The Inaccessibility of Religion Problem
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Call agents who do not have religious faith or belief but find some religious ways of life highly attractive on broadly practical grounds "religious inquirers." These agents find themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, there are epistemic norms that enjoin us to be conscientious in our believings. Religious inquirers hold that conforming to these norms does not license having religious beliefs: there are simply too many evidential impediments to having such beliefs. On the other hand, there are norms that emanate from within the religious traditions themselves that speak against engaging in a religious way of life in order to enjoy its considerable goods by doing such things as playing the role of a believer or going through the ritualistic motions. Instead, these norms seem to call for genuine faith. These two sets of norms generate the inaccessibility of religion problem (or the "inaccessibility problem," for short). The problem is that there are goods intrinsic to the theistic religious traditions that religious inquirers find both valuable and attractive but are accessible only by flouting norms of either epistemic or religious conduct. In this essay, I propose a solution to the inaccessibility problem. I maintain that there is an attitude—receptivity to the experience of God—that enables religious inquirers to enjoy a wide range of the goods internal to a religious tradition but without violating either external epistemic norms or internal religious ones.
Consider two figures with whom I imagine you are familiar. The first is the true believer. The true believer has firm faith in God. She not only all-out believes in the existence of God and the various claims fundamental to her religious tradition, but also firmly trusts in God's goodness and providence. The second figure is the religious inquirer. The religious inquirer does not have religious belief or faith. But she does not dismiss the various claims made by major religious traditions and, indeed, finds some religious ways of life highly attractive in various respects. The points of attraction are largely practical: she sees that commitment to a religious tradition can help endow a person's life with significance or clear purpose. She recognizes that these traditions provide tight-knit, multi-generational communities that can help one to mark and navigate the major events of a life such as birth, marriage, sickness, and death. She notes, moreover, that the empirical evidence supports the claim that being part of such a community is a component of the longest and healthiest lives. Finally, she is also aware that there seem to be no secular analogues to these communities that offer quite the same range of benefits.
The religious inquirer is, however, in a tough spot, for she is subject to norms that it appears she cannot jointly satisfy. On the one hand, there are norms for the conduct of one's doxastic life, which do not emanate from any particular religious tradition, that enjoin us (among other things) to be conscientious in our believings. In her view, conforming to these norms does not license having religious beliefs: there are simply too many evidential impediments to having such beliefs, ranging from deep theoretical challenges to the fundamental religious claims (such as the problems of evil) to questions about the reliability of the fundamental religious texts and traditions (say, of the sort one finds in Bart Ehrman's work; see Ehrman 2005 and 2011). Call these norms, which the religious inquirer holds that religious belief does not satisfy, external epistemic norms. On the other hand, there are norms that emanate from within the religious traditions themselves that speak against engaging in a religious way of life in order to enjoy its considerable goods by doing such things as playing the role of a believer or going through the ritualistic motions. Instead, these norms seem to call for genuine faith, which is understood to be something approximating what the true believer has. Call these norms, which place restrictions on how one could legitimately engage in a religious way of life, the internal religious norms.
These two sets of norms generate the inaccessibility of religion problem (or the "inaccessibility problem," for short). The problem lies in the fact that there are goods intrinsic to the religious traditions that the religious inquirer finds both valuable and attractive but are not accessible to her. Accessibility can be purchased only by flouting at least one set of norms: either perform a sacrificium intellectum or capitulate to being disingenuous.
The inaccessibility problem is a practical problem. Like many practical problems, it may admit of no satisfactory solution. But sometimes we can make progress with practical problems by engaging in theorizing, such as when we realize that there are more available solutions to the problem than we'd realized or that the problem makes presuppositions that can be justifiably rejected. The proposal I defend in this essay is that the inaccessibility problem is such a problem.
The type of solution to the accessibility problem that I want to explore is one that attempts to identify an attitude such that having it enables a religious inquirer to enjoy a wide range of the goods internal to a religious tradition but without violating either external epistemic norms or internal religious ones. My suggestion is going to be that there is such an attitude. I call it receptivity to the experience of God. My project in this essay is to offer a characterization of this attitude and then contend that an agent's having this attitude needn't flout either external epistemic norms or internal religious ones.
Before moving forward, two comments are in order. First, in my characterization of the accessibility problem, I have spoken of the religious inquirer's attraction to the goods intrinsic to some religious ways of life or religious traditions. It should already be evident, however, that I don't intend to offer a characterization of receptivity to the experience of God that is neutral among the various major religious traditions. My eye is on the monotheistic religious traditions. And it will be evident soon enough that I don't offer a characterization of receptivity to the experience of God that is neutral among the various major monotheistic traditions. What I say in addressing the accessibility problem draws extensively from the Eastern Christian tradition. So, although the accessibility problem is general, the solution I offer is not, as it draws upon and engages with resources found within the liturgical texts and rites of this tradition. My primary reason for proceeding in this way is that my familiarity with this tradition affords confidence in how to interpret the role of its texts and rites, which I draw upon to address the inaccessibility problem. That said, I am also confident that much of what I say finds parallels in other Christian traditions, as well as Judaism and Islam. On this occasion, I won't attempt to explore these parallels at any length, leaving this task for those who understand the role of their texts and rites better than I. For those more familiar with these traditions, I would invite them to substitute different examples of liturgical texts and rites for the ones that I employ.
Second, I've formulated the inaccessibility problem as one that concerns how a religious inquirer could jointly satisfy two sets of norms that appear to be in conflict. In doing so, I do not assume that these are the only types of norms to which the religious inquirer is subject or the only norms that might come into conflict given her aims. For example, it might be that, even if the solution I propose resolves the apparent tension between satisfying external epistemic norms and internal religious ones, the religious inquirer will fall afoul of moral norms that require agents not to present themselves as believing claims that they do not believe. Along the way, I'll indicate why I believe the solution I propose does not have this implication. But I want also to acknowledge that the answer I offer to the inaccessibility problem is incomplete in the sense that it does not rule out there being other norms that bind the religious inquirer and that she would violate were she to participate in a religious tradition.
1. Characterizing the Attitude
Consider the totality of states and events of which you are the subject, which include states such as experiencing the pain of a mild toothache and events such as having capsized a boat. Call this totality of states and events your life.
For all practical purposes, all of us rule out an untold number of states and events as being possible components of our lives. I have (for all practical purposes) ruled out states and events such as being president of the United States, becoming a member of a druidic order, thinking seriously about starting a career as an opera singer, and investigating the death of Jimmy Hoffa. I have ruled out being the subject of these and many other states and events for a variety of reasons. Some states and events are such that being their subject would be ethically problematic; others are such that being their subject would commit me to accepting propositions that are demonstrably false. Still other states and events are such that being their subject would be uninteresting to me, or fail to mesh with my sensibilities, or be inimical to my welfare, or be too arduous, or be inaccessible in the sense that the skills and resources I would need to enjoy them are unavailable (although they might have been at some point in history).
There are, however, states and events such that we are genuinely open or receptive to being their subject. For example, I am (for all practical purposes) receptive to being the chairperson of my department, being a vegan, thinking seriously about whether Led Zeppelin's lyrics contain any interesting philosophical content, and investigating the roots of the Armenian genocide. I am receptive to being the subject of these states and events for a variety of reasons. Some states and events are such that being their subject would be morally good; others are such that being their subject would expand my understanding of the world. Still other states and events are such that being their subject would be interesting to me, or mesh with my sensibilities, or contribute to my welfare by enhancing my well-being, and so forth.
Of course receptivity can take different forms. One can be firmly convinced that one should be, or be irresistibly drawn to being, the subject of some state or event. These are not the central cases of the attitude as I am thinking about it. The central cases are ones in which an agent finds the prospect of being the subject of some state or event attractive in some respect but is neither firmly convinced that she should be nor is irresistibly drawn to being the subject of that state or event. In what follows, I will concern myself with the central cases. It may also be worth noting that within the central cases, receptivity can be more or less passive or active. When receptivity is passive, a person is receptive to being the subject of some state or event only if circumstance happens to put in her path the opportunity of being the subject of that state or event. When receptivity is active, a person is receptive to being the subject of some state or event only if she intentionally takes steps towards putting herself in (what she takes to be) a better position to be the subject of that state or event. In what follows, I'll use the term "receptivity" to designate both passive and active receptivity. To which I'll add that lying between the attitudes of ruling out and receptivity is indifference, in which an agent neither rules out nor exhibits receptivity toward being the subject of some state or event. You might, for example, be indifferent to being in the state of owning a Dutch oven. I know that I am!
There is, then, a spectrum of attitudes that one can take toward being the subject of a state or event, ranging from ruling it out to receptivity. And within the class of states and events, there are experiential states and events, which consist in an agent having or undergoing an experience of one kind or another. (I work with the simplifying assumption that undergoing an experience implies that one is aware, or can easily be aware, of undergoing that experience.) Since my interest on this occasion primarily concerns receptivity to the experience of God, it will be worth reflecting at more length on receptivity as it pertains to experiential states and events, asking how best to understand what it is. For ease of expression, I'll often refer to receptivity of this sort by use of the locution being the subject of E (where "E" stands for some experience).
As I think of it, receptivity so understood has three components. In the first place, the attitude has a cognitive component. At a first approximation, the agent who is receptive to being the subject of E holds that being the subject of E is for her a "living" possibility. As such, she takes herself to lack decisive evidence that she could not be the subject of E, given how the world is. That she could be the subject of E, then, is not something she takes to be beneath rational consideration in the way that, say, being the subject of a revelation from Zeus or Osiris is. I say this is only a first approximation of the cognitive component of receptivity because the characterization I've offered fails to specify what it is to hold or take it that being the subject of E is a living possibility. On other occasions, it would be important to offer such a specification. Since this is not one of those occasions, I'll assume that one could understand the cognitive component of receptivity—what it is to hold or take it that being the subject of E is a living possibility—as all-out belief, partial belief, acceptance, taking for granted, having a credence not less than .5, and so forth.
Second, receptivity has an affective component, broadly construed: the agent who is receptive to being the subject of E sees the prospect of being the subject of E in a favorable light as attractive, worthwhile, meritorious, or the like in some respect. Again, in certain contexts, it would be important to draw finer-grained distinctions between, say, taking something to be attractive as opposed to being attracted to that thing. But this is not one of those contexts. As far as I am concerned, the broadly affective component of receptivity can take a variety of forms, ranging from attitudes that are more nearly doxastic (e.g., believing, or taking, something to be valuable) to firmly affective (desiring, or wishing, for something).
Finally, receptivity has a volitional component: the agent who is receptive to being the subject of E is resolved not to resist being the subject of E. Unlike the other two components, this component will require a somewhat more exact characterization.
Begin with what it is for agents to resist being the subject of E. As I think of it, agents resist being the subject of E by exercising willpower—where this is a matter of performing actions that agents hold will put them in a better position (on the whole) not to be the subject of E. Suppose, for example, you are required to keep the night watch. You feel sleep coming on but must stay awake. You might try to stay awake in a variety of ways. For example, you might rehearse reasons not to fall asleep, noting that falling asleep would endanger your colleagues. Or you might distract yourself from the sensations of drowsiness by vividly imagining other sensations, such as how it feels to take an ice-cold bath. Or you might drink a strong cup of coffee. By performing any of these actions, you will have resisted falling asleep. Of course you may not be successful. Resistance should be distinguished from successful resistance.
We can now characterize what it is not to resist being the subject of E. An agent's not resisting being the subject of E consists in her intentionally not performing actions that she holds will put her in a better position (on the whole) not to be the subject of E—where it is understood that being the subject of E is a living possibility for that agent. In the case of the night watch, not resisting drowsiness (at a minimum) would be to do nothing to try to stay awake. You just allow yourself to be overcome by drowsiness. Doing nothing is a case of what I earlier called passive receptivity and what Aquinas called an exercise of the quiescient will: if circumstances put the prospect of being the subject of E in your path, you don't resist it (Stump 2003: Chapter 13.) But one might also intentionally perform actions that one takes to put oneself in a better position (on the whole) to be the subject of E. For example, when on the night watch, you might savor the feelings of drowsiness that you experience, which puts you in a deeper state of relaxation, which puts you in a better position to fall asleep. Or instead of drinking a cup of coffee, you might enjoy a dram of whiskey, which you know will make you even drowsier. These are cases of what I earlier called active receptivity, in which an agent performs actions that she holds put her in a better position (on the whole) to be the subject of E. Of course an agent might be unsuccessful in these attempts. Perhaps she is wrong that actions of a given type put one in a better position to be the subject of E. Or perhaps the world fails to cooperate with her intentions. Once again, we should distinguish non-resistance from successful non-resistance.
The characterization of the volitional component of receptivity states that receptivity consists in resolving not to resist being the subject of E. I'll think of resolutions as states that have a two-tiered structure: when one resolves to be the subject of E, one not only intends not to resist being the subject of E but also intends not to let that intention be deflected. In his discussion of resolutions, Richard Holton states that resolutions are a type of intention "designed to stand firm in the face of future contrary inclinations or beliefs" (2009: 11). A resolution to be receptive to being the subject of E, then, incorporates a blend of both non-resistance and resistance: one intends not to resist being the subject of E and also intends to resist influences that would defeat or undercut this intention not to resist.
We can now make further observations about receptivity. In the first place, provided that an agent satisfies the cognitive and affective conditions, receptivity is a state that is under an agent's direct voluntary control. An agent can simply resolve to be the subject of E. In what follows, I'll sometimes say that an agent can take up the attitude of receptivity. When I do, I mean that an agent can form the resolution that is a component of such an attitude. Things are not so straightforward when it comes to satisfying the cognitive and affective conditions of receptivity: one cannot simply intend to hold that being the subject of E is a living possibility or to view it in a positive light. However, for a very large range of states and events, agents will be able to hold that it is a living possibility to be the subject of E, even when they do not think it is probable that they will be. And, often, they can find aspects of a state or event that they find attractive.
Second, when all goes well, receptivity is a stable, resilient state. It is the sort of state that by its nature resists abandonment in the face of contrary desires, beliefs, or evidence. (It follows that if one suffers from an episode of akrasia, one is not in this state.) In this way, the state is similar to that of having faith. (In a moment, I'll indicate how they differ.) It is also different from one-off decisions to perform an action. When the character Sam-I-Am convinces the unnamed protagonist of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham to try green eggs and ham, the protagonist does not thereby exhibit receptivity to the experience of eating green eggs and ham as I am thinking of the state. For the readiness in question to count as receptivity, it must issue from a stable disposition that endures through time, at least when things go well. Receptivity to being the subject of E, then, is not to be equated with readiness on some occasion to be the subject of E. True, when the protagonist in Seuss's book tries green eggs and ham, he may resolve to be open to trying them on future occasions. If he so resolves, then he is in the state of being receptive to the experience of eating green eggs and ham. In the next section, it will be helpful for me to distinguish receptivity from readiness on some occasion to be the subject of E. To mark this distinction, I'll use the term "openness" (in section 2) to refer to the latter.
Third, the volitional component of receptivity is important because resolutions are precisely the sorts of states whose role it is to persist in the face of contrary inclinations, beliefs, and desires. It was fairly easy for Dr. Seuss's protagonist to find out whether he likes green eggs and ham: all he needed to do was try them. But matters are not this simple when it comes to other issues. Determining whether you're suited to become an architect, or whether you enjoy classical music, or how to think through an array of vexed moral issues often requires persistence. Resolutions are, in part, what enable us to do this.
My primary interest on this occasion concerns not the attitude of receptivity in the abstract but what I earlier called receptivity to the experience of God. I understand such experiences broadly: they are mental states in which an agent experiences something as of God, or an item of the world as of a manifestation of God. It is common to understand religious experience to be mystical or to be experience of an unusual or uncanny sort. I do not understand it thus. As I am thinking of it, experience of God can be fairly prosaic, such as experiencing the beauty of the natural world or music as of the manifestation of God, or as of God's qualities, or activities. Such experience may or may not have a "given" or presentational character in which the world presents itself as a manifestation of, say, God's activity. But it does have a representational character, since such experience must incorporate experiencing something as of God, or as of an item of the world that is a manifestation of God. It is uncontroversial that agents have experiences of this sort. What is controversial is whether any of them are veridical (or accurate). Since this is the interesting question, my eye will be on veridical experience of God. So, unless context indicates otherwise, I'll use the locution "experience of God" to mean experience as of God that is veridical. Provided that an agent holds that such experience is a living possibility, and views being the subject of such experience in a favorable light, receptivity to the experience of God consists in resolving not to resist being the subject of such experience. One is open to recognize being the subject of divine action in one's own life and to recognize this action in the lives of others and in the world, where such openness can take a more or less passive or active form.
Of particular interest for my purposes are the ways in which receptivity to the experience of God intersects with other attitudes commonly taken to be fundamental to a religious way of life. Receptivity to the experience of God neither implies that one believes that God exists nor does the belief that God exists imply receptivity to the experience of God. (One might hold, for example, that God exists but is beyond all experience.) Receptivity to the experience of God, then, is compatible with various forms of agnosticism in which one doubts or is in doubt regarding God's existence, and even with disbelief or rejection of the claim that God exists, provided that such disbelief or rejection is not coupled with the conviction that one has decisive evidence that there is no God.
Moreover, receptivity to the experience of God does not imply that one has religious faith. Nor does religious faith imply such receptivity, at least given the focal meaning of the term "faith" and its synonyms in Greek (pistis) and Latin (fides). According to Teresa Morgan's landmark study Roman Faith and Christian Faith, that focal meaning is given by the "concept which stands at the heart of the pistis/fides lexica," which is "trust" (2015: 15). Receptivity to the experience of God does not imply that one trusts God's goodness or providence. Nor does such trust imply receptivity to such experience. (One might hold, for example, that while one can trust God's providence, God is beyond all experience.)
Furthermore, receptivity neither implies that one has the attitudes that are identified as candidates for being the "cognitive component" of faith nor vice-versa. William Alston (1996) suggests that the attitude of acceptance—roughly, the attitude in which one assents to a proposition even when it doesn't strike you as true—can function as the cognitive component of faith. Daniel Howard-Snyder contends that the attitude of propositional assuming—roughly, that attitude to a proposition in which one neither believes nor disbelieves but acts on it—can also function as the cognitive component of faith (Howard-Snyder 2013; in press). And there are other, related proposals in the neighborhood (see Audi 2011; McKaughan 2013; 2016; 2017). Being receptive to the experience of God, however, does not imply that one take up any of these attitudes, or vice-versa.
If this is right, receptivity to the experience of God is distinct from belief that God exists, faith in God, accepting that God exists, and acting on the assumption that God exists, since having these attitudes does not imply receptivity to the experience of God, or vice-versa. While receptivity to the experience of God does not imply having the attitudes just identified, it is compatible with having them or endeavoring to have them: nothing precludes the religious inquirer from being open to, or taking actions designed to facilitate, having religious faith or forming the attitudes just discussed. (Exhibiting such openness is, I take it, a natural way to be a religious inquirer if only because it is difficult to see how such an inquirer could rule out having such attitudes formed in her were she to have such an experience—even though forming such attitudes might not be her primary objective in participating in a religious way of life. Indeed, I'll contend later that receptivity can rationalize or make sense of having some of them.)
2. Internal Religious Norms
Here is a claim that is uninterestingly platitudinous: attitudes such as belief that God exists and faith in God are central to the religious life. Here is another claim that is more controversial: belief that God exists and faith in God are the attitudes most fundamental to a religious way of life in the sense that they not only distinguish the agent who is religiously committed from the agent who is not, but also are the attitudes that religious traditions are most concerned to foster in their adherents. My aim in this section is (in part) to suggest that this second claim is not accurate. The attitude of receptivity to the experience of God is also fundamental (in the sense just specified) to the religious way of life, at least as it takes shape in theistic traditions such as Orthodox Christianity. A person who took up this attitude would not be violating, creatively extending, or latching onto norms peripheral to the religious way of life as they take shape in a tradition such as Orthodox Christianity, but would be conforming to some of its most fundamental norms and ideals. In my judgment, an excellent way to present a case for this claim is to ascertain whether this attitude is called for by the liturgical texts of such a tradition, which form its backbone. So, it's to these texts that I now turn.
The liturgies of Orthodox Christianity are mostly composed of prayers—primarily prayers of blessing, petition, and thanksgiving. As I read through the texts of these liturgies, I find a great variety of such prayers. But I find no prayers in these liturgies in which the assembled ask for increased faith or firmer belief. Had philosophers composed these liturgies, I suspect things would be different: we would find prayers for increased faith, full-fledged religious belief, perhaps even for greater sensitivity to the evidence for God's goodness and providence.
But that is not what we find. Instead, these liturgical scripts contain a wide variety of prayers in which the assembled offer petitions that they be the locus of divine activity. To develop the case for this claim, let me use as my focal case what are commonly called the Trisagion prayers, of which I now quote in part:
O Heavenly King, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who is present everywhere, filling all things, Treasury of Good and Giver of Life, come and dwell in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good One …. All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, forgive us our sins. Master, pardon our transgressions. Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for your name's sake.
We can ask two types of questions about these prayers: those that concern their content and those that concern their role. I am going to pursue the second type of question, commenting only briefly about the content of these prayers.
Within a given religious tradition, there is nearly always both an official hermeneutic and an official use for the texts (such as the Trisagion prayers) that compose a liturgical script. The official hermeneutic consists in how a text is understood by a given tradition. For any given text, the official hermeneutic is often implicit, typically allowing that that text may receive multiple legitimate interpretations. Yet the official hermeneutic is also normative in that it encapsulates the tradition's judgment on which interpretations of a text are permissible, central, best, or required. In contrast, the official use of a text is how that text is standardly used in the liturgical life of a tradition: some texts are used as petitions, as laments, as historical narratives, and so on. While the official use of a text is often explicit, a text may also admit of multiple uses. And, like the official hermeneutic, the official use of a text is normative in the sense that it incorporates the tradition's judgment about what are the permissible, central, best, and required uses of a text.
The official hermeneutic and the official use of a text can come apart in some striking ways. To take just one case, the Psalms are extensively employed in the Jewish and many of the Christian liturgies. Sometimes these Psalms include those in which the psalmist inveighs against his enemies. The official hermeneutic would recognize that these texts are to be understood as ones in which the psalmist inveighs against his enemies. But when they are chanted in the liturgies of the Orthodox church, the official use does not call for those who chant (or listen to) them to also inveigh against the Psalmist's enemies or their own enemies. In this case, official interpretation and official use come apart. (It is an excellent and difficult question about what the official use of these texts is.)
When it comes to the Trisagion prayers, we do not find divergence between hermeneutic and use. The official hermeneutic understands these prayers to be an invitation to the Spirit to indwell and work within the life of the agent who prays them and the lives of all the members of the community. The official use of the Trisagion prayers, in turn, consists in employing these prayers to invite the Spirit to indwell and work within the lives of those who pray them and the community at large. In this case, interpretation and use coalesce. An invitation is, however, a paradigmatic expression of what I earlier called openness. So, when used in a way that conforms to their official use, the Trisagion prayers are paradigmatic expressions of openness to being the subject of divine action. Specifically, when these prayers are recited sincerely, an agent thereby expresses openness to being the subject of God's purifying, forgiving, saving (delivering), and healing action.
There is more to the official use of a text than I have suggested. The official use of the Trisagion prayers includes not simply a verdict regarding how these prayers are to be understood when used in the liturgy, but also verdicts about how often and when they are to be used (and by whom). Those familiar with the Orthodox tradition know that the Trisagion prayers receive heavy use. They are probably the most commonly used prayers in the Orthodox tradition, recited at the outset of morning and evening prayer and, indeed, in nearly every Orthodox liturgy.
This last point about the placement and frequency of the Trisagion prayers is instructive for my purposes, as it allows us to draw several conclusions about them. One conclusion is that these prayers—and the attitude of openness to being the subject of divine action that they express—are not alien or peripheral to a tradition such as Orthodox Christianity. Quite the contrary. Their placement at the outset of the church's official prayers strongly suggests that, according to the official hermeneutic, expressing openness to being the subject of divine action is something like a precondition for satisfactorily engaging in the prayers and other activities to which the Trisagion prayers are the precursor. Furthermore, the frequency of these prayers strongly suggests that they are designed to address impediments that, in the judgment of the tradition, we suffer from and that need to be frequently addressed. In the normal course of life, if you and I believe that it is important that we regularly share meals together, it won't be necessary to frequently invite each other over for a meal. We make a plan (or fall into a pattern of action) and then stick to it. But things might be different if there are impediments that stand in the way. Perhaps our jobs require us to travel extensively and we tend to be forgetful. To overcome these impediments, you might resolve to invite me to eat together with some frequency. And I might do the same. Making the resolution makes sense because each of us realizes that only by resolving to enact our plan will we achieve our aim.
Of course no adherent to the major religious traditions would hold that we should frequently recite prayers because God is forgetful. (Although, the accusation is made rather frequently in the Hebrew Bible!) Rather, these traditions typically maintain that we regularly and in a variety of ways—often not intentionally—resist being the locus of divine activity. In the judgment of the tradition, this is an impediment that needs to be addressed with frequency. In the tradition's view, reciting the Trisagion prayers is one way to address this impediment. That is why, according to the official use, these prayers are said with great frequency. In the standard case, however, there will also be multiple impediments to reciting these prayers this often. People get busy, distracted, lose interest, and so on. So, if a person is to conform to the official use of these prayers, then he is probably going to have to resolve to recite them on a very regular basis. On the further assumption that conforming to the official use also requires an agent to recite them sincerely, then the resolution will be to recite these prayers with frequency and without insincerity. It follows that, in the standard case, conforming to the official use of these prayers will express not just openness to being the subject of divine action but also receptivity to being the subject of divine action. For, once again, this state incorporates a resolution not to resist being the subject of such action.
I've argued that, when an agent conforms to the official use of the Trisagion prayers, he has the attitude of receptivity to being the locus of divine activity. I've also argued that, when we attend to the official use of these prayers, we have strong reason to hold that this attitude is fundamental to the religious way of life as it takes shape in a tradition such as Orthodox Christianity. Now let me make three points about the case I've made for the claim that receptivity to the experience of God is central to traditions such as Orthodox Christianity. The last two points address variants of the concern that the attitude is somehow religiously defective or inferior.
The first point is that the Trisagion prayers invite God to work in one's life by doing such things as cleansing, pardoning, saving, and healing. Beyond noting that Orthodox Christianity understands these to be processes extended through time in which the agent is intimately involved (and not passive), I won't attempt to unpack how the tradition understands these phenomena. I'll simply acknowledge that there is a gap between claiming that someone is receptive to being the subject of divine action, on the one hand, and claiming that he is receptive to the experience of God, on the other hand. I have argued only that (sincerely) conforming to the official use of the Trisagion prayers implies the former claim. But it is the latter claim that I have set out to defend. So, I need to say something more in its defense.
The major theistic traditions all affirm that God's work in the world is largely beyond our ken. Still, they also affirm that we can be and often are aware of some of God's work in our lives and the lives of others. Indeed, a tradition such as Orthodox Christianity affirms that we can learn to become aware of this and, hence, experience it (see Cuneo 2016: Chapter 8). When we add that these traditions enjoin us to experience God's work in our lives, the lives of others, and the world, the gap between being receptive to being the subject of divine action and being receptive to the experience of God closes. For what these traditions enjoin is not receptivity to divine action without any expectation of recognizing God's action in the world. Rather, they enjoin receptivity to divine action and the recognition of such action in one's own life, the life of others, and in the world. In a range of cases, to be receptive to being the subject of divine action is also to be receptive to the experience of God.
The second point I want to address concerns the way in which receptivity to divine action is related to other attitudes integral to the religious life. The official use of the Trisagion prayers assumes that they are available to the faithful—to those who have committed themselves to the Christian way of life. But this commitment is, in the standard case, constituted by attitudes such as belief that God exists or faith in God. This raises the worry that the case made so far is more limited than advertised. It establishes that receptivity to the experience of God is central to the religious way of life but only insofar as it is accompanied by, or flows from, states of belief or faith. Establishing that, however, is going to be of no help in solving the accessibility problem. The religious inquirer lacks these attitudes.
The proper reply to this concern, I believe, is to acknowledge that the official use of the Trisagion prayers assumes that they are for the faithful and that it is often the case that sincerely reciting them flows from states of belief and faith. Indeed, it might be true that the official use of these prayers assumes that this is the ideal. But I see no reason to hold that the official use implies that these prayers are for use only by the faithful. Nor do I see any reason to hold that, according to the tradition, there would be something fundamentally wrongheaded about taking up the attitude of receptivity to the experience of God while lacking belief or faith. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the tradition could affirm these things without closing its doors to those outside it (and many within). It might be true that, according to the tradition, the ideal case is one in which receptivity to the experience of God is accompanied by or flows from belief or faith. So, it might be that, in the judgment of the tradition, receptivity to the experience of God while lacking these other attitudes is not ideal. But the tradition is well enough aware of the dynamic in which agents fall short of an ideal while otherwise being meritorious.
The third point I want to make concerns whether participating in a religious way of life on the basis of taking up or having the attitude of receptivity would nonetheless be objectionable because it instrumentalizes religion. When students read Pascal, they often recoil: engaging in his wager, they say, would imply that one engages in a religious way of life for the purpose of maximizing one's chances of enjoying eternal bliss. While many of them are not averse to acting on such prudential reasons, something doesn't feel right to them. I think they recognize that Pascal's recommendation sits uneasily with norms internal to religious traditions that enjoin one not to instrumentalize religion in this way. One could raise a similar concern about the propriety of taking up the attitude of receptivity. If a religious inquirer were to take up the attitude of receptivity, she would not thereby engage in pretense, merely impersonating the true believer. Still, if taking up the attitude is primarily motivated by the desire to enjoy goods internal to a religious way of life, which are largely practical, then instrumentalization seems to be at work in this case too.
When engaging with students on this issue, I've often responded by saying that it's not evident to me that acting as Pascal recommends is objectionable according to the norms internal to religious traditions such as Christianity. What would be objectionable is if a person were to wager but not, at some point, move beyond self-regarding motivations when engaging in a religious way of life. Such motivations can function as a step along the way. The same could be said in this case. But it is probably more important to emphasize that engaging in a religious way of life on the basis of receptivity needn't instrumentalize religion in any objectionable sense. It is, after all, a fundamental commitment of traditions such as Orthodox Christianity that one experiences God in enjoying goods such as the beauty of group singing or the social bonds of community. According to the tradition, when we experience the beauty and goodness of these activities, we are experiencing God's presence and activity (or "energies"), although we may not experience this beauty or goodness as a manifestation of God's presence or activity. If so, receptivity to the experience of God can involve being receptive to experiencing God in these activities. And that is something that is available to the religious inquirer.
Let's now distinguish three questions: First, would taking up the attitude of receptivity to the experience of God violate internal religious norms? Second, would participating in a religious way of life on the basis of such an attitude (and not on the basis of faith) violate internal religious norms? And, third, could a religious inquirer genuinely enjoy the goods intrinsic to a religious tradition by engaging in the life of that tradition on the basis of this attitude?
I have argued that the answer to the first two questions is no. There need be no violation. The answer to the third question, I believe, is yes. Of course what goods these are will depend on the inquirer's circumstances. A religious inquirer who, say, attends religious services would be able to enjoy such things as group singing, communal meals, the formation of social bonds, the experience of beauty in art and music, a greater understanding of the teachings of Jesus, and so on. And, depending on the character of such participation, it's possible that one would experience an increased sense of purpose or hope for oneself and the world. Admittedly, some types of goods would be unattainable: being the subject of certain rites, such as baptism or confession, is available only to those who officially commit themselves to the tradition. But that would fail to imply that the goods internal to a religious life are not accessible to the religious inquirer. It would imply only that not all of them are.
3. The External Norms
Suppose that if a person were to engage in a religious way of life on the basis of being receptive to the experience of God, she could enjoy a range of the goods intrinsic to this way of life and not thereby violate but indeed conform to norms internal to this way of life. It remains to be seen whether having this attitude is such that an agent would thereby violate epistemic norms that enjoin one to conduct one's epistemic life in a conscientious manner. Solving the accessibility problem requires that there need be no such violation in the standard case. In this section, I argue that there need be no such violation and go a step further, maintaining that receptivity can rationalize engaging in a religious way of life. The salient issues, I argue, are as much practical as they are epistemic.
Let me begin by making three observations regarding how receptivity to being the subject of E intersects with epistemic norms. Begin with some distinctions. Suppose we say that a mental state (or event) of an agent properly represents some state of affairs F if it accurately represents F, is likely to represent F, or if that agent has conducted himself as he ought to with regard to representing F (e.g., he has done a good job of trying to find out whether F). A mental state or event can be epistemically assessable in either a non-derivative or a derivative way. A mental state or event is non-derivatively epistemically assessable just in case it's amenable to epistemic assessment simply on the basis of whether it properly represents reality. Beliefs are paradigmatic cases of states that are non-derivatively assessable, since it's appropriate to epistemically assess them simply on the basis of whether they accurately represent reality, or are likely to, or on whether an agent has done what she ought to with respect to representing reality. A mental state or event is derivatively epistemically assessable just in case it's epistemically assessable but not in a non-derivative way. When a state or event is epistemically assessable in a derivative way, it is because it bears some appropriate relation to a mental state or event that's non-derivatively epistemically assessable. Intentions are a good example of a mental state (or event) that are epistemically assessable in a derivative way. Imagine that you have available various ways of finding out whether a proposition is true. Suppose that you intend to implement a way of finding out whether that proposition is true but that you also have excellent reason to hold that implementing it will yield a whole host of false beliefs. Your intention is epistemically defective. It is defective precisely because you have excellent reason to hold that it is almost guaranteed to generate a whole host of false beliefs.
The first observation I would like to make is that receptivity is epistemically assessable, albeit in a derivative way. For it is among those states that can stand in an appropriate relation to a mental state or event that is non-derivatively epistemically assessable. Take a case in which you believe that it's not likely but possible that you will understand some set of morally vexed issues, seeing what is morally salient and what morally should be done. Rather than just give up because the issues are so difficult, you resolve not to resist being in such a state of understanding, say, because you think doing so is your best bet at achieving understanding of this sort. Suppose, further, that you are right about this: this resolution eventuates in your understanding these moral issues. Had you not so resolved, you would not enjoy this understanding. The state of being receptive to understanding these moral issues is epistemically meritorious and, hence, epistemically assessable.
The second, related observation is that receptivity to being the subject of E can be a state that is sensitive to evidence and, thus, can enjoy epistemic merits that hinge on being sensitive in this way. In the case just presented, you took up the attitude of being receptive to greater understanding of some vexed moral issues because you held that your best bet at achieving such understanding is to take up this attitude. Suppose, furthermore, that your thinking this is not epistemically baseless but is based on previous experiences in which such a strategy has been effective. If you have taken up the attitude of receptivity in this case for this reason, then your being receptive is sensitive to the evidence and is, for that reason and in this respect, epistemically meritorious.
The third observation is that the state of receptivity to being the subject of E is epistemically resilient in the sense that a person can have good evidence that it is unlikely that she will be the subject of E and yet be epistemically entitled (non-culpable) in being in this state. Imagine that you have excellent evidence that achieving understanding regarding the morally vexed issues in our example is highly unlikely. You know that the issues are really hard and that others seem to have made little to no progress in understanding them. Nonetheless, rather than give up, you are receptive to acquiring such understanding, in large measure because you have evidence that this is your best bet at achieving such understanding. If you were to believe that you will achieve this understanding on the basis of this evidence, your belief would probably not be epistemically entitled. But that is not your situation. You do not believe you will enjoy such understanding but are simply receptive to achieving it. You are neither epistemically culpable nor unentitled in being receptive to being the subject of such understanding.
We can employ these observations when thinking about receptivity to the experience of God. If what I said above is correct, it follows that receptivity to the experience of God is a state that is epistemically assessable, albeit in a derivative way. Furthermore, it's a state that an agent can take up and have on the basis of evidence. Someone attracted to the broadly practical goods of a religious way of life, such as the religious inquirer, might take up the attitude on the basis of evidence she has that experiencing God is a living possibility. She might, for example, know people who have had experiences as of God whose judgment she trusts and, on the basis of their testimony, take up the attitude. Or, alternatively, she may herself have had religious experiences but is unsure what to make of them, since she realizes that there's a non-negligible chance that they're not veridical.
Finally, taking up this attitude could be epistemically entitled even when the religious inquirer is in doubt with respect to God's existence. Although in doubt, the religious inquirer might hold that her best bet at experiencing God and, hence, finding out whether there is a God, is to take up the attitude of receptivity to the experience of God.
Return to the type of case that has been central to our discussion. A religious inquirer takes herself to have evidence for thinking that experiencing God is a living possibility, but she also takes the evidence not to be very strong because it is counterbalanced and colored by what she takes to be pretty good (but not decisive) evidence that God does not exist. Nonetheless, she might also acknowledge that it is easy to be poorly situated to sort through the conflicting evidence in epistemically meritorious ways, or to ascertain when one is in a good evidential situation with respect to this topic. The inquirer is aware of situations in which she herself has had different "takes" on the evidence, even when the evidence itself seems not to be have shifted appreciably. For example, sometimes evidence that seemed powerful to a younger version of herself no longer seems that powerful, even though she cannot point to new evidential considerations that changed her view. She is also aware that there are multiple explanations for why this might be, among them being that we are sometimes substantially affected by non-evidential influences such as emotion, peer pressure, priming effects, stereotype threat, and the like, and these influences might account for why evidence seems forceful in some circumstances and not in others. Our inquirer might conclude that, for all she reasonably believes, these influences are at work in her attitudes about religion more generally and experience of God in particular. And, thus, she might conclude that a good way to mitigate these distorting non-evidential effects when it comes to the experience of God is to have the attitude of receptivity to such experience. Far from exhibiting intellectual obstinacy, lack of sensitivity to the evidence, or narrowmindedness, the religious inquirer who takes up or has the attitude of receptivity to the experience of God for these reasons appears to be conducting her intellectual life in ways designed to avoid these and other epistemic pitfalls. Her conduct looks better than epistemically non-culpable: it appears epistemically meritorious.
My aim in this section has been to argue that, in some central cases, the religious inquirer would violate no external epistemic norms if she were to be receptive to the experience of God. Indeed, in some cases, taking up or having the attitude appears epistemically meritorious insofar as it exhibits admirable sensitivity to one's potential epistemic shortcomings and how to address them. Let me now identify more explicitly some of the theoretical and practical work that this attitude can do to address the inaccessibility problem.
Earlier I emphasized that receptivity to the experience of God is an attitude distinct from attitudes such as belief, faith, acceptance, acting on the assumption, and so on. While distinct, these attitudes can bear intimate relations to one another, for taking up some of these other attitudes can be a way by which an agent can exhibit receptivity. Think back to our earlier characterization of what it is to be receptive to being the subject of E: it consists (in part) in resolving not to resist being the subject of E. And we saw that not resisting being the subject of some state or event often involves performing actions that an agent holds will better place herself not to resist being the subject of that state or event. A child might, for example, resist being tempted to eat the candy on the table before him by doing such things as not looking at it or imagining how he would feel if he ate it (e.g., sick, guilty, or ashamed) (cf. Holton 2009: Chapter 4).
There are a variety of ways in which one could not resist experiencing God, including taking up that attitude which Howard-Snyder (2013) calls acting on the assumption. When an agent takes up this attitude with respect to God's existence, she neither believes nor disbelieves that God exists, although she may have more or less confidence that God exists or does not. But she acts in ways that one would expect if she were to assume that God exists, such as committing herself to doing such things as engaging in prayer or ritualized religious activity. Importantly for my purposes, an agent might take up this attitude because she views it as a good way to be receptive to the experience of God.
Let us say that having some epistemically assessable attitude A epistemically rationalizes your taking up some other epistemically assessable attitude B if (i) being in A puts you in a position to take up B and (ii) you have sufficient evidence that taking up B in virtue of being in A will put you in a better position to properly represent reality in some respect. We can then say that receptivity to the experience of God can epistemically rationalize your taking up an attitude such as acting on the assumption that God exists provided that (i) receptivity to the experience of God puts you in a position to act on the assumption that God exists and (ii) you justifiably hold that taking up the latter attitude in virtue of being receptive to the experience of God puts you in a better position to properly represent whether God exists. If this is right, receptivity to the experience of God may play some significant epistemic and theoretical roles in the life of the religious inquirer.
As I presented it originally, the accessibility problem is fundamentally a practical problem concerning how to access and participate in goods intrinsic to a religious way of life. If taking up or having receptivity to the experience of God did little or nothing to render goods intrinsic to the religious way of life accessible to the religious inquirer, then it would not satisfactorily address this problem. What our discussion in this section reveals is that receptivity to the experience of God is not only an attitude that can epistemically rationalize having other epistemically assessable attitudes, but can also practically rationalize engaging in behaviors such as prayer and ritualized religious activity, making sense of engaging in such behaviors: they are behaviors in which agents can engage in order to access and participate in a variety of goods intrinsic to a religious way of life. Unlike green eggs and ham, the goods intrinsic to a religious way of life are such that accessing and participating in them is something that occurs over time with effort. Receptivity to the experience of God is precisely the sort of attitude that can enable an agent to access and participate in these goods over time, as its role is (in part) to enable an agent to withstand contrary desires, beliefs, and evidence for the purpose of enjoying goods intrinsic to religious ways of life.
Although I did not emphasize the point earlier, there also appears to be no barrier to this attitude being practically rational. When an agent is receptive to the experience of God, she needn't flout any norms of practical rationality and can, in fact, be practically meritorious in her behavior. Indeed, in a standard case, the religious inquirer might justifiably hold that a variety of the goods internal to a religious way of life are such that enjoying them would enhance her well-being or would be worth pursuing. And she might justifiably hold that being receptive to the experience of God is a good way to enjoy these goods.
We began our discussion by formulating the inaccessibility of religion problem. The problem is one that faces the religious inquirer, who finds some religious ways of life attractive in various respects but appears unable to enjoy these goods without violating either external epistemic norms or internal religious norms. I have argued that this practical problem would admit of a solution if we could identify a mental state such that an agent's being in that state would imply that she flouts neither sort of norm and would enable her to enjoy the goods intrinsic to a religious way of life. Receptivity to the experience of God, I have claimed, is such a state.
Members of the Experience Project in Chicago, IL (2015), the UVM Ethics Reading Group (2015), and the Faith Seminar in Bellingham, WA (2016), as well as Sarah Coakley, Amber Griffieon, Dan Howard-Snyder, Mike Rea, Luke Reinsma, and two anonymous referees were kind enough to provide comments on earlier versions of this essay. My thanks to them all. Work on this essay was supported by the John Templeton Foundation, although the views expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the foundation.
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While I won't here attempt to identify what norms these are, I do not assume that they are evidentialist norms of the sort that have been roundly criticized by those sympathetic with Reformed Epistemology, such as van Inwagen (1996) and Wolterstorff (2010).
Why do so many religious communities endorse these norms, finding broadly fictionalist modes of engaging in the religious life unacceptable? Although I find the issue fascinating, I'll have to postpone engaging with it, limiting myself to the following comment: I will not assume that, if an agent engages in a religious way of life without believing that God exists or having religious faith, that agent is thereby engaging in pretense or a fiction. Cuneo and Christy (2011) treats the issue of what it is to take up a fictive stance.
Two clarifications: first, my claim is not that this is the only attitude that could play this role. Perhaps being receptive to the truth of a given tradition's overarching narrative is another such attitude. (I take it that receptivity to the experience of God is an attitude that is typically shaped by and takes form within specific religious traditions.) Second, I don't claim that the violations of external epistemic norms or internal religious ones are the only obstacles to participating in a religious tradition. Sometimes people resist such participation because they don't want to be like the people who participate in those traditions. See, also, the comments about moral norms at the end of this section.
In what follows, I'll understand the category of being an event broadly to include processes and activities. Also, I will speak of beliefs as being doxastic states. This is mildly controversial, as some, such as Boyle (2009), think of them as activities. If you incline toward this view, simply substitute my use of the word "state" with "event."
We can distinguish two types of case: one in which I have never been the subject of a given state or event and have ruled it out and the other in which I have been the subject of such a state or event but rule out being the subject of such a state or event again. I'll focus on the first sort of case.
Holton (2009: Chapter 2) distinguishes all-out belief from partial belief and these attitudes from having a credence in a proposition. Cohen (1992) and Alston (1996) distinguish acceptance from belief; Wolterstorff (2001: Chapter 9) distinguishes belief from taking for granted.
There are cases in which the affective attitudes, broadly construed, can be in conflict. For example, I might take something to be meritorious and still find myself repelled by it. That there are these sorts of cases will not affect what I say here.
Recall the earlier comments on something being a “living possibility.” Howard-Snyder (in press) distinguishes having doubts whether p, being in doubt regarding p, and doubting that p. He holds that only the last is incompatible with having faith.
Of course, there are legitimate uses of the term "faith" other than the one I am working with. I don't wish to deny that, according to some of them, being receptive to the experience of God might be an act of incipient faith (say, an instance of risk-taking) and, thus, the religious inquirer might have incipient faith of this kind. Having noted that receptivity to the experience of God is an attitude in its own right, it is also worth re-emphasizing that receptivity to the experience of God is importantly like faith, since both are characterized by a high degree of resilience in the face of contrary inclinations, beliefs, and evidence. See Howard-Snyder (2017).
I am using and lightly modifying the translation from the Greek found in McGuckin (2011). Howie Wettstein has pointed out to me that, in the Jewish tradition, a one-line introduction to the central prayer of every service, the amidah, runs as such: "Adonai, open my lips, that my lips may offer praise." When saying the prayer, one stands with one's feet together and only moves (optionally) by swaying forward and back. During the course of the prayer, there are four places where one bows, bending the knees. The Trisagion prayers are also said while standing and involve three prostrations.
I borrow the locution "official hermeneutic" and some of the points made in what follows from Wolterstorff (2015). I work with a distinction between liturgical scripts and texts. Roughly put, liturgical scripts are more or less comprehensive directives for how to perform a religious rite and typically include or make essential reference to texts. Liturgical texts are composed of the sentences that one would recite when engaging in some liturgical rite. Neither scripts nor texts need to be written.
This is to simplify. The text contains an invitation directed toward the Spirit, and then one addressed to the Trinity. I assume that the attitudes expressed by an act of invitation can be understood in a de dicto way; they needn't presuppose the existence of the invitee.
To my knowledge, although one can find many prayers that are invitations for Christ to indwell and work within the life of the person who prays them, such as the pre- and post-communion prayers, the Trisagion prayers are the only ones in the Orthodox liturgies addressed directly to the Spirit.
By engaging in a close reading of the Christian scriptures, both McKaughan (2013) and Howard-Snyder (2017) develop the case that important parts of the tradition may have misunderstood the ideal by assuming that the sort of faith for which the New Testament calls incorporates belief. (They both rightly observe that translating the Greek pistis as “belief” is, at best, misleading.) If they are right, it might be that the sort of position that they advance and that this essay recommends comes much closer to the view that the tradition, rightly understood, advances. See, also, the important work in Morgan (2015).
Earlier I canvassed the worry that the religious inquirer might violate moral norms, since by engaging in certain rites, she would thereby present herself as believing certain propositions regarding God that she does not believe or having faith that she lacks. Although I doubt this is true—see Wolterstorff (2017: Chapter 5) on “liturgical space” as “bounded”—it is worth emphasizing that she does not participate in rites such as baptism, chrismation, and confession, which require making or having made a profession of faith (and are the means by which someone is formally inducted into the Orthodox community). There is, then, an important sense in which the inquirer does not present herself as a full-fledged member of the religious community even though she participates in some of its rites. This observation, I think, is an important step toward deflecting the charge that by engaging in such rites she thereby presents herself as being committed to claims that she is not committed to.
Here I talk about states and events being epistemically assessable. It is common for philosophers to alternate between speaking of states and events, on the one hand, and agents, on the other, being epistemically assessable. In what follows, I'll do the same.