The Relationship between philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age
When I was a student at a Catholic high school in Queens, New York, I was taught that although philosophy is the mother of the sciences, she is also the handmaid of theology. Sometimes the dialogue between philosophy and theology may have seemed to have taken the form of orders given by the theological mistress to her erudite but obedient maid, but that was a long time ago, if ever it was at all. The idea that philosophy should be in service to theology has been rejected in the West by most philosophers, and many theologians, at least since the Enlightenment period of European thought. But instead of bringing about the emancipation of philosophy, the result has been to place philosophy at the service of her own children, the natural and human sciences. Scientific realists would determine being itself by the ultimate dictates of science. So, where does this leave the relationship between philosophy and theology? Many see it as forever broken off, and many Christian theologians think that this is to the advantage of theology. As they see it, philosophy was never a very good servant, for it was always raising more problems than it solved.
Of course, this attitude is not unknown to Muslin scholars. It is easy to find Muslims who are suspicious of philosophy; especially Islamic philosophy; there are even those, like Ghazali, who would accuse philosophy of blasphemy. Others would be satisfied if philosophy would mind its own business and stay out of the way of theological doctrine.
philosophy, however, refuses to be ignored. It has a way of making itself noticed even by those theologians who wish it would just go away. philosophy accuses those who neglect her of lacking reason, and since it proclaims that reason is the difference between man and the other animals, this accusation amounts to the charge that those who neglect her are subhuman.
So, after the rise and fall of positivism, after philosophy had been declared to be a servant of the natural sciences, assigned to clean up left over questions, philosophy arrives in the new dress of philosophy of religion, coyly proffering her own questions for the theologian. On the surface, most or many of the questions are those which have been familiar to theologians for centuries: How can the existence of God be proved? How can God know what free humans will do? Can God make a stone so large that He Himself cannot lift it? How can the eternal God know the temporal material world? And so forth. While on the surface, these appear to be the same questions familiar to theologians since reason was first applied to religion, once one becomes familiar with the contemporary discussions of these questions it becomes obvious that the philosophy of religion is not as innocent as she may seem. Her questions are not those of a naive girl seeking to understand her faith as best she can. philosophy has served the sciences for years, and its servitude to the sciences has required countless compromises with humanism, materialism, physicalism, naturalism, and other ideologies antagonistic to religion. When it raises its questions for the theologians, the arguments of all these ideologies are ready and waiting for whatever response the theologians may offer. If the theologian responds by rehearsing the standard discussions to be found in traditional texts, whether. Christian or Islamic, he will be accused of -ignorance and irrelevance to contemporary concerns.
The philosophy of religion is by no means merely another name for rational theology as traditionally understood, for the very standards of reason which are applied to theological issues have changed. If the theologian is not to be caught off guard, he must be prepared to question these standards, and thus, to adopt an unfamiliar hypercritical stance toward the cannons of reason themselves.
The dialogue between philosophy and theology today is not simply an affair between the questioning mind of the philosopher and the pious spirit of the theologian. Every question comes with unspoken expectations of what sort of answer will be considered suitable. Every search for a reason presupposes a standard of explanation. The expectations and presuppositions which inform the philosophy of religion are deeply coloured by the entire history of recent Western thought. Since many of those who write and publish in the area of philosophy of religion have been trained in analytic philosophy, the standards of analytic philosophy, which are influenced to a great degree by positivism, pragmatism, and the thinking of natural scientists, play an important but subtle role in this field.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many philosophers -of religion, and even more Christian theologians, are influenced more by what is often called "continental philosophy" than by analytic philosophy. Most of the important continental philosophers have been from France or Germany, while the majority of analytic philosophers have taught at American or British universities. While philosophy in theU.S. has been dominated by analytic thought throughout, most of the twentieth century, over the last ten or fifteen years, continental thought has come to play a prominent role in American philosophy. What is emerging is a "world philosophy," but one from which the Islamic world is largely excluded. The reason for this exclusion is not because of some conspiracy to suppress Islamic thought, but because we Muslims have not seriously attempted to enter the discussion. If we are to enter the discussion, we must beware that it takes place in what is often hostile territory, in the context of expectations, presuppositions, and standards of reasoning many of which are quite foreign to those found in the Islamic sciences.
These issues must be kept in mind before the Muslim scholar attempts to survey the questions contemporary philosophy of religion poses for theology, where here, and in what follows, theology is to be understood as including not merely kalam, but `irfan nazari (theoretical gnosis), religious ethics, and even some discussions of fiqh and usul. What appears to be a dialogue between a philosopher who relies on pure reason alone and a theologian is in reality a complex discussion about philosophy, the sciences, theology and the various ideologies which have influenced these broad areas of intellectual endeavor.
Perhaps the attitude of the Muslim scholar to the complexity of the situation will be one of dismissal: The philosophy of religion is the product of Western intellectual attitudes toward science and religion and does not apply to the Islamic world. The conversation between philosophy and theology is really a conversation between a Western philosopher and a Christian theologian. However, we ignore the philosophy of religion at our own peril. The ideas and attitudes that inform the philosophy of religion are not confined within the walls of a few universities in distant foreign lands. They are part of the Western cultural atmosphere whose volume is so large that it will find itself invading the Islamic world, or rather has already started invading, whether anyone wants it to or not. The international commerce in ideas-mostly Western ideas--cannot be slowed, let alone stopped. Faced with a trade imbalance, attempts may be made to preserve local markets, but ultimately the only successful policy will be one in which locally manufactured products of export quality are made widely available. Since there are so many different kinds of Western intellectual products on the market, we Muslims cannot hope to gain our market share in all fields any time soon. However, we can hope to compete aggressively in those areas in which Islamic thought has demonstrated its strength in the past, and build on this to expand into other areas. In order to compete in the international market of ideas, Islamic thought must not only answer the doubts raised by various Western thinkers, it must do so in a way that is distinctively Islamic. We cannot simply look at the answers Christians have given and then search for an appropriate, hadith to make them seem Islamic. Serious full time work has to be done to begin to formulate contemporary Islamic theologies which are in harmony with the tradition of Islamic sciences, especially kalam, falsafah, and `irfan.
With these points in mind, we can turn to some examples of the sorts of questions raised by the philosophy of religion for the theologian.