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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Reductive Philosophy of Religion

I've gotten in a habit of writing about writing lately.  That may be simply be a product of having done so much of it over the past several years and having the opportunity to reflect.  Specifically, I like to reassess the processes I use in my writing.

One reason for this is that I want to identify areas in which I can improve my writing, and the other is that I want to identify areas in which I can improve my thinking.  Though what I primarily spend time on is self-assessment to identify my own mistakes and correct them, I have also noticed some mistakes made by other writers.

A common one that I try to avoid when writing about religion in the form of a philosophical exposition is the creation of what I call a reductive philosophy of religion.  I've noticed that many intelligent bloggers, and journalists, and occasionally even professional philosophers have a tendency to manufacture a reductive philosophy of [insert religion here].

Nietzsche, for example, despite his very real brilliance, had a somewhat reductive understanding of Buddhism and Christianity.  While he presented his case robustly, and I really enjoy his works in general, Nietzsche had significant gaps in his knowledge of both religions, as well as his knowledge of Judaism.  I tend to think that he presented a reductive philosophy of religion to some extent, though perhaps to not as great an extent as some others among the Four (German) Horsemen of Atheism.

Certainly not all the folks writing about religion do this.  But there are many, especially in journalism and blogging, who do frequently manage it.  This is probably not their intention (though a few do seem to be malicious).  I tend to think that most people covering the topic of religion through philosophical exposition are seeking to be respectful of the religion, but are following common intellectual practices that lead in the other direction.

What I mean by this is that they seem to use a couple of approaches that tend to produce a reductive philosophy of a particular religion or of religion in general.

  1. The first approach is the one which assumes that we can understand a religion well enough from its text(s) alone, or from a translation of those texts, and then critique the religion from our reading of the text(s).
  2. The second approach is the one which assumes that we can understand a religion as a set of philosophical propositions, isolated from its larger context and the experience of its practitioners, and then critique those propositions as if they were the religion.

The problem with these approaches is not that reading the texts is a bad idea or that understanding the philosophical propositions embedded in the religion is a bad idea.  Both, I think, are quite necessary for performing any kind of philosophical exposition of a religion.

The problem, then, is that these approaches, even when combined, are insufficient for understanding a religion.  Reading the texts is a great start, and considering precisely what sorts of philosophical propositions are found within the religion's teachings is also a good start.

So what else do we need to understand a religion properly?  Reading the commentaries on the texts from highly educated and strongly devout practitioners of the religion is a good addition.  Reading translator's notes is important.  Reading about the historical context of the events being recounted in the text is necessary to understanding also.

Reading the testimonies of people who converted to the religion can be useful as well.  Reading the profound experiences people had while practicing their religion can be quite eye-opening.  But all this reading, extremely good as it is, isn't quite enough to really understand a religion.

Speaking to a normal everyday person who tries sincerely to live their religion's teachings is valuable in that regard.  Attending the services of that religious group is just as necessary as reading the texts.  And for those who really want to understand another religion, taking up its practices for a time adds a whole new dimension to understanding the religion.

More importantly, our experience of the religion can help us to view it and the people who practice it more holistically, more charitably, and more accurately.  We can then convey the truths proclaimed by the religion more robustly and more fluently.

We can then see what is good, what is mediocre, and what is bad in the religion with more clarity.  Not only that, but we can then articulate the beauty found in the religion, even the beauty in its flaws, with greater eloquence and genuine appreciation.

It is this genuine appreciation for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful in each religious tradition that keeps us out of the most egregious pitfalls that lead to producing a reductive philosophy of religion.

Related: How can we dialogue with other religions respectfully?

Note: The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.

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