He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fair Questions: Do I Have a Philosophical Religion?

One of my friends recently shared an article with me which reviewed Carlos Fraenkel's "Philosophical Religions" and explained a few of its key points.  The book seems to be quite interesting and I recommend reading the article, but the question that I seek to answer here is whether I subscribe to a philosophical religion or an anti-philosophical religion in terms of my personal views.

The article ascribes a series of characteristics to philosophical religion, which I will examine to see if they accord with my views.  Summed up simply, the characteristics of philosophical religion are described as follows:

1.  Underneath the externals of various religious traditions, there is a shared ethical core and philosophical truth.

2.  Religious truth should be understood in an allegorical sense rather than a literal sense.

3.  This allegorical understanding is for the philosopher seeking deeper truth, and the more literal understanding for educating the pious in the ways of virtue.

4.  We should strive for a symphĂ´nia of philosophy and religion which allows us to see that God and Reason are in accord with one another.

I quite agree with the fourth characteristic of the perspective of the proponent of philosophical religion.  I certainly strive to achieve a compatibility between my philosophical views and my religion, forming a coherent worldview by integrating them.  On a deeper level, I would suggest that the ways in which sincere religious practice helps us to rid ourselves of unhealthy attachments in this life allows us room to exercise reason more fully because our reason is no longer merely engaged in justifying our own whims before all else, but is engaged in serving the good of all and finding truth without being self-serving.  Asceticism in particular helps us turn our reason to the service of becoming better people in a moral sense rather than merely rationalizing our current behaviors as being morally good or good enough.  As Benedict XVI put it admirably in his encyclical Spe Salvi:

"Yes indeed, reason is God's great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human. It becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path, and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself. Otherwise, man's situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgement in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation."

As for the second and third characteristics of philosophical religion, I tend to think that allegorical and literal truth are not mutually exclusive and that the truths of religion need not be divided into a higher and lower realms, though I will admit that our understanding of religious truth in its various forms does indeed develop as we grow throughout our lives.  Like Origen, I see the literal and allegorical senses as important parts of the whole of truth; I see them as part of a complex and layered tapestry of truth, a tapestry of such immensity that I cannot see the end.

With regard to the first characteristic of philosophical religion, I have studied the various religions of the world in too much depth to agree that there is a shared philosophical truth which is universal to religions.  Within Christianity, we would be justified in saying that there is a shared philosophical truth among the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Within Buddhism, we would be justified in saying that there is a shared philosophical truth among the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. 

If we were to claim that there is a shared philosophical truth between the Orthodox Christian tradition and Theravada Buddhism, we would be on much less solid ground.  While there are some important points of convergence, the core of the religions are quite different even as many of the practices with regard to prayer, work, asceticism, and morality are quite similar.  If we were to compare Christianity with Judaism and Islam, then there is obviously a shared core to a greater extent than between Christianity and Buddhism, but it is nonetheless only a small shared core and the extent of the shared core among those three religions does not justify a broader claim that religions in general have a universal shared core of philosophical truth.

The only way to get to a shared core of philosophical truth among religions in general is to engage in a destructive reductionist approach to their philosophies, an approach I am unwilling to take even with religions which are not my own.  In the end, I can't honestly claim that I agree with the tenets of philosophical religion wholesale, but it is a perspective not without some merit within a limited scope.

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