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Lecture Note on Philo of Religion

Philosophy of Religion

Michael Jhon M. Tamayao, Ph.L., M.A.  Lecture 1 (September 13 & 17, 2007) 

Inasmuch as this is a “philosophical” study of religion, we are concerned, not with the particulars (different regional religious beliefs), but with the logos, essence, foundational qualities found on all religions. Thus, John Hick posited that philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy, and not religion, that studies the prior phenomena of religious experience and the activities of worship and meditation on which religions or any belief systems rest and out of which they have arisen. And for the same reason, William James was also interested  not in particular religious institutions, rituals, or, even for the most part, religious ideas, but in “the feelings, acts, and experiences wherein men apprehends themselves to stand in relation to  the divine.”

And also for this reason we will venture on the concepts of The Sacred and Mystery, the general root of all religion. William James in “Varieties of Religious Experience” proposed his own philosophico-psychological account about religion. For him, Religious experience is the root of religion, as indicated by one of his chapters. Religious experience for him could further be classified under the “mystical psychological state of consciousness,” the root in turn of all religious experience and as such the inner possibility of religion. Before going into the specific psychological accounts of James regarding this state of consciousness, let us first discuss the more general concepts of the Sacred and the Mystery. After all, Mystical Experience has for its object – intangible that is – the Mysterious or the Sacred.

WHAT IS THE SACRED?a.       An Overview

For religion to be, it must be sacred. The sense of the sacred is the order of reality in which Religion is inscribed. In order words, the defining sense of religion, more than that of having a deity, is the sense of the sacred. This order or reality, however, is not to be found in the ordinary perceptible world precisely because it is “another” order of reality. Thus, it is hard to find a “determinate something” which lends itself to the identification with the Sacred. It could be “symbolized” but never “objectified.”

b.      Is the sacred based on the subject or on the object?

The Sacred is found in the dialectical tension between subject and object. This means that the subject or the worshipper must be in a certain “attunement”, called the “religious attitude” or the “believing attitude,” which opens himself to the Sacred other. The Object, for its part, may be a natural entity, on institution, or a concrete act in which the sacred is recognized. The sacred then is neither subjective nor objective, but the result of the encounter between subject and object. Religion does not rise from object or from the subject alone but from their dialectic. (Ex. Marx, hardcore atheist)

c.       Sacred vs. Profane

Simply put, the sacred is that which is cut-off from the profane. However, the irruption of the Transcendental sacred happens in the ordinary mundane events and objects of the world. Just as in James’ account, the sense of the sacred/mystical is usually awakened by nature, prayers, and exercises. But although the sacred or the sense of the mystical is awakened by the ordinary mundane objects and activities, it is precisely this that it transcends. Thus, the different objective religious manifestations of the modern day religions does not constitute the true and foundational component of a religion. What is more substantial is that sacred or religious dimension which dawned through them.

d.      The Religious Experience

The root of religion is the religious experience. We will have to remind ourselves that experience is not synonymous with “mere fantasy” or “subjective arbitrariness.” As James specified, “our senses encounter certain states of facts.” Thus epistemologically, it is like any subject-object encounter in the world. However, it has a “noetic” character, meaning the knowledge of the experience could only be known directly. The knowledge acquired therein is non-transferable.

Moreover, just like any epistemological encounter, the experience is a situated subject’s encounter with reality. Thus, in any religious experience, there is a unique blend of the subject’s frame of reference as well as cognitive-affective disposition, on the one hand, and the object, on the other.

There is also, in the religious experience, the irruption of a Superior Reality or Being into man’s field of vision, a Reality or Being uncontrollable by man, and for this reason, awesome. We could connect this to James’ reference to the “ineffability” of the mystical or religious experience and the “passivity” happening in the subject. The subject who experienced the dawn of the Other cannot adequately “define” what has transpired (ineffable). Although we could express them in different theological propositions, symbolisms or icons, as is seen in the present day religions, these attempts are always incomplete inasmuch as there is always something beyond those words or objects which we can utmost only feel. And also because of the awesomeness of what has transpired to him, the subject tends to surrender his will to the superior power.   

e.       Mysterium tremendum et fascinans  

This classic phrase underlies the existential tension that transpires in the subject. This also underlies the psychological tension of the mystic subject found in James’ article. Although the subject finds the Other which has dawned to him as tremendously overwhelming, he still opts to come closer to it. As the Totally Other dawns, the subject sees his essential finitude; that he is a powerless creature in face with the Supreme Reality. The subject is “insecure” of his finite, unclean, and sinful existence. We call this as man’s existential Angst.  In contrast to fear, Angst has no particular object of dread. What one is “anxious about” is the very finitude of his existence and that which he is “anxious to” is the Other Reality/Mystery.    

But on the other hand, the subject still finds the Holy/Sacred/Mystery admirable.  The religious man is incapable of extricating himself from the Other’s pull. He is enchanted; he is enthralled. Precisely as Totally Other it draws the religious man while keeping him at bay. And for this the statement “Familiarity bridges contempt” applies. Something familiar is no longer mysterious and interesting, but something which does not totally reach out will remain unknown. Thus, the Mystery is always in a perfect balance of detachment and constant reaching out for without the one it cannot be what it is.

The sacred makes its presence felt in the ordinary and the everyday through the mediation of the profane. It manifests its sacrality only by touching the common-place, and yet setting a perimeter of sanctity around it. This tension involved in the manifestation of the Sacred in the profane reflects itself in the psychological ambivalence with which man deals with the Sacred: fascination coupled with dread.   

f.        Taboo and Sacrality

Incontrast to its negative non-technical connotation, taboo is a positive concept in the study of religion. A taboo is the recognition of the plenitude of power/holiness/Being that evokes in religious man the sense of the “dangerous.” This form of recognition is again rooted in man’s dread on the Holy Mystery. It is a recognition that affirms one’s radical fragility and the Other’s overpowering presence. At rock bottom, there is taboo only because there is something sacred.

g.       The Religious Position is Courageous

Religion is always a surrender and response to the Unknown, to the Mysterious, and to the finitude of one’s existence. And it is this surrender that is the most difficult. The intellect always clamors for the unity of what it perceives and so attaches meaning to everything in order to comprehend it. But whenever unbridgeable gaps enter this necessary unity, man resorts to two things; the one cowardly and the other courageous. Imposing what you “want” to understand something is pathetic. It is like making your own ideal illusionary world. This is precisely a cowardly act because one is afraid to face the greater part of reality – the Mystery. One is said to be courageous if he overcomes this “dread” of his finitude. He accepts his finitude and thus highlights the infinity of reality.

“Man is indeed in his greatness when he falls on his knees, before God,” the ultimate expression of the Mystery. (From Blaise Pascal) For by doing this he lives by the Truth of reality. And what truth is that, it is truth that is predominantly untruth. Thus, to explain the Truth of Reality is to accept its Untruth and uncertainties.

It is the sense of mystery that highlights every religion; a mystery which is dreadful but at the same time beckoning. We want to escape from it, but it always charms us back into its grips. Thus the state of religion is always in the state of tension, a tension which is always seen as a paradox.

Religion does not give a rule for safety, but the high hope of adventure.(A.N. Whitehead) We could associate the sense of safety to the everyday comforts of public existence. The comfortable everyday existence exempt man from the adventure of authentic existence. It displaces him from his original state of solitude and responsible existence. True religion is not really a herd-phenomenon but that which brings man face to face with his original solitude, to his dreadful existence. We are not sure what life is to bring us because it is in itself a mystery, but we are responsible for being the captain of our lives – To be the sole agent responsible for controlling and surrendering it to the Mystery of Reality. This is why Whitehead stated “Religion is what man does in his solitude.”

h.        If the religious dimension of reality is a Mystery, will it just occupy an insignificant part of the truth of the Reality?

The question presupposes that we each have our own idea of “truth”. What is truth? For the past two millennia, philosophers ventured on this critical problem and have arrived at different answers. Some proposed a correspondence conception of truth, others, like James, posited a pragmatic one, and still some attributes truth to the all perfect Being. For me the most enlightening account when it comes to religion is the existentialist conception of truth.

Truth for the existentialists is based on the Greek’s rendition of it as alethea (unconcealment). Truth is first and foremost a process, i.e. a process of unconcealment. Truth is an “occurrence” that is not bound by the staticness of propositional truth. This truth grounds all truth inasmuch as this is truth as “openness” to the possibility of the comportment of man and object. As a matter of fact, truth or the process of unconcealment is a mode of man’s existence. In the actualization of possibilities from nothing to something, truth transpires. In its broadest sense, truth is the dynamic happening found in reality; every day is a moment of truth.

But the truth of reality is predominantly untruth. The process of unconcealment presupposes the state of original concealment. Thus, the full essence of truth must also speak of its negativity; “the question of the essence of truth as unhiddenness is itself the question concerning hiddenness.” Inorder words, hiddenness is always and necessarily present at the occurrence of unhiddenness and helps the later come to itself. Truth is the primal strife that could establish itself as unconcealedness only through its original concealedness. “Truth is Untruth.”

Aletheia is not simply removing a cover but it is an unending process of uncovering the concealed. Reality or Life is an unending process of unconcealment. But that which we unconceal is overwhelming, beyond the finitude of our human existence. This portion of truth belittles us and asks us to surrender to its magnitude. No words can express it and no amount of human endeavor can exhaust its full significance. For this reason, this part of truth (untruth), which is the most dominant, is called “Mystery.” The Mystery is therefore the foundation of truth.  

i.         The Mystery

The recognition of the mystery is also the acknowledgement of its superiority, not by way of comparison, but precisely in the intuitive realization that it is beyond all comparison.

The Mystery is “totally other” and its total otherness is what is immediately apparent in its epiphany. It is not a perceptible “object” so that it cannot be categorized. Man, however, always wants to device ways for him to comprehend the Mysterious. He objectifies the sacred in an effort to render the Mystery more approachable and manageable. Although effective, this will not suffice. The Mystery will eternally remain the Totally Other. The Mystery does not simply yield to the way man has organized things, and to his neat patters and categories. But although they are “ineffable”, as James put it, they fill the horizon of man. Its overpowering presence is always full!

Traditional concepts of the Absolutely Transcendental Being/ God/ Divine is rooted in the experience of the intensity of the plenitude that excludes all composition. God is ultimately simple, as Medieval philosophers state. Brahman is SAT – CIT –ANANDA, Pure Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. The Divine / the Mysterious Mystery is pure and beyond expression. All the metaphysical sophistications of religions are means by which man refer to a non-perceptible, non-conceivable “presence” in religious experience.

j.        The Sin that is Man

(Problem of original sin: can a baby, who is still unconscious of his actions, acquire sin? More so, the original sin?)

The Sacred inevitably highlights the imperfect nature of man – that he is and will always be detached from the Holy Mystery. Man is different from the Divine and the difference is highlighted by his finitude and the Other’s infinity. This original gap or innate separation of man and the Mystery is the basic sense of “sin” in philosophy of religion. Primordially, then, sin is not an evil action or infraction of norms but the existential state of man. Man is always guilty!

Although the Holy attracts him, man is always “kept off” because “he is not pure”, “he is not worthy” or “he is guilty.” The tension of attraction-repulsion is the primordial context in which the sense of guilt and sin should be understood. The original sin for example, as other universal myths of separation, is man’s very condition of separation from God. It is first and foremost a state (separation and exile) and not an action.               

k.       Hierophany

One way or the other, the Sacred, though Totally Other, must make its presence felt in intra-mundane reality, a presence that nevertheless leaves intact its otherness and irreducibility. This is exactly the concept of HIEROPHANY: the manifestation of the sacred in the profane. Religion is the ultimate product of this non-combining fusion. Although it makes its presence felt, it is never wholly transparent. It can only present itself through “symbols.”

How does the symbol work? Does it recollect the idea it represent like in any other mundane symbolisms? No. The symbol of the sacred works by way of PRESENTING (= making-present) the Sacred.  It is the “there” of the sacred; the portal or the window to the Other. It is however not the Sacred itself. (ex. The burning bush is not God himself. The bread and wine is not the sacred itself. The Statues are not the Holy themselves, or even more the saints themselves.) Here are different hierophanic objects:

a.       Nature and its different elements as mediations of the divine.

b.      The sacred is present in the history of man.

c.       Hierophaies of a personal type. Maniestation of the Divine “in persona.” Christ, Krishna, etc..

The Hierophanic objects have always been subject to human mutilations. Because man has the natural tendency to remove the vagueness of reality, he simplifies and controls the Mystery by controlling the hierophanic mediations. The return to the unadultered encounter with the mysterious has always been the cry of revolutionists.

l.        Basic Propositions about religion

1.       Religion is a cultural product of man. Yes it is a cultural product of man. But reducing religion to just this view is very antithetical.

2.       There are various elements of various religions which are comparable.


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This entry was posted on September 20, 2007 by in Philosophy of Religion.




Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. He is currently starting his private law practice. Contact:; Tel. No. 09353343739. PROFILE: Atty. Tamayao is currently teaching law, philosophy and social sciences at the Cagayan State University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas and graduated in 2005, garnering the highest academic honors in that Academic Year. He pursued Licentiate in Philosophy and Master of Arts in Philosophy degrees at the same university, completing them both in 2007. In 2009, he took up Bachelor of Laws and Letter at the Cagayan State University, where he also teaches. He passed the 2013 bar exams, and now currently taking up Master of Laws and Letters at the San Beda Graduate School of Law.

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September 2007
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