In Our Own Image

Anthropomorphism, Apophaticism, and Ultimacy

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Wesley J. Wildman
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philosophy of religion, like philosophy generally, includes evaluation. Philosophers of religion typically describe models of God’s nature and arguments about God’s existence and then also evaluate whether certain models or arguments are more persuasive than others. Anselm argues that God is such that God cannot be conceived not to exist; Gaunilo responds that this leads to absurdities. Paley argues that functional complexity in the natural world points to a supernatural hand; Hume seeks to undermine that case. But philosophy of religion has traditionally focused only on arguments about theism. What would it look like for philosophers or religion to be comparative or global, to do their evaluative work across traditions, to weigh the relative plausibility of entire systems of thought? This book gives a sophisticated answer.

One way to approach a global philosophy of religion might be to set up a contest between a Christian philosophy, a Buddhist philosophy, a Hindu philosophy, and so on. In this book, however, Wesley Wildman sets up the contest so that it is not between but rather across traditions. The key step is that Wildman defines “ultimate reality” as that on which every being depends ontologically and which depends ontologically only on itself, but he leaves open the question whether the ultimate ontological conditions of everything that exists is a person-like God (8). Given this distinction, one can recognize three kinds of religious models of ultimate reality, each of which is found in multiple religious traditions: (1) “agential-being models” that identify ultimate reality with God, (2) “subordinate-deity models” that include both ultimate reality and God but do not identify them with one another, and (3) “ground-of-being models” that offer some account of ultimate reality but not one of God.

One finds agential-being models of ultimate reality in the Christian Augustine and Aquinas, the Muslim Ibn Sīnā, the Jewish Maimonides, the Hindu Urayana, and in a variety of monotheisms around the world. As I noted above, agential-being models have received the preponderant attention from philosophers of religion to date. One finds subordinate-deity models that propose a person-like God who is not metaphysically ultimate in ancient Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, in Chinese concepts of Tiān and Shàngdὶ, in the demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus, in Philo, and (above all today) in process theology. Ground-of-being models that propose ultimate conditions of reality without a person-like God are found in Chinese accounts of the Dao, Buddhist accounts of pratītya samutpāda, Upanishad-based accounts of nirguṇa Brahman, accounts of natura naturans in Spinoza and contemporary religious naturalists, accounts of Being Itself in Aristotle, the neo-Platonist Plotinus, and Paul Tillich, and in the God beyond God proposed by perennial philosophy. As Wildman puts it, each of these three models “boasts a long heritage, impressive explanatory power, significant cross-cultural visibility, and considerable internal diversity” (5). Each is not simply a logically possible model of ultimate reality, but also a time-tested and widely appealing “Great Model.” These then are the three positions that Wildman puts into a respectful or “reverent” comparative competition.

What is original and fascinating about Wildman’s approach is that he puts the evaluation of these three models in the context of recent work in the scientific study of religions and, in particular, in the context of cognitive scientific theories regarding anthropomorphism. In every culture in human history, we can find practices based on belief in invisible, intentional beings, though typically the practitioners have not also needed or cared to develop something as abstract as a model of ultimate reality. There is therefore in fact a fourth religious position, namely, the position that involves interaction with supernatural agents but does not offer any answer to the question of that on which every being depends ontologically. This anthropomorphic position is so natural to human beings that Wildman calls it our “evolutionary default.” Wildman attends to three dimensions of anthropomorphic concepts: they explain events in terms of the benevolent or malevolent purposes of invisible agents (“Intentionality Attribution”), they aid in solving immediate problems (“Rational Practicality”), and they inspire memorable and appealing narratives with tangible personal implications (“Narrative Comprehensibility”). Anthropomorphism is fragile, however, since as one sees that people invent and make religious use of supernatural agents, the plausibility of the evolutionary default position is undermined. Exactly this, Wildman writes, is the central result of the last century of scientific study of religion: “evolutionary models show this, cognitive neuroscience shows this, experimental psychology shows this, and developmental psychology shows this; the evidence grows increasingly strong with each passing year” (84). Wildman argues that it is precisely as a response to the weaknesses of the default position that the three “Great Models” were developed: some asked the question of ultimate reality and moved away from Rational Practicality; some abandoned supernaturalism and moved away from Intentionality Attribution; and in all cases, attempts at increased plausibility moved away from the simple story promised by Narrative Comprehensibility. In these ways, the three Great Models are actually the results of a flight from anthropomorphism and, in different ways, towards apophaticism.

Wildman uses multiple criteria to sort the strengths and weaknesses of each model. His aim is not to produce a knock-down proof that only one model is credible, but rather to provide a comparison of their plausibility relative to each other. Each Great Model has advantages over the others, though each also suffers from disadvantages. As Wildman scores the competition, ground-of-being models—that is, the least anthropomorphic and the most apophatic of the three—score the highest, though, remarkably, the scores of each model are not far apart. (Somewhat tongue in cheek, Wildman says that ground-of-being models score a 53, agential-being models a 44, and subordinate-deity models a 40). So that others can see the competition and perhaps weight the criteria differently, Wildman shows all his work.

Though this project is deeply informed by the scientific study of religion, it is in the end an evaluative project. One can call it philosophy of religion or philosophical theology or religious philosophy (x), but it is worth noting that this competition deliberately and explicitly conforms to the norms prevalent in the secular academy rather than those of any particular religious tradition or community. It is hard not to think that a global philosophy of religion, integrated in this way into the academic study of religions, represents the future of the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Schilbrack is Professor and Department Chair of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wesley J. Wildman is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University. His research and publications pursue a multidisciplinary, comparative approach to topics within philosophy of religion and the academic study of religion. The programmatic statement of a theory of rationality underlying this type of integrative intellectual work is Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (State University of New York Press, 2010). Science and Religious Anthropology (Ashgate, 2009) presents his multidisciplinary interpretation of the human condition. Religious and Spiritual Experiences (Cambridge University Press, 2011) applies these perspectives to religious experience.


Wesley J Wildman

Prof. Schilbrack's description of the book's argument is accurate - I recognize it, anyway! While traditional philosophy of religion has not worked in the comparative way this book does, I think we need to move in this direction.

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