Toward a Definition of Religion as Philosophy

by Eric von der Luft

Eric von der Luft is the author of Hegel, Hinrichs, and Schleiermacher on Feeling and Reason in Religion (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1987) and Associate Editor of The Owl of Minerva. He earned his Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, p. 37, Vol. 16, Number 1, Spring, 1987. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Since we in the late 20th century now have good scientific, epistemological, and even metaphysical reasons to abandon our former belief in the supernatural, the time has come for yet another rationally ordained supersession of an old god.

The progress of religion is defined by the denunciation of gods. The keynote of idolatry is contentment with the prevalent gods. (AI 12)

We often hear it said that there exists a basic human need for some sort of deliverance, salvation, release, liberation, pacification, or whatever we may wish to call it, and that this intrinsic need is one of the main foundations of all religion. This is probably true -- but we cannot verify the claim.

At the same time we also often hear it said that there exists a basic human need for mystery, wonder, fear of the sacred, the romantic worship of the inexplicable, or for the feeling of the "numinous," the topic of Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane and Otto’s Das Heilige, and that this need too is a foundation of religion. Some human beings, especially those less advanced culturally, less civilized, less sophisticated, less well educated -- or, to borrow Hegel’s famous metaphor from his Hinrichs-Foreword, more "doglike" -- have indeed been documented as experiencing these feelings. However, since all empirical generalizations are in principle falsifiable, we cannot here assert that such an alleged "need," or indeed any psychological perception, is common to all human beings. To be sure, it is highly dubious that any need for mystery is generally felt among us. On the contrary, the need to solve mysteries seems to be much more basic and human than a need to have mysteries. For example, mythology in all known cultures has arisen from either the need or the desire to provide explanations for certain types of occurrences, either natural or interpersonal, and thus to attempt to do away with those mysteries. Moreover, if there is in fact a basic human need for deliverance, salvation, etc., then it may well be manifested in part as a need for deliverance from mystery, salvation from ignorance, etc.

In the post-Enlightenment era, and especially in the post-Hegelian era, the continuation among intelligent, well educated people of the primeval feeling of a need for mystery is clearly a case of "created demand." Those who still feel such a need seem to be the prisoners of both tradition itself and their own uncritical approach to tradition. Sapere aude! -- but they will not.

Yet it cannot be denied that there are, even today, many who are sincere in their acknowledgment of feeling a deep need for mystery in their lives -- and such people are generally members of some kind of religious group. (A churchgoer once told me that she rejected out of hand any scholarly conclusions on the almah/parthenos controversy surrounding Isaiah 7:14 simply because, in her words: "It is very important for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.")

There are indeed many intelligent, sincere, well-meaning people who say such things as: "Whatever the controversy, and however strong the scholarly arguments against it, I choose to believe in the supernatural aspects of my faith, simply because it is very important for me in the life of my faith to be radically aware of sacred mysteries." Needless to say, if one chooses to make the supernatural element a central aspect of one’s religion, the Bible will certainly support such a set of beliefs. However -- and this is well worth noting -- the Bible, without adding more internal contradiction than is already present in its pages, will also support common sense interpretations of its texts and theologies. Such a plurality of defensive interpretations is possible, not because the texts are vague, for indeed they are not vague, but because the content of the text is universal in its domain of application and ambivalent -- rather than ambiguous -- in its language. Thus it is a strength -- not at all a weakness -- of the Bible that it speaks to supernatural as well as to common sense interests, for in that way it assures that it will speak to every era, to every nation, to each successive Zeitgeist in world history.

Whitehead’s remark quoted above is not intended to show that progress in religion is characterized by mere iconoclasm. Rather, the claim is simply that, as human civilization gains in history a more and more adequate self-awareness, the concepts of God which had once been adequate for individual cultures have to be -- and are -- successively replaced by more and more adequate conceptions of’ God. The ancient Hebrew transition from henotheism to monotheism is an excellent example of such progress; the God of Israel was adequate for the confrontation between Israel and Egypt, but the God who could intervene in the long struggle among Israel, Assyria, and Babylon had to be the God of the whole world (cf. e.g., Amos 9:7, Isaiah 10:5-15). Such a transition from a particular God to a universal God is surely a mark of true progress, in culture, in religion, and in Weltanschauung. Thus the development of more and more adequate conceptions of God is a mirror of the development of civilization itself.

The historical development of religion proceeds in stages which can be analyzed in terms of dialectical progress or unfolding. Such is the case both with individual religions and with religion in general. Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists, especially those who study folklore and oral traditions, have done much good work in classifying such stages, all the way from the most primitive animism to the most sophisticated philosophical monotheism. But their classification is in general only formal. What they have largely failed to do is to discover and define precisely the reasons why a given stage passes over into another. They have failed in general to see the progressive development of religion and religions as a unified and deliberate series of God’s revelations of reason designed specifically to lead us gradually toward the most adequate and profound understanding and appreciation of God which is humanly possible. This is a task which only a philosopher can achieve. Hegel and the Right Hegelians had conceived and attempted such a project -- to learn the ultimate, divinely sanctioned reasons why one religious stage passes over into another -- but that movement, plagued from the start by bad anthropological data, died out in the mid-nineteenth century, and only recently has been revived. Imagine what such an Hegelian project could accomplish today, in the wake of Eliade, Freud, Jung, James, Durkheim, van der Leeuw, Wach, Weber, etc., as well as countless scholarly anthropologists reporting from the field!

Insofar as God (according to Anselm) is not only that than which nothing greater can be conceived, but also that which is greater than anything which can be conceived, the historical development, on the scale relative to culture, of more and more adequate conceptions of God must also be seen as the development on the absolute scale, or sub specie aeternitatis, of ever more nearly true conceptions of God. It is safe to say that Isaiah’s conception of God more nearly approached the true nature of’ God than did that of Moses; and likewise, it is safe to say that Augustine’s was more highly developed and thus more accurate than Isaiah’s. This does not mean that Isaiah was either more intelligent or more sincere in his religion than Moses, or Augustine more than Isaiah, but it means that their respective theologies are to a significant degree products of the total of learned culture in their respective times, and thus that these theologies themselves reflect these several levels of cultural development and philosophical refinement.

The narrative of Elijah on Mount Carmel in I Kings 18 tells of the supersession of the god (s) of fertility by the God of historical intervention. Likewise, the whole New Testament can be regarded as the tale of the supersession of the God of historical intervention by the God of supernatural salvation. The Roman Catholic Church gradually came to see this God as the God of supernatural salvation by priestly intermediation. The Protestant Reformation was in the main a movement to replace this Catholic God with tbe God of supernatural salvation by direct faith. All of these were rational transitions, demanded by their times, right for their times, and each unable to have happened at any other time. The God right for the Hebrews of the ninth century BCE. could not be right for the Greeks of the first century CE., nor could that of the twelfth century Italians be right for the sixteenth century Germans -- even though the same tradition of scripture speaks to all of these groups. Each successive stage must make more sense in its time (kairos) than each supplanted stage. For example, Augustinian Christianity survived beyond its Pelagian, Manichaean, and Donatist rivals chiefly because (in its specific cultural setting) it made more philosophical sense than they did.

Since we in the late 20th century now have good scientific, epistemological, and even metaphysical reasons to abandon our former belief in the supernatural, the time has come for yet another rationally ordained supersession of an old god. The God of supernatural salvation, in whatever guise. is to be replaced by the God of what might be called in English "ethical solidarity," "social coherence," "cohesive social order," "the order of ethical life," or, in Tillich’s vocabulary, "theonomy," but which is really much better expressed by Sittlichkeit in Hegel’s German or by koinônia in New Testament Greek. In short, the God of supernatural salvation is to be -- must be -- replaced by the God of peace. Theology after 1945 must revolve around the bomb. Eschatological expectations are no longer grounded in the supernatural, as they always had been until 1945; now they have been brought home to the immediate level of common worldly experience. There is nothing mysterious about the end of the world any longer -- we know how it will end unless we change our tune.

It is of the utmost importance that religion make sense to the believer -- not necessarily common sense, but some sort of sense; i.e., the individual ought to be able at some level to justify his or her belief’s. At the lowest level, such defense is accomplished by appeal to authority or tradition; at the highest level, it is done through philosophy -- specifically, through philosophical theology or systematic theology.

Religion’s road toward its self-fulfillment as philosophy is long and hard, but it makes sense. Philosophy’s recognition of itself as religion is neither achieved nor admitted by all philosophers, but among these who have recognized the identity of philosophy and religion are Socrates, Plotinus, Erigena, Spinoza, Hegel -- in short, and in general, most of the speculative, "Platonic" tradition, in opposition to the mainstream of the analytic, "Aristotalian" tradition (if the reader will forgive such a gross oversimplification of a very complex history of thought).

Religion in its highest form is philosophy; and philosophy in its true form is religion. The true content of each is the same. In their development they move toward each other, since in the historical development of culture, the conception of God moves toward the philosophical.

In essence, religion is an attitude, or a sum of attitudes. The various institutions of’ religion grew up only after and as a result of certain attitudes, first felt by the individual, subsequently shared with a group.

Let us then provisionally define religion as the totality of an individual’s sincere attitudes and predispositions toward that which serves as the final expression of that individual’s particular primary interest or goal -- which in fact is very much the same as saying, with Whitehead: "Religion is what the individual does with his [or her] own solitariness" (TIM 16). And what else does any individual actually do with solitariness -- that is, true solitariness, which is uniquely characterized by a curious amalgam of loneliness and reflectivity -- except philosophize? "Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts. For this reason the primary religious virtue is sincerity, a penetrating sincerity" (RM 15). Similarly, philosophy is force of thought cleansing the inward parts. Thus the primary philosophical virtue is precisely the same penetrating sincerity.