Strange Encounters: Steven Shakespeare on Putting Philosophy and Religion into Dialogue

16 04 2013

One of the aims of this network is to think about how philosophy of religion can be brought into dialogue with religious practitioners and contemporary research on religion. However, putting it in those terms already raises some issues (and yes, this is where I become an irritating philosopher).

For one thing, it obscures the fact that philosophy of religion is itself a material practice. By that I mean that it does not exist apart from institutional contexts, from political and gender dynamics, from a very specific Western history. For instance, it is arguable that philosophy of religion in its modern form was invented by the 19th century philosopher Hegel, at the point when critical distance from church tradition allows ‘religion’ to become thinkable as a discrete object with its own nature and essence. However, this universalised concept of religion was still understood very much in terms of Christianity.

Things have changed. Hegel’s attempt to read the history of religion as finding fulfilment in Christianity as the Absolute Religion (however heterodox his understanding of Christianity was) may not find much favour in contemporary study of religion. But the way ‘religion’ as a category is defined and marked off from what is not religion still bears within it the traces of that Christian past, and its often difficult mutation in post-Enlightenment Europe. Religion as a universal essence, as propositional belief, as private commitment, as non-rational passion, as marker of communal or personal identity – all of these varied understandings represent ways of trying to accommodate religion with modernity (even if by way of opposing it to modernity).

My interest, then, is in how, in the encounter between philosophy and lived religion, we aren’t just seeing how two well-defined fields can link up (or not). We’re intervening, mutating the way each field is understood, hopefully in a more self-critical, more attentive way. This will involve being aware of imposing Christian (or Christianised secular) universal ideas of religion on actual practices, whilst also avoiding any romanticisation of the religious other as ‘exotic’ and beyond critique. My hope is that the result will be new possibilities for life and thought which break down the tired divisions between practice and theory.


Steven Shakespeare

Liverpool Hope University



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