I have recently returned from giving the Wold Lecture at Union College in Schenectady, New York. The broad theme was scientific perspectives on religious conflict and the specific focus was religious conflict due to ideological differences between liberals and conservatives. This was, in part, a report on the research I am pursuing in the Spectrums Project. My hosts were Wold Professor of Religious Studies Peter Bedford and Provost Therese McCarty. The lecture took place in the astonishing Nott Memorial (built in stages from 1858 through 1875 to 1904, and beautifully restored in the 1990s). The hospitality was wonderful, the students were fascinating, and the institutional environment struck me as the perfect liberal arts college setting.
I am heading to McGill University in Montreal for a symposium on the future of philosophy of religion. The April 25, 2013 event is organized by Jim Kanaris, a McGill philosopher of religion particularly interested in how the field is responding to and interacting with religious studies.
There have been quite a few conference events on the future of philosophy of religion in recent years. I suspect that this is a sign of a discipline having trouble finding its way. There are three reasons for the identity confusion that provokes pondering the future.
The Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought (IARPT; formerly HIARPT) is hosting its annual conference in Colorado Springs from June 11-15, 2012. The theme of the conference, according to the Call for Papers, “encompasses exploration, defense, and criticism of the various forms of metaphysical and/or religious naturalism that have been proposed in the past, are being argued for in the present, or are thought to be inviting possibilities for the future.” This theme is close to the heart of the intellectual interests of this remarkable group of intellectuals, which takes its rise from the Chicago School’s early twentieth-century naturalism, American pragmatism along the Harvard-Columbia axis, and process thought.
The group is thriving, having built upon many successful years associated with the lovely town of Highlands North Carolina and the priceless leadership of Creighton Peden. Almost everyone in the United States involved in pragmatism, naturalism, and religion has some connection with this group. it is also a close-knit group, with lots of friendships stretching across many years. This is partly because it is one of the few places where metaphysical conversations still have an honored place in American philosophical and theological discussion.
The Society for Philosophy of Religion, USA is meeting in Savannah, Georgia in February 2012. One of the sessions at that meeting will be a panel on my book, Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion. Panel members are Richard Amesbury (Claremont School of Theology), Timothy Knepper (Drake University), and Kevin Schilbrack (Western Carolina University), with me responding.
The point of Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry is to describe philosophy of religion not as a discipline but as a suite of related disciplinary inquiries that work both across cultures and across academic disciplines—thus, multidisciplinary, comparative inquiry. This vision of the philosophy of religion places it squarely in the secular academy rather than as an explicit adjunct or a surreptitious affiliate of any religious institution or movement. Religious philosophy, so conceived, has a future, both conceptually and institutionally, but it is one that needs to be articulated and defended, as well as contrasted with more common but intellectually less reputable forms of philosophy of religion that effectively promote particular institutionally borne religious ideologies without due concern for their rational standing in relation to the wider words of philosophy and religious studies.
The sciences of cognition and culture are profoundly transforming our understanding of the origins and functions of religion. Both experimental work and evolutionary modeling have shown convincingly that evolutionarily stabilized patterns of human cognition and social life lead naturally both to beliefs in supernatural beings (gods, bodhisattvas, ancestors, and the like) and to the formation of supernaturally reinforced and authorized coalitions (churches, temples, religious traditions, and the like). The precise mechanisms of the birth of Gods and the formation of religious rituals and groups are still very much under debate (for example, it is not clear the extent to which the underlying cognitive mechanisms are selected for this religious function or whether the function is a side effect of cognitive characteristics that emerged for reasons unrelated to religion). but the direction of travel is quite clear.
At this point, theologians (that is, religious intellectuals in any religious tradition or pursuing secular academic forms of inquiry into religious topics) are scarcely aware of these research results in the scientific study of religion and haven’t really begun to reflect on their implications for theological projects. But the question should be faced squarely: How should theologians respond to this new evidence about how human beings create gods and supernatural coalitions? What is theology after the birth of god?
Prof. LeRon Shults from the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, is addressing this theme in a lecture on Wednesday November 9, 2011, beginning at 4:00pm in room B19 in 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 02215 (that’s the big lecture room in the basement of the School of Theology).
Prof. LeRon Shults has invited me to travel to the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, for several events in September. There will be a discussion seminar on my paper “Religion and Secularism” and an open class discussion on theology of religion focusing on chapter 7 of Religion Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry. In between, there is scheduled a public lecture entitled “What would Luther do? Religious extremism and violence in the Reformation and today.” Sadly, this is a timely topic for a country Lutheran in its roots now grappling with the horrific extremist Christian violence that unfolded there only a few short weeks ago.
The University of Agder resulted from the 1994 merger of six public regional colleges, becoming a fully accredited university in 2007. The university’s activities are gradually focusing onto two locations: the campus at Kristiansand and the new campus in Grimstad. Prof. Shults is located primarily in the Department of Religion, Philosophy and History, which is part of the Faculty of Humanities and Education on the Kristiansand campus.
Norway is geographically stunning, not least because of the vast fjords on its west and north coasts–the “crinkly edges” as the award-winning planet designer Slartibartfast described them in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Trusting Slartibartfast in all things geographical, I intend to see one or two of the fjords, both from the water on a boat and from above as a hiker.
The first International Congress on Ecstatic Naturalism was held at Drew University on April 1-2, 2011. Organized by Robert Corrington (pictured at right), this inaugural edition of what will hopefully be an annual event offered an opportunity to celebrate Corrington and his influential ecstatic naturalist writings.
The highlight of the conference was an evening lecture by Corrington, in which he read the latest version of his unfolding categorial scheme. In dramatic fashion that called to mind Wittgensteinian’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, the presentation took the form of reading numbered, nested propositions, moving through the various elements of his system. There was no introduction and no conclusion, just the scheme itself. A beautifully crafted dramatic event, it was a fitting celebration of Corrington’s systematic philosophical imagination.
The evening lecture by Corrington was preceded by Robert Neville’s insightful introduction to Corrington’s life and thought. The preceding afternoon and the morning after the central evening events involved the presentation of a dozen papers, mostly by students and colleagues of Corrington. This display indirectly demonstrated the reach of Corrington’s influence.
An excellent micro-account of ecstatic naturalism is furnished on the web site for the congress. A key passage from that site furnishes a compact definition.
An ecstatic naturalism is a perspective that seeks to move toward an aesthetic phenomenology of nature’s “sacred folds”—special centers of numinous meaning and power that may be found throughout nature, where “nature” may be understood to mean an encompassing reality that has no other, there is no referent “for” nature nor any outside “to” nature. Nature is all that there is: nature is whatever is, in whatever way. From nature’s sacred folds emerges a fierce self-othering, nature naturing, where “it” moves ecstatically ejecting semiotically dense momenta. Nature naturing is the inexhaustible well of nature’s atemporal creating underconscious, “it” is the not-yet-in-time mode of preordinal expression. This preordinal expression manifests itself as created nature, a plane of immanence composed of innumerable orders, or nature natured. The plane of nature natured is not without access to its depth dimension however, and the creativity of the depth dimension does not necessarily evidence a telic plan, either. Nature naturing is not the unified will or intelligence of a supreme Being, and “it” is not the sacred, for there is no “whatness” to nature naturing, but only “its” “how.” Unlike other theological perspectives friendly to the tradition of naturalism (process thought, for example) an ecstatic naturalism denies that nature naturing molds nature natured simply into pleasing shapes. Melancholy, pain, and anguish are just as much to be accounted for in the aesthetic phenomenology that an ecstatic naturalism employs. For ecstatic naturalism, naturing naturing is “beyond good and evil” and “sustains the just and the unjust, beautiful and the demonic, the fragmented and the harmonious, the honorific and the detestable, the living and the dead (via effects) and the realms of the possible and the actual.”
From the ecstatic naturalist standpoint, as noted, the distinction between nature naturing and nature natured colors and specifies almost all aspects of, and possibilities for, human life. It indicates, among other things, that the unconscious is far more important, both religiously and philosophically, than has usually been acknowledged. While the conscious represents only one set of aspects of our relation with nature natured, the unconscious is our direct connection both to wider aspects of nature natured, and in certain respects, to the potencies that emerge from nature naturing. The conscious life is much more precarious than traditional monotheisms would allow, but also more magical than traditional naturalisms could recognize.
- Lecture title: “Transforming Religious Plurality: Applying Family Systems Theory to Interreligious Dialogue.”
- Time: 4:30pm-6:00pm on Wednesday November 3, 2010
- Place: 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, room B19 (in the basement lecture hall)
Dr. Shults is well known for his interdisciplinary theological work, especially integrating psychology and theology, but more recently also including religious studies and comparative theology. To find out more about Prof. Shults, visit his website.