Philosophy and Religion in the West

Course No. 625
Professor Phillip Cary, Ph.D.
Eastern University
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Course No. 625
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Course Overview

Acclaimed humanities teacher Phillip Cary explores thousands of years of deep reflection and brilliant debate over the nature of God, the human self, and the world. It's a debate that serves as a vivid introduction to the rich and complex history shared by the West's central religious and philosophical traditions.

Whether you're a believer, a seeker, or both, you'll find much to spark your deepest ponderings in these talks on the long and rich interplay between faith and reason.

>Different Systems of Thought Joined in a Search for Answers

Philosophy and religion ask many of the same questions:

  • What is the ultimate reality?
  • What can we know about it—or what should we believe about it?
  • How do our questions and thoughts, our hopes and fears, relate us to it?
  • Is this ultimate reality a person whom we meet, or an object that we contemplate?

These are questions no thoughtful person can evade.

They are enduring and perennial. And they are possessed of a history whose twists and turns have left their mark on almost every person on Earth.

To learn how these crucial issues have been discussed over the past three millennia is to enter the core of our intellectual heritage—to find the origin of some of our deepest perplexities and most cherished aspirations.

3,000 Years of Faith and Reason

A theologian who earned his doctorate in philosophy and religious studies at Yale, Professor Cary is now head of the philosophy program at Eastern University in St. David's, Pennsylvania.

He is the author of Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self, published by Oxford University Press, and the teacher of The Teaching Company's course Augustine: Philosopher and Saint.

Originally trained in both philosophy and English literature, he is the ideal companion on this journey to the heart of the spiritual adventure of the West.

It is a comprehensive journey—intellectually, philosophically, and spiritually—but one which requires no special background.

All you need to bring is your own curiosity as Professor Cary weaves any background concepts you need into the fabric of his 32 lectures.

By the end of this course, those insights will belong to you—and you gain a new or sharpened fluency in issues that include:

  • The historical interaction between philosophical traditions (such as Platonism) and religious traditions (such as Judaism and Christianity)
  • The philosophical origin of certain key religious concepts, such as the immortality of the soul, the Fall, and "going to heaven"
  • The attractiveness of ancient philosophy for Judaism and Christianity
  • The synthesis of philosophy and religion that characterized the "classical theism" of the medieval period
  • The significance of modernity for the history of Western religion
  • The most prominent philosophical criticisms of religion
  • The classic proofs that have been attempted of the existence of God
  • The reasons why many religious thinkers of the 20th century are suspicious of the alliances between philosophy and religion
  • The relationship of critical rationality and religious belief.
Witness the Origins of a Debate Still Underway

Under Professor Cary's guidance, you'll cover thousands of years of profound reflection and debate concerning the nature of God, the human self, and the world.

You begin your journey by exploring the roots of the philosophical tradition in ancient Greece, examining how Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus dealt with issues concerning God, the soul, and the nature of the cosmos.

You continue along the path with the two great Western religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity, and follow its turnings to philosophers and theologians who are alive and writing today.

In keeping with his commitment to "critical objectivity," Professor Cary urges students not to take his word as final on a topic, but to think it through independently.

Learn to Trace Common Themes and Complex Influences

In this questing spirit, you'll probe the ideas of dozens of towering and diverse thinkers, tracing unifying themes throughout the works of writers who so often are thought to have little save brilliance in common.

These include not only Socrates and the prophets but also Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Schleiermacher, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, and others.

And as Professor Cary takes you through their agreements and differences, you gain a precise and detailed grasp of how philosophy and religion—especially Judaism and Christianity, the leading spiritual traditions of the West—have long been intensely concerned with many of the same questions.

Surprising Interactions of Great Thinkers

This, as Professor Cary explains, has led them to interact in intricate and sometimes surprising ways:

  • You wonder along with him when he asks why the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul has come so largely to displace the scriptural doctrine of bodily resurrection in Christian belief.
  • You ponder the remarkable but little-noted influence of Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval Catholic thinkers, on Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism.
  • You probe the links between Kierkegaard's call for a Christian "leap of faith" in the 19th century and the secular Existentialism of Martin Heidegger in the 20th.
  • You consider whether Jacques Derrida's much-discussed Postmodernism has roots in the concept of the "Other" framed by the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas.

Again and again, as you explore the answers offered over so many centuries, you find yourself aided and encouraged to form your own conclusions about the great unfinished story of faith and reason.

And you see that it is a story that has always been close to the heart of our civilization, whether seen in its moments of glory or its times of anguish.

No matter which of the aforementioned categories you put yourself in—believer, seeker, or some combination of the two (if Professor Cary is right, they go together quite well)—this course is sure to enrich and inform your thinking to an unexpected degree.

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32 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction—Philosophy and Religion as Traditions
    Thinking about philosophy and religion under the common rubric of "tradition" can be highly illuminating. Here's why. x
  • 2
    Plato's Inquiries—The Gods and the Good
    In Plato's early dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates tries to get the title character to think critically about the question "What is piety?" In later dialogues, Plato suggests what kind of things might supply an answer. His thinking will play an enormous role in Western religion. x
  • 3
    Plato's Spirituality—The Immortal Soul and the Other World
    Plato's philosophy is inherently religious and has had a deep influence on Western spirituality. x
  • 4
    Aristotle and Plato—Cosmos, Contemplation, and Happiness
    Plato and Aristotle attempted to trace the movement of the heavens back to a divine starting point or first principle. Aristotle conceived of God as Prime Mover and also as Divine Mind in which our minds participate. The world is thus inherently purposeful, naturally ordered toward the good and ultimately toward God. x
  • 5
    Plotinus—Neoplatonism and the Ultimate Unity of All
    Plotinus saw four levels of being, the lowest of which is the visible, material world of change, division, and death. Plotinus's spirituality is based on the desire for ultimate unity. x
  • 6
    The Jewish Scriptures—Life With the God of Israel
    In the religion of Israel, God is not a principle or concept, but a person. The ancient Israelites identified specific places where their God could be met and told stories about how he was met. The foundational story is told in the book of Exodus. x
  • 7
    Platonist Philosophy and Scriptural Religion
    Referring to the three levels of Plotinus's view of the divine, this lecture compares Platonist spirituality with biblical portraits of God and his people, and begins examining how these two traditions came to be combined in Western thought. Whether it is wise to combine them is a central and recurrent question for Jewish and Christian theology. x
  • 8
    The New Testament—Life in Christ
    In contrast to the Platonist view of the immortality of the soul, the New Testament speaks of the bodily resurrection of the dead, beginning with Jesus Christ. Hence for Christians, Jesus' body is the holy place where God is to be met: this is the root of the Christian teaching that Christ is God incarnate. x
  • 9
    Rabbinic Judaism—Israel and the Torah
    The religion we now know as Judaism arose after the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The resulting tradition focuses on the importance of Torah study as the "place" of God's gracious presence in Israel. x
  • 10
    Church Fathers—The Logos Made Flesh
    While the rabbis were forming orthodox Judaism, the Church fathers were forming the central doctrines of orthodox Christianity. x
  • 11
    The Development of Christian Platonism
    The early, more radical Christian Platonists focused on souls escaping bodies (Gnosticism) or falling into bodies (Origen). In orthodox Christian Platonism, however, souls remain embodied, receiving divine light from above or within. x
  • 12
    Jewish Rationalism and Mysticism—Maimonides and Kabbalah
    Jewish thought in the Middle Ages moved in two directions. Rationalists like Maimonides interpreted the Scriptures as a figurative expression (suitable for the many) of Aristotelian metaphysics. The mystical direction was represented by the texts of Kabbalah. x
  • 13
    Classical Theism—Proofs and Attributes of God
    The view of God that was worked out by medieval theologians and philosophers has come to be called "classical theism." x
  • 14
    Medieval Christian Theology—Nature and Grace
    The universe of classical theism is inherently good—not perfect like God, but oriented toward God. However, in the Christian version of that universe, human nature, which God created good, has been corrupted by the Fall and needs to be restored by grace. x
  • 15
    Late-Medieval Nominalism and Christian Mysticism
    What spelled the beginning of the end for medieval thought? x
  • 16
    Protestantism—Problems of Grace
    Protestantism inherits the Augustinian conception of grace and wrestles with two problems that result from it. x
  • 17
    Descartes, Locke, and the Crisis of Modernity
    Modern philosophy is born amid a crisis of authority, especially religious authority. The moderns "turn to the subject," seeking the sources of belief and certainty in the self. x
  • 18
    Leibniz and Theodicy
    In Leibniz's panpsychism, every atom (or monad) of the physical world has a kind of "inner self" that is alive. Using his theory of monads, in combination with his logic of possible worlds, Leibniz constructs a theodicy (an attempt to answer "the problem of evil"). x
  • 19
    Hume's Critique of Religion
    David Hume was perhaps the most astute critic of religion in the highly critical period of Western history known as the Enlightenment. x
  • 20
    Kant—Reason Limited to Experience
    With the thought of Kant, the modern "turn to the subject" attains a new depth and fullness. He argues that the very possibility of experience (and, hence, of empirical knowledge and the natural sciences) presupposes certain subjective conditions. x
  • 21
    Kant—Morality as the Basis of Religion
    Kant set limits to theoretical reason in order to make room for practical reason. He argues that popular notions such as "duty" point toward a purely rational (a priori) foundation for morality, grounded in a principle of conduct that all rational beings recognize they should follow, regardless of inclination. x
  • 22
    Schleiermacher—Feeling as the Basis of Religion
    Religious thinkers after Kant wanted to find an approach to God based neither on theoretical reason nor on pure morality. What they found was feeling. This finding lies at the root of Romanticism and liberal theology. x
  • 23
    Hegel—A Philosophical History of Religion
    Hegel held that history unfolds dialectically, according to a divine and necessary logic. For Hegel, Christianity provides a powerful but mythical image of this process. x
  • 24
    Marx and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion
    Marx interprets cultural phenomena (including religion) in terms of the hidden interests they serve. Freud offers a psychological version of this. x
  • 25
    Kierkegaard—Existentialism and the Leap of Faith
    Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish Christian famous for his notion of the "leap of faith," is also widely regarded as the first existentialist. His aim was to nourish authentic individual faith in the paradox of Christ. x
  • 26
    Nietzsche—Critic of Christian Morality
    Nietzsche is one of the few critics of Christianity bold enough to criticize its morality and propose his own substitute. x
  • 27
    Neo-orthodoxy—The Subject and Object of Faith
    Neo-orthodoxy reacted against the liberal Protestant attempt to base theology on religious experience and then branched off in two very different directions. x
  • 28
    Encountering the Biblical Other—Buber and Levinas
    The 20th-century Jewish thinkers Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas draw upon concepts implicit in the Hebrew Bible to conceive of human relationships in ways that elude the Greek and German philosophical traditions. x
  • 29
    Process Philosophy—God in Time
    Process philosophy expresses the pervasive 20th-century dissatisfaction with the metaphysics of an unchanging God. As initially formulated by A. N. Whitehead, it was based on an ontology of events (where "what happens" is more basic to reality than "what is"). x
  • 30
    Logical Empiricism and the Meaning of Religion
    The modern "turn to the subject" reached a point of special intensity in the early 20th century. Yet logical empiricism in the English-speaking countries and phenomenology on the continent unraveled into various forms of "postmodernism." x
  • 31
    Reformed Epistemology and the Rationality of Belief
    "Reformed" epistemology is a recent philosophical movement that defends the rationality of religious beliefs. Here you'll learn about three of its leaders: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and William Alston. x
  • 32
    Conclusion—Philosophy and Religion Today
    Philosophy has often criticized religion, but also has often supported it. Here we ask why religion should be grateful to philosophy, and what religion offers that philosophy does not. x

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Your professor

Phillip Cary

About Your Professor

Phillip Cary, Ph.D.
Eastern University
Dr. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, where he is also Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College. After receiving his B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, Professor Cary earned his M.A. in Philosophy and Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale University. Professor Cary is a recent winner of the...
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Philosophy and Religion in the West is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mixed This course is misnamed - it should be called Philosophy and Christianity. While other religions are mentioned (specifically Judaism and paganism) they're included more for context than for anything else. Professor Cary's attempt to shoehorn philosophical inquiry through his orthodoxy says more about his own conflicts than western intellectual development. He doesn't even bother to mention Emerson's influence on Kant's transcendentalism. There were a few gems in the course but they're colored by a dishonest premise. This is the only "fair" review I've given a course - almost every other course I've listened to has been truly "great."
Date published: 2020-10-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Emphasis on Western Religion and Philosophy This is the second course that I have taken from Professor Cary, the other being “Augustine, Philosopher and Saint” which I liked pretty well, giving it 4 stars across the board. Never having had any formal education in either philosophy or religion, but being interested in both, this course seemed like a natural for me. I came away being more knowledgeable about the intersection of the two disciplines than before, but also somewhat disappointed, as I was expecting a bit more. On the other hand that may well have been an unreasonable expectation, as covering philosophy from Plato to almost the present day in only 32 lectures is a very tall order, even when largely restricting philosophy as regards religion. And religion is restricted to Christianity and some Judaism. The Christian emphasis is a bit more on mainstream, conservative Protestantism than the other branches. Some reviewers have commented that they would have liked some inclusion of Islam, but I give Dr. Cary a pass on this, assuming that Islam does not fall into the “Western” religion category. Plus if he tried to add one more variable to the equation, I might still be listening to the course. Although there are quite a few lectures centered on religion (e.g. #10: Church Fathers), the main thrust of the course is a lecture mostly about one particular philosopher and how that philosophy relates to religion. For example Maimonides and Jewish rationalism contrasted with mysticism is treated quite well in lecture 12. Of course often religious issues such as Grace or Theodicy are treated from philosophical perspectives. Most philosophers get one lecture, excepting Plato and Kant, both receiving two. While I did not find Professor Cary’s delivery to be particularly dynamic, he is clear and easily understood (at least as easily understood as philosophy and religion can be). I thought that his discussion of ideas revolving around “proof” and “belief” to be very interesting and may well result in a modification of my own views. The analogy of how a 5-year old might believe in Santa Claus, as opposed to a 10-year old, made this section easy to grasp. In contrast to a couple of reviewers, I found the last lecture where Professor Cary gave us many of his own views regarding the current state of philosophy and religion to be of special interest. Dr. Cary is upfront about coming from that conservative, protestant tradition, but for me that background did not appear to bias his lectures. I took the course on audio and don’t expect that I missed very much by not having videos. The course material is generally of TTC’s standard for courses of this era, and I’d make special mention of Dr. Cary’s translation recommendations. I always like it when a knowledgeable person articulates reasons for on particular translation or another.
Date published: 2020-07-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Leans too much toward religion I suppose I shouldn't be overly surprised at the overtly religious overtones; but I thought it might leave open the possibility of philosophy contributing to non-believers.
Date published: 2020-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect. I have made one of the best decisions that I have ever made when it comes to education and life by choosing and learning from your courses. Again I want to thank you very much for coming into my life.
Date published: 2020-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lectures This is one of the best lecture series - ever. The series illuminates, explains and reveals. It is incredible.
Date published: 2019-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Philosophy and religion in the West. My fiancé is a more fundamentalist Christian and I am surely not. However, I have been trying to become more knowledgeable on religious history and philosophy so I can better understand her perspective. The instructor presents an extremely comprehensive examination of the development over time of the growth and development of the connection between the metaphysical and the religious. Of course, that connection promotes the sliding scales by which the role and meaning of God, soul, faith, and mind are interconnected and have evolved over time. That in turn raises questions as to the original analysis of the place of God in our lives and the legitimacy of various religious ideologies. That being said, the professor presents a detailed, if complicated, examination into the variety of interpretations and how they evolved over time into the search for god in our lives.
Date published: 2019-04-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good for Some This course is good for a specific audience: Those who are interested in both religion (specifically Christianity) and also Western philosophy. The course is a little longer than most at 32 lectures. Dr. Cary sets out to plumb the interaction between religion and Christianity (with a few lectures on Judaism thrown in as well). This works well through the Middle Ages but he falls short of the goal in the last third of the course, which is devoted to Modernist and Post-Modernist philosophy without significant regard to religion. Dr. Cary is particularly good at showing the flow of philosophy, how one school of thought stems from earlier schools and how it leads to subsequent schools. This alone is worth the cost of the course for those interested in Western philosophy. However, generally he does not address non-academic pressures (such as wars, economics, etc.) and how they influence development of philosophic schools. Dr. Cary is easy to follow. He speaks to the philosophic novice. He self-identifies as a conservative orthodox Christian although this generally does not show in his lectures. However, he lets his philosophical (not religious) leanings come through much more often, frequently inserting what he thinks about various philosophic positions. I used the audio version of this course. I believe the video would have offered no additional benefit.
Date published: 2018-11-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Broad scope with complex content The scope of this course is extremely broad, covering western philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity from their beginnings to the present century – and all of this in only 16 hours of lecture! Suffice to say that the content is extensive. Prof Cary does a good job presenting in relatively few words vast concepts and ideas; individual sentences in his lectures can require hours of analysis and evaluation in order to begin to really appreciate and understand their content, like adding water to a compressed, dry sponge. The material is presented mostly in chronological order. Since it’s helpful to know the context within which ideas have been generated to fully understand the ideas themselves, this approach is helpful. Prof Cary then relates ideas in one lecture to ideas in other lectures, which was helpful. However, I would have preferred if the content had been organized by topic instead of chronologically. For example, one topic might be the problem of evil (which is the topic for another course I plan to take). This approach might have been more challenging to prepare, but could have provided more value for me. My purpose for taking this course was to better understand philosophy of religion, in order to help me arrive at my own perspective. The broad diversity of ideas presented in the course each try to describe reality from a different perspective, sometimes contradictory with another perspective and sometimes not. Ironically, upon completion of the course, I was most struck by the detailed and complex “castles in the air” constructed by individuals in their efforts to understand and explain metaphysics, religion, ontology, etc. I was impressed by, but not convinced by, the highly imaginative ideas they presented to rationally explain or justify what they already believed. While each perspective was grounded and “rational” in some respect, ultimate acceptance of a position seems to be primarily a matter of gut feel and emotions rather than reason.
Date published: 2018-06-01
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