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School thought: Philosophy paves way for religious debate

Professor: Theology is 'the study of God, however you define the word God'

  • Brandon-Withrow-1-21

    Brandon Withrow, left, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Findlay and a freelance writer, and Mark Christensen, an associate professor of philosophy and chair of the department at Lourdes University, share their thoughts on religious philosophy.

    THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
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  • Mark-Christensen-1-21

    Brandon Withrow, left, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Findlay and a freelance writer, and Mark Christensen, an associate professor of philosophy and chair of the department at Lourdes University, share their thoughts on religious philosophy.

    THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
    Buy This Image

  • Lourdes-1-21

    Brandon Withrow, left, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Findlay and a freelance writer, and Mark Christensen, an associate professor of philosophy and chair of the department at Lourdes University, share their thoughts on religious philosophy.

    THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
    Buy This Image

“Part of the problem that you run into with religious studies is that nobody can actually agree on a precise definition of religion, because the concept is so widely encompassing,” said Brandon Withrow, an author who is a religious history scholar and has taught religion and philosophy at Winebrenner Theological Seminary and the University of Findlay.

But people can talk about religious philosophy.

Mark Christensen, the chairman of the philosophy department at Lourdes University, said, “Both philosophy and theology are intellectual pursuits, not practices, for the most part, whereas religion is the actual practice.”

The professors were in a Biggby Coffee shop recently to talk about the philosophy of religion and its academic place. They could define philosophy, which “literally is two Greek words, philia and sophia. It’s the love of wisdom,” Mr. Christensen said. “With philosophy, you’re interested in wisdom, along with knowledge, to the degree you can have knowledge — and, boy, is that a 2,000-year debate.”

And Mr. Christensen defined theology as “the study of God, however you define the word God.”

“Philosophy of religion is using the methodology of philosophy to assess religious claims,” said Mr. Christensen, who recently taught a semesterlong philosophy of religion course.

As examples of philosophy of religion questions, he offered, “Do you know you’re supposed to live this way, not that way? Do you know that prayers are actually heard and answered? Do you believe in miracles?”

“Clearly in philosophy of religion, we can question existence of things like deities and spirit beings, human souls, angels, demons, spooky stuff,” Mr. Christensen said. “In theology and in religion, there’s all kinds of claims being made, that there’s both cherubim and seraphim around the throne of God; God’s sitting down — how do you know?”

“I think there’s a place to say philosophy of religion is where you can evaluate the questions and the responses that human beings have had and have issued on the questions of is there a God? Is there not a God? What about the problem of evil? These kinds of things,” said Mr. Withrow. “And you put that out there for evaluation.”

However, he noted, the evaluation can usually be done without resorting to one-sided methods like apologetics.

Apologetics is a defense of a particular religion or of elements in the religion, and is commonly used for Christianity. Mr. Withrow referred to a new book from Pitchstone Publishing by John W. Loftus, Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End, which says that “sufficient objective evidence [to defend Christianity] does not exist,” and that philosophy of religion is too closely tied to apologetics.

Some people who apply apologetics use “the tricks of philosophy,” Mr. Christensen said, in an attempt to show their points, without actually supporting their argument. “If there’s a gap in between philosophy and theology, apologetics is that sized block that fits right in that gap,” he said.

“Apologetics could be thought of as a distinct third discipline,” he added. “It’s grabbing theology with the one hand and grabbing philosophy with the other.”

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re teaching philosophy or theology or history; if you’re the kind of person who wants to present the arguments, pro and con, for these kinds of things, you want to try to do it objectively,” Mr. Withrow said.

Mr. Christensen said that “for a number of centuries the Vatican has officially stated that philosophy is the handmaiden — sounds sexist and subservient — of theology. … Let me be highly technical for a moment, and say philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy. It’s not theology; it’s not studying God. It is doing critical thinking about religious noises that come out of religious people’s mouths.”

Neither Mr. Christensen nor Mr. Withrow teaches from a denominational perspective, although, Mr. Withrow said, “You can have faith-based philosophy of religion that is attempting to be critical.”

Lourdes is a Catholic school, and Winebrenner and the University of Findlay are operated by the Church of God.

Mr. Withrow moved from his assistant professor position at Winebrenner, where many students were studying to be ministers, to the University of Findlay religion department, where he is an adjunct instructor, in 2014 after “I had some ideological changes personally,” he said.

As he described in an article he wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education, he had left his evangelical faith and became a secular humanist.

Mr. Withrow said that in a seminary “every position is … a theological advocate,” and with his no longer being in a church, “the university best suited me.”

Mr. Christensen said that he would teach philosophy of religion “the same way” if he weren’t at a Catholic school. “I use a book from the Oxford University Press. … In any course I teach, I have had students in any given semester say after class, ‘But what side do you believe?’ ‘”

“If your students at the end of the class sometimes say, ‘But what do you think?’ then you might have been successful in that process,” Mr. Withrow said.

“There are occasions where it’s real clear what I think,” Mr. Christensen said, “but there are more occasions where students are wondering.”

Mr. Withrow said that, though “I don’t think total neutrality is possible,” his objective as a teacher is that he’d like for his students “to be able to step out from themselves just a little bit, put themselves under the microscope so that when they're done, they’ve found at least a few of the holes in their thinking. That they’re exposed to the obvious structural flaws. … Hopefully, then that forces them into some humility for the rest of their education.”

“I echo the academic humility and academic honesty as being very high values,” Mr. Christensen said. “In the philosophy of religion class, I want [my students] to come out better thinkers.”

Contact TK Barger at tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.

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