Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion

& Vice Versa

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Thomas A. Lewis
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Thomas Lewis’s Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (hereafter Why Philosophy Matters) is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature within the revitalizing philosophy of religion discipline in recent years. Lewis’s engagement with Hegel in the conclusion of the book is a particularly exciting contribution to method and theory debates in the study of religion that should be discussed widely. 

In chapter 1, Lewis offers an overview of the philosophy of religion, rightly rebuking its narrowness in content among both analytical and continental philosophers. He then highlights the work of Amy Hollywood, Jonathon Khan, and Dan Arnold, whose work he finds exemplary in terms of demonstrated historical self-reflexivity, self-conscious normativity, multicultural comparativism, and a critical engagement with the category of religion.

In chapter 2, he outlines a commonsensical argument for the global pervasiveness of normativity, and then he contends that the philosophy of religion’s methodological normativity should not disbar it from mainstream religious studies. As opposed to those who maintain that religious “insiders” cannot properly study religion due to the rational unacceptability of their beliefs, Lewis contends that normative claims, including theological ones, should not be disqualified from the pluralistic space of giving and asking for reasons save those who rely on some source of authority taken to be absolutely unquestionable. (Admittedly, I have some concerns here with how Lewis severs “mystical” religious experiences from the space of giving and asking for reasons, but that is not my central concern here.)

In chapter 3, Lewis offers some helpful reflections via Hegel and Schleiermacher on the history and development of the category of religion. In chapter 4, he problematizes the distinctions between “religious ethics” and “comparative religious ethics,” and argues that religious ethicists need to realize that their work cannot be accomplished in isolation from ethical theorization being done in other traditions. Religious ethics is a multicultural endeavor. In chapter 5, he rightly criticizes Stephen Prothero’s program of “religious literacy,” suggesting that such an endeavor is too historically and philosophically simplistic. Religions cannot be construed as neatly, self-contained wholes that are definable in terms of so many centralized bodies of texts, beliefs, and practices. No religion is entirely self-consistent or immune from change over time.

In the conclusion, Lewis presents religious studies with a significant choice: Nietzsche or Hegel; which is to say, between genealogy and normativity. Within the camp of genealogy are the postmoderns who labor to reveal the inconsistency, contingency, and/or politicization of all theoretical frameworks. Within the camp of normativity are those such as Lewis himself, who believe that it is in principle possible to make epistemic progress in the study of religion through a careful, considered explication of the dialectical movement immanent to the historical development of the normative concept of “religion” itself. Drawing upon his expertise on Hegel, Lewis then offers a fine sketch of historical reason’s self-development. 

Here I think of Peter Sloterdijk’s suggestion that it is not that the old grand narratives were “too great” but that “they were not great enough” (In the World Interior of Capital, Polity Press, 2013, 5). Lewis’s conclusion to Why Philosophy Matters is noteworthy insofar as it precisely encodes within itself an imperative to return to grand narratives. Yet, such a return is not simply a naïve reversion to “meta-narratives” (Lyotard) or “ontotheology” (Heidegger), but rather an improvement upon the old narratives. For what arguably makes a grand narrative truly great is not a repression of conceptual inconsistency, historical contingency, or political antagonism, but rather the transformation of inconsistency into conceptual complexity, contingency in historical progress, and antagonism into methodolical pluralism.

In this light, allow me to speculate about a new narrative in religious studies. One might provisionally reimagine the relationship between the philosophy of religion and the history of religions as follows: the former is generically a priori in orientation and the latter a posteriori. The philosophy of religion has at its theoretical object religion as such and as a whole. However, the philosophy of religion has no content save for that data which the history of religions provides it with, and any positing of the essence of religion is always subject to potential revision in light of new data or genealogical deconstruction. Likewise, all normative theoretical frameworks used to analyze posited “religious” data are subject to potential philosophical explication and/or outright rejection.

The philosophy of religion thus attempts to provide a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of the data obtained from the history of religions in order to model a posited structure of religion. This is not to say any one theoretical framing of religion ever will, or ever could be, treated as epistemologically complete (in the formal, logical sense of the term). Rather, beginning from a recognition of the constitutive incompleteness of one’s theoretical framework demands methodological pluralism, and what should be sought is an increasingly complex, maximally cohesive integration of the various theoretical frameworks in religious studies (be they sociological, cognitive, phenomenological, evolutionary, hermeneutical, or otherwise) without demanding epistemic closure at any point.

In this light—and in a comment that surely risks derision—I would venture that a return to grand narratives signifies a renewal of Eliade’s “quest” in the history of religions (The Quest, University of Chicago Press, 1969, 37-53). Yet such a renewal begins precisely at the point at which the old grand narratives end, meaning that grand narration is not synonymous with a dogmatic presupposition of religion’s essence. Rather, the quest signifies nothing more and nothing less than the simple possibility of making conceptual progress concerning what religion is.

Lewis is to be commended for sketching the outlines of a self-proclaimed “tremendously ambitious agenda” (159). His book is a much-needed dose of Hegelian optimism in religious studies insofar as the field has resigned itself, by and large, to the epistemic crumbs of finitude and thereby given up the quest to understand the structure of religion. By contrast, Lewis’s Hegelianism reminds us that surely we are fallible, finite beings, but that we should have hope: the limits of our finitude are unfixed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Matthew Allison is an Indepedent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas A. Lewis is Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. His publications include Freedom and Tradition in Hegel: Reconsidering Anthropology, Ethics, and Religion (2005) and Religion, Modernity, and Politics in Hegel (2011).



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