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  • Rethinking Global Philosophy of Religion
  • Eliot Deutsch
The Philosophy of Religion. By Gwen Griffith-Dickson. London: SCM Press, 2005.

In the opening lines of her Preface to The Philosophy of Religion, Gwen Griffith Dickson rightly notes that "The academic area of 'philosophy of religion' has traditionally worked almost exclusively with the philosophies and religions of Western civilization." In recent times there have been a few notable attempts to address this situation by way of authoring textbooks that include the work of thinkers, both traditional and modern, from other non-Western cultures in the treatment of central issues in contemporary philosophy of religion. In my judgment, Griffith-Dickson's text is by far the most comprehensive, inclusive, and insightful of its kind. She at once exposits and interprets the major thinkers in the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions (with passing references to East Asian cultures) as well as leading mainline Western philosophers such as Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Berkeley, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.

The book consists of three parts. The first is largely introductory and focuses on questions of religious pluralism, similarities and differences between religio-philosophical debates within and between different faiths, and the nature of religious language. The second part consists of an analysis of various metaphysical and epistemological themes such as creation, natural theology, and "how the world seems." Part 3 is labeled "The Divine and Human Relationship" and includes discussions of the persistent problem of evil and the nature of various forms of religious experience.

The Philosophy of Religion is designed as a textbook for advanced undergraduate students and is written with great clarity and precision. The author is able in her expositions and interpretations to get into the heart of an amazing range of quite different thinkers and the diverse styles of reasoning embedded in the traditions she explores. She is also able to present forcefully some of her own ideas.

I would like to illustrate this briefly by her sophisticated treatment of the problem that from the beginning has been the most challenging to Theism, the problem of evil, and pose a final question to her. In chapter 11, "Explanations of Evil," Griffith Dickson covers the usual territory regarding the reality (or non-reality) of evil, various theodicies that seek to justify "God or the gods for allowing evil," and related issues. She concludes:

There seems to be no way that the measurement, definition, contextualization and interpretation of good and evil can be put on a universally agreed and public footing (made objective, in other words), in such a way as to justify a claim that there is some 'dysteleological' [gratuitous] suffering which requires a special theodicy. Perhaps, if we were strictly logical, we would consider all human death as dysteleological evil. God allows everyone to die someday in any case, and perhaps is no less 'guilty of mass murder' in [End Page 576] virtue of the fact that God allows billions of people to die peacefully of natural causes. God is either 'justified' or not for all human deaths. Certainly atrocities raise questions and demand explanations that natural or accidental deaths does not. But is it of God that we require this explanation? Is it not human action that marks the profound moral difference between accidental death and genocide, not God's apparent allowance of evil? It may not be so much God's ways that are inscrutable as humanity's. . . .

(p. 340)

Griffith-Dickson further points out:

John Hick has created a theodicy of great influence in our time, based on the idea that suffering is necessary for our personal growth and development. . . . The mixture of good and evil, he says, is because the world is a 'vale of soul-making'. . . . For Hick, God's purpose for creation surely determines the nature of that creation. . . . God's intent is not to create a hedonistic paradise, filled with all earthly delights, but an environment in which we grow into 'children of God.'

(p. 332)

In my review of Hick's major work An Interpretation of Religion (published in the October 1990 issue of Philosophy East and West), I noted that he follows Augustine somewhat when the latter pleads that though...