Ways of Meeting and the Theology of Religions
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Ways of Meeting and the Theology of Religions

David Cheetham

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Ways of Meeting and the Theology of Religions

David Cheetham

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Exploring the different points of view and 'tones of voice' adopted in theology for the meeting of religions, this book presents a contemporary philosophical and theological engagement with key issues of how different faiths might meet, of comparative philosophy of religion, of the use of aesthetics, of inter-religious ethics and issues relating to the self. Providing a critical evaluation of contemporary liberal, post-liberal and conservative voices, and an engagement with movements such as Radical Orthodoxy and Scriptural Reasoning to mention a few, this book highlights the use of the creative imagination and explores new ideas for the meeting of religions.

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Part I Philosophical Vision and Voice

Chapter 1 Comparative Imagination: Ways of Philosophizing

DOI: 10.4324/9781315547602-2


What kind of people are comparative thinkers, or what kind of thinkers do they need to be? Alasdair MacIntyre writes that historians of ideas would ‘do well to attend to the relationship in the life of each philosopher between her or his mode of philosophical speech or writing and her or his attitude towards questions about the ends of life’.1 MacIntyre’s recommendation is concerned with narrating a good history of philosophy, but in what follows I wish to relate it to the future possibility of comparative philosophy of religion. The present chapter is seeking to articulate an approach that is about the attitudes and orientation of those philosophically engaged in the questions of inter-religious meetings and the problems of religious diversity. In this sense, it will not so much construct a systematic proposal for a comparative method as offer a reflection on the nature of philosophical enquiry as a practice – ways of philosophizing comparatively. For those inhabiting the borderlands between theology and philosophy, like this author, the challenges heralded by an emerging global context for critical philosophical and inter-religious reflection are challenges, I suggest, for the imagination of the philosopher of religion.
1 MacIntyre, The Tasks of Philosophy, p.132. As an example of what happens when one separates the lives of philosophers from their thought, MacIntyre wittily describes Bertrand Russell’s classic treatment of the history of western philosophy as ‘chunks of nonphilosophical biography followed by chunks of nonbiographical philosophy’, p.142.
So, what is the potential for philosophizing in the context of comparative philosophy of religion and how might that project progress?2 There are two related challenges that we will focus on interchangeably. The first is about the size and complexity of the task, the sheer vastness of new information regarding other religions, both cognitive and experiential, and the implausibility of being truly comprehensive especially given the different religious and philosophical priorities found in the world’s traditions. This is a challenge about scope, inclusion and comprehensibility. The second concerns the alleged wrong-headedness of the task. That is, one of the prominent responses to the first challenge is to step away from attempts at comprehensibility and move towards incommensurable tradition-constituted (or fideistic) religious philosophies and conclude that comparative philosophy of religion is impossible. Influential in such viewpoints is Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that rational discourse is not a pristine or neutral activity that is set apart from the action in Olympian serenity, rather there is always someone who does the reasoning and they have a particular vision of human goals and ends of life that have been birthed within the cultural tradition to which they belong. Of course, MacIntyre’s notion of ‘tradition-constituted rationality’ did not emerge as a direct result of worries over the sheer scale of global diversity, rather it arose out of a consideration of the problem of ethical diversity in modernity and the relationship between philosophy and history.3 Nevertheless, some of the most important and sophisticated contributors to the debates about religious diversity and the nature of philosophy of religion are keen to use the idea of tradition-constituted rationality as a platform upon which to justify their specific locations and starting points. In which case, does such a position present challenges for broader agendas and, despite its felicitous ability to rescue the status of theological rationality, actually undermine philosophical and religious aspirations to transcend limitations and reach beyond?
2 This chapter builds on a piece written a few years ago and could be read alongside it, see ‘Comparative Philosophy of Religion’ in Cheetham and King, Contemporary Method and Practice, pp.101–16. 3 See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd edn (London: Duckworth, 1985); Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988); Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (London: Duckworth, 1990).
With regard to both problems, it may be possible to develop imaginative or even playful ways of engaging in the construction of new paradigms and comparative models. Ostensibly, such a suggestion is unwelcome because it seems to surrender the virtue of accurate and precise philosophical analysis in favour of a looser more aesthetic or emotive discourse. Or else, what looks like mere disengagement hardly seems to be a robust strategy in the face of incommensurability. Contrary to these perceptions, I will be arguing that imaginative engagement might actually be more conducive to cultivating a kind of detachment not entirely foreign to that which philosophy aspires to. We will return to this later on in the chapter.

Philosophy, tradition, awe and wonder

An important argument against comparative philosophy of religion is that it is reliant on the assumption (presumption, even) that religion is a concept that is understood universally, and thus its orientation is bound to have affinities with the kind of pluralistic approaches to religious diversity that seek to postulate an underlying hegemony of one sort or another. Moreover, it is this perception that will already create suspicions about such projects amongst those who maintain more inclusivist or exclusivist views. The practice of comparing traditions and philosophies across different cultures will appear problematic to those who maintain that the idea of universals is a leftover pretension of the Enlightenment. That is, cultures are incommensurable with each other and the idea of a neutral epistemology with which to engage in comparisons is to be regarded as a modernistic myth. The important caveat here is that this does not rule out comparisons of a certain kind from being undertaken, but these are not carried out from the perspective of a neutral platform. Comparisons take place not from a position outside traditions but still within the clutter and baggage of them. Thus, despite his rejection of universal rationality, MacIntyre can nonetheless speak of a dialectic between traditions based on learning to speak a ‘second language’ as fluently as our own, concentrating on the internal coherence of traditions and their effectiveness in dealing with the problems that are generated from within their own discourses, and in identifying the ways in which a particular tradition can address problems or lacunae in another tradition within the terms of that other tradition. The American theologian and philosopher of science, Nancey Murphy, follows MacIntyre in maintaining that the idea of a ‘universal and timeless’ rationality has been ‘overturned’ by ‘tradition-constituted rationality’.4 For her, this spells the end of the philosophy of religion, for if philosophy cannot occupy a location outside of a tradition – behaving like a kind of ‘cultural magistrate’5 – then the usual formulation of philosophy of religion is simply epistemologically presumptuous or misleading. Instead, philosophy of religion should be replaced by philosophical theology: that is, a rationality that works within acknowledged assumptions and pursues particular sets of tradition-defined problems. For example, Murphy points out that the existence of God will already be assumed by philosophical theologians and so it is a starting point that will not be contested.6 We might similarly imagine that the belief that ‘God is love’ will be assumed too – the problem of evil will not be permitted to be ultimately decisive against the theistic position. Despite such important caveats, she maintains that philosophical theologians ‘address nearly all the same problems that philosophers of religion have, but without the pretence of being uncommitted to their point of view’.7
4 Murphy, ‘The End of Philosophy of Religion’, p.36. 5 Murphy, ‘The End of Philosophy of Religion’, p.37. 6 Although, this is not entirely clear when we consider the philosophical theology of writers like Don Cupitt who do not discard ‘God’ from their discourses but seem to choose to retain the narrative of transcendence anti-realistically. Is it possible that a critical perspective outside the confessional framework is necessary to resolve conceptual disputes between philosophical theologians? 7 Murphy, ‘The End of Philosophy of Religion’, p.37. Emphasis mine.
Turning to the matter of religious diversity, MacIntyre’s stance as exemplified by Murphy seems to represent an ideal epistemological point of view from which to critique the alleged neutral stances of pluralist theologies of religion. Ideas of ‘tradition-constituted rationality’ and the ‘incommensurability of cultures’ offer an irresistible philosophical and theological opportunity to advance schemes that are more faithful to specific traditions. Following from such ideas, the elaboration of a tradition-dependent location in the theology of religions is characterized less as a reasoned apologetic in favour of a particular tradition and more as a consequence of a chastened epistemological necessity or humility. The ensuing strategy will be to dismiss grander comparative projects (certainly those that aspire to discern hegemonies) and instead engage in a genealogical suspicion of modernist approaches to the philosophy of religion, declare the neutral stance to be a passé myth and adopt an approach that justifies an engagement with the religious other rooted in one’s own tradition. This is not necessarily intended as a pejorative characterization because if one is committed to a particular tradition one is bound to engage with other traditions on the basis of those commitments. Formed and nurtured by a comprehensive faith confession that has public implications, one seeks to understand and interpret the place of other traditions in light of that perspective.8 In fact, despite some initial critical reservations, in this chapter I will end up supporting a kind of outward-looking tradition-specific approach.
8 This is a view that I have supported elsewhere. See David Cheetham, ‘Inclusivisms: Honouring Faithfulness and Openness’ in Paul Hedges and Alan Race (eds), Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London: SCM Press, 2008), pp.63–84.
As one instance of this approach, Gavin D’Costa provocatively speaks of ‘the impossibility of the pluralist view of religions’.9 Following MacIntyre, he maintains that the pluralist view of thinkers like John Hick are tradition-specific (in Hick’s case a Kantian, modern, agnostic tradition) and are therefore not in privileged neutral spaces above other discourses but actually alongside and competing with them. That is, we cannot, argues D’Costa, escape the basic exclusivism of our position and therefore the Enlightenment view from nowhere is a myth – all rationalities are tradition-dependent. Challenging pluralists like Hick and Paul Knitter,10 he writes: ‘Pluralism must always logically be a form of exclusivism and that nothing called pluralism really exists’.11 Hick’s response is to argue for pluralism as a second-order philosophical meta-discourse in contrast to the first-order commitments of religious traditions. D’Costa critiques Hick’s idea that there can be a distinction between committed faith positions and a second-order philosophical hypothesis arguing that the idea of a second-order discourse is not a neutral vantage point (an impossibility) – on the contrary, it is still tradition-specific. Hick admits that his point is successful in a notional sense, but protests that he is making the rather ‘trivial’ logical point that to adopt a point of view is to exclude other options.12 He thinks that this is simply unhelpful because retaining terms like exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism is helpful in delineating different postures towards religious truth and to simply claim that they reduce to exclusivism is to sacrifice descriptive efficacy for a logical gloss. Nevertheless, D’Costa is not really concerned with the phenomenological appropriateness of certain labels, rather he is irritated by the presumption that pluralism stands outside the terms of reference that apply to tradition-specific approaches. Thus, he recommends that if we cannot reach a neutral stance then we should acknowledge our exclusive commitments and proceed on that basis, in his case a Roman Catholic commitment.
9 Gavin D’Costa, ‘The Impossibility of the Pluralist View of Religions’, Religious Studies, 32/2 (1996), pp.223–32. 10 Other targets that resonate with the liberal modernist pattern in D’Costa’s book include Dan Coh...

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