My review of Edward Craig’s Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction summarized his loose description of philosophy, which talked about understanding mystery. At the risk of embellishing his carefully elliptical description of the venture, he was talking about the great mystery of self-aware minds, awake in ape-like bodies, living among similiar beings with similiar physical and mental needs and powers, living in societies speaking the same languages, living in finite space and time, living within the safety and danger of the natural world, living subject to the actions of other people, and living with the ability to do things that affect other people and the course of events. How do such beings understand themselves and make decisions about what to do?
The word mystery suggests a religious project, but philosophy is aimed at understanding mystery without trusting the stories of priests,prophets and gurus who claim to have had the mystery revealed to them or to have mastered a tradition based on revelation allegedly subjectively experienced by some individual person or persons in history. Religion rests on trusting stories of revelation and miracles presented by other human beings.
The Catholic theologian Avery Dulles explained the Christian view of the usefulness of reason and relevation in understanding mystery of being in an article called The Deist Minimum published in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things:
As Christianity spread throughout the Greco-Roman world, it became apparent that the biblical doctrines concerning God, morality, and future retribution had similarities with the philosophical speculations of the Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics. The Fathers and medieval theologians had no difficulty in admitting this; on the contrary, they saw it as a confirmation of the truth of revelation. Human reason at its best, they explained, is able to discover some of the doctrines that God revealed through the prophets and Jesus Christ.
This being granted, revelation was still necessary for two reasons. First, because even the naturally knowable truths were attained only by a few, and by them with great difficulty and a considerable admixture of error. Second, because certain truths very important for salvation could not be attained in any other way than by revelation accepted in faith. … Human reason could find solid reasons for believing the Christian revelation, but in the end the believer had to make a free and trusting commitment to the word of God. In that sense, faith was above reason.
The position on faith and reason that I have just sketched is not simply that of ancient or medieval Christianity. It remains, by and large, the standard position held today, with varying nuances, by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and many Protestants. Revelation is relatively necessary to know religious truths that lie within the grasp of reason and is absolutely necessary to know strict mysteries.
Critics of religion point out that stories of relevation and miracles usually come through unreliable and self-serving sources. They are sometimes obvious lies and hoaxes. In the modern age, we see the artificial truths of Scientology, the Celestine Prophecy, The DaVinci Code being promoted and embraced. This does not inspire any faith in the reliability of narrative coherence and popular acceptance as valid methods for testing the truth.
Even where the prophet or guru who claims to have heard or experienced God directly is sincere, his or her vision, experience or insight is a personal psychological event, remembered and translated into literary and mythological language. Other persons encountering these stories of revelation ask why we should trust and accept these stories and let them influence our lives.
Defenders of religion claim that mathematical, scientific and logical reasoning are also linguistic and psychological processes, and that the conclusions of scientists and philosophers are also, at their root, the insights of individual minds bound to individual brains in individual bodies. Religion and theology use the tools of language and rational enquiry. Theologians try to validate religious belief by pointing to the rational coherence of their belief system. The tools of philosophy can be used to displace and discredit religion. The history of thought and culture in Europe and America over the last several centuries suggests that faith in the literal truth of the stories in the major religious texts is a cultural event, and that the persistence of faith and religiosity framed in those terms by sectarian fundamentalists and cultists is problematic. The culturally accepted alternatives, like the vague spirituality of the New Age, militant political ideologies, consumerism, the socially tuned messages of liberal, orthodox, evangelical and popular fundamentalist religions, are still problematic.
Philosophy is basic – it addresses the process and methods of knowing. Philosophy and science challenge religion more than they support it.