Here is a presentation of the new Société Francophone de la Philosophie de la Religion and its exciting future activities: https://sites.google.com/site/philosophiereligion/home
I was honoured to be part of the inaugural conference at Strasbourg University. There was a star-studded list of participants (including J.-L. Marion, J. Greisch, J. Grondin, F. Chenet, M. Hénaff, J.-L. Vieillard-Baron, F. Jacques, P. Gisel, R. Kühn, D. Cohen-Levinas, G. Waterlot, J. Leclercq).
Regrettably, due to people overrunning their assigned time the three scheduled panel discussions did not take place. This was especially unfortunate as the problems of method that notoriously threaten the very existence of the discipline of Philosophy of Religion need to be aired.
Philippe Capelle, founder of the new Société, building on Jean Greisch's imposing trilogy Le buisson ardent et les lumières de la raison (Paris, Cerf, 2002-2004), helpfully distinguishes between Philosophy of religion, Religious philosophy, Philosophical theology, and Confessional theology, which he sees as complementary. To think religion, he says, involves a disposition of positive openness toward the practical manifestations and theoretical systems that connect the human; the world; and the divine order. A fifth discipline should be mentioned, namely Religious Studies, which conducts intense methodological debate on its own status and procedures, and which involves anthropology, psychology, sociology, history of religions, and uses such approaches as phenomenology and structuralism.
The methodological dangers facing Philosophy of Religion involve its confusion or fusion with any of the other four disciplines. It is distinguished from Religious philosophy and from Confessional theology in that it comes to its subject critically from the outside (whereas the other two involve internal critiques). If it is empathetic to the religious sources, this is with a view to critical understanding, never with a view to edification or apologetics. Philosophical theology, meanwhile, corresponds to the natural theology of metaphysics and its phenomenological replacement in thinkers such as Heidegger; it is not Philosophy of religion because it is not interested in religion as such but in objects of rational philosophical inquiry such as God and theodicy. Heidegger carefully distinguished this from Confessional theology, and even tended to see the philosophical and theological enterprises as in rivalry and tension rather than smoothly complementary.
A Society for Philosophy of Religion can embrace strictly philosophical approaches to religion (i.e. Philosophy of religion, Religious philosophy that remains philosophical, Philosophical theology that scrupulously forswears appeal to Revelation) but not Confessional theology (including the part of Confessional theology nearest to it, i.e. Fundamental theology) and not History of Religions or Religious Studies (which is an empirical not a philosophical scientific discipline).
Philosophy of religion like Philosophy of art or Philosophy of science is exposed to the danger of seeming superfluous, for it might be thought that the religionists, art or literary critics, and scientists have already done themselves all the reflection that the philosophers demand. This remains quite a serious challenge to Philosophy of religion. An alliance with Religious philosophy may weaken its effort to establish a viable identity and method. At the conference the appeal of religious philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, the later Michel Henry, Simone Weil, Gabriel Marcel was more palpable than that of the cooler and more distanced reflection inaugurated by Kant and continued by Bergson and H. Duméry in France and by Wittgenstein and various analytical and linguistic philosophers. Augustine and John the Evangelist were frequently cited, with philosophical intent, but with the danger of slipping into straight theology, as if Religious philosophy were to function within the French academy as an ersatz for theology.
Philosophers of religion seem to gravitate to the topic of religious experience, following the lead of William James, and in particular the topic of mysticism, which does not figure very prominently in theology. Mysticism is rare and atypical and theologians are loth to make it paradigmatic for the experience and struggles of the Church. Curiously, mysticism may play a more cardinal role in philosophy than in theology, thanks to Plato and particularly Plotinus.
Philosophers of religion discuss mysticism with the necessary 'disposition of positive openness' or even empathy, but their approach must remain dispassionate and critical. Religious philosophers, on the other hand, may nourish their reflection directly from mystical texts. Sometimes they allow themselves to be overtaken by mystical enthusiasm, throwing philosophical acuity to the winds; here Plotinus could help them, for he sustains his logical vigilance even at the summit of his vision (as in Enneads VI 8). As to Philosophical theology, it may advert to religious experience in arguing for the existence of God or in constructing a phenomenology of the divine, but it will strive to keep this reference at the widest level of generality, founding its insights on what is universally accessible rather than on individual experiences that would acquire the status of a Revelation, thus undercutting the philosophical legitimacy of the attempted discourse on God.
It might be objected that all this fuss about frontiers between disciplines and methods is mere logic-chopping and that these arrangements have only a conjunctural and conventional validity. In the last analysis this may be true, but the Buddhists remind us that insight into the conventionality of our words and concepts does not licence a free-for-all, for the best service we can render to communicating ultimate truth is to tend carefully the flimsy conventional instruments at our disposal, using them as skillful means.
The theme of the conference was 'religion and freedom' but few of the papers addressed this theme and none of them addressed the theme of freedom in the modern sense, that is, the Enlightenment conception of freedom worked out in so many complex and conflicting forms by Rousseau, the thinkers of the American and French revolutions, philosophers from Kant to Sartre, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the most important sense of freedom with which religions must engage, especially as the rhetoric of democracy is both positively connected with religious backgrounds and opposed to religious intrusions on the functioning of democracy or fundamentalist hostility to democracy.