Praxis Makes Perfect: Towards a better Philosophical Theology by Joshua Cockayne

At the recent 40th Anniversary of the Society of Christian Philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff, one of the SCP’s founding members, gave a moving speech mapping the history of the society and reflecting on areas for further development. Towards the end of the speech, Wolterstorff turned to consider the breadth of focus of the philosophical work that has been produced by those associated with the SCP:

Within philosophy of religion, we have devoted some attention to religious experience, but mainly we have focused on beliefs about God. We have discussed in detail the epistemic status of beliefs about God, natural theological grounds for theistic belief, the internal coherence of theistic belief, the coherence of theistic belief with the nature and extent of evil in the world, the content of theistic belief (divine simplicity, eternality, immutability, and so forth). If a person who knew nothing about religion read the literature that we have produced, she would come away thinking that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, consists mainly of beliefs about God. But it doesn’t. For most adherents of most religions, including Christianity, practices are as at least important in their lives, if not more so, than theistic beliefs, especially moral and liturgical practices. In our publications and in our meetings we have paid some attention to ethics, but almost none to liturgy…I am at a loss to understand this inattention to liturgy. In short, I don’t understand our lack of interest in liturgy, it baffles me and I lament it. I would love to see a flowering of discussion about liturgy in the next decade or two, perhaps that flowering is beginning. … I have come myself to think that liturgy is in fact one of the most challenging and fascinating fields for philosophical inquiry.[1]

What was most striking to me, was that these reflections from Wolterstorff, and this lament over the narrowness of inquiry within Christian philosophy is nothing new. Nearly thirty years ago, in a volume edited by Thomas Flint, Wolterstorff penned these (almost identical) words:

Christian existence incorporates Christian belief and Christian ethical action, Christian experience and Christian ritual. In our century we who are Christian philosophers have thought especially about Christian belief and Christian ethics, somewhat about Christian experience. We have thought scarcely at all about Christian liturgy…. Someone might reply…that it shows…that there is little of interest for philosophers in liturgy. If I have done nothing else in this essay, I hope I have made you suspect, if not actually believe, that this is false. It would be a pity if philosophers had nothing to say about this fundamental dimension of Christian existence.

So, what has changed in the intervening time between these two rallying cries from Wolterstorff to those who work in Christian philosophy? As Wolterstorff acknowledged in his SCP speech, there are small signs of change: ‘Terence Cuneo and Jamie Smith have recently published fine books of philosophical reflections on liturgy, as have I’. In Smith’s own words, there has been something of a ‘liturgical turn’ in recent philosophy of religion.[3] Yet, apart from a handful of books and journal articles in this area, analytic philosophers of religion and analytic theologians appear not to have made much headway in thinking about these areas. Like Wolterstorff, I too am baffled at the lack of interest in liturgy and practice by philosophers. Of all the topics I have focused on in my very short academic life, topics relating to practice have been by far the most stimulating and interesting I have worked on.

How, then, can we overcome this lack? While Wolterstorff spends some time debunking many of the reasons people might have for not engaging with work on practice and liturgy, what I aim to do in this short post is to provide three suggestions for how those of us working within the analytic tradition might redress this oversight.

1.  Work should be produced by analytic philosophers and theologians that specifically addresses issues related to the practices of religion.

First, Wolterstorff is surely right in noting that a flowering of work on liturgy and practice will come from more journal articles, conference papers, and monographs devoted specifically to this vital topic of research. As those of us who have already worked in these areas know, there is much to be done in thinking about the intersection between analytic theology and practice. This can prove to be both a blessing and a curse. For whilst it can be challenging to work in an area with very few dialogue partners, the benefit is that the possibilities for producing innovative, cutting edge research are vast. There are many who work in analytic theology and philosophy who have plenty to contribute to the discussion of practice and liturgy, and there is a real need to redress the imbalance reflected in journals, monograph series and conferences towards issues relating to practice.

2. Those working in analytic philosophy and theology should care less about the analytic /continental divide.

Secondly, I think analytic philosophers and theologians should engage more seriously in work done in the continental tradition. It is notable that many of those writing in continental traditions have been more interested in the practices and lived experiences of the religious life. We may think that in some ways, continental philosophy is better equipped to ask such questions, but yet, this need not preclude an analytic approach to these questions either. Indeed, I think we have much to offer this discussion. Those writing in the analytic tradition have a great deal to learn from engaging with such work. If analytic theologians are going to begin to take seriously work on practice, then a good place to start is to engage with important philosophical work that might perhaps be written in a style less familiar to one’s own, but which addresses issues which are of the utmost importance.

3.  More connections should be made by analytic philosophers and theologians between existing work and its practical implications.

Lastly, while not all of us will produce philosophical works solely addressing liturgy and practice, I think every area of doctrinal reflection about some religious belief ought also to be an area of liturgical reflection about some religious practice. The distinction between doctrine and practice has not always been so easy to make. For instance, as Larry Hurtado makes clear in his work on early high Christology, understanding the practices of the early Church in worshipping Christ as God are key to understanding the doctrinal commitments of the early Church.[4] Hurtado notes that the key reason religious authorities responded to early Jewish-Christian thinking so forcefully was because of the practice of the Church as well as the message; he writes, ‘Jewish-Christians of the first few years of the Christian movement are pictured as practising a religious devotion to Jesus that involves attributing to him powers and a status that is closely linked to God.’[5] Throughout the history of Christian theology, discussions of practice and doctrine have been intertwined and mutually informative.

Thus, it is important to note that if one works on any issue relating to theology, then one already works on issues relating to practice. Yet, often these issues are not brought to the surface, and practical questions remain unasked by those in the analytic tradition. What would happen if these reflections were brought to the surface, if articles and monographs on doctrine connected with questions of worship and practice?  My challenge to those writing and thinking about issues in analytic theology is not to abandon areas of research in pursuit of work on liturgy, but to consider these points of contact, to ask the practical questions of the implications of one’s work for those seeking to live lives of faith. In my mind, if we are to see a flowering of discussion about liturgy and practice, then this will come from theologians and philosophers who take their own work seriously enough to see that its practical implications are significant and important enough to write about.

 

Dr. Joshua Cockayne is currently working on the philosophy of spiritual practice. He is writing about the role of the community in our knowledge and experience of God, our ability to engage with God and the way we understand the actions of the Church. He completed his PhD in 2016 in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. His research focused on the spiritual life and the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Prior to coming to St. Andrews, he worked as an associate lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York. He has published on Kierkegaard, the philosophy of spiritual practice and Christian spirituality. He was awarded the Religious Studies essay prize twice, in 2014 and 2015.

 

 

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, 2018 ‘The SCP, then, now and beyond’. From: http://societyofchristianphilosophers.com/index.php/scp-40th-anniversary-conference-keynote-presentations

[3] James K.A. Smith, 2018. ‘Review of Terence Cuneo, Ritualized Faith: Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy’. Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol 71.1.

[4] Hurtado, Larry. 2010. God in New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)

[5] God In New Testament Theology, 43