Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philosophy of Religion in the Renaissance

Philosophy of religion is theology for nonbelievers. God is the highest concept that philosophy can possibly attain, therefore traditionally theology and philosophy converge on this concept. As we know from St. Anselm’s inquiry into the existence of God, God is that concept that requires existence, although philosophy as such cannot guarantee existence. As such, Theology is the discipline that discusses the reality of God’s existence, its sources and its implications, whereas philosophy establishes the theoretical conditions implied in a concept like God that is supposed to be real. The reality of God, accessible to theology, manifests itself in human practice, which is religion, whereas philosophy remains theoretical because, from its critical perspective, it is not allowed to engage in any theological commitment, as far as philosophy goes. The dialectical relationship between philosophy, theology and religion, which involves human intellectual life and world, is the achievement of Renaissance thought of the 14th through 16th centuries, although no philosophy is without antecedents. When Renaissance thinkers spoke about God, they aimed at extending the area of competence of any of the three: at times faith, at times thinking, at times practice, and they always claimed to reconcile all three. This is the major contention of this book.
Therefore, the term "philosophy of religion" is used in this book as an interpretive tool to describe and evalutate how Renaissance philosophers thought about God. Modern philosophy of religion had its origin in treatises on "natural theology" of 17th century academic philosophy and therefore meant, first of all, the philosophical inquiry into the meaningfulness of speaking rationally about the divine (cf. Frank 2003). Hence, philosophy of religion was originally a continuation of the medieval philosophical theology, also know as the praeambula fidei (the humanly accessible preconditions of belief in revelation). However, beyond the school tradition, the question extended to the historicity of theological dogmas, the theory of worship and rituals, religious policy, the gnoseology of faith and the legitimacy of addressing matters of piety with rational means (Jaeschke 1992). Since it seems that the groundwork to this philosophical endeavor has been laid by Renaissance thinkers, insofar as they in fact raise philosophical questions about the coherence or divergence of knowledge, faith, practice, politics, metaphysics and (as will be emphasized in the ‘Epilogue’) epistemology, and insofar Ficino and Bruno speak about religion as such, in short, since they do philosophize about religion, it seems legitimate to speak – ante litteram – a about a “Renaissance philosophy of religion”.
A purely theoretical book on faith, reason and religion could be written, but not by me. For in my view, a philosophical problem is constituted by its history, so that its historical stages enable us to understand what troubles us today. This does not mean that delving into the history of Renaissance thought is an easy way out. On the contrary, doing philosophy historically amounts to doing philosophy properly. If philosophy consists in thinking theoretically, it also requires thinking about thinking — the second most difficult thinking accessible (second after God, of course) is that of others, particularly those who entered history. Furthermore, if the relationship between theology, philosophy and religion is troubled by the uncertainty of theory and action, then the practice of thinking in the past that shaped present philosophy is a case in point: the purely theoretical conundrums of the history of philosophy had nevertheless practical effect on present day thought.
Philosophical thinking about God in the Renaissance flourished in a variety of ways, each of which would deserve a systematic diachronic presentation. Since the publication of Charles Trinkaus’s book of 1970 on Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought it is not anymore necessary to dispel the secularist interpretation of an allegedly irreligious pre-Enlightenment humanism. Therefore we can now scrutinize Renaissance attempts at discussing philosophical issues theologically and theological issues philosophically. Topics that are covered in this book, tentatively tagged with some names, are:
  • the rational concept of God (Lull)
  • the reach of reason (Cusanus, Suárez)
  • Trinity (Ficino, Valla, Campanella)
  • religious politics (Lull, Bruno)
  • hermeneutics (Salutati)
  • mythology (Salutati, Plethon)
  • mathematics (Cusanus)
  • logic and language (Valla)
  • transcendence (Valla, Suárez)
  • competing religions (Plethon, Campanella)
  • secularism (Ficino, Pico)
  • epistemology (Ficino, Suárez)
Each of these topics is treated with regard to the most suitable authors, and each author is presented in this book in a different and hopefully original way, which any reader might wish to complement with reference to standard handbooks of Renaissance philosophy. The author would have loved to add more philosophers (for instance Machiavelli, Erasmus, Thomas More, Vives, Contarini, Telesio, Patrizi, to name a few) as he would have liked to follow up developments in literature, fine arts and heretical movements. If some readers of this book come to the conclusion that those heretical and reformation movements are epiphenomena of Renaissance thought, in the sense of practical consequences of philosophical theology, and that Protestantism is a special case of that, in the sense of a historical reductionism (such as: modernity starts with Luther), they have found another field worth researching.

[This is an excerpt from the preface. The book is out March 1, 2010, at Ashgate. ]