Reason, Revelation, and Devotion

Inference and Argument in Religion

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
William J. Wainwright
Cambridge Studies in Religion, Philosophy, and Society
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     211 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Twenty years ago, William J. Wainwright—now Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—edited God, Philosophy and Academic Culture: A Discussion between Scholars in the AAR and the APA (Scholars Press, 1996). The topic was the contested nature of “philosophy of religion,” given how differently it was—and still is—construed and practiced by philosophers based in departments of religion (normally members of the American Academy of Religion) and those based in departments of philosophy (normally members of American Philosophical Association).

Among the many stimulating and provocative comments made by the contributors on both sides of this debate in this earlier volume, I will only mention one, by the late Philip Quinn (1940-2004). He observed that contemporary analytic philosophy of religion often produces “a kind of scholarship whose range of historical reference is restricted to philosophy before Kant and books and journal articles in analytic philosophy from the past two or three decades. Those who see positive developments in the traditions thus ignored or who think they define the context for productive philosophical thought about religion at the present time are therefore apt to view analytic philosophy of religion as both insensitive to history and terminally nostalgic” (God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture, 51-52). That Quinn was himself a leading figure in the APA only sharpened this critique.

It is not, however, a critique that can apply to Wainwright, either as an editor or as an author. Although he does identify as an analytic philosopher in the volume currently under review (148), Wainwright’s own work stands out from many other representatives of this tradition in at least three respects. First, he has engaged seriously with historical figures such as Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, and William James. Second, he has also engaged seriously with Eastern philosophical and religious traditions such as various schools of Hinduism and Buddhism. Third, he has remained open to the cognitive and affective significance of rhetoric as well as “poetry, story, symbol, and myth” and their ability to “express truths and insights that can’t be adequately expressed in other ways” (148). Wainwright has thus maintained a distinctive, and somewhat subversive, voice in recent analytic philosophy of religion, one that is sufficiently analytic in expression to gain a hearing, but in which the material analyzed, and the positions defended, often challenge more conventional topics and conclusions.

As the acknowledgments page duly notes (xi), the volume currently under review consists primarily of previously published work revised, updated, and sewn together to form a single volume ostensibly on the five themes of reason, revelation, devotion, inference, and argument. The resulting text is rather unwieldy and uneven, and perhaps less than the sum of its parts, and even Wainwright seems unconvinced that he has produced an integrated book with a consistent flow of thought: witness how the conclusion ends abruptly after a summary of the various chapters with no attempt to tie them together (150). I thus wonder if a straightforward essay collection might have worked better than an attempted monograph. But issues of unity aside, the material itself is well worth engaging, especially for those who are looking for a different model of philosophical reflection on religious belief than what is commonly on offer in either the AAR or the APA.

Unlike many scholars of the AAR, Wainwright is confident in the power of reason to evaluate competing truth-claims, not just in regard to specific beliefs (such as Christian or Buddhist doctrines), but also between worldviews (such as theism and atheism). While he does not think that human reason can offer conclusive answers in these matters, Wainwright is still engaged in normative evaluation of such truth-claims rather than pure description. For example, he not only presents but also defends a version of Samuel Clarke’s cosmological argument for the existence of God (5-11, 30-31). Unlike many scholars of the APA, however, Wainwright also insists that rhetoric and mystery are indispensible, and that, in addition to Western philosophy and Christian theology, detailed knowledge of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Islam are necessary for a full understanding of religious conviction. Although a practicing Christian, and even a past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, there is nothing historically or culturally provincial about Wainwright’s vision.

One of the most interesting chapters in Reason, Revelation, and Devotion is new material: “Religious Reading and Theological Argument” (48-58). Here Wainwright engages in both comparative theology and comparative philosophy, drawing on Paul J. Griffiths, Francis X. Clooney, and John Clayton to emphasize that arguments about religious belief are often carried out not through logic alone, but in the context of “reading traditions” (50) of specific canonized texts, texts that are memorized and ingested and thereby “inflect their participants’ understanding of what is and is not rational” (51). For figures as diverse as “Ghazali, Udayana, and Anselm,” the appropriate response to such sacred texts is humility and reverence, as they are mediated upon, taught, and lived (50-51). This emphasis on the textually-traditioned character of religious belief is of course commonplace in the AAR, but less so in the APA, where there is a notable tendency toward an ahistorical concern with abstract propositions rather than the actual texts and cultural contexts in which they are embedded. But Wainwright also observes that “traditional practices such as these [reading traditions] run directly counter to the insistence on neutrality enjoined by an Enlightenment project that continues to dominate most modern thought. Yet modern intellectuals, too, ingest and are shaped by texts and by the standards and models of rationality that they explicitly or implicitly endorse” (52).

Aforementioned issues of presentation notwithstanding, this is an important and valuable book for those working at the intersection of philosophy, religious studies, and theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert MacSwain is Associate Professor of Theology at The School of Theology, University of the South.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William J. WainwrightUniversity of Wisconsin, Milwaukee - William J. Wainwright is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He has served as Editor of Faith and Philosophy and is past President of both the Society for Philosophy of Religion and the Society of Christian Philosophers. Major publications include Mysticism (1981), Philosophy of Religion (1998, 2nd edition 1999), Reason and the Heart (1995), Religion and Morality (2005), and the edited volume Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (2005), as well as over eighty articles and book chapters.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.