Diagnosing Predicaments and Attending to Futures: Responding to William Franke’s Account of the “Predicament of Philosophy of Religion Today”

By J. Aaron Simmons

In his 2014 book, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, William Franke devotes a nearly 70 page chapter to the topic of “Apophasis and the Predicament of Philosophy of Religion Today.” He begins by announcing his general thesis by claiming that “the situation of philosophy today makes it peculiarly receptive to a great variety of apophatic discourses” (2014, 139). Franke’s basic argument is that “mysticism and negative theology have again become powerful paradigms for knowledge in a postmodern age,” precisely because such knowledge is “no longer bound to the rational foundationalism that guided the leading strains of philosophical thought and culture throughout the modern period” (2014, 139). Focusing specifically on the Neoplatonic tradition of apophatic Christian theology, Franke suggests that “Neoplatonism provides . . . a general theory for why philosophy and indeed knowledge in general must, in rational terms, remain foundationless” (2014, 143).

This Neoplatonic critique of strong epistemic foundationalism does seem like an important site of potential engagement between some strands in contemporary philosophy of religion and some dimensions of medieval apophatic Christian theology. I am not going to comment further on that engagement, since I am working on it in more detail for the larger work of this grant project. Here in this short post, though, I want to highlight something that might otherwise go unnoticed in the framing of Franke’s otherwise very compelling project. Specifically, I am troubled by the ease with which “philosophy today” and “philosophy of religion today” end up referring only to a very specific continental approach to philosophical inquiry (and actually, only a particular version of continental philosophy occurring in a specific tradition within the broader continental framework).

Had Franke specified that he was only concerned with a “situation” and “predicament” that some deconstructive phenomenological continental philosophy/philosophy of religion faces, then fine.  Indeed, designating the scope of one’s inquiry is always helpful and a narrow scope need not entail a narrow set of potential appropriations. However, although Franke does at one point refer to “the situation of philosophy today, especially of Continental philosophy . . .” (2014, 147), and later to the “apophatic moments” of “contemporary phenomenological philosophies” (2014, 153), he is not consistent in the delimitation of scope, but returns to the trope of “the situation of philosophy today” (2014, 156) even when specifically discussing the work of Jean-Luc Nancy.

There is no problem with using a specific example as illuminative of a larger tendency, but absent from Franke’s very long chapter is any substantive engagement with a philosopher who is likely to appear in a contemporary philosophy of religion textbook. Now, admittedly this could reflect the limitations of contemporary philosophy of religion, and the general “analytic” assumptions and authorities operative therein (thus displaying its own narrowness—as diagnosed by Kevin Schilbrack 2014), but regardless, to refer to “predicament of philosophy of religion today” and not engage the dominant strands in contemporary philosophy of religion is problematic.

I have no evidence of Franke’s motivation for such a generalization, and I will not speculate as to his intention (it may have just be simply a matter of shorthand reference and reflect no deeper diagnosis of the current politics of contemporary philosophy of religion). Yet, I think that it provides occasion to comment on the troubling polarization that so frequently characterizes contemporary philosophy of religion and leads to missed opportunities for engagement around the very sort of issues that Franke considers.

In another recent book, The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion, edited by Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins (2014), three guiding themes are put forth as especially promising directions for this “future”: the messianic, liberation, and plasticity. Focusing on the work of John Caputo, Philip Goodchild, and Catherine Malabou, respectively, as leading examples of such directions, the book explores how such themes might invite constructive philosophy of religion in light of the “death of God” and “radical theology.”

Although Crockett, Putt, and Robbins make clear the focus of their collection is a specifically continental approach to the philosophy of religion, and the three sections reflect different trajectories within continental philosophy itself (thus displaying the dynamism and plurality of continental philosophy), their book envisions a future for continental philosophy of religion that is defined by a continued disregard for the vast majority of contemporary philosophy of religion. As I see it, if there is a “predicament of philosophy of religion today” then perhaps the most troubling aspect of it is that there are two philosophies of religion and neither is interested enough in appropriating and learning from the other. I have long advocated for “mashup philosophy of religion,” whereby we do not attempt to overcome the divide, but allow the differences to remain precisely in order that different resources be available for constructive work that can now be more attentive to the complexity of religious phenomena and the dynamics of faith. But, this idea has yet to catch on in a pervasive way, though I am hopeful and excited about a special issue of The Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory that I edited exploring such possibilities.

Were we to be more attentive to work occurring in philosophy more broadly (regardless of the specific tradition upon which it primarily draws), then we might more readily see that Franke’s analysis of Nancy is but one possible site in which the limits of thought and apophatic trajectories might appear in contemporary philosophy of religion. Similarly helpful (though distinguished in the specifics) might be Graham Priest’s analysis of dialetheism and logic “beyond the limits of thought” (Priest 2002), say. Similarly, the themes of the messianic, liberation, and plasticity, might themselves been importantly developed were they not simply considered in relation to continental thinkers, but in the context of larger debates concerning divine foreknowledge, religious ethics, and cognitive linguistics. There is nothing that necessarily ties any of these debates to specific philosophical traditions other than the history of their occurrence therein. Yet, as Franke notes, the demise of some versions of strong epistemic foundationalism opens the space for thinking more productively about what it is that we are able to think, and speak, about.

Today there is room for apophatic resources, not obviously as an endorsement of a specific trajectory in philosophy of religion, but instead as an important reminder of the humility that should guide all philosophical and theological inquiry. Humility may or may not lead to silence, however, and it is important not to be too quickly be convinced of the virtue of such an approach. It is precisely by resisting temptations to think that there is a stable “predicament of philosophy of religion today” that we are able to live into a “future” where continental and non-continental philosophies are participants in the shared discourse of philosophy of religion, tomorrow.

Works Cited

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins, eds. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Franke, William. 2014. A Philosophy of the Unsayable. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Priest, Graham. Beyond the Limits of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Malden: Wiley Blackwell.


Cross-Cultural Playing Field

As part of our project on the varieties of religious understanding, I presented my research at two conferences, in Delhi and Kolkata, in December 2014 and January 2015. The conferences were entitled Languages, Cultures, and Values: East and West and were organized by the Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies and Academic Exchange. The Kolkata conference was specifically focused on philosophy, while the Delhi conference was thematically more open. Both conferences had international scholars, from Europe, America, India, Near and the Middle East, both well-established names in their field as well as upcoming young scholars and graduate students. I am thankful to all of them for a very rewarding experience.

The conferences turned out to be a fantastic playing field for a wide spectrum of East-West interaction. The spectrum was indicative of the identity politics that oscillate between upholding the East-West dichotomy and diffusing it in favor of a more dialogic mutual enrichment. There were various papers juxtaposing Western and Eastern thoughts, ancient and modern, to look at a range of issues, from freedom of will to sustainability, from gender differences to divine unity. It was interesting to observe the occasional passionate defense of Indian traditions vis-a-vis Western ones by various arguments: at times by showing how similar and equal they were to various Western systems or particular Western philosophers’ visions; other times by arguing that they presented better solutions to past and present quandaries; sometimes implying that India had worked out these sophisticated philosophical issues much prior to the West. Sparks flew in the conference room on a couple of occasions, when some argued that women enjoyed a high status in ancient India and that a fair and sound Gurukul system still continues to date. Others refuted these claims as an uncritical glorification of India’s golden past that had been fueling generations of national pride. There were some excellent papers and discussion around cultural values, cultural relativism, and globalization, and how, in the face of such matters, change occurs, ideas evolve, and personal identity is negotiated.

More directly beneficial to my research, many papers discussed a variety of Indian schools (as we all know) of Vedānta, Sāṃkhya, Nyāya, Kaśmir Śaivism, etc, and lamented that the Non-Duality school of Advaita Vedānta often glosses over this variety and is taken to be the representative Indian school, especially in cross-cultural/ Western comparative endeavors. The hermeneutics of German interpretations of “Hinduism” in my research illustrates this fact as well, and it is extremely relevant to how German thinkers conflated kataphatic and apophatic approaches to God in Hinduism. Two sets of related terms were discussed often in the conferences that will prove to be very important for my research going forward: on the one hand Pantheism, Panentheism, Panpsychism along with Substance, Spirit, Pure Consciousness, and the cosmological argument for God’s existence as the uncaused cause and ground of all causal regress of contingencies. Debates in Europe around these concepts filtered and influenced European understanding of Hinduism in the 19th century. And on the other hand, terms such as awareness, knowledge, understanding, apprehension, imagination, and experience of God that would nuance the rational, linguistic, aesthetic, intuitive, or mystical grasp of God and thus reveal the tension between kataphatic and apophatic modes.

All in all, the conferences turned out to be very productive for my further research. But they were also an excellent reminder of ground realities and cultural intricacies with which scholarship and academia run in India.