominated philosophy and theology has generated. Justice and diversity demand that women's perspectives be given due weight, not only in the interests of equality, but also because such re-visioning will be in everyone's best interest.

Gender intersects with a range of social and material categories, including race, religion, ethnicity, class, age, and sexual orientation. Each of these is controversial, and even more so when religion and theology become part of the mix. So Anderson acknowledges that she is "walking on ice". But the venture is as necessary as it is timely.

Indeed, it is about how God is gendered, and how power is perceived and authority exercised in religious contexts. But, above all, it is about how "philosophers of religion have a twofold task: to confront and, as need be, to transform the oppressive ways we have, or have not, been constituted emotionally and cognitively by a . . . tradition which, nevertheless, holds the possibility of a positive ethical formation . . . in and through our spiritual practices."

Versions of nearly all the ten chapters have appeared elsewhere. This renders the argument somewhat episodic, with a consequent loss of coherence. The style varies, and can be heavy going at times, but the range of reference, particularly to Continental philosophy of religion (as befits this series), is impressive.

The case for feminist philosophy of religion is best made by able and experienced practitioners, among whom Dr Anderson is clearly very much to the fore.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

DUANE OLSON's Issues in Contemporary Christian Thought is an introductory text. The first chapter looks at Christianity and the development of modernity, including historical criticism. The book then explains different approaches to theology, before embarking on three areas in which classic thought has been transformed: cosmology, Christology, and heaven and hell. The last four chapters look at other faiths, feminism, homosexuality, and environmental issues. Discussion questions and ideas for further reading are given for each topic (Fortress/Alban, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-8006-9665-8).

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