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Exploring Philosophy of Religion

Updated on October 16, 2011
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Nikki Alberta has a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Alberta. She is a freelance article writer, novelist and blogger.


Religion is extremely difficult to analyze but there are areas of understanding that can be explored, from within a religion or from the outside of one. It is easy to get wrapped up in a debate between religious feeling and skepticism, one that has no end because there is no mutual comprehension of the terms, nor any sound middle ground. Yet to engage in philosophy of religion you must do so from both the emotional and the rational to grasp the truth of it. In the end religion is an experience that a person has within a faith or from a one to one relation with what they consider to be divine.

The first problem with thinking about religion is the language used itself. The main problem with language is that many words and concepts take on subtle differences to individual people and broader differences to groups of people. Because of this there are multitude of definitions of religion itself from many perspectives; sociology, psychology and different faiths. Just the word ‘god’ holds different ideas and meaning from person to person. Since there is no tangible entity that is ‘god’ any value or characteristic can be included in any personal definition.

Even the characteristics placed on god have no universal meaning. Feuerbach would say that we are projecting our ideals on our god; so god is the idea version of Good and we are the pale reflection of good. This is remarkably like saying the language is used analogically. Divine characteristic then are solid and unattainable, we are merely a distortion or imperfection of those same traits.

Religious language is ambiguous as a result. Each religion having its own language which neither requires support nor needs to be defended by others. Thus when discussing religion you have to study the terms used and how they are used within that religion.

As far as the actual definition of religion one must find a collective term that applies to a wise range of experiences and beliefs that all religions have in common. In Exploring Religion a text by Roger Schmidt religion is defined as a human seeking and responding to what is experienced as Holy. A definition that is aiming at being inclusive to all religions, nor biased to one religion over another and not so broad as to exclude other experiences.

Exploring Religion

Religious Feeling

The limitations of language shows itself quite immediately when thinking about religious feeling. If you have a religious feeling it is quite unmistakable as such but when trying to explain it to someone who has never had such a feeling then it is very difficult to use words to pinpoint it. Especially since the feeling itself is only momentary and afterwards does not hold the strength it had while in the moment itself.

Religion is in the realm of belief, passionate thinking and faith and thus has a great deal to do with feeling. Schelmacher describes religious feeling as absolute dependence on something experienced as completely Other. Unfortunately, we discover the problem of trying to explain how a religious feeling is different than any other feeling, for example, the way a baby feels in relation to his mother.

Religious feeling can be the sensation of suddenly feeling that everything is a whole, a divine essence in everything, that is the ground of reality and ourselves. We can be overwhelmed by the complex beauty of nature and everyone, filled with the feeling of awe and that we are but a small fragment of the whole. Part of faith is trying to hold that profound experience within you even though such experiences are hard to grasp afterwards and all too rare.

Schleiemacher’s religious feeling leads to how one acts (ethics) and how one thinks (science). Religious feeling is an important element philosopher’s tend to minimize. Perhaps people do as well. If you have a religion feeling it should naturally effect your morals and thinking, but hopefully in a way that broadens understanding rather than to cause conflict.

Religious Imagination

Feuerbach’s projection theory makes sense that we project the ideals of our society and personally on our image of the divine, in order to feel a connection to that which cannot truly be comprehended. The divine nature may very well be devoid of all human characteristics and morality. To understand the divine and to enter into a personal relationship to it, it is helpful to have an image that correlates to who we are and society currently is. That is not to say there is no reality to the divine, it simply means it is not within our ability to comprehend. We can only understand the divine through being human and thus through imagination. Perhaps then religious imagining reflects our own nature, our own society, than the divine itself.


To Kierkegaard we base our understanding on faith. Revelation is uncovering, and reason will have a tendency to cover up what is a fundamental experience. Reason will cover it up because the experience may seem absurd or ambiguous and this faith is needed. Kierkegaard says if god came right then and there, there would be no way of knowing it was actually god opposed to satan or insanity. And the world would look the same with or without god. Faith is based on insufficient evidence, is a deliberate act of will that must be continuously willed. His main emphasis is on how religion and understanding there of, should not be objectified. When religion is objectified it has no real meaning anymore and no living essence. Therefore the proofs of the existence of god are useful if you already believe, insufficient if you do not. Reason can aid the belief, but they do not prove one way or the other. Kierkegaard says “The thing of being a Christian is not determined by the what of Christianity but the how of the Christian… the absolute paradox.” Faith is not a matter of intellectual consent because it is based on a paradox of the divine and the human joined. Faith is a constant effort, “Faith must not rest content with unintelligibility for precisely the relation to or the repulsion from the unintelligible, the absurd, is the expression for the passion of faith.”

Indeed, it seems that faith should be a constant effort, not just an easy assertion. It is based on uncertainty and paradoxes, but is fundamentally necessary. Faith is hard to constantly maintain because reason and doubt interfere with feeling.


Rudolf Otto uses reason to get to the basic core experience of the Holy. The Holy is the same sacred feeling interpreted differently by all religions. He used reason to get at a fundamental experience from within, not to explain it in dry terms. Reason does have the tendency to interfere in belief but it can also reinforce it. He used the term creature-feeling, which is the feeling a creature gets in relation to its creator. Creature feeling “is an emotion of a creature submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.” the creator is numinous which is “felt as objective and outside of the self, non-ordinary, extraordinary and wholly other. And in this we can see Sleiermacher’s religious feeling of absolute dependence.

Otto also uses the term Mysterium Tremendum, which explains that the experience is both a mystery and awe-ful as well as awful. “Here we have a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instill,” is his explanation of temendum. He does not limit it to one feeling but describes how it can come in many ways, “The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship.” Reason can be a useful tool but it can also dampen the living essence of the experience, reducing god into a god of the gaps (that which fills an ontology), a process, the first mover, the first cause and so forth.


Martin Buber makes the distinction between an I-It and an I-Thou relationship with the divine. I-Thou is an intimate relationship and a personal communication with the divine. I-It is an objectifying relationship, where god is an object not a subject. For true comprehension the experience must be held by a subject to a subject relation. “He who enters on the absolute relation is concerned with nothing isolated any more, neither things nor beings, neither earth nor heavens, but everything is gathered up in the relation.” By just describing what is felt is limiting the whole experience “as the isolation and definition of this element is accurate, its unbalanced emphasis only makes the character of complete relation more misunderstood.”

His concern is that reason and reflection cause god to be seen as an object in the realm of things and thus only an I-It relationship can be achieved. Whereas “The man who emerges from the act of pure relation that so involves his being has now I his being something more that has grown in him, of which he did not know before and whose origin he is not rightly to indicate.” What happens in the relation is “first there is the whole fullness or real mutual action, of being raised and being bound up in relation. It makes life heavier, but heavy with meaning. Secondly, there is the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. Meaning is assured.”

Thus one can only gain true comprehension by an intimate I-Thou relationship; whereas reason tends to only generate a I-It relationship.


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