restricted access Continental Philosophy of Religion: Then, Now, and Tomorrow
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Continental Philosophy of Religion:
Then, Now, and Tomorrow

Was the fiftieth anniversary meeting a celebration of a vital philosophical society—or was it a memorial service held by the elders at the passing of a beloved old friend? That is the question I pose in addressing the state of Continental philosophy and religion “then and now,” which cannot elude the question of their future.1 Accordingly my essay has three parts—“then”: the theological sources of “Continental philosophy” and of the Society for [End Page 347] Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) in particular; “now”: the state of the question today, the “theological turn”; and “tomorrow”: a reaction demanding a return of realism and antireligion.2

Origins: The Becoming Philosophical of the Theological

SPEP in particular and Continental philosophy in the United States generally were first nourished in originally religious and theological soil. That the papers delivered in the first five years, from 1962 to 1967, show nothing of the sort is actually a part of my thesis.3 Contemporary Continental philosophy emerged under what John Wild called in 1955 “the breakdown of modern philosophy”:4 the discontent with the epistemologies of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the critique of metaphysics in the wake of Kant, the critique of Hegel launched by the Kierkegaardian pseudonyms, the popularity of existentialism. None of this need necessarily have anything to do with theology, but it did, and that is because this discontent with modernity found an especially receptive audience among people who—like the founders of SPEP—were either theologically minded philosophers outright or philosophers who having been theologically minded had given it up and were looking for a successor form of thinking to their theological interests. The significant thing is not so much that they gave up theology, which they did in varying degrees, but that in looking for a successor form they turned to Continental philosophy. If they turned to Anglo-American sources, they embraced not the then regnant Anglo-American analytic and positivistic philosophies but, rather, classical American thinkers such as William James or Whitehead’s process philosophy (theology). One reason for this is the “E” in SPEP, the question of philosophy as an “existential” matter, a matter of personal passion, a form of life. Let us briefly consider the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish sources of SPEP.


Continental philosophy has been a central component in the philosophical curricula of most American Catholic colleges and universities ever since the Second Vatican Council, which was convened on October 11, 1962 (the first meeting of SPEP was held fifteen days later, October 26, 1962). A good half of the doctoral programs in the United States that offer programs specializing in Continental philosophy are to be found in [End Page 348] Catholic institutions, and many prominent members of the movement have Catholic origins. Catholics, to borrow a phrase from Bruno Latour, have never been modern,5 and that was especially the case for Catholic European immigrants to a predominantly Protestant Anglo-Saxon country. At the Catholic University of America, students were even asked to take an oath against “modernism,” which by no means should be understood as an oath to postmodernism. When the hegemony of neo-Thomism was finally broken, Catholics took up their Continental European heritage in a sustained way.6 They readily turned to the philosophers of “concrete existence” and to the phenomenological movement that encouraged a return to the Lebenswelt. Continental philosophy was cut to fit the intellectual tradition and growing historical consciousness of Catholics. Indeed, there is a kind of natural migration from Aristotle to phenomenology. Heidegger made his way into phenomenology from a Catholic German neo-Scholastic world and came to see in Aristotle the greatest phenomenologist of antiquity. John Wild made a similar migration from realism. Wild was being read by Catholics in the 1950s, and they moved with him from the realism of Aristotle and Aquinas to phenomenology, resulting in a form of phenomenology that is free from the transcendentalism that beset pure Husserlian versions of phenomenology.

Of all the philosophers Catholics read, Heidegger enjoyed pride of place, aided by a wave of English translations and by the landmark study Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to...