“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Religion and Philosophy: Thinking, Feeling, and Willing the Absolute

“The object of religion is the same as that of philosophy; it is the eternal verity itself in its objective existence; it is God. Nothing but God and the unfolding of God… [P]hilosophy in unfolding religion merely unfolds itself, and in unfolding itself it unfolds religion.” -Hegel

“Philosophy is the intellectual search for the fundamental truth of things; religion is the attempt to make the truth dynamic in the soul of man.” -Sri Aurobindo

“Religion, whatever it is, is man’s total reaction upon life.” -William James

What is the relationship between religion and philosophy? Some philosophers, like Bertrand Russell, believe it is philosophy’s job to lift the human intellect above the childishness of religion. Reason and science alone are supposed to guide our species into its adulthood. Levi Bryant’s recent post complicates this picture:

…the choice of philosophy over religion…cannot be completed by demonstrating that philosophy is the “rational” choice over religion, nor that the claims of religion are inadequate as descriptions of reality. Rather, philosophy only surmounts religion in completing its project of thinking being…

Bryant’s post is a challenge to philosophy to think not only the eternality of being (noun: “is” or “I”), but the contingency of existence, of being (verb: “to be” or “am”). Until philosophy is able to absolutize itself in this way, says Bryant, the mind (philosophy) inevitably leaves itself vulnerable to possession by the heart (religion). (Kantian) Philosophy tends to bracket the flesh and blood of existence from its metaphysical inquiry into pure possibility, and in so doing forfeits any challenge the mind might make to the heart’s will to believe. But we need not oppose religion and philosophy. Their object, as Hegel says, is the same. Philosophy, to remain relevant to actual life, must itself become religious. Without the madness of the heart’s longing, there is no such thing as philosophy, anyway.

Spirituality claims knowledge of something immediately (perceptually) that it has not (“yet”?) succeeded in thinking mediately (conceptually). The philosopher’s task, if it is the Absolute she seeks, is to think herself thinking being, and so to come to know who it is that she is in the world. She is pressed for time, death potentially waiting around every corner. “Who am I?” “What is this?” — these are not neutral or optional questions for her. The meaning of human life depends on these questions. If she cannot think the answer, the All, for herself before the sun sets on another day, she has no other choice but to believe being exists. If she is able to say “I am,” it is because she believes, she knows existence intuitively, without the mediation of any concept other than her “own” being. To believe being exists is not to march in step with the masses, to buy into the dogmatisms of traditional religion despite the challenges of modern science and philosophy. Faith in God need not be faith despite knowledge, but faith in order to know what/who the mind cannot (“the heart has reasons reason doesn’t know”). Faith is a movement of the heart, a love seeking the highest knowledge: knowledge of the Good. It is the kind of knowledge that requires our heartfelt participation in order to be known. Goodness is not an abstract idea, it has no essence outside its existence; it is always discovered in the act of loving.

The reality of God is not just a postulation made by morality; rather, only he who recognizes God — in whatever way — is a truly moral person. Moral laws ought to be obeyed not because they are related to God as the lawmaker (or whatever other relationship the finite mind is able to conceive) but because the essence of God and that of morality are one and the same and because by acting morally we are revealing the essence of God. A moral world exists only if God exists, and to postulate His existence in order for a moral world to exist is a complete reversal of the true and necessary relations.

-Schelling, Philosophy and Religion (1804).

Religion, as James put it, is the human being’s “total reaction upon life”; it is the soul’s response to the actual time and place of its incarnation. If God exists, and it is possible not only to think, but to feel and to will the Absolute, it is because the human soul has made room within itself for God to be born into the world.

When Love said that word, my soul melted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!

-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)






3 responses to “Religion and Philosophy: Thinking, Feeling, and Willing the Absolute”

  1. James Ungureanu Avatar
    James Ungureanu

    I recently found your blog and have enjoyed reading some of your entries. Could you please provide the citations for the first group of thinkers you mentioned. Also, perhaps you might consider changing the format of the background. After spending a few minutes reading the text, my eyes have a difficult time adjusting, since it has burned its image in my vision.

  2. William James on Religious Experience and Philosophy | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] Religion and Philosophy: Thinking, Feeling, and Willing the Absolute (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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