The Problem of Religion (Part 3): James, Kierkegaard, Buber

This is the last installment for this series. Search the title for the previous parts.

As mentioned in the introduction, William James really does not care a great deal about dogmatic theology or philosophy of religion as it is often presented by people like Descartes, as he is a pragmatist. Dogmatic theology and philosophy of religion are often unsuccessful and impractical. The only exceptions are when religious experience (the kind Freud dislikes as justification for religion) and philosophy are put together to help with the experience.

Of course there are large differences between what Freud is after and what James is after. James is not concerned about proving religion to anyone or what causes religious experiences, he is only concerned with what the experiences mean to the person who has them and how they can affect behavior. A traditional philosophical approach to religion like the one applied by the thinkers already discussed is rejected by James. He writes about this.

It assumes to construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason alone, or of logical reason drawing rigorous inference from non-subjective facts. It calls its conclusions dogmatic theology, or philosophy of the absolute, as the case may be; it does not call them science of religions. It reaches them in an a priori way, and warrants their veracity. (James 339)

When personal experience is left out of philosophy, there is no content left for the philosophy to work with. In this way James sees philosophy as being a tool for use by religious experience, because without religious experience philosophy is devoid of content and derived from nowhere. He states something which is very different from what is discussed in the works of Descartes, Hume, and Freud.

I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue. (James 337)

Religion is thought to be by nature so subjective and paradoxical that philosophy, with its universals and logic, is unable to act in any other way than what James has mentioned here when it comes to religion (James 338). All philosophy ever does to religion when it is used other than the way set forth by James is divide people up about the subject (James 341). This may be because the subjective element in religious experience is forced upon others as being objective when philosophy is brought in with its universals. Philosophy provides for a form of rationalization of the opinions one holds about their subjective experiences (James 339). Of course it is appropriate for philosophy to be used in stoking the fire of religious emotion, presumably through the aesthetic value of some dogmatic theology which matches previously experienced emotions (James 346).

This brings the discussion to the problems of communicating religious experience, which is impossible without the use of dogmatic theology and philosophy in the service of religion. James sees this as another proper and necessary use of philosophy.

Moreover, we must exchange our feelings with one another, and in doing so we     have to speak, and to use general and abstract verbal formulas. Conceptions and         constructions are thus a necessary part of our religion; and as moderator amid the   clash of hypotheses, and mediator among the criticisms of one man’s             constructions by another, philosophy will always have much to do. (James 338-      339)

Philosophy of religion is not merely an intellectual exercise, and it is not to be used to force subjective religious experiences upon others through logical force, as the writers discussed so far have apparently incorrectly assumed. Even changing large portions of doctrine does not change the pragmatic value of what stems from mystical experience, so as far as James is concerned disputing over impractical metaphysical views in religion is needless perversion of the true role of philosophy in religion.

Kierkegaard likewise differs extraordinarily from the other thinkers discussed so far. He does not view religion as the philosophically firm or philosophically incorrect thing that most of the other writers do. He thinks of religion in terms of paradoxes and grasping on to the absurd. So, for example, Kierkegaard focuses a great deal upon the story of Abraham and Isaac, a perfect example of what faith is and how it rests upon paradox.

…Abraham represents faith, and that faith finds its proper expression in him          whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it       simply cannot be thought. He acts on the strength of the absurd; for it is precisely        the absurd that as the single individual he is higher than the universal.         (Kierkegaard 65)

The first important step in religion is resignation. Resignation is the giving up of what is most loved in a person’s life through a willing disciplining of the self. The pain caused by such a measure forces attention upon the reality of eternal rather than finite matters. This brings the person into a close, conscious relationship with existence itself, resulting in peace (Kierkegaard 51).

The next stage is faith. Faith requires the resignation just discussed and also works to pull a person from that resignation (Kierkegaard 52). Having faith means believing against all rationality that the most prized thing in life which was given up in resignation will be possessed infinitely. Obviously this is absurd, and it is, according to Kierkegaard, to be believed for that very reason. The absurd is, much to the chagrin of the thinkers discussed so far, somewhat indefinable because of its being outside of the reach of human understanding. By absurd Kierkegaard means believing the impossible, not just that something is unlikely or unexpected (Kierkegaard 52-53).

Kierkegaard thinks faith is the paradox of existence, not some philosophically proven ordeal, and few people can ever have it. Those who do possess faith are nothing out of the ordinary on the surface, because they are so focused on the infinite instead of the finite. Faith requires admitting the impossibility of ever getting back what is given up in resignation. This is to be believed completely or else nothing was ever actually resigned (Kierkegaard 53). For example Abraham must believe that Isaac is gone forever or Abraham does not actually love Isaac. This creates a paradox because Abraham loves his son as ethics would dictate he should do while simultaneously going beyond these ethics in faith.

Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified before the latter, not as subordinate but superior, though      in such a way, be it noted, that it is the single individual who, having been   subordinate to the universal as the particular, now by means of the universal             becomes that individual who, as the particular, stands in an absolute relation to      the absolute. (Kierkegaard 64)

This “teleological suspension of the ethical” defies reason (Kierkegaard 62). Kierkegaard sees the relationship between philosophy and religion as one that is only important for pointing out paradoxes and absurdities. Resignation and faith are very real elements of the human life to Kierkegaard.

Martin Buber takes an approach to religion that is very similar to Kierkegaard’s. Buber is all about experience and more than that, about a paradoxical “I and Thou” relationship with Being. He writes that “All great religiousness shows us that reality of faith means living in relationship to Being ‘believed in,’ that is, unconditionally affirmed, absolute Being” (Buber 31). Meanwhile, Buber wants philosophy out of religion, perhaps more so than any of the other thinkers discussed so far.

Philosophy is in the business of ignoring completely the I and Thou relationship so heavily emphasized as the essence of religion by Buber, and substitutes inferences drawn from objects instead. This makes Being into an object, which is foolishness to Buber because it destroys the point of religion (Buber 31). According to Buber, all religions have “an unlimited and nameless absolute” that definitely loses its identity in theory if an attempt is made to force philosophy upon it (Buber 31). Philosophy is not about relationships, but that is all religion is about and constantly affirms, so the two do not mix.

This means that virtually all of the thinkers discussed have for Buber entirely missed the point. Religion is doubted, deconstructed, insulted and mocked by many philosophers, yet only due to their ignorance of the subject to subject relationship that religion consists of. Religion emerges from philosophical attacks unscathed, though perhaps purified from misconceptions of it which are torn down by the philosophers. The eternal Being of the I and Thou relationship inherent in religion transcends philosophical categories and escapes the attempt made to make eternal Being into an object (Buber 24).

The question of what religion actually is has driven many thinkers to write on the subject in order to attack it, defend it, or to take a somewhat “neutral scientific” approach to it. The very different treatments of the subject by the thinkers used here shows how deep the trouble actually is to define religion from within an unbelieving framework.

Works Cited

David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding And Selections From A Treatise Of Human Nature. The Open Court Publishing Company. Illinois. 1963.

David Hume. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Pearson. NJ. 2008.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. Class Handout.

Martin Buber. Eclipse of God. Class Handout.

René Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK. 1996.

Sigmund Freud. The Future of an Illusion. Norton & Company. New York. 1989.

Soren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. Penguin. New York, NY. 1985.

William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, NY. Simon and            Schuster, 1997.


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