Philosophy of Religion, A Perspective
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
We start with Religion we’re born into. But did everybody have a Religion to follow?
Mother philosophy comes in to check on one of her children, as if Religion was delivered by her. We know philosophy was the progenitor of many fields of study in the West. It was a tree which had multiple branches. Those that broke off and fell to the ground were exact sciences, such as psychology, for example. One of the last one is logic, which is finding a residency in a separate department than philosophy.
It is possible that Religion and philosophy were together at one point. However, as time passed they went their own separate ways. Historically, nonetheless, Religion seems to have had precedence over philosophical activities. Therefore, right at the beginning we need to question why we must deal with what is called, ‘philosophy of Religion’. We understand to have a subject titled, ‘philosophy of science’, or ‘philosophy of history’. However, when it comes to Religion, we can’t put this matter in the same category. The best we can do is to call it, ‘Religion philosophically examined’ or ‘Religion rationally analyzed.’ The title, ‘philosophy of Religion’, I’m afraid’ is not a correct way of naming this field of study.
What is Religion? I guess I have to look it up. ‘Religio’ means a bond between humans and the gods. It may be from ‘religare’ meaning to bind back: re-, back + ligre, to bind, fasten. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) We still are clue less as to what this word is all about. Binding reminds us of the term ‘yoga’ in Hinduism. It means union in Sanskrit. It is a discipline for becoming one with the Ultimate Reality. This can be achieved through concentration, along with especial postures, and controlled breathing. (Webster new World Dictionary) It is possible that the word ‘yoke’ is cognate with the word ‘yoga’. It sounds as if we have been drifted away from the source, like the ray of the sun being far on the periphery. Although we’re connected as in a spider web, we’re not yet one with the center. We must bind together. We’re the Atmans longing to be one with Brahman. We’re the many trying to achieve unity with the One. We’re those sparkles of light scattered in the ocean of darkness of being waiting to become one with the sun. Religions come to us in all different forms and shapes to help us get there.
Muslims ask God while praying to guide them upon the straight path. This is the middle road where we desire to be on. There’re extremes on both sides. We wish we could walk on the tight rope without falling to either side. Help us Lord to stay on the path of those whom you have blessed, not those who have brought your wrath upon themselves, nor those who have gone astray. (Pickthall and Nasr, trans). The golden mean is the means between the two extremes. We’re not talking about the geometric middle, namely, once divided; there are 50’s on both sides equally.
By way of analogy, this is very much like the medical doctor’s scale, which is gradually replaced by the digital ones. This old scale, which to some, still works better than the new digital ones in the market, is based on the way the metal stones move until the weight of the patient is determined.
All the way from Confucius to Aristotle, Buddha and many great Religious figures and thinkers have spoken about the middle path. This is where we see a remarkable connection between philosophy and Religion. This is the reason why we believe Religion and philosophy were once together and there was no separation between the two.
According to the holy Qur’an, there has never been a nation to which a prophet has not been sent. Why do we need them? They’re conduits through whom we can find our ways in this darkness of being. They’re like lightening at night in a desert, which can show us where we’re going before the thunder shows its presence.
Religions are separate at the bottom of the pyramid in which they’re exoteric. However, at the top, they’re esoteric. On one level Religions are understood by the public, which gives us the former. On a higher level, Religions are comprehended by only a chosen few, like an inner group of disciples or initiates. (H. Smith, in the introduction to F. Schuon’s Transcendent Unity of Religions) The late professor Smith showed the difference between exoteric and esoteric aspects of Religions through drawn lines which converge at a point with a horizontal line going through them. On the lower level, Religions are all separate from each other (Exoteric). But at the peak, they all gather together (Esoteric). Exoteric gives us the outer, whereas esoteric demonstrates the inner. Public verses private. Outside of a fruit like coconut gives us the hard and a dark brown shell, while its inside provides us with the soft and an edible white material. Buddha, for example, taught the mass in an exoteric way, whereas when in his inner circle, he passed the core of his teachings with an esoteric method.
Exoteric manifests itself in the realm of many, while esoteric resides in the abode of oneness. We can reach the one by concentrating on the essence of the messages of all Religions. Although forms are located on the lower level, their essence is with the one. Once we realize this fact, we can then relate to all Religions. However, it is not enough to only understand this intellectually. We need to have the knowledge of this reality by looking within ourselves asking why there’re so many Religions and what their ultimate message is for us. Are they here to teach us about right and wrong? Are they to tell us that, if we go wrong, then we’ll be punished? Are they to convey a message concerning where we came from or where we’re going? Have they been able to tell me what this world is all about? I guess the only way I can find out is to die physically. But this is an experience from which there is no turning back.
What if I die before I die, which was suggested by Socrates and many great figures in the history of the world? What does this mean any way? Perhaps it teaches us a method through which we can contemplate, which is a life lived authentically.
Philosophy, according to Socrates, is the experience of death. This doesn’t mean a physical death. Nevertheless, we can find out about the reality, whatever that may be, once we go through such an experience. Some think after our physical death we’ll know what has been evading us all our life. Socrates could never have possibly said such a thing. The death he is talking about is not the physical one. It is a death that happens where as a result, life becomes transparent so then we can see through it. Once being becomes transparent, we then can know the truth.
There’re Religions without personal gods or God. These Religions seem to direct their followers towards the Ultimate reality, which is beyond all dualities. It can’t be Void, or Nothingness, or even necessary Being. The most important question is whether or not we can penetrate the many layers of interpretations accumulated throughout thousands of years since the inception of these religions? How can we get to the core of them to gain access to their real messages? Perhaps great saints could, but where can we find them? If there’re any, there seems to dying out as time becomes history. And there’re not too many shamans left to contact the ancestors in order to give us some knowledge as to what is going on.
The more the sun extends itself to reach the farthest, into the darkest area of the cosmos, the more we realize why we’re suffering.
We blame the gods or God for throwing us into the abyss of darkness. We keep blaming ourselves for having failed our moral duties in the process. We worry that we might go to hell after we die, as if this world is a paradise. We race with one another to get to heaven in which good old Hebrews had no faith, let alone Hell.
We were told we were hanging by the spider webs over the fire and we could easily fall into it, unless we believed. We live our lives with fear and were apprehensive. Death always followed us like our shadows. War could break out at any moment. Epidemics wiped out good portion of humanity. Religious wars killed millions of people in the names of their founders. They destroyed each other’s libraries and converted thousands by swords. In the name of Christ thousands were burned at stake. Churches were demolished in the name of their faith. Although we’re connected to the source, we’re on the periphery of these circles which reminds us of a spider web.
We exist in this universe of imperfection, change, and becoming. We’re prisoners of time and space. We try to be positive as much as we can, but we soon find out that being negative or positive are all sentimental values. We finally ought to be realistic, given our status in this world.
We’re under constant threat of becoming subject of sudden death, unless we put this idea on the back burner for later time pretending it doesn’t exist. We can also get killed, here or in a war. As we get old, however, we start becoming weak and sick more often. We do whatever we can to prevent it, but to no avail. Pain and ache become our every day affair. We know eventually we must say good bye to this world with the help of some physical complication. Being apprehensive and worried, we start to stop our blood pressure, cholesterol, sugar and perhaps others from going up. We begin taking more pills than before. Our daily vitamins are now 20 to 30 pills a day. Some of us dye our hairs as they get gray and others just let them be until their heads look all white, perhaps to look dignified. We try to halt the process of aging as much as possible knowing the fact we’re getting old no matter how many times we go through face lifting. We get rid of our baggy eyes and wrinkles but our faces will never look the same after wards. Having done that, our hands will show our age. We then do something for our hands. Let us not forget that only some of us can even go this far because not everyone can afford the cost of all these plastic surgeries. The poor have no choice but succumb to the force of nature. We need our hands to work with but they too become numb with so much pain. We can’t lift heavy items any longer without having shoulder pain. Gradually our joints begin acting out. We must walk with canes. Wheel chairs become our companions in whatever shape or forms. Some of us become very bitter and some try instead to be so kind to their children and grandchildren.
We ask this question: Do they love us back for what they get after we die? Do they flatter us before we write our wills? Tennessee Williams (1911-83), American play Wright, expressed this in his famous work called, “A cat on a hot tin roof.” This is also demonstrated beautifully in a movie by the name of, “Greedy”.
Our death is caused by either a massive heart attack or cancer or diabetes or several other terminal illnesses. Old age, sickness, and finally death were all under scrutiny by Buddha who lived around 2600 years ago. He was wondering what was going on as much as we do. Perhaps he found the secret of stopping sufferings we experience in this world. But we’re not him. We ought to discover this for ourselves and deal with it.
We’re in this world and yet we’re not of it as someone once said. The difference between us and the animals is that we’re rational. We can think and make accordingly. We’re capable of discernment. We wonder about the passage of time, the past, the present, and the future. We’re close to some animals when it comes to death, like elephants, for instance. They express their feelings when one of them dies, either of old age or otherwise. Some animals come so close to the way we think about life and death that make us stop and contemplate as to why they do what they do. The Hindus and the Buddhists quickly remind us of the reality of reincarnation or rebirth. These animals, depending on their karmas, could have been humans in their past lives and they’re now reborn in these forms. Nonetheless, they can’t do what we do on a much higher level. On the other hand, it is possible they might know what is going on, but since they can’t speak our language, they’re unable to share their knowledge with us.
We’re told by meditation we can break through the barrier separating us from the unknown reality. But can we communicate whatever we discover with everybody? We can talk about it, but individuals must experience it for themselves. How can I leave the camera of my mind to see the world as it really is beyond its appearances?
In Abrahamic Religions, we need God to lead us to the hidden world here and now, whereas, in Eastern Religions, especially with Buddhism, we rely heavily on meditation. With the former, the grace of God becomes an absolute necessity. The Gods have revealed themselves to their Prophets. There’s an element of descent here which is missing in all other Eastern Religions except Hinduism. For example, the coming dawn of Krishna to us is a descent or Avatara. In a sense, we can say that Hinduism is a Religion which shares ideas with both the Western and Eastern Religions. All these Religions seem to have been teaching us that we ought to follow certain moral precepts first. Why do we have to be moral to begin with? Is it to please gods or God? Is it for me? I really didn’t ask to be in this world in the first place.
Did Adam ask God as to why He created him? Did he question God why he decided for him to have a companion because he was lonely? He never asked for it. Did he? Decisions were all made for him way ahead of time. He was determined already by what God’s plan was for him. So, he had no choice in the matter. He came into existence without his will, as potentially a man and a woman, a male and a female. Are we talking about Hermaphrodite? I mean a person who has the reproductive organs with many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. (The American Heritage).
This was brought up in one of Socrates’ gatherings where he entertained a discussion on love. One of the participants told him about the origin of humans. Addressing the gathering, he said that in the beginning we humans had four hands and four legs. We made love to ourselves. But one of the gods became jealous and split us in half and ever since this cleavage, male and female have been having desire for one another. There was one first, and then turned into two and now they want to become one again. But why do we have to go through all this? Why do I have to worry about right or wrong, good and evil?
We would like to possess the truth. But little do we know that what we think it is the truth is in reality nothing except interpretations on top of more interpretations.
What we ought to do is pursue the truth no matter where it may be. We should peel off one layer after another of this onion till we reach its core.
Hermeneutics of suspicion emerged at the end of the 19th century, which involved Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. The word ‘Hermeneutics’ simply means “the study of the principles of Biblical exegesis” or the critical analysis of the Bible (New World Dictionary). Marx and Nietzsche were philosophers and Freud was the father of modern psychoanalysis. All three suspected the authenticity of the Biblical interpretations. Marx believed Religion (Biblical) was the opiate of the mass. It would quite dawn its followers while those who owned the tools of production took advantage of them economically.
Those who use opium tend to keep their feelings to themselves. Drinking alcoholic beverages, on the other hand, would make us express what we have been keeping inside from the public. In their churches, workers are promised by their ministers and preachers that justice will prevail, if not in this world, it shall be done in the next one. In the mean time, they’re being robbed of everything they have worked hard for all their life.
Nietzsche was more concerned about the fact that we have been dealing with thousands of years of interpretations and perhaps misinterpretations of the Biblical accounts and still have no idea who Christ really was. He said “God is dead”, because we killed Him. This doesn’t mean He is dead because we crucified Him. He meant Christian theology had come to an end. God came dawn to us in the person of Jesus Christ so that we can become God. Now that God is dead, we ought to be like gods. We should be over men, not supermen.
Apparently, Hitler thought he was this very god, so he copied Nietzsche’s works and asked his generals to read them.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), was a German philosopher, who studied Hinduism and Buddhism. He was fascinated by Buddhist philosophy in which personal God or gods or any other deities didn’t exist. This went very well with the intellectual attitude of the 19th century Europe towards the existence of God, though Buddhism is a non-theistic Religion. He knew Buddhism was not an atheistic school of thought. It was rather a non-theistic Religion.
All deities were nothing but what people thought they were, according to Buddha. Atman (individual soul) and Brahman (universal Soul) are to be rejected, according to Buddha. They’re interpretations and misinterpretation of those who believed in them. In other words, Buddha didn’t accept the beliefs of those who had claimed to possess the truth concerning those gods. He argued that all these folks had only images of their gods, whether in their mind, or manifested outside of their mind in the forms of statues. Buddha never regarded this last episode as idolatry. Hindus worshiped what those images stood for. Nevertheless, Buddha being a Hindu himself followed the idea of detachment. Therefore, he didn’t believe we should be attached to anything. This included him and even his teachings.
Schopenhauer didn’t follow Buddha’s teachings regarding the elimination of suffering. Nonetheless, our suffering in this world was the subject he was most concerned about.
Fredrick Nietzsche (1844-1900) read Schopenhauer’s works and he seems to have been somewhat influenced by his philosophy. Referring to Christian theology, he said: “God is dead”.
Freud, though didn’t want to admit it at first, once asked whether he had ever read Nietzsche’s writings or was familiar with them, he said in response: “If I read everything he had written, there never would have been anything for me to write.” This may not be a direct quotation, but it is enough to show what a great figure Nietzsche was, not only in philosophy but also in psychology.
It is very much possible that Freud was under the influence of Nietzsche’s thought. He like Nietzsche didn’t believe in a transcendent Reality. Freud tried to explain away the need for Religions psychologically. “If everything that can rightfully be described as human rests on merely psychological causes, one can—and indeed must—explain everything by psychology, whence the “psychology of religion” and the professedly psychological criticism of the sacred texts; in all cases of this kind, one is dealing with speculations in the void due to the absence of the indispensable objective data—data which are beyond the reach of those methods of investigation now declared to be normal, and which are arbitrarily extended to cover every conceivable kind of knowledge.
On the slippery ground of psychologism, the logic of Kantian critical philosophy is now “outgrown”; that is to say, the “critique” readily assumes the guise of an “analysis”, a fact which is symptomatic since the very notion of a “critique” is doubtless still too intellectual to suit the book of those destroyers of the past the psychologists would gladly be taken for; moreover, these people blithely reduce metaphysics and even simple logic to questions of grammar. They wish to “analyze” everything on quasi-physical or quasi-chemical lines, and they would even analyze God if that were possible; indeed, they do so indirectly when they attack the notion of God or the mental and moral concomitances of that notion, or the expressions, quite out of reach as these really are, of a genuine intellection.
If the Freudian psychology declares that rationality is but a hypocritical cloak for a repressed animality, this statement evidently of a rational, falls under the same reproach; Freudianism, were it right, would itself be nothing else but a symbolistic denaturing of psychophysical instincts. Doubtless the psychoanalysts will say that, in their case, reasoning is not a function of repressions, which they do not care to admit; but it is difficult to see, first on what grounds this exception would be admissible in terms of their own doctrines, and second, why this law of exception would apply only in their favor and not in favor of those spiritual doctrines which they reject with such animus and with a monstrous lack of any sense of proportion. In any case, nothing can be more absurd than for a man to make himself the accuser, not of some psychological accident or other, but of man as such: whence comes this demigod who accuses, and from where does he obtain this faculty for accusation? If the accuser himself is right, this must mean that man is not so bad after all and that he is capable of objectivity. Otherwise, we would have to admit that the champions of psychoanalysis are Divine beings unpredictably fallen from heaven, a somewhat unlikely proposition, to say the least.
Psychoanalysis first of all eliminates those transcendent factors that make the essence of man and then replaces the complexes of inferiority or frustration by complexes of complacency and egotism; it allows one to sin calmly and with assurance, and to damn oneself serenely. Like all destructive philosophies (that of Nietzsche, for example). Freudianism attributes an absolute significance to a relative situation; like all modern thinking, it only manages to fall from one extreme into the other, being incapable of taking account of the fact that the truth—and the solution—it is seeking is to be found in the profoundest nature of man, of which the religions and the traditional wisdoms are, precisely, the spokesmen, the guardians and the guarantors.
In fact, the mental attitude created and disseminated by psychoanalysis consists in refusing to engage in a logical or intellectual dialogue alone worthy of human beings, and in answering questions obliquely by means of insolent conjectures: instead of trying to find out if an interlocutor is or is not right, questions are asked about his parents or his blood pressure—to confine ourselves to symbolical examples of a fairly innocent kind—as if such procedures could not readily be turned against their authors, or as if it were not easy, by changing the mode of argument, to reply to one analysis by means of another. …..” (Logic and Transcendence by F. Schuon, pp. 10-12) “Man is what he is, or he is nothing; the capacity for objectivity and absoluteness inherent in thought proves the quasi-absolute or fixed and irreplaceable character of the thinking creature; this is what is meant by the Scriptural words “made in God’s image.” (Schuon, p.13). “Thought of the psychologists’ type is always rushing ahead of itself; it sets out to be dynamic and effective before being true, and to be a solution or a remedy before being a diagnosis; furthermore, it readily indulges in an oblique form of reasoning in order to evade its intellectual responsibilities. Let us imagine a case where someone says that every man must needs die, to which he receives the reply that this is not true because it makes people feel sad or fatalistic or drives them to despair; yet this is just the way the man “of our time” likes to reason, his objections to such truths as he finds disagreeable are always beside the point, they are always evasions or confusions of level. If a man raises a fire alarm, it is said that he has no right to do so unless he knows how to put out the fire; and if someone maintains that two and two make four and thereby makes things awkward for certain prejudices or interests, it will be said that this calculation denotes, not his ability to count, but a complex of exactitude doubtless contracted through an excessive attachment to “bygone days” and so forth. If the above metaphors seem to savor of caricature by reason of their simplicity or their outspokenness, it has to be admitted that only too often the reality is no less absurd.” (Schuon, p. 14).
There was an element of determinism in both Marx and Freud. For the former the historical events seem to be a parody of the providence of God in the Old Testament. God’s plan for humans in history shall take place accordingly. However, Marx’s predictions didn’t come into existence when revolution didn’t happen in England and instead broke out in Russia. Marx was not Christ who had prophesied the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In 70 A.D., Roman army destroyed the Temple.
As far as Freud’s determinism, we’re vulnerable to whatever has happened in our past life. For example, the reason why I have hard time driving through Holland tunnel it is because I was stuck in the washing machine when I was a little boy. This kind of determinism became overnight success in the west and it was expressed in many movies all over the world. When your roommate showed, you disrespect out of nowhere, we would quickly recommend a psychiatrist. You might even think he or she has some kind of psychological problem. But if you had a religious upbringing, you would assess the problem differently. Suppose this person was not religious, then you would appeal to morality and ethics to help your roommate. If this didn’t work, then you would suggest that she should seek help. You talk to someone else concerning this problem and you both come to the same conclusion that she needs help. This has become common practice in our culture. It seems as if psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists have taken over the role of our Rabbis, priests, ministers, and monks as if the latter group are good only for birth, marriage, and death. The former, on the other hand, are encouraged to act like the latter without the qualifications to do so.
The staff, around which one or two snakes is or are coiled in the symbolism of caduceus, stands for the vertical Reality within us. Snake symbolizes the psyche. This vertical rode is the Intellect in the original sense of the word or the Atman within every individual in Hinduism. It is Christ within, according to Christianity. The soul leans and relies on the vertical Reality within us. Once this tree starts falling, then whatever is on it will also run away. Run away psyche, or soul is bound to navigate into all sorts of psychological problems we have been encountering these days. This fact alone conveys a message that the reality of religions, or what they’re in essence, has to be strong enough for the wellbeing of our psyche.
Symbolically, the vertical Reality can be interpreted as Jesus Christ and the psyche as his church. The former would be man, in matrimony, and the latter woman. Husband here is the rode on whom wife leans and relies. When he is not strong enough, then we can’t expect much from his wife. They complement each other. They’re like yin and yang.
One might argue that modern women no longer depend on her husband economically or otherwise. This is a valid point. However, here we’re expressing what was traditionally believed to be the case in the Western world as well as the Eastern hemisphere. In “Paradise lost” of John Milton, Adam asks Eve, after she had eaten the forbidden fruit: Why did you go to the tree? She simply answers his question with another question: Why did you let me go? These are not direct quotations. Nevertheless, they express the fact that in marriage men played the role of taking care of their families. Given the rise of women’s liberation, feminism, and libration theology we might interpret these symbolisms in a different way which is understandable.
The reality of Religion is perhaps what Buddha tried to teach his students 2600 years ago. He taught them that mind was very important, thus, we ought to purify it to experience the truth. The ordinary mind is like contaminated water. If we had access to its source, we would then drink pure water. But if we didn’t, then we would have to purify the existing one.
Great prophets, sages, and highly realized individuals have the gifts of the perfect Reality whereby everything else can be measured. They possess the criterion by which they can tell the difference between right or wrong, good and bad. They know what perfect water is.
If you have not tasted and smelled real peaches, you would think what you have eaten were the best. Once we have some organic ones, we then change our mind. How can I claim what I’m eating and smelling is the best? We might see this only in commercials where we’re encouraged to consume the products they’re advertising. How can I sell ‘relative’ in the name of ‘absolute’? Therefore, we should purify the water restoring it back to what it was originally and then drink it.
We see on T.V. that certain eggs are very tasty while in fact the chickens are fed only soy beans. Not only the chickens, but their eggs are very insipid and tasteless. We interfere with the process of nature, and then we’re done a favor when we’re offered organic produce or chickens. Otherwise we have to eat tasteless eggs and chickens overloaded with all kinds of seasonings and sauces.
We ought to look for our origins. We should purify our mind. Life is too contaminated with relativity, imperfections, change, and becoming. We must hold on to the rope hanging from the sky, as mentioned in the holy Qur’an. We’re in this well and need to get out. We must grab the rope so we can be lifted up and out into safety, like a drowning person lifted by a helicopter from a grand rapid.
In Abrahamic Religions we ought to get help from God to do so. We’re in need of His or Her grace. In other Religions, we have to work hard to get out of the cave into the light. Finally, we all need our freedom from the bondage of life in this world. Pure religions have come to us through great messengers to guide us back to where we came from. We really don’t belong here. As we mentioned before, though we’re in this world, we’re not of this world, as a great scholar once said.
We’re very much like a tree. On the one hand our roots are deep in the ground. On the other hand, our branches are reaching for the sky.