New Models of Religious Understanding

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Fiona Ellis
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Tensions among differing theoretical frameworks are often observed within the philosophy of religion, largely given disparate scientific, analytic, and continental approaches. New Models of Religious Understanding is a serious and timely reexamination of scientific and analytic perspectives, and questions the very need for these approaches. Edited by Fiona Ellis, the book is comprised of eleven chapters, each reexamining selected basic assumptions commonly utilized in studying philosophy of religion.

Beginning with a brilliant introduction, Ellis does not waste time questioning the notion that the inadequacies of any form of philosophy of religion—or those of theology—can be corrected “by approaching God in a very different way” (2). She challenges the steadfast classifications of “analytic” and “continental” approaches to philosophy, assuring readers that there are common grounds between these two modes. Ellis argues that the judicious way to approach philosophy of religion would not be to harmonize the analytic and continental methods but be open to insights from any tradition of the philosophy and practice of religion. Ellis is concerned we “bypass the question of religious practice” and argues that our focus should not merely be on “what religious people believe” but also on “what they do” (7). Ellis considers naturalism to be a “degenerative” approach to the philosophy of religion and is confident there is enough “scope for developing a conception of religious understanding” in tune with “our understanding of natural reality” (11). She emphasizes the urgency to reject scientism and focus on religious practices and envisions a philosophical engagement with religious practices. She summarizes the vision of this slim volume as a work “in which continental and analytic philosophy, philosophy and theology, theistic and non-theistic religion are drawn into new and mutually generative relationship” (21).

In his chapter “Transcending Science: Humane Models of Religious Understanding,” John Cottingham argues that “abstract theorizing” cannot bring “religious understanding,” only “more direct and imaginative forms of involvement and engagement” can lead to this perception (40). This emphasis is continued by Ellis in her chapter, “Religious Understanding, Naturalism, and Theory,” in which she argues that religious understanding is not merely another kind of scientific understanding and involves both theoria and praxis. All moral and spiritual practices are integral to religious understanding. Ellis questions whether an attempt to understand religion requires one to be an atheist. Edward Kanterian in his chapter “Naturalism, Involved Philosophy, and the Human Predicament,” mainly draws upon Cottingham’s work and proposes “Involved Philosophy,” a new model of religious understanding, which minimizes hermeneutic complications, rejects scientistic naturalism, and focuses on the human predicament, making it a “more focused and personal exercise” (78).

Analyzing the characters of Ivan Karamazov and Father Zosima, and others from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, David McPherson’s chapter “Transfiguring Love,” situates love as integral to spiritual formation and consequently, manifestation of goodness. Clare Carlisle uses her chapter “Habit, Practice, Grace,” to stress the need for accommodating theology in the discussion of philosophy of religion. She draws a line between habit and practice only to display their interconnections. The relation between the external sensory world and the inner spiritual world is brought forth by Mark Wynn in his chapter “Aesthetic Goods and the Nature of Religious Understanding,” arguing that we need to properly connect bodily tendencies with theological perspectives. Marking the contradistinction between religious knowledge and religious understanding in “Religious Knowledge versus Religious Understanding,” Kyle Scott argues that religious understanding is much more important than religious knowledge and such emphasis on understanding would significantly change the traditional approaches adopted in other branches of the study of religion. 

Silvia Jonas employs mathematical ontology and mathematical semantics in her chapter “Modal Structuralism and Theism,” to argue that a “structuralist view of theism demonstrates the rational viability of theism in purely naturalistic terms” (171). In “Theology and Knowledge of Persons,” Eleonore Stump focuses on God, the person, and stresses the importance of narratives in engaging with the theology that concentrates on the knowledge of persons. In his chapter “Religious Understanding in a Contemporary Global Context,” Keith Ward posits a pluralist global religious belief that accommodates the diverse faiths and practices of the religious around the world. He engages with major Eastern religious traditions and their prominent scholars to argue that the real concern of each religious faith-tradition is to understand truth. Analyzing the teachings of the Cambridge Platonists in his chapter “Love and Philosophy of Religion: Lessons from the Cambridge Platonists,” Charles Taliaferro invites us to a discourse where we seek “to correct without rancor” (226).

Ellis has done a fine job of gathering contemporary religious scholars to express “new” ways of understanding religion, with a primary focus on understanding of praxis, and transcending all artificial divides—philosophical, theological, or otherwise. With short, precisely written, chapters containing naturally-evolving arguments, this book is recommended for readers interested in religion in general and in the philosophy of religion, in particular.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Swami Narasimhananda is the editor of Prabuddha Bharata.

Date of Review: 
February 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fiona Ellis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Religion at Heythrop College, University of London. She has published on a wide variety of subjects including the philosophy of love and desire, nature and naturalism, and the relation between philosophy and theology. She is the author of God, Value, and Nature (Oxford University Press, 2014).


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