Typically, I am quite wary of books claiming to be “manifestos.” My usual view of such texts is either that they are overconfident about their ability to rewrite a discipline or a discourse, or that they are being positioned as unique when they are really just summaries of the current field. In the first case, the book attempts to do too much constructive work, in the second case, the book fails to do much that is constructive at all.
Kevin Schilbrack’s book avoids both of these problematic temptations. Although claiming to be a “manifesto,” the book actually lives up to that title. Importantly, though, we must also attend to the rest of the title “philosophy and the study of religions,” because subtly presented therein lies the specific way in which this book finds traction in the contemporary philosophical discourse. Namely, this book is not simply about rethinking philosophy of religion, but instead a call for philosophical approaches to the academic study of religions. For those not familiar with what is sometimes termed “the academic study of religion,” this often serves as a stand-in for religious studies, but with a more precise designation of the scholarly practices occurring within the field. For those self-identifying as operating within the academic study of religion, which, it should be noted, is necessarily a multidisciplinary discourse, there is nothing immediately “religious” about what they are doing. Instead, they are scholars who may operate according to a variety of methodologies, political orientations, disciplinary trainings, and religious convictions, but what unites them is the object of their scholarly attention: this thing called “religion.” For Schilbrack, his concern is to bring a philosophical, and more specifically phenomenological (in Merleau-Ponty’s sense, rather than in Eliade’s) focus to such work.
For some philosophers of religion, the need for such a text, much less a “manifesto” contending for it, will undoubtedly seem odd given the much-lauded return of philosophy of religion to prominence over the last several decades. However, Schilbrack’s text helps us all to see that for too long philosophy of religion has failed to pay enough attention to the critical questions that attend to the very unifying object of its own discourse. Simply put, even if the vagueness of its object make philosophy of religion more like philosophy of mind than like philosophy of science, unlike philosophers of mind, philosophers of religion very rarely spend much time asking the fundamental question: “What do we mean by ‘religion’?” Rather, philosophy of religion is often defined by what Schilbrack rightly understands to be a narrowness in its specifically theistic (and usually Christian) assumptions. Instead of seeing terms like “faith,” “God,” and “religion” as complicated signifiers that should challenge any quick claims to stability within philosophical discourse, too many philosophers of religion operate as if they can assume that religion is necessarily concerned with belief in God, and moreover, that the God about whom we are discussing is the God of classical theism. To this narrowness, or perhaps owing to it, Schilbrack adds the critiques of disciplinary insularity (i.e., philosophy of religion is rarely engaged with the broader research occurring in the academic study of religions), and intellectual cognitivism (i.e., religion is really about belief to the exclusion of practice).
These three challenges to what Schilbrack terms “traditional” philosophy of religion are serious obstacles to the continued flourishing of the field. Expressed informally, we might say that Schilbrack calls for philosophy of religion to be careful about its central category of religion, conversationally engaged with other scholars concerned about that category, and reflective about the ways in which people who self-describe as religious actually live their lives. There very well may be pressure points in Schilbrack’s account worthy of scholarly scrutiny, but to dismiss his challenges as fundamentally misguided is to fail to appreciate the lived reality that philosophy of religion claims to be concerned with in the first place. It might be that Jonathan Z. Smith is right about religion being nothing more than an invention of the scholar’s study, but even if this is the case, then philosophy of religion should be critically reflective about what follows from this fact. As I see it, Smith is not (entirely) right in his account and Schilbrack’s own constructive view of religion(s) and the study of it makes great strides toward raising what we might term the “existential consciousness” of philosophical inquiry in this area.
Ultimately, Schilbrack’s positive account of religion is not deflationary, but nonetheless profoundly contextualist, and his account of philosophy of religion is one that appreciates the important virtues of epistemic humility and dialogical hospitality within what Wesley Wildman has suggested is a multidisciplinary and comparative field of study.
Even though this book first appeared in 2014, it remains worthy of serious intellectual attention because even where it might be wide of the mark, it misses in ways that help the rest of us working in the field to improve our aim. This book truly is a “manifesto” in the best sense: it not only calls for what should be the case, but offers practical suggestions for how to get there.
This symposium on Schilbrack’s book consists of essays from Nathan Eric Dickman, Jason Blum, Sonam Kachru, and Stephen Dawson. These scholars all approach the text from different directions and provide models of what philosophical engagement with the academic study of religions might involve. Schilbrack’s replies are, as is typical of his work, argumentatively rigorous, linguistically clear, conceptually precise, and especially charitable to his critics.
Sometimes book reviews end up amounting to not much more than one person’s claim that they could have written a book better than the actual author did. When it comes to Schilbrack’s book, all of the contributors to this symposium recognize in one way or another that the right response is not to suggest that Schilbrack should have written his book differently, but instead to write our own books differently in light of Schilbrack’s own. Agree or disagree, Schilbrack must not be ignored because the stakes are too high for all philosophical approaches to the academic study of this thing that we have traditionally called “religion.”