The philosophy of religion explores the Big Questions—the questions that philosophy at its best aims to answer. Philosophy should not rest content with merely verbal squabbles, technical debates among specialists, or games of intellectual gymnastics. Whether there’s a God, what God’s like if there is one, whether life persists beyond the grave, what life’s meaning is if one there be—these are the questions that often spur people to pursue the study of philosophy in the first place, and philosophy of religion indulges the chance to explore them.
The questions are engaging even to children, but the difference between a child asking such questions and a philosopher is that the philosopher, in an effort to honor the wide-eyed childlike wonder of it all, has developed tools, strategies, and resources to answer such questions—or at least inch, however incrementally, toward answers. It does so by refining the questions themselves, ruling out certain answers, defending other answers against objections, revealing how various answers produce yet new questions. In the process it subjects various proposals to critical scrutiny every step of the way, separating the wheat from the chaff, in an effort to make progress. It’s exploration predicated on assuming that reason and rationality, properly exercised, make for progress.
Pascal once lamented indifference to and ignorance of the most existentially central questions of life; philosophy of religion, rightly done, is the cure for both, for it imbues and is motivated by passionate intellectual curiosity on the one hand, and a heartfelt desire not just to ask questions, but to find answers, on the other—and not for the sake of a false security or misleading assurance of certitude, but because the truth makes all the difference. To think otherwise is to forget the point of asking the questions; it would be a strange set of explorers indeed if they decided ahead of time, or in due course, to stop striving to arrive at their destination.
In C. S. Lewis’s wonderfully imaginative Great Divorce, the Solid Person of George MacDonald instructs the wispy protagonist (and great lover of books) about the danger of forgetting the point of intellectual investigation: “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself . . . as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye see it in smaller matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them? Or an organizer of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.”
The questions of philosophy of religion are not only inherently fascinating, but concerns of the most ultimate and practical significance. The fictional Sherlock Holmes, in “The Retired Colourman,” was “in a melancholy and philosophic mood” when he (echoing the writer of Ecclesiastes) asked the enduring question, “Is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not [Josiah Amberley’s] story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is life in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow—misery.”
Yet despite the challenges of life, the darkness of hearts, and ubiquity of suffering, Holmes at another juncture provided a glimpse into his remaining trust in the goodness of reality and the important role of reason. In “The Naval Treaty,” he held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose with its dainty blend of crimson and green before saying, “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for the existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
Oxford graduate John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, similarly warned believers and unbelievers alike against impugning the value of logic, hard thinking, and rationality, “the candle of the Lord”: “Of what unspeakable use is even a moderate share of reason in all our worldly employments, from the lowest and meanest offices of life, through all the intermediate branches of business; till we ascend to those that are of the highest importance and the greatest difficulty!”
Of course philosophers of religion don’t all think reason yields the same deliverances, which makes this great conversation so close to the heart of the human condition a vital and ongoing dialogue. Some think the evidence points to a reductive materialistic world, others toward a richly theistic one, and yet others something in between.
In my own explorations, my tentative conclusion is that philosophy remains a necessary and viable means of discovery that, though consistent with science, go beyond it. I would echo the grave concerns about scientism William James presciently shared a century ago—critiquing proponents of parsimony who, fearing superstition, risked desiccation—“This systematic denial on science’s part of personality as a condition of events, this rigorous belief that in its own essential and innermost nature our world is a strictly impersonal world, may, conceivably, as the whirligig of time goes round, prove to be but the very defect that our descendants will be most surprised at in our own most boasted science, the omission that to their eyes will most tend to make it look perspectiveless and short.”
Etymologically and at its best philosophy is the love of wisdom—not a casual flirtation or weekend affair, but a passionate quest—and the philosophy of religion, it seems, resides at its culmination.