Practice and Difference

In “Epilogue: Prolegomenon to Future Feminist Philosophies of Religion,” Marilyn Thie argues that traditional philosophy of religion is a profoundly patriarchal institution badly in need of methodological renewal and reinvigoration. Thie explains that feminist philosophies of religion “begin with hermeneutical suspicion, an intellectual wariness, that patriarchal patterns of thinking and methods of identifying topics or sources skew traditional philosophical approaches to religion” (230). Thie argues that traditional philosophy of religion is problematic not only in the way it remains fixed on a specific set of questions, but also in the abstract and uncritical way it deals with the questions it poses. Feminist philosophies of religion are “rooted in the assumption that philosophies and religions […] emerge from specific historical, cultural, social, and political contexts which must be taken seriously in any attempts to move toward generalized insights” (230). Thie therefore argues that traditional philosophy of religion fails as an intellectual enterprise to account for the evolving historical and cultural context of the phenomena it pretends to investigate. It follows that traditional philosophy of religion, by ignoring historical and cultural variables that are relevant to its enterprise, is deliberately perpetuating an established world view which, according to Thie, is very much a Western Christian, patriarchal one. Thie emphasizes the practical dimension of religious phenomena, insisting that “the practical  political and social implications of every position [feminists] examine should be part of what it means to do philosophy of religion” (231).

Thie is certainly right to point out the voluntary blindness of traditional philosophy of religion towards context and practice and to suggest a possible hidden political agenda within such an enterprise. Indeed, it seems quite reasonable to ask whose interests are being served by the deliberate exclusion of historical and social perspectives from an otherwise legitimate intellectual undertaking. At a fundamental level, Thie questions how it is that philosophy of religion (or any area of philosophy for that matter) should not be willing to test its own general theories against the variables of culture and history, or even be prepared to admit that elaborating unbiased theories of religion that truly apply to all cultures and stand the test of time may not be a realistic objective to begin with.

Thie counters the ahistorical posture of traditional philosophy of religion, believed to be one of its shortcomings, with an approach that emphasizes both practice and difference. As Thie explains, “unless the specific differences among peoples’ lives, religions, and spiritualities are brought to the fore in our work, we will be perpetuating traditional shortcomings” (232). However, it is worth pointing out that one significant disadvantage of this approach is that it tends to give up on general theories of religion right from the start. In as much as the traditional approach to philosophy of religion devalues historical and practical elements in favor of that which transcends history and the world, the purely historicist, feminist perspective will tend to reject metaphysical explanations of religious phenomena in favor of explanations which emphasize power dynamics and political context. If religion is really as socially and historically determined as these feminists seem to think, then relations of power are all that we can ultimately hope to uncover in our analysis of religious phenomena. Hence, as part of this investigation one either still seeks to find, with the traditionalists, the characteristics of a possible religious essence or, siding with the feminists, deeply ingrained power inequalities, typically involving the oppression of one group of individuals by another. This is not to suggest that one approach is better than the other, but rather to highlight that both are looking for completely different kinds of explanations for the same phenomena.

Still, Thie is right to insist that the traditionalists shouldn’t avoid the practical aspects of religion, as this weakens the overall credibility of their analysis. On the other hand, we should be mindful of swinging too far to the other side of the pendulum with the feminists who, perhaps as a result of their own victim-hood, might be inclined to reduce religion to a mere tool of social oppression. Western Christianity with its patriarchal disposition has undoubtedly had a very powerful, and to some extent unhealthy, influence on the philosophy of religion, spanning from its inception to the present day. But it does not follow that all truth pertaining to religion is historically determined by power relations between various actors and institutions. The feminist perspective is helpful to the philosophy of religion since it seeks to expose certain biases that may have led the discipline astray; but it should not be forgotten that the discipline in spite of its imperfections has successfully evolved to the point where it presently stands, which proves that the questions it poses have lasting power and are still relevant. Feminists with their acute historicist lens will admittedly find within their analysis of the historical evolution of the philosophy of religion itself, undoubtedly among other less glorious artifacts, the circumstances for the inception of their own movement and reason for being.

Works Cited:

Thie, M. (1994), Epilogue: Prolegomenon To Future Feminist* Philosophies of Religions. Hypatia, 9: 229–239. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.1994.tb00657.x