Saturday, February 27, 2016

Philosophical futures

So, how's the Future of the Philosophy of Religion looking, nine papers and discussions later? Last time I was surprised to find myself comfortable thinking of myself as a philosopher of religion for the first time in a while. This time I'm not so sure. Our discussions were wide-ranging and satisfying in lots of ways, but the things I most resonated with came from folks who, like me, aren't mainly teaching philosophy of religion. For example, there was a fascinating paper abut the way Judaism and variously assimilated Jews were all over the modern definitions of philosophy and religion. Another, inspired in part by Ta-Nehisi Coates' locution "people who believe they are white," wondered why we treat "spiritual" beliefs differently from those involving bodies. Another found in Cassian's concept of discretio a way to think about mediating the perspectives of subfields from theology to cognitive science. And then there was the observation that there is no correlate to "human nature" in Buddhism, no idea of nature, really - and, to the extent there is, not a human one. These are still, I think, questions more likely to turn up in a religious studies setting. If an updated "philosophy of religion" names the space where these come together (is it really different from theory and method?), sign me up!

The symposium was (again) a reminder of my rather anomalous existence at an institution which - as I put it at one point - had no full-time person doing religious studies the year I was on leave. Other participants (and not just the majority with tenure) seem to me almost too comfortable in their assumption that there will continue to be departments of religious studies - not to mention positions in philosophy of religion. (For that matter, that "the university" and "the humanities" will survive in their current form.) In a splendid setting such as the one we were in, office of the president of the university until he moved to something even grander and now the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, it's hard to feel the precarity I feel at the ever-New School... The convener told us that he'd started these meetings precisely out of a concern that the future of philosophy of religion - as a job description, not just a vocation - needed some serious thought. Maybe a book of essays will come out of it all, showing as well as telling what a valuable thing philosophy of religion (of the kind we were doing, at least!) is.


And what about the Anthropocene? Is there anything the philosophy of religion has to offer? I come out of this discussion thinking it might. Religious history has its share of apocalyptic movements, and it's hard to avoid sounding apocalyptic when talking about the Anthropocene. (It's also easy to imagine that the broadening waves of disaster, displacement, etc. occasioned by climate change will feed their share of new apocalyptic movements.) Parsing how this situation is and isn't like the earlier ones might be something the right sort of philosopher of religion could do. A world religions version of what my colleague Ken Wark calls "Anthropocene Denial Bingo" is imaginable, too (yesterday's unanswered plea to the Book of Job is an example). And what I suggested in my talk yesterday - reflection on ways in which our very category of "religion" might be fueled by and fueling the unsustainable carbon civilization from which we must learn to wean ourselves...

(The eye-like image above, by the way, is what you see when you look from the ground floor of our symposium building through an opening to the second-floor chandelier.)

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