Religion and European Philosophy

Key Thinkers from Kant to Žižek

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Philip Goodchild, Hollis Phelps
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     540 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If there is one universally shared experience that cuts across all academic endeavors, it is most certainly the bewilderment that accompanies one’s attempt to master the scope of an academic discipline. This is entirely the case in the continental philosophy of religion—a sub-discipline found beneath the larger umbrella of the academic study of religion—where it can take years of focused study for even a veneer-like familiarity with the conceptual framework of key historical figures. And, alas, when the hapless student of religion begins to integrate additional layers of scholarship—theology, religion, cultural theory—into the mix, that feeling of bewilderment might transform to indignation, resignation, or outright panic. Saying this in another way, the student of religion who expresses interest in the philosophy of religion soon faces a harsh reality: they are required to familiarize themselves with, and successfully synthesize, at least three critical disciplines, each with its own history, verbiage, and proclivities. Viewed from this angle, any attempt to craft an introductory text to the field seems chimeric.

With this in mind, editors Philip Goodchild and Hollis Phelps assemble a superb entry-level volume that “covers the broad terrain of European philosophy from the perspective of religious studies and theology” (2). More than this, Religion and European Philosophy: Key Thinkers from Kant to Žižek is a deeply pedagogical text that is written with the student of religion and theology as its primary audience. The book excels at facilitating introductory access to a wide array of essential continental thinkers. It does this in three essential ways. First, the text is organized to promote comprehension in the development of modern Western intellectual history. It stimulates questions that persist throughout late modernity: “Are we indeed witnessing the so-called ‘return of the religious’ today?” If so, “what forces encouraged its demise in the first place?” Or, seen from a more political angle, “if religion was supposedly privatized or eliminated altogether by the propaganda of enlightenment progressivism, why is it a gnawing and operative theme that is identified in thinkers as diverse as Immanuel Kant, Theodor Adorno, and Slavoj Žižek? Did religion ever truly disappear?” And, “has its inextinguishable presence merely shape-shifted into various public forms that, upon closer examination, might indeed be considered deeply pious, theological, or even religious?” Each essay in Religion and European Philosophy is assembled with these critical questions in view.

Another simple yet pedagogical touch of Religion and European Philosophy is that it clusters together key thinkers by cultural and critical discourses. This has a double benefit for the student: first, it allows one to deduce the common concerns that bring together a category of given thinkers—for example, Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach—and how these thinkers and discourses influenced later intellectual movements. For instance, the student is primed to understand how German Idealism influenced the thought of Karl Marx and, later still, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. In light of the current state of religious discourse, two sections are particularly helpful: “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” which not only contains essays on “standard” phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, but also incorporates entries on “contemporary” post-phenomenological writers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion; and “Structuralism, post-structuralism, and beyond,” which presents eleven essays on theorists currently gaining currency in religious studies, including Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and François Laruelle. The second benefit to clustering these thinkers by discourse is that it begins to facilitate familiarity with how a school of thought itself approaches religion—and how it differs from others. Itself a nebulous and contested category, religion is employed and shaped by these philosophical traditions in specific ways. It is an astute editorial and pedagogical move to classify these theorists by cultural and critical discourses so that students might catch sight of a school’s approach to and influence upon religion.

Finally, the various entries are refreshingly clear of the perplexing jargon that joins the continental tradition. The entries on Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, and Laruelle—five complex and jargon-laden theorists—are especially notable in this regard. Each entry provides a proper bibliographical overview and does so in clear, concise prose. Also helpful are the hearty references at each essay’s conclusion that are set up intentionally as bibliographic fodder for the student’s further investigation. And, again, pedagogically speaking, these are structured with the student’s critical comprehension in mind. For example, the ample references listed at the conclusion of the chapter on Marx include multiple fragments to be found in various Marx and Friedrich Engels readers; the chapter’s author does not simply cite Das Kapital, vol. 1 in expectation that the student will know how to sift through such a dense and complex text.

In sum, Religion and European Philosophy: Key Thinkers from Kant to Žižek succeeds, not only as a primer to the continental tradition, but also as one that is crafted with the (bewildered) student of religion in mind. It is a teacher’s text that will likely find a home on the bookshelves of both students and instructors alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey Appel is a doctoral student in religious studies at the Univeristy of Denver.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Goodchild is professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Hollis Phelps is assistant professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive, in North Carolina.



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