Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Call for Papers: Religious Toleration

The Philosophy of Religion Group is issuing a call for papers for its session at the 2010 American Philosophical Association Pacific Division Meeting on the topic of Religious Toleration. In the seventeenth century many European philosophers were deeply concerned with religious intolerance that spawned intra- and inter-national violence on a massive scale. Locke, Spinoza, Bayle and others famously drafted arguments aimed at providing religious partisans with reasons for tolerating more religious diversity in their midst than they might otherwise have been inclined to allow. While the arguments these philosophers made may have been influential in the development of religious toleration in Europe and North America in the 18th Century, it is not clear that they have as much appeal in the contemporary West or elsewhere in the world. This session will be devoted to revisiting the topic of religious toleration both to examine its philosophical roots and its contemporary cogency.
 
The session will consist of three papers, two presented by Edwin Curley (Michigan) and Robert Audi (Notre Dame) as well as a third paper drawn from submitted abstracts.
 
Those wishing to submit papers for consideration should send a 350 word (or less) abstracts to the Program Chair, Michael Murray at Michael.murray@fandm.edu no later than OCTOBER 1, 2009.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Interview with J.P. Moreland: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (part two)

We continue our interview with J.P. Moreland about his book, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei. In this part, J.P. shares how our view of human persons forms culture, how philosophy of religion work is helping to challenge naturalism in various areas, and how J.P. teaches philosophy.


You seem to wear multiple hats in this book as a philosopher, theologian and cultural observer. For you, how are these areas interrelated when offering an analysis of “human persons and the failure of naturalism”?

The philosopher, especially the Christian philosopher, should take a realist understanding of the imago Dei seriously. That understanding presents the philosopher with a prima facie justified case that the six features of human persons mentioned above are real and irreducible. The theologian should take the philosophical arguments seriously as an example of how to clarify the key issues and options and make crucial distinctions relevant to their resolution. The cultural observer should be careful to observe the connection between broad cultural drifts in the arena of ideas and the way human persons are depicted by the advocates of those various drifts.

In your book, you use an important Pitrim Sorokin distinction between a “sensate culture” vs. an “ideational culture.” Can you expand upon what that distinction means and why it is significant?

A sensate culture is one that believes only in the physical world that can be seen and touched. An ideational culture accepts the physical world but also believes in an unseen realm that can be known in other ways. Sensate cultures don’t last very long because they do not have the intellectual resources to sustain a vibrant cultural form of human flourishing. Sensate cultures degenerate into greed, dishonesty and conflicts over power.

For example, it is not wide of the mark to locate the fundamental intellectual cause of our current economic crisis in the ubiquitous presence of a sensate culture in the contemporary West. By contrast, an ideational culture, especially a Judeo-Christian one, allows questions like these to be asked and provides a robust answer to them: Is there meaning to life and, if so, what it is? What is right and wrong? Is God real and is there life after death? What ought the state, public education, and other key institutions do and what role ought they play in a culture conducive to human flourishing? What role ought wealth play in such a culture? None of these questions can even be asked, much less answered, from within a scientific, sensate perspective.

How can a robust view of the image of God positively shape public policy discussions?

In a reductionist culture, human persons will be identified with things such as being an animal, sexual orientation, ethnicity, which are not the most important thing about us—that we are made in zthe image of God, or so I argue in my book. In a reductionist culture, free will and rationality disappear, and are replaced with biological and sociological determinism. Along the way, personal responsibility vanishes and social engineering at the hands of cultural elites achieves hegemony. My book stands against these trends.

It seems that the homogeneous character of naturalism is actually starting to crack and break for some in Western academic circles. If that is the case, what is going on?

For twenty years or so there has been an explosion of Christian philosophy in the academy, and the overwhelming majority of Christian philosophers are theistic realists in the sense that they take their Christian theism to have ontological and epistemological implications that do intellectual work in their field. In the next decade, the prominence of Christians in philosophy will expand even more, and a backlash is sure to precipitate. Scholars in other fields, especially theology and religious studies, would do well to take note of what is happening in philosophy and seek to learn from this phenomenon. The Recalcitrant Imago Dei would be a good place to go to see an example of theistic realism at work.

There is a constant theme in a lot of your writing: Christianity is a knowledge tradition. What is the significance of this claim for how Christianity is perceived in the culture?

If Christianity were regarded as an alleged source of knowledge of reality, then its ideas would be taken seriously, put to the test, and evaluated rationally just like other alleged sources of knowledge. Knowledge, not faith, is what gives people the right to act responsibly in culture. Religious knowledge gives theological claims authority. In The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, I seek to re-establish theological claims about human persons as a reliable source of knowledge about their actual nature.

What type of philosophy courses at a university or a seminary would most benefit from this book?

Courses in philosophy of mind, comparative religion, theological anthropology, ethics (especially metaethics or end-of-life ethics), worldview comparison, and the sociology of culture would benefit from the course. Psychologists would also find much of interest here.

How do you like to teach the areas of philosophy that your book covers?

I usually begin my course by presenting the class with facts and considerations that demonstrate the broad, cultural importance of issues at the core of philosophical and theological anthropology. Then, I seek to use texts that defend various positions on those core issues and work through them carefully with the students. My book would be a good one to use in a course in philosophy of mind/action or theological anthropology. It would also be good for a course in comparative religion, since it presents and defends a Judeo-Christian understanding of the self, and treatments of the self are central issues for any religious system.

More about J.P. Moreland can be found here.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel: Love of Wisdom (part two)

We continue our interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel concerning their latest book, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Broadman & Holman, 2009). In part one, Steve and Jim talked about the uniqueness of their textbook and its approach, including a brief overview of the book's scope. Below is the second and final part of our interview.


As professors, how has your extensive teaching experience shaped what you say and the manner in which you communicate your ideas in this book?

SPIEGEL: More than twenty years of college teaching in philosophy has confirmed to me the need for a text that is clearly written and engages students’ interest without sacrificing accuracy in discussing views and arguments. Also, students are bugged by imbalance and bias as much as we professors are. So the ideal of fairness and humility in presentation of views was also paramount for us as we wrote the book.

COWAN: I think students like to see the big picture first before they get to the nitty-gritty details of an issue. They need to know how the topic at hand fits in with other questions and concerns, and they need to see the relevance of the issue for real life. When one gets to the details, there need to be clear and concise explanations of the philosophical problems and their answers, and it doesn't hurt if there is some way to make the discussion interesting and fun. Also, I try to approach topics systematically so that we deal with questions in an order that makes sense, so that what is said later builds on what's gone before.

Regarding the need to make things interesting, I have found in my teaching and writing that using lots of illustrations, examples, case studies, and thought experiments are indispensible pedagogical tools. So, as in my teaching, I included in the book lots of illustrations from film, novels, comic books, and so on in order to help explain tough issues in a fun and relevant way. For example, in discussing the Gettier problem in chapter two, I chose to present the problem not by using Gettier's own rather plain counterexamples but by telling a story about an imposter Spider-Man showing up at a public event where Peter Parker, the real Spider-Man's alter ego, was present. Likewise, in the section on free will, I explained Frankfurt-type counterexamples by telling a story about Dr. Doom planting a computer chip in the brain of Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four. The students love it!

At the beginning of each chapter you intentionally introduce your discussion with a literary, film or pop cultural illustration or allusion. What are you trying to communicate or show by introducing a chapter’s topic in this way?

SPIEGEL: In addition to making the text more readable and interesting, these illustrations underscore the fact that Philosophy is not a remote, esoteric discipline but rather a field of study that can be, and should be, applied to literally all aspects of human experience and interest. This includes film, music, sports, literature, television, and everything else in our lives. Also, as Christians, we are called to apply our worldview to all that we do, and providing these links to everyday experience, including arts and entertainment, should remind readers of this fact.

COWAN: As I see it, these illustrations communicate two things. First, they tell readers who have never engaged in any formal study of philosophy that they are already familiar with many philosophical issues whether they know it or not. In the films, TV shows, and books they have read, philosophical concepts and problems are already a part of the experience. In this way, we take the edge off the strangeness and apparent irrelevancy with which philosophy is often perceived by newcomers. Second, and this is closely related to the first point, we hope to show the reader that philosophical ideas can and do influence people even if they have never studied them academically. I tell my students often that even though philosophical ideas often originate in the ivory tower, they never stay there. They always find their way down to the street where people live. And they typically make this transition by means of art—film, literature, etc.

Based on your assessment of the progress of Christian philosophers engaged in philosophical work, what areas of philosophical study remain under-developed or weak? Please list these areas and briefly explain why you think they are under-developed or weak and how might they become more developed and strong.

COWAN: Since the resurgence of Christian philosophy in the last few decades, Christians have done extensive and profitable work in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. Some areas in metaphysics have also received significant attention such as the mind/body problem and free will and determinism. But I think we have only recently begun to have an impact on key issues in general metaphysics or ontology. And, as far as I can tell, we have seen very little work on political philosophy and aesthetics. We seem rightly to be working our way outward from issues of central apologetic concern to Christianity (God's existence, divine attributes, problem of evil, religious epistemology) to broader areas relevant to the larger Christian worldview.

SPIEGEL: I agree with Steve here and would add that Christian philosophical aesthetics is especially in need of some strong work. It is telling that our book is the first Christian introductory philosophy text to feature a chapter on aesthetics.

How do you like to teach a philosophy or apologetics class? How do you use a textbook or other readings in the class?

COWAN: In my philosophy classes I take what I call a mixed Socratic approach. I usually begin a topic with a lecture that explains, say, a particular philosophical problem and then sketches some of the major strategies for solving that problem. Then I ask the students questions that lead them to evaluate the problem themselves and draw out the strengths and weaknesses of the various proposed solutions. I also ask questions designed to help them draw implications and practical consequences from given ideas and views. I like my textbooks to facilitate this method by providing summaries of philosophical issues and discussions of the various positions that can be taken on them. In my apologetics classes, I take a similar approach, though I usually seek to lead the students more directly to particular answers given that apologetics (at least as I conceive it) is designed to train students to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So here I prefer apologetics textbooks that state and defend traditional views which I supplement with additional lecture material and evaluative questions.

SPIEGEL: My teaching style is much like that described by Steve. As for my use of textbooks, I prefer to use an anthology of readings and supplement this with a secondary text which provides commentary, thoughtful discussion of key arguments and, if available, a Christian orientation. Our text provides all of these features I desire in a secondary text, thus making it ideally suited for a course in which it is coupled with an anthology of some kind. But, of course, The Love of Wisdom can be profitably studied on its own, in or out of the classroom.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Interview with Chad Meister: Introducing Philosophy of Religion (part two)

We continue our interview with Chad Meister about his Introducing Philosophy of Religion. In this part, Chad shares with us about he teaches philosophy and how philosophy of religion has influenced other areas of philosophy.

What are some lessons that you’ve learned over the years about how to teach philosophy of religion?

My overall pedagogical methods in the classroom have changed significantly over the last ten years or so, and this is especially true in upper level undergraduate philosophy courses such as philosophy of religion. Here are what I consider to be some significant lessons for teaching philosophy of religion (or any undergraduate philosophy course). Some of these lessons I gleaned from pedagogy researcher Ken Bain:
  • Students are not typically familiar with many, if not most, of the central topics and ideas discussed in the field, nor are they familiar with how the topics are typically approached. So rather than focusing on one or two main issues, or reading one or two primary sources, I find it helpful to first introduce them to a number of relevant topics and then to hone in on several key ones. For their assigned papers, then, I give them the opportunity to choose one or two issues with which to spend a good deal of time over the course of the semester.
  • I usually begin class with an excellent question (a question that is meaningful to the student)—that is, with a BIG question. So I generally create at least one major question for each class period and write it on the board or in PowerPoint. For example, I might ask, “What is John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis, and what are some reasons you have for agreeing or disagreeing with it?” The lecture/discussion will generally, then, focus on this question.
  • As Ken Bain notes, a recent Harvard study of the most successful students included two key elements in the classroom: tough classes and the opportunity to try, fail, get feedback, etc. separate from a grade. I believe creating assignments, such as short papers on a central theme, that allow students to work on a topic, turn in the assignment, receive comments, and re-work the assignment are effective means. These early papers receive no grade, but the final product (a longer paper including research and reflection from the earlier shorter ones) does.
  • Students need to have some control over their own education. For papers, I offer students multiple topics from which to choose, or I allow them to pick a subject related to their major or area of interest.
  • As many of the great ancient Greek philosophers understood, one of the most helpful ways of acquiring knowledge and being transformed by it is seeing it modeled by a respected mentor. So, for example, I invite students over to my home regularly to discuss issues in that environment and work to develop respect by the “younger” students for the more advanced ones. I even encourage their involvement in an official mentoring program at the college where students and faculty mentor others, and I mentor a number of the philosophy majors myself. There should be regular collaborative efforts between students, so I have them work together in small groups on projects both in and outside of class. When appropriate, I have the “advanced” students help/mentor the “newer” ones. Especially for the philosophy majors, I try to create an environment where we are growing together and encouraging one another as a community of learners.
  • Students must believe that their own work will really matter (though it may be quite basic at this stage), so I have individual meetings with them to discuss their paper topics. I encourage them to focus on a theme that is significant—both to them and to the field at large—and explain why what they are doing is philosophically significant. Furthermore, I offer them the opportunity as a class to craft a journal—one structured very much like a professional philosophy journal, but with other features that make it more fun and exciting for undergraduates (for example, including timelines, glossaries, even a comics section!). This has been a very productive, collaborative kind of project which, in one case, we published. I also encourage students to work toward writing publishable papers (and to try to publish them if they are of that quality) and to attend conferences where students and others are presenting papers. It is oftentimes in these kinds of contexts where the significance of their own work can be more fully appreciated.

How has philosophy of religion work influenced other fields in philosophy?

There is a long story to be told here, but I’ll try to keep this brief. There is a fascinating symbiotic relationship among those doing work in the various fields of philosophy you mention and work being done in philosophy of religion. Consider first a brief account (one probably quite familiar to many readers) of the resurgence of philosophy of religion over the past century with respect to work done in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language.

Philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition, emphasizes precision of terms and clarity of concepts. Religion, however, is often imprecise and veiled in mystery. This imprecision was challenged in the mid-twentieth century with the rise of logical positivism. Logical positivists used a principle of verifiability to reject as meaningless all non-empirical claims; only the tautologies of mathematics and logic, along with statements containing empirical observations or inferences, were considered meaningful. Many religious statements, however, such as claims about the transcendent, are neither tautological nor empirically verifiable. So certain fundamental religious claims and beliefs (such as “Yahweh is good” or “Atman is Brahman”) were taken by the positivists to be cognitively meaningless utterances. Positivism became a dominant philosophical approach and for a time, for this and related reasons, philosophy of religion as a discipline became suspect.

The philosophical tide began to turn, however, in the latter half of the twentieth century with respect to religious language. Many argued that the positivists’ empiricist criteria of meaning were unsatisfactory and problematic. Due to the philosophical insights on the nature and meaning of language provided by the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, the rise of a pragmatic version of naturalism offered by Willard Quine, and other factors, logical positivism quickly waned. For these reasons, along with the exemplary work of such analytic philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Hick, and others, by the 1970s discussions about religious (and metaphysical and ethical) concepts were revived and soon became accepted arenas of viable philosophical and religious discourse.

Since that time, philosophy of religion has become a burgeoning field. For example, two leading philosophy journals today—Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy—are primarily focused on issues in philosophy of religion. In addition, two of the largest (if not the largest) subgroups within the American Philosophical Association are the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the Society of Christian Philosophers. Furthermore, one could cite countless examples of recent work that integrates other fields of philosophy with philosophy of religion, or philosophy of religion work which has influenced other fields. Consider just a few fine examples (with apologies for the many other fine examples which are not included):

The list goes on and on. Those doing work in philosophy of religion have indeed made great strides in influencing other fields in philosophy over the past fifty years, and there is no indication of its waning any time soon.

More about Chad Meister can be found at his website.

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