Volume 6: Effing the Ineffable


This collection of unusual essays demonstrates the various styles of religious philosophy (thought of as multidisciplinary inquiry, as articulated in the book by that name). It also explores the irony of apophaticism, as each essay attempts to say something about ultimacy, while also deconstructing the basis for the adequacy of such talk.

The primary aim of this book is to present philosophical insights into the profoundly spiritual character of human life. The secondary aim is to show that serious religious philosophy need not be tedious; it has a colorful side. Those who plow the trenches of religious philosophy know that this is partly why they love what they do, yet even they can forget from time to time.

Each chapter of the book is a self-standing philosophical essay on an existentially potent aspect of life that is loaded with spiritual significance, regardless of the religious context imagined. These are the sorts of issues that drive religious questioning and inspire commitment to a spiritual outlook on life and sometimes even to a particular religious community. They are features of human life widely shared across cultures and eras, even though the treatment they receive here betrays (and benefits from) the author’s training as a western religious philosopher reaching out to other religious and philosophical wisdom traditions. Most importantly, these essays show that there is room for emotion and for fun even in demanding religious philosophy.

Styles of inquiry in religious philosophy include the phenomenological, the comparative, the historical, the analytical, the theoretical, the literary, and the evaluative, as described in my Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (State University of New York Press, 2010). Most of these styles are illustrated in the chapters of this book, sometimes combined in a single chapter. This serves as a reminder that religious philosophy is not stylistically monochrome. Indeed, religious philosophy needs to work in different styles and from different interpretative angles in order to develop a satisfying philosophical portrayal of the religious potency of the half-hidden depths of the human condition and of the natural environment within which we emerge.

In the scientific study of the world of nature, the relative simplicity of the subject matter allows a strong case to be made for a “best” interpretation at any given stage of scientific progress. This is not true in the philosophical study of the human condition. Human life is dense with meanings to the point of bursting apart at the seams. This superfluity of significance calls for creative and interactive engagement from numerous angles in order to surface the tangle of meanings. A unified philosophical account of the single best meaning in human life would be a disappointing empirical disaster in a way that the one best scientific account of protein expression from DNA would not be. Thus, there is reason to embrace the varied styles of religious philosophy even as we continue to expect that philosophical argumentation will sometimes eliminate certain interpretations as deficient, thereby drawing our attention to the superior interpretations.

Distinctive Features

  • This book employs the wide diversity of types of religious philosophy, and engages a variety of traditions of religious philosophy, which is uncommon.
  • The book exhibits what religious philosophy can do when informed by the emerging fields of comparative theology and comparative philosophy.
  • The book is subversive, in that it conducts philosophical inquiries in ways that ignore or confound the conventions of traditional philosophy of religion.
  • The book is much more entertaining than most philosophy books, and sometimes quite emotionally moving, which will help it engage a diverse readership.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Loneliness

This chapter is a literary and philosophical exploration of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It explores the theme of loneliness as it bears on religious perceptions of ultimacy, arguing that the ability to experience unmediated and undeflected loneliness is a kind of virtue that we can both cultivate and encounter in the depth structures of reality. It is not everyone’s spiritual cup of tea, perhaps, but it is an authentic alternative available for spiritual exploration. This derives from “In Praise of Loneliness,” in Leroy Rouner, ed., Loneliness, Institute for Philosophy and Religion Series (University of Notre Dame Press: 1998): 15-39, and before that from a 1996 lecture in the Institute series.

Chapter 2. Slipping

This chapter exhibits religious philosophy in the analytical and comparative modes, using an informal kind of literary criticism as the main tool. The essay shows how the narrative device of a vanishingly small slip recurs in mythic narratives of several traditions and used to deal with the problem of evil without attributing undue responsibility to any of the involved parties. A version of this was published as “Slipping into Horror,” in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 84/1-2 (Spring/Summer, 2001): 143-55, and derives from a 1996 lecture on the same topic at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in New Orleans.

Chapter 3. Speaking

This chapter discusses techniques that spontaneously emerge within religious discourse systems for managing consonance and dissonance among religious symbols, and for trying to express what seems virtually inexpressible. This work is primarily religious philosophy in the analytical mode with nods in the direction of the comparative and theoretical styles. This derives from work first presented as “Strategic Mechanisms within Religious Symbol Systems” at a 1997 LAUD Symposium conference in the University of Duisburg, Germany, and subsequently published in Lieven Boeve and Kurt Feyaerts, eds., Metaphor and God-talk (Bern: Peter Lang, 1999): 273-91. Religions and Discourse series, James Francis, Gen. Ed., vol. 2.

Chapter 4. Symmetry

This chapter is an analysis of two idealized interpretations of the ultimate ontological basis of nature that traditional metaphysical analyses have not emphasized. The symmetric view pictures ultimate reality as morally neutral, fundamentally indeterminate, and abysmally fecund, in balance with created reality. The asymmetric view is opposed on each of these characteristics. The contrast between symmetry and asymmetry derives from the mathematical analysis of the early universe within fundamental physics. This analogy is surprisingly useful for conceiving a dynamic process of symmetry breaking in ontology that indicates how symmetric and asymmetric perspectives on nature’s ontological ground can be causally and historically related to one another. This material has not been previously published.

Chapter 5. Dreaming

This chapter is religious philosophy in a decidedly comparative and evaluative mode, arguing that it is exceptionally difficult for human beings to feel attracted to and properly to appreciate the theoretical virtues of theories of ultimacy that keep anthropomorphic modeling impulses in check; such theoretical discipline interferes with human dreaming. The chapter derives from a keynote lecture presented to a mini-conference on “Models of God” at the 2007 San Francisco meeting of the American Philosophical Association, subsequently published as “Behind, Between, and Beyond Anthropomoprhic Models of Ultimate Reality,” Philosophia 35/3-4 (2007): 407-425.

Chapter 6. Suffering

This chapter shows how comparative and theoretical styles of religious philosophy can be bent to an evaluative end. The essay uses the reality of suffering in nature as a source of selective pressure on ideas of ultimate reality. This approach is quite contrary to those theological strategies that defend or elaborate an existing idea of ultimacy and rather seeks to see which of a wide range of ultimacy theories can best handle the selective pressure. The chapter is based on “Incongruous Goodness, Perilous Beauty, Disconcerting Truth: Ultimate Reality and Suffering In Nature,” which appeared in Robert J. Russell, Nancey Murphy, and William R. Stoeger, eds., Suffering and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on Suffering in Nature (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory and Berkeley: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 2006), which itself derived from work presented at a 2005 research conference on natural evil sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.

Chapter 7. Undersides

This chapter concerns the distinction between the brightly lit top sides of religious traditions that nurture and reform civilizational projects, and their shady hidden undersides that power the deconstruction of the social construction of reality. In particular, the chapter focuses on the way liberal theology hints at the dark and fecund undersides of religion but perpetually fails to follow through in its articulation of this place of shady silence because of its implacable and commendable commitment to institutional maintenance. The irony here is familiar in other chapters of this book: speech about ineffable ultimacy always interferes with fully engaging ultimacy. This chapter derives from “The Ambiguous Heritage and Perpetual Promise of Liberal Theology,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy (2010).

Chapter 8. Intensity

This chapter is a description of key qualities of intense experiences, and illustrates religious philosophy in the phenomenological mode. Intensity is very likely an evolutionary basic dimension of human experience and thus a primal aspect of religious behavior and belief. Unfortunately, its role is often masked by the proprietary ritual and doctrinal organization of religious life and thus it receives less attention than it should. Based on an essay written in the mid-1990s and presented to the Boston Theological Society, this piece has not previously been published.

Chapter 9. Bliss

This chapter illustrates religious philosophy at the junction of literary, phenomenological, and comparative modes. It aims to show how moral categorizations shade off into irrelevance in the blissful state, and on this basis to argue that theistic conceptions of ultimacy are improperly enslaved by anthropomorphic instincts when they conceive of being in the divine presence as bliss and yet do not conceive God as beyond good and evil. This material has also not been published before.