Analytical Philosophy of Religion with Indian categories

Wednesday and Thursday last week I enjoyed two days of full immersion in the Analytical Philosophy of Religion. In fact, the conference I was attending was about the ontological status of relations from the perspective of Analytical Philosophy of Religion and most speakers started their talk saying that they were not experts in the one or in the other field. I was neither nor, which made me the sub-ideal target for all talks —and yet one who could learn a lot from all.

A few random remarks:

  1. “God” is an ambiguous term, in fact so ambiguous that I wonder why does not each study about philosophy of religion start with a discussion of what the author means by this word. I pragmatically distinguish between god as devatā ‘deity’ (a superhuman being which is better than a human one, but only insofar as s/he has the same qualities of a human being in higher degree, like the Greek and Roman deities of mythology), god as īśvara ‘Lord’ (the omniscient and omnipotent being of rational theology), god as brahman ‘impersonal being’ (the impersonal Absolute of most monisms, including Bradley’s one discussed by Guido Bonino) and god as bhagavat ‘personal God’ (the personal God one directly relates to in prayers, without necessarily caring for His/Her omnipotence or omniscience, but rather focusing on Him/Her as spouse, parent, child, etc.). Within this classification, Analytical Philosophy of Religion appears to focus on the īśvara aspect of God.
  2. It is perhaps self-evident that this approach enables one to discuss logically about God and His/Her attributes. God is not a person one is in relation with (who could have whimsical desires etc.), but rather a perfect being who needs to be logically consistent. The only logical problem relates to God’s alterity, so that one could wonder how far can human logic reach before crashing against its boundaries. Nonetheless, unlike in the case of God as bhagavat, one needs not worry too much about His/Her lying completely outside the realm of thinkability. The mysterium can be understood as a challenge to think deeper something which, at a certain point (in the liberated state) we will all be able to grasp.
  3. Consequently, I could listen to several interesting discussions on God’s temporality (does His/Her omnipotence include His/Her producing effects which are temporal, or is rather His/Her own activity itself which is temporal?) and on God’s knowability (having said that God is not fully knowable by living human beings, the purpose of rational theology (continued in analytical philosophy of religion) is to find out whether what we can know about Him/Her is consistent with what we know through revelation).
  4. The main topic of the conference was, however, God’s being and its relation to His/Her qualities. Does God have wisdom? Or is wisdom (part of) God? The first definition leads to several problems, well-known to scholars of Sanskrit philosophy, insofar as one could always conceive a substance without its qualities (e.g., the soul in the state of liberation according to Nyāya) and, consequently, God’s relation to His/Her wisdom would end up being adventitious. By contrast, the second solution leads to a different problem: How can one conceive of God as “being” wisdom? Marco Damonte suggested using Frege’s distinction between sense and reference: All Divine attributes have the same referent (God), but different senses.
  5. Summing up, it seems that the believers in a bhagavat do not gain so much out of their readings of rational theology or analytic philosophy of religion. This is, in Mario Micheletti‘s words “not foundational”: one can believe even without theology (and, one might add, vice versa: one can enjoy theological thinking even without believing). Nonetheless, rational theology can persuade believers that what they believe can be rationally believed (and it plays a very important role in the metaphysical and philosophical discourse).

Long story short, I am very grateful to the organisers, Daniele Bertini and Damiano Migliorini. My only suggestion for a further improvement would be to allow for even more time for discussion (perhaps with the help of some leading questions by the organisers themselves?), especially insofar as their audacity in putting together physicists, theologians and historians of philosophy made the attempt to find a common language even more challenging than usual.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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7 thoughts on “Analytical Philosophy of Religion with Indian categories

  1. If the concept of god as īśvara ‘Lord’ (monotheism is implied) follows that of god as devatā ‘deity’ (polytheism is assumed), has it got anything to do with the transition from slavery to feudalism in the European tradition? In the Indian tradition several ways of serving god (to be more specific, Krishna) is permitted to the Vaishnavas. One of them is ‘daasyabhaava,’ which involves master-servant relationship, closely related to the bhakti cult. This cult definitely comes long after the early Vedic tradion (Yajna) and even after the adoption of the karman (late Vedic) tradition. In a passage in the Mahabharata (Book 1, Ruru Pramadvara episode), we find an ‘impersonal’ prayer’ supplemented (interpolated) by an appeal to Krishna in all his many forms, such as Hari, Vishnu, etc. This is an instance of appealing to a personal god, god as bhagavat. Although all mss consulted during the preparation of the critical edition of the Mbh contained this prayer in this form, Sukthankar suspected on the ground of intrinsic probability that the later part is had been inserted by a devout Vaishnava to whom ‘the former prayer would be meaningless and unintelligible’ (Critical Studies in the Mahabharata, Bombay: Karnatak Publishing House, 1944, p..229). This may also suggest that all the views concerning god are not compatible.

    • Thank you very much for this rich comment. I am also intrigued by the many evidences in favour of an impersonal god as being not only the result of a philosophical abstraction from the existing religious reality (as it was probably historically the case in regard to European impersonal gods, usually conceived by philosophers with a theistic background).

      What do you mean with your last remark? How could they be compatible?

      • Oh, it was a slip of the fingertip. I meant to write ‘incompatible’. You see, what Sukthankar found incongruous (I believe he was the first to notice the incongruity) did not strike the redactors of the Mahabharata as well as the devout audience of the work: they accepted both the views with perfect ease and equanimity. That is how the earlier tradition and the later, Bhagavata tradition could co-exist peacefully for centuries.

        • Thank you, now I understand much better. And yes, the history of the development of Indian philosophy shows that Advaita Vedānta philosophers have been also devotees of Kṛṣṇa or of other personal Gods and so on. I think that the key to understand this seeming discrepancy is the distinction between different realms (rational theology vs. personal devotion or ritual milieu).