“In most cases, the meaning of a word is in its use,” Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed in his Philosophical Investigations (#43). Robert K. Bolger is not the first to apply this perspective to the philosophy of religion, but his contribution to a recent book does take it to its extreme. He “collapses” religious language “into concrete action,” and “the transcendent is conflated into the immanent life of agape [neighborly love]” (92). To be a Christian is to help others, and to want Christianity to be more than this is to turn it into idolatry; this is the main thrust of Bolger’s contribution to his and Robert C. Coburn’s co-publication Religious Language, Meaning and Use: The God Who is Not There.
The book consists of two parts, one written by Bolger, and the second containing six short essays by Coburn, a philosophy professor who passed away in 2018. Bolger had asked Coburn for any unpublished material and received these six essays. Coburn’s essays often feel like collections of grandfatherly advice (“don’t forget to laugh,” “it is important to let go of things,” etc.). As Bolger says, instead of philosophical or theological arguments, they are “really more like sermons” (x).
The two most academically interesting essays by Coburn are those in which he makes claims about what the church ought to be like. Coburn compares the strangeness of the church for many in the West today to the strangeness of faraway tribes for early anthropologists. He explains that churchgoers are those with a hunger for something more in life. Genuine faith is often not faith but faith envy—and as such, it may be less strange than it at first appears. In another essay, he introduces the church as a community of those who struggle to face their own blindness. Faith is not to possess some hidden knowledge, but a willingness to open oneself to ever new perspectives.
Coburn’s point of view is interesting, but in these short essays he does not present his readers with any arguments to support it. In the introduction of 165 pages, added to the roughly 50 pages by Coburn, Bolger tries to justify this approach of his former teacher, interestingly enough by presenting arguments himself. Bolger’s essays are more interesting from a philosophical perspective because they do contain arguments and, therefore, I will focus on these in the rest of this review.
Bolger convincingly argues that faith is not simply acknowledging a set of beliefs about supernatural facts. He is eager to get away from faith as knowledge, in fact, he reduces faith to merely helping one’s neighbor. The meaning of religious language is inseparable from its practical use in daily life. “Love of self and love of God are expressed in the loving of our neighbor. The neighbor is the only Other that is left to serve,” he says (162). According to him, there is nothing higher to aspire to in faith than to help others. “To ask where God is in all of this is to already have missed the point,” Bolger warns (162).
Bolger’s criticism of reducing faith to taking some facts to be true is not uncommon, but Bolger’s contribution is original in interpreting this mistake religiously: to reduce faith to knowledge is idolatrous. According to him, belief in some God out there is often used to support one’s own ego. Genuine religiousness, on the other hand, directs people away from themselves, Bolger argues.
Bolger is correct in criticizing a factual conception of God and in warning against ways of using religion to enhance the love of oneself. However, the problem is that Bolger considers only one alternative: a reinterpretation of the language of faith as a psychological aid for self-denial and helping others. Is there really nothing more to faith than helping people to help others?
According to Bolger, his argument does not imply that God is superfluous or that faith can be reduced to ethics. He speaks of a logical relationship between language, faith, and practice to prevent such a reduction, but, unfortunately, he does not elaborate on this logical relationship. In fact, he identifies “agapeistic atheism” (atheism with neighborly love) with “theism without idolatry” (156). For Bolger, having faith is simply to help others in the most efficient way possible, applying what he creatively calls “agapeistic triage” (142).
A possibility that Bolger does not consider, however, but which I personally would recommend, is that to be a Christian is to do what God wants you to do. Instead of applying triage – agapeistic or otherwise – one could simply help the person whose need speaks to you, as the Good Samaritan did. Maybe, I might add, one could even suspend all one’s own estimations of what is the most loving thing to do, and do what one has to do, as illustrated by Kierkegaard’s reading of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. By doing this, a Christian would still turn away from selfishness, but what takes its place is not reasoning about what is the most helping thing to do, but listening to God. Christian actions interpreted in this way would be internally related to faith and can only be understood in terms of the language of faith. This is to truly open oneself to new perspectives rather than assuming that it is within our power to see beyond our blind spots, as Coburn suggests in one of his essays.
Throughout the book, Bolger powerfully argues that the meaning of religious statements shows itself in people’s lives and practices. He is correct in concluding that religious imagery can be used for irreligious or idolatrous goals. He is wrong, however, in assuming that we must be able to describe the genuinely religious lives and practices of people without reference to the religious language itself.
Halfway through, Bolger makes an interesting confession: “Whenever I hear someone telling a story of how God performed a miracle in his or her life, I generally think, well, if God could do that, can’t God cure childhood cancer or save a kid from abuse or torture?” (86). Should this deduction stop people from speaking of miracles? It may well be impossible for Bolger personally to speak of miracles because he assumes it commits him to all kinds of strange beliefs about the world. However, a genuinely Wittgensteinian approach would be not to think, but to look at what conclusions other people do or do not draw from their words. To what does someone commit him- or herself by claiming to have been the beneficiary of a miracle? What difference does it make in his or her life?
Bolger’s contribution to this book is great in emphasizing that we need to look at practice to understand the meaning of religious concepts; however, he often seems to forget that it might be religious practice within which religious concepts have their home.
Hermen Kroesbergen is a research associate in the Understanding Reality program at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
Date Of Review:
May 27, 2022
Robert Bolger has a MA in theology from Union Theological Seminary and a PhD in philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont Graduate University where he studied with D. Z. Phillips.
Robert C. Coburn was professor of philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle for more than 30 years.
Reading Religion Newsletter
Subscribe to our newsletter and receive updates on new books, new reviews, and more.
You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never share or sell your e-mail address.