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Can philosophers teach us anything about God and religion?


Nikola Krestonosich Celis - published on 12/05/17

As it has happened with all philosophical terminology, the word "God" has been used to refer to different things.

When I get asked what philosophy is, something that happens as soon as people hear I have studied philosophy for pretty much all of my adult life, I usually reply with a joke attributed to Arthur Koestler: “Philosophy is the systematic abuse of a terminology specifically designed for that purpose.”

All joking aside, this one-liner actually lays out the issue in such a way that it can really help beginners and newcomers understand what philosophy deals with: whatever the subject matter philosophers have thought about, whatever claims they have put forward about those subject matters (and believe me they have put forward a lot of claims about a lot of things) the first thing someone has to do to pass as a respectable philosopher is to master a specific terminology. The philosopher is, first and foremost, someone knowledgeable of a certain terminology composed of words of Greek origin like “idea”, “metaphysics” or “ethics” and of Latin origin like “value”, “morals” and “tolerance.” It could be said that the standard philosophical vocabulary is, to quote Paul Oskar Kristeller, the sediment of over two thousand years of extraordinary thinking.

“God” is one of those terms we can find in the writings of philosophers from the very beginning; one of those words with which their discipline requires them to become familiar and gain mastery. But as it has happened with all philosophical terminology, the word has been used to refer to different things. There have been polytheists, theists, pantheists and atheist philosophers, and for each one of them the word “God” has meant different things. What, for instance, Plato and Aristotle meant by this word (or, more correctly, by its Greek equivalent) is something different from what Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas of Aquinas meant by it (or, more correctly, by its Latin equivalent).

So, can philosophers teach us anything about God and religion? Is there a core notion about the divine being that could be discovered at the foundation of all their discussions about god? Without fear of erring, one might argue there is no single thread, no coherent doctrinal corpus uniting all of the philosophers’ thoughts about god and that it is actually unfruitful, from a hermeneutical point of view, to try to force one single view about this matter into their writings. It is perhaps out of exasperation with this state of affairs that most of religious men, for whom God is not a concept, but a concrete, operating reality have felt philosophers to be the enemies of religion. It is perhaps this feeling of exasperation what triggered Paul’s words:

“‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?… For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1 19)

But, perhaps, we are looking at the matter from the wrong angle. It is not the religious content of philosophy, what philosophers have actually said concerning God and religion, where we should focus on. There, it is clear, we can only find a never ending lack of consensus. Perhaps, what we should be looking at and focusing on is the way philosophers have dealt with this lack of consensus. As Odo Marquard once put it:

“For consensus is by no means always necessary; what is much more valuable is productive misunderstanding; and most valuable of all is simple reason: the abandonment of the effort to remain stupid… The philosopher’s ancient vice, as a profession—their chronic deficit of consensus—turns out to be an ultramodern interdisciplinary virtue: above all, a proficiency in surviving conversational confusion without discouragement.” (In Defense of the Accidental)

This virtue of remaining calm under uncertainty, of surviving confusion without discouragement  is, we can be sure of it, of everlasting religious value.

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