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Problems in the Philosophy of Religion


Philosophy 4/51010, Fall 2009; Jeffrey Wattles

TR 9:15-10:30, 315 Bowman


            This course introduces the student to classic and contemporary themes in philosophy of religion, providing exposure to a variety of approaches: analytic, European continental, feminist and Eastern.  Topics included are religious experience, science and religion, the nature and existence of God, the problem of evil, pluralism and exclusivism, and methodological issues at the boundary of philosophy and theology.

Texts: (1) Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, ed. Paul Copan and Chad Meister (Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-4051-3990-8); (2) Dominique Janicaud, Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn": The French Debate, Fordham University Press (0-8232-2053-2).

            Evaluation is based on participation (15%), including at least one seminar report (10%), two quizzes (total 20%), and two papers (10 pages for undergrads, at least 15 for grads) (20% each) plus other written exercises (15% total).  We are a community of inquiry, and our interaction has a life of its own; so you are expected to attend regularly, be on time, have the reading and any other assignments done, and be ready to participate.  Missing more than two weeks may affect the grade, and if you miss a month, it is not clear that you can pass.  If you feel you have a reason to request an alternative to any assignment, please speak with the instructor.

            If you miss a class, it is your responsibility to get notes from someone else, to ask the instructor if you still have questions, and to ask the instructor for whatever may have been handed back during your absence.


Papers must be well written to receive a C or above.  For a quick introduction to some of the standards, see http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/papers.htm .  Writing—a skill that schools sometimes fail to teach—is important for your career, especially when so much communication is mediated by machines.  English is a first or second language in many nations, and to use the language well is a service to our world.  If I don’t fuss about writing, you should see what some folks hand in!  So I fuss, and I generally get quite decent writing.  It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Writing Center (http://dept.kent.edu/english/WritingCent/writngcenter.htm). Speaking of communication, the University obliges you to check your kent.edu e-mail (or whatever address may be used on Flashline).  If I have messages to send to the whole class, e.g., to change an assignment, or keep in touch in an emergency, I will use those addresses.

My office hours are MWF, 10:55-11:55 and TR 10:40-11:40 (Bowman 320H) and by appointment (330-672-0276; e-mail: jwattles@kent.edu).

In line with a recommendation from KSU’s Faculty Professional Development Center, this syllabus is tentative, and may be adjusted to reflect our backgrounds and interests.

Schedule of activities

I. Tuesday, September 1.  Introductions.

Thurs. 3.  We’ll start our reading in the Copan and Meister anthology with a plunge into the depth of religious thought and experience: Paul Moser, “Divine Hiddenness, Death, and Meaning.”


II. Tues. 8.  Paul Copan, “The Moral Argument.”  As you prepare the readings for this week, please do not wait until after Tuesday’s class to dig into the Benson piece, which is more demanding than I normally assign for a Thursday.

Thurs. 10.  Bruce Ellis Benson, “Continental Philosophy of Religion.”


III. Tues. 15.  Gavin Flood, “Eastern Philosophy of Religion.”

Thurs. 17.  William Mann, “The Epistemology of Religious Experience.”  Quiz 1.


IV.  Tues. 22  Joseph Runzo, “Religious Pluralism.”

Thurs. 24  Pamela Sue Anderson, “Feminist Philosophy of Religion.”


V. Tues. 29  Harold Netland, “Religious Exclusivism” and René van Woudenberg, “Reformed Epistemology.”

Thurs. October 1 Paul Draper, “The Argument from Evil.”


VI.  Tues. 6  John Polkinghorne, “Religion and Science.”

Thurs. 8  “Teleology Past and Present.”http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/telos.htm.


VII.  Tues. 13  Robin Collins, “The Teleological argument.”

Thurs. 15, William Lane Craig, “The Cosmological Argument.”


VIII. Tues. 20.  Quentin Smith, “A Naturalistic Account of the Universe.” 

Thurs. 22.  Katherin A. Rogers, “God, Time, and Freedom.”


IX. Tues. 27.  Graham Oppy, “The Ontological Argument.”

Thurs. 29.  PAPER ONE DUE

X. NOV Tues. 3  Now we turn to French phenomenologists.  Janicaud

Thurs. 5

XI.  Tues. 10  Ricoeur

Thurs. 12 

XII.  17  Marion

Thurs. 19 

XIII. Tues. 24  Chrétien

26 Thanksgiving


Thurs. Dec 3  PAPER TWO DUE.

XV. Tues. 8  Henry

Thurs. 10

Final examination, Thursday, December 17, 7:45-10:00


            The official registration deadline for this course is 9/13.  University policy requires all students to be officially registered in each class they are attending.  Students who are not officially registered for a course by published deadlines should not be attending classes and will not receive credit or a grade for the course.  Each student must confirm enrollment by checking his/her class schedule (using Student Tools in FlashFast) prior to the deadline indicated.  Registration errors must be corrected prior to the deadline.  The last day to withdraw is 11/08.

University Policy 3342-3-01.3 requires that students with disabilities be provided reasonable accommodations to ensure their equal access to course content.  If you have a documented disability and require accommodations, please contact the instructor at the beginning of the semester to make arrangements for necessary classroom adjustments.  Please note, you must first verify your eligibility for these through Student Accessibility Services (contact 330-672-3391 or visit www.kent.edu/sas for more information on registration procedures).

The Philosophy Department Grievance Procedure for handling student grievances is in conformity with the Student Academic Complaint Policy and Procedures set down as University Policy 3342-4-16 in the University Policy Register. For information concerning the details of the grievance procedure, please see the Departmental Chairperson.



A Confucian path from conscientiousness to spontaneity http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/Confucin.htm

"Dialectic and religious experience in Tanabe Hajime's Philosophy as Metanoetics"

The short version: http://fp.dl.kent.edu/jwattles/BTanabesummary1.htm

The full version: http://fp.dl.kent.edu/jwattles/metanoeticsl.htm


The moodle

To join the moodle (an electonic interaction forum I plan to use increasingly as the class develops), go to http://philosophy.kent.edu/philo/content/home/index.php

Under "Department" you'll find "philosophy moodle."

When you go to the moodle page, you’ll see a login box, which includes an option to “create a new account.” Once you do that, when you go to the course page and click on our course, you’ll have the option to enroll.




Spiritual experience in the history of philosophy


Heraclitus (flourished around 500 BCE). 

Fragment 32.  That which alone is wise is one; it is willing and unwilling to be called by the name of Zeus.

Fragment 2.  Therefore one must follow (the universal Law, namely) that which is common (to all).  But although the Law is universal, the majority live as if they had understanding peculiar to themselves.”

Fragment 119.  The god (daimon, indwelling divine spirit) is home (ethos) for a human being.


Parmenides (fl. 475 BCE)

Fragment 1 narrates a mystical experience of being carried in a chariot driven by goddesses who pilot him through the Gate of Justice on the way to his insight: Being is, necessarily, and must not be thought not to be.


Socrates (469-399 BCE), hauled into court in charges of corrupting the youth by teaching unconventional things about the gods, and even being an atheist, defended himself in various ways.  He told the story of the Delphic oracle, where the priestess said that he was the wisest man in Greece.  He appealed to the widespread acknowledgement of his divine voice, the daimon—or divine sign (daimonion) which must come from God or the gods—so how could I be an atheist?  And he said that the gods, in every way in which they ever communicate with mortals, had commanded him to try to wake up the Athenians to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness rather than material attractions. 

Condemned by the jury to die in prison, his friend comes to persuade him (unsuccessfully) to break the law fabric of Athens by breaking out of prison, and as Socrates wakes up to find his friend Crito there, he tells of a dream: A woman in a long, white robe assured him, “On the third day, you will come to beautiful Phithia”—which Socrates interpreted as assurance of his passage to heaven in three days.  The day of his death (by drinking hemlock), he speaks with friends about reasons for belief in the immortality of soul, and after the last “proof,” finding them still fearful, he tries to calm them by telling his vision of the life after death, which, for the “philosopher” who has purified his soul by sustained pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, leads to glorious realms above.


Plato (427-347), a student of Socrates, continued this tradition of spirituality to some extent, but dropped the concept of an indwelling spirit presence, proposing instead that intellect/reason was the divine gift.  In the dialogues he wrote, the primary interest is in rigorous philosophical understanding, but the reader repeatedly sees a secondary discourse weaving in and out, a religious, mythical, and poetic discourse, which some interpreters regard as a sop to the masses and others interpret as the only way Plato could convey his higher insights.


Aristotle (384-322), a student of Plato, affirmed in the Metaphysics 12.7 that God is the life of the thinking of eternal truth; God is in a state which is beyond even our highest experience of contemplative thinking.  In the Nicomachean Ethics 10.7, he affirms that the highest happiness is the perfection of the highest within us, the intellect, which is either divine or the most divine within us, and we should do everything we can to live the divine life.


Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Christian in theology and Aristotelian in philosophy, who preserved certain Platonic themes in his system, taught that we only gain knowledge by developing an intellectual understanding of what comes through the senses.  Nevertheless, he indicates a certain openness to religious experience when he says that, in addition to the moral virtues such as courage, self-mastery, and prudence, and intellectual virtues such as wisdom, there are theological virtues—faith, hope, and love (caritas)—which are infused into the soul by God.


Rene Descartes (1596-1650), living when confidence in theological systems was crumbling, went in quest of an absolutely certain foundation for knowledge. He found the proposition “I think, I am” to be perfectly evident every time he would pronounce it or conceive it with perfect clarity and distinctness in his mind.  In order for this criterion to be accepted as a guarantee of knowledge, however, it was necessary to prove the existence of God as the perfect Creator of the mind and of everything that the intellect can truly understand if it functions at its best.  Descartes’ proof for the existence of God relies on a concept of God as “a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists.”  He argued that this concept could not have come from any finite, limited source, and inherently implied a cause that could only be God himself.  JHW proposed that Descartes was initially impressed by this proof because, as he was thinking about the idea of God, his religiously sensitive mind felt a great reality in the attributes included in the idea of God.


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) lived at a time when many of the intellectual elite agreed that religion had disgraced itself by involvement in wars, and needed to turn to reason and turn away from mute feelings, “enthusiasm,” and fanaticism.  He criticized the person who “needs neither reason nor scholarship, but merely an inner feeling, to recognize the true meaning of Scripture as well as its divine origin.  Now we certainly cannot deny that “he who follows its teachings and does what it commands will surely find that it is of God,” and that the very impulse to good actions and to uprightness in the conduct of life, which the man who reads Scripture or hears it expounded must feel, cannot but convince him of its divine nature; for this impulse is but the operation of the moral law which fills man with fervent respect and hence deserves to be regarded as a divine command.  A knowledge of laws, and of their morality, can scarcely be derived from any sort of feeling; still less can there be inferred or discovered from a feeling certain evidence of a direct divine influence; for the same effect can have more than one cause.  In this case, however, the bare morality of the law (and the doctrine), know through reason, is the source [of the law’s validity]; and even if this origin were no more than barely possible, duty demands that it be thus construed unless we wish to open wide the gates to every kind of fanaticism, and even cause the unequivocal moral feeling to lose its dignity through affiliation with fantasy of every sort.  Feeling is private to every individual and cannot be demanded of others [even] when the law, from which and according to which this feeling arises, is known in advance; therefore one cannot urge it is as a touchstone for the genuineness of a revelation, for it teaching absolutely nothing, but it merely the way in which the subject is affected as regards pleasure or displeasure-and on this basis can be established no knowledge whatever.” (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone p, 104-05).


Ideas of truth and hope for finite truth-seekers


What is truth?  There is very much to say, but here just a few basics will be mentioned.  The initial critical review is humbling, since each idea of truth that promises a criterion is seen to have limits.  Nevertheless, as we shall see thereafter, critique may be embraced from the perspective of seeing ourselves not as isolated from truth but as participating in truth.

At first, one may distinguish truth from fact.  Persons can agree that something is a fact and still ask about the truth of that fact.  Some facts, such as “Now is night” have no scientific status and are so transient that they do not survive being written down.[i]  In some cases, a fact is controversial but may be established by something approximating a scientific process.  This possibility gives rise to the hybrid idea of truth as factual correctness, or, more broadly, the correspondence of a statement (or proposition or judgment) with reality.  Is it stormy or calm outside now?  Is there just one door in this room or more than one?  Have a look.  Of course, checking can be hard or impossible.  Historically speaking, did the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna told in the Bhagavad-Gita actually occur?  Which version of the Ten Commandments did Moses actually give the Israelites?  How accurate are the New Testament records of what Jesus said and did?  Did an angel really tell Mohammad what to write?  To some extent we can check, or try to check, or imagine a conceivable check.  Considered in its generality, this line of thought leads to the correspondence theory of truth, whose characteristic affirmation is that reality is the criterion in terms of which any statement is ultimately true or false.  Truth, in other words, is not just a name for the best we can do as diligent inquirers, virtuous epistemic agents; other theories of truth arguably cannot help presupposing a realist, or correspondence theory.[ii]  The limitations of the correspondence theory of truth, in addition to the difficulties just noted, include that sometimes language is used symbolically, not literally, so it is wrong to interpret the truth intended on the level of fact—e.g., “You must be reborn.”  Or truth comes in a story which is not meant to be taken as a report.  A more intractable problem is that we cannot peer outside the structural features of our human conceptual frame for thinking to see whether they correspond with the real, since these features come with us, whatever checking we might think to try.

            A second idea is truth as coherence.  Are the ideas of this text consistent with each other?  Is this statement or action consistent with the ideals of truth and goodness that the speaker is supposed to represent?  Coherence is surely important to us as knowers and part of an adequate account of truth.  We often accept new ideas simply because of their fit with our beliefs, desires, and experience.  The limits of the coherence theory are that our ideas may cohere nicely, yet be in error, if our thinking is one-sided or built on a false premise.  Moreover, paradox, seeming inconsistency, is sometimes the most helpful way to express deeper truth.  “The greatest among you will be your servant.”[iii]  Paradox forces people to think to find the distinction to resolve the inconsistency.

A third idea is that truth is the manifestation of the real.  Inquiry prepares but does not cause it; the human mind receives it interpretively it but does not fabricate it.  Any illuminating role of divine mind or indwelling spirit is so silent, that a branch of phenomenological tradition can speak, with Heidegger, as though the thing itself were the agent of its appearing, “showing itself from itself.”  But manifestation, direct or indirect, sudden or gradual, is always more or less partial.[iv]

            Fourth, continuing the third idea, truth manifests in such a way that it is intuitively recognized.  There is a flavor or spirit of truth to it.  It strikes the hearer as insightful, perhaps as authoritative, resonant with the deepest within oneself.  Limitations to the idea of a spiritual intuition of truth are that intuitions differ and may be confused by dogma or passion.  Intuition becomes more reliable as the person grows.

            Fourth, still continuing the previous thread, truth as revelation implies a gift from a superhuman source.  There are varieties of alleged revelation: an inner realization, a vision, an inspired saying or speech, a person, a life, a book, in whole or in part.  Questions to ask about revelation are several.  Does the being to whom the revelation is attributed really exist?  Did the revelatory event really occur?  To what extent did the subject's physical condition and cultural background shape the reception of the gift?  How fully did the recipient communicate it?  Has the original record been altered?  Problems in appealing to revealed truth are that there are many claims to revelation that are inconsistent with each other, so we still need scientific, philosophic, and spiritual responsibility in discerning truth.  Acceptance of revelation makes it easier to be intolerant and stop growing.  Finally, revelation must make use of the language and ways of thinking appropriate to the receiving culture.  There has already been an adjustment of divine truth to the evolutionary human situation.  Furthermore, whoever would interpret the implications of revelation given in one circumstance for the needs of another circumstance needs human reason to do so.

            Finally, there is truth as lived.  How else could we truly comprehend it?  Living the truth carries its own power and authority.  The limitations to this idea are that a life may be great partly in spite of what the person believes.  Moreover, seemingly inspired persons can clash.  In addition, living true to the best we know today enables us to know more tomorrow, which implies that today’s statements of truth may not be final.  Since truth itself is living it cannot be fixed.  Because none of these concepts of truth accesses a presuppositionless or static absolute, a certain kind of striving for truth cannot be satisfied.  But the scientific and philosophic commitments sketched earlier find their orientation and complement in the life of truth in which we humanly participate by faith.  The limitations of concepts and theories of truth do not imply that belief itself need be tentative or hypothetical, for persistent faith yields radiant assurance in the progressive experience of God.

            These results show both a spectrum of ideas to be synthesized and also limits in our ability to certify, in a general way, our grasp of truth.  We remain in process, but not mired in mere flux.  An image of the integration of the many dimensions of truth comes from story by the classical Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu.


            Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui.  At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee, zip! zoop!  He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

            “Ah, this is marvelous! said Lord Wen-hui.  “Imagine skill reaching such heights!’

            Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill.  When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself.  After three years I no longer saw the whole ox.  And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes.  Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.  I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are.  So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

            “A good cook changes his knife once a year, because he cuts.  A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month—because he hacks.  I’ve had this knife of mind for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone.  There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness.  If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room, more than enough for the blade to play about in.  That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone. 

            “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until, flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.  I would stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

            “Excellent! Said Lord Wen-hui.  “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”[v]


This story has surreal touches (the knife with no thickness) indicating that it is not to be taken literally; rather the story is about how to “care for life.”  The stages of learning symbolize painstaking devotion to fact which precedes the emergence of spiritual intuition.  Note that there is no romantic idealism about attaining a level of sagehood where difficulties do not arise and the scaffolding of carefulness can be cast off.  Rather, difficulties do arise, and they occasion a return to two earlier stages (scientific and philosophic care, here).  Finally, the down-shift to earlier stages does not signal an abandonment of spiritual engagement.  Rather, re-engagement with the more elementary stages is a focusing of attention which is precisely a continuation and extension of spiritual attunement.  Spirituality rises to new heights at such moments.  It is for these reasons that the story can be taken as symbolizing an integrated engagement with truth.


[i] A readable and eloquent exposition of this observation is given in the first chapter of G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (New York: Oxford  University Press, 1977).

[ii] William P. Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 19960.

[iii] Matthew 23.12.

[iv] This concept of truth is featured in some of the contributors to Daniel Guerrière, ed., Phenomenology of the Truth Proper to Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), notably by Louis Dupré and Guerrière.

[v] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), Section 3, “The Secret of Caring for Life,” pp. 46-47.