Arts and Culture

Philosophy and Religion

by Father Robert Lauder

Teaching philosophy at St. John’s University, I frequently encounter students who do not have a clear understanding of the difference between philosophy and theology. From the time that I first noticed this, I have been including in all six of the different courses that I teach an opening lecture on the difference between the two intellectual disciplines.

I stress that in order to do theology someone must believe that there has been a revelation from God, a message from God. Religious faith is accepting and believing this revelation from God. All theology starts here. For the Christian, Christ is the message, or revelation from God.

In addition to religious faith, the person doing theology uses his or her mind to reflect more and more deeply on what the revelation or message means and how it applies and illuminates human experience. So as theology has developed it has led to many different branches such as dogmatic theology, moral theology, scriptural theology as well as theology of the Church, of the sacraments and the liturgy.

Accessible to Anyone
In philosophy, no appeal is made to a revelation or message from God. What is needed to do philosophy is a mind and human experience. This is one reason why in my classes at St. John’s University, I stress to the students that anyone should be able to take any philosophy course that I teach, even an atheist, because there is no religious prerequisite. I also stress that the material in the course should be accessible to anyone no matter what his or her religious background, because usually there are not only Catholics in my courses but students from various religious traditions.

That philosophy does not appeal to revelation does not mean that philosophy cannot say anything about God. It does mean that philosophical insights into the mystery of God must come from the human mind’s reflection on experience rather than from an appeal to religious faith or revelation.

I think that I have gained insights into the mystery of God from philosophers as different as Soren Kierkegaard, an existentialist who was Lutheran; Martin Buber, a personalist who was Jewish; and Gabriel Marcel, an existentialist who was Roman Catholic.

Though I believe in the difference between philosophy and theology, I also believe that truths discovered in philosophy can help students, who wish to do so, probe more deeply into their own religious traditions. Whatever course I am teaching, I find insights that help me in my faith, and this is especially true of the courses titled “Personalism” and “Existentialism.”

In the course on the philosophy of personalism, I have the students read the marvelous book, Person and Being (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993, pp.121) by W. Norris Clarke, S.J. Students from different religious traditions seem to profit greatly from reading and discussing Father Clarke’s book. I suspect this is because of the wonderful insights that Father Clarke offers into the mystery of love.

The following is an example of the type of insight that appears frequently in Father Clarke’s small volume:
“…as images of God we too must imitate in our own way the ecstatic, outgoing self-sharing of God as Infinite Good. Personal development in a created person is to become more and more like God. And since the self-diffusiveness of the Good in a supremely personal being like God is nothing else than love, then God is Love, the infinite Lover, and we too, as his images must be lovers. So the ultimate mystery of being turns out to be that to be is to be a lover” (p. 97).

I find the image of God as ecstatic, beautiful, exciting and encouraging. We do not believe in a distant God but rather in a God Who is constantly reaching out to us in love. God is not present within us the way a thing or an inanimate object might be present in a box or suitcase. Rather, God is dynamically present and active as lover. Because we are created in the image and likeness of God, we should also be ecstatic, always ready to reach out to others who in one way or another need our help.

Our love might be expressed in some dramatic way such as taking vows for life or in some relatively easy way such as reaching out to someone who is lonely. I think of Mother Teresa’s insight that in the U.S., a great poverty is loneliness – people feeling unloved and insignificant.

Every person is needy, and everyone needs to be loved. The loving presence of God within us makes it possible for us to be lovers. God’s presence within us should give us enormous confidence and enable us to trust that our love can profoundly influence people.

Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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