Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series Ep. 6 Gereon Kopf on the Multi-Entry Approach

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught and studied in the 21st century? Gereon Kopf is a professor of East Asian Religions and Philosophy of Religion at Luther College. Dr. Kopf is currently developing a multi-entry philosophy, as well as a non-essentialist philosophy of mind and identity formation. He is also the principal investigator of a Wabash Center grant to develop strategies for teaching philosophy of religion inclusively to diverse students.

Nathan Loewen:

This podcast series was created by support from Dr. Kopf’s grant. In our conversation, I asked what is the multi-entry approach and how does it influence teaching the philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Professor Kopf, you have talked about something called a multi-entry approach. In fact, you have some forthcoming publications with that in the title. What is the multi-entry approach?

Professor Kopf:

The multi-entry approach developed in the context of a seminar at the American Academy of Religion. It was a five year seminar called Global Critical Philosophy of Religion that combined many scholars from working in the different traditions, trained in a variety of methodology. One of the products is the forthcoming textbook by Timothy Knepper, Philosophy of Religion, A Global Critical Approach. Another product is my co-edited volume, co-edited with Professor Purushottama Bilimoria, utilizing the approaches I developed, the so-called multi-entry approach.

Nathan Loewen:

Okay. You say that you were committed to globalizing philosophy in order to have more voices engaging in the philosophical discourse. How does the multi-entry approach do that?

Professor Kopf:

It does it in three different ways. Up to, let’s say, roughly the ’80s of the last century, the way philosophy of religion was taught at the academia was mostly Christocentric and Eurocentric, including obviously the adaptation of European thought in North America. But in the ’80s, then people started including sources from multiple traditions. That’s what I would call actually a globalizing approach. It’s to still take the same framework, the same question, the tri philosophy of religion, but now look for answers in a variety of text sources all over the world.

Nathan Loewen:

Where do the multiple entries come from?

Professor Kopf:

The globalizing approach is still a single entry approach because it is one narrative. It is one structure. In response to that we have post-colonial approaches that critique that globalizing approach and said we need to engage not only different texts, but also methodologies from different traditions.

Professor Kopf:

The approach that I am suggesting, the multi-entry approach, is a middle path between the globalizing and the decolonizing approaches. That’s what I sometimes also call the cosmopolitan approach. The multiple entries are actually different narratives on how to do philosophy of religion. Theoretically, they come from multiple methodologies, but also from multiple traditions from multiple cultural contexts all over the world.

Nathan Loewen:

How do you get these multiple entries to interact with each other?

Professor Kopf:

That is then again, an echo of the globalizing approach. The echo of the decolonizing approach is to have the multiple voices from multiple context. I would like to avoid the idea of having one master narrative. Each approach in the text in the book, each chapter, but in a conversation… Each approach formulates its own approach in response to a set of questions which are formulated extremely general. What is your methodology? What is your approach? What is your historical context? What is your terminology of how to envision what in English we call philosophy of religion?

Nathan Loewen:

Has it worked?

Professor Kopf:

We had a workshop last year in August. We are now working on editing our book. It seems to work. What makes it interesting is that you not only have those multiple entries, and then people stay separate, that in a second step, theoretically all approaches engage each other. That means that if you have, for example, a monotheistic approach, then what has been done in the past will engage for example, a Europa approach on its terms. But at the same time, you have a Europa approach developed within that cultural, philosophical context engaging, for example, Christian monotheism on its own terms. You have a multi log then if you have multiple partner, a multi log of different narratives, different approaches, engaging each other.

Nathan Loewen:

And so you are a professor in the Department of Religion at Luther College.

Professor Kopf:

Yes.

Nathan Loewen:

And you do teach mostly undergraduate courses. Do you teach courses on philosophy of religion?

Professor Kopf:

I have one course on philosophy of religion that is called Godself and the afterlife.

Nathan Loewen:

Okay. And do you use this multi-entry approach with your students?

Professor Kopf:

I’ve been starting to use it. So the practical issue is that if we teach the traditional way, you have one professor writing one syllabus using a couple of selected textbooks, hopefully anthologies. You still have a major narrative, the syllabus provides or major narrative. The way I try to break it is very explicitly to have multiple speakers come in from different tradition and engaging the students on their terms.

Professor Kopf:

A second way of doing that is actually in not having one outline, even though, obviously there’s a course of the semester that starts at the beginning, has a midterm and then a final, but actually within the semester have multiple breaks where we start from scratch again. Looking at a different issue, looking at a different methodology, looking from a different tradition. And in all those and in every section itself, we also have multiple texts engaging each other.

Professor Kopf:

So if you, for example, look at the cosmos, we first have a more Eurocentric approach looking at visions of ultimate reality in theistic language. Then we are looking at the cosmos as developed from different tradition, but using the language developed in India, in the Indian Darshanas, in the Indian rational ways of engaging the absolute. So we’re actually then using in class different languages to work on the same issue.

Nathan Loewen:

And so I know that we don’t have any students in this interview, but how do the students respond? Maybe even more interestingly, what sorts of outcomes or assignments do the students produce?

Professor Kopf:

There are a couple of different outcomes the students produce. There’s the traditional response paper where students respond to a given text. There are debates where in class they have different either standpoints from different traditions, or different philosophical positions or different methods engaging each other. And then there is a final project that’s hopefully open enough that people, students, are flexible to embrace the position they encountered in class they find most intriguing. So, that is in terms of student outcomes. The responses have been mostly positive and students cherish actually engaging traditions and positions in methodologies they haven’t heard about at all before the class.

Nathan Loewen:

What is the composition of your courses? Are your students taking this as a humanities credit? Are they taking it as philosophy students? Where do the students in your classroom come from?

Professor Kopf:

Most of the students in my class taking it for to satisfy a general education religion requirement. Then we have students who are philosophy majors. Then we have students who are religion majors. So that’s in that class, the basic demographics in terms of curriculum.

Nathan Loewen:

And I’m interested to know what happens after the students take your course. Do you hear from them again?

Professor Kopf:

The majority disappear back into the student body, but then there are students that engage. Some of them come back and say, “I really liked…” Actually I just talked to one student who really liked a book that I used to augment Tim Knepper’s book, it’s Carl Becker talking about near death experience and using them to develop a new philosophy of science. Talking about criteria, epistemic criteria for how to talk about near death and afterlife phenomena.

Professor Kopf:

And so that student came up to me and said it’s very exciting. She’s a neuroscience student. She wants to now do an independent study on looking at neuroscience and philosophy of mind approaches to those phenomena like near death experience, all the state of consciousness and so forth. So there are those students who then come for upper level work at Luther College, mostly in independent studies because most of our courses are, at least in our department, the Religion Department, very much on a general education level.

Nathan Loewen:

I’ll ask three more questions or perhaps only two more. Who do you want to read or learn about the multi-entry approach?

Professor Kopf:

Ideally speaking, everyone. But obviously there are different audiences and that’s why I’ve been packaging it. My essay that I wrote for this amazing forthcoming book on philosophy of religion around the world, global critical approaches, to our critical approaches. And so I’m packaging that for a multiple audience, because I think there are multiple people can use it in different ways.

Professor Kopf:

Firstly, obviously there’s an academic audience. I would like people who teach philosophy of religion in an academic setting to expand their horizon by actually engaging and hopefully working through on multiplicity approaches. And not only study for example, to stay with my early example, Yoruba philosophy from a Christian perspective or from a religious studies perspective, which is still an outside perspective, right? Or Yoruba perspective, but also then reverse the gaze and then look at religious studies methods from a Yoruba perspective or at Christian theology from a Europa perspective.

Professor Kopf:

So that’s my first audience. My second audience is to apply that for people who struggle with diversity, cultural diversity, philosophical diversity, ideological diversity, or religious diversity to give a tool that allows us to engage various traditions without having to deny ours. But also without the temptation of superimposing our few and others or juxtaposing saying East/West, I think that binary doesn’t work at all creating those counterfactual binaries and in order to safeguard one’s own position tradition methodology.

Professor Kopf:

So those are the two main audience. And I also am working on increasing and largening the perspective to have a multidisciplinary conversation in there to include, for example, neuroscientists, philosophers, and various disciplines at the same table. Again, in such a way that we don’t super superimpose our methodologies, that don’t we exclude other methodologies, but it’s more an inclusive engagement.

Nathan Loewen:

Who do you think won’t read your book or won’t adopt the multi-entry approach? Who do you think will not adopt the multi-entry approach?

Professor Kopf:

I think that there are two possible candidates who may reject the multi-entry approach. (Laughs). The first one is people who think that, who are content with their methodology, with their position and do not feel the need of engaging others. And also, and I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, I don’t want to use the word laziness, but generally the academics are really stressed out. We have a lot of things going on for the people who are not in academics. It’s not only teaching, it’s research, it’s committee works, it’s administrative work. And after for example, teaching a course for 20 years to actually step back and say, “Now I embrace a completely new approach,” takes a lot of work and time and also emotional investment. So, I understand if people say, “It has worked for 20 years, so it’s a practical being contentedness with my approach. It has worked for 20 years. I don’t see the need to expand.”

Nathan Loewen:

Are there any resources out there for those time-strapped busy instructors and professors of philosophy or religious studies? Are there opportunities for people to engage with others on the multi-entry approach? How might we overcome some of those barriers, and entertain this proposal that you’re making?

Professor Kopf:

So overall, the larger group that are in the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion group is working on a series of publications. So you have Tim Knepper’s next book, you have (Purushottama) Bilimoria‚Äôs and mine edited volume as a teaching manual on the multi-entry approach. We’re having other works in the process of being in varied stages of the publication process that provide a larger background. Our website provides a network of experts, so that it makes it easier to say, “I don’t know about that tradition. I don’t know about that methodology,” but now since we’re all used to Zoom, it’s easier to invite people.

Professor Kopf:

And so it’s an ongoing work and process of expanding resources, and all also one thing that our group is talking about is making more translation available so that you don’t need to be an expert in 10, 20 languages to teach that kind of approach. But again, I think the multi-entry approach is a multi-participant approach. So that’s why I think that the network of experts is extremely important. That we can call on people and say, “Hey, would you through Zoom, come to my class and talk about that tradition or that position or that methodology that I’m not as familiar with.”

Nathan Loewen:

Okay. Well, thanks for your time, so much, Dr. Gereon Kopf for joining us all the way from Decorah, Iowa, at Luther College. We look forward to your future publications and hearing more from you about the multi-entry approach.

Professor Kopf:

Thank you very much for your invitation and for our conversation.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at GlobalCritical.as.ua.edu. There, you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information. Study Religion is a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

For more information about our department, please visit the website at religion.ua.edu, or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple podcasts, or Spotify podcasts. Thanks, goodbye.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion Series Ep. 4 Jin Y. Park on Inclusive Approaches to Teaching Philosophy Of Religion

Nathan Loewen:

Welcome to our podcast series from the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project. This project aims to rethink the philosophy of religion from the ground up, with an entirely new set of categories and questions. As you may imagine, this is no small task. The interview series on teaching is created by Nathan Loewen. The interviews are supported by a grant from the Wabash Center. All of the podcasts you find here on the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion are hosted by Study Religion, a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Nathan Loewen:

How might philosophy of religion be taught in the 21st century? Jin Park is a professor and department chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at American University in Washington, DC. You may learn more about Professor Park’s research and teaching at www.american.edu/cas/faculty/jypark.cfm.

Nathan Loewen:

Dr. Park was part of a pilot project teaching philosophy of religion with a global critical approach. The pilot was supported by a Wabash Center grant administered by Gereon Kopf of Luther College. Our conversation on August 17th, 2020 focused on how Professor Park structures a cross-cultural introduction to the philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Thank you, Jin, for joining me here. We’d like to ask you some questions about what you understand about the global critical philosophy of religion. What might that mean? What are some examples? We have a few short questions, if you’d be so kind to answer, we’d love to hear your thoughts, and then we can use those as jumping off points with the others.

Jin Y. Park:

Thank you very much, and thank you for inviting me, just to get this project started, so I would have to have a conversation with you about those issues.

Nathan Loewen:

What does global critical philosophy of religion mean to you? I mean, is it distinct from comparative intercultural or multicultural philosophy? And finally, what would the significance of a global critical philosophy of religion be as opposed to those other ways of doing philosophical inquiry?

Jin Y. Park:

Yes. I think, the first to start to answer that question is to really define what do we mean by global and critical. I think these two vocabulary seems obvious, but if we really think about it, we can really clarify what this project could be, or to me, what it means.

Jin Y. Park:

So let’s think about global. Obviously, global means that relating to the world. So global philosophy of religion is a kind of philosophy of religion which is trying to examine, discuss the religious traditions around the world. That much sounds clear, but I’d like to kind of move one step farther and think about global in a way more kind of content oriented. In other words, global also means something related to the whole of something, as we say, globally speaking. So, global philosophy of religion should be something that can look at the phenomenon of religion globally, not only just to worldly, geographically, but in terms of topic.

Jin Y. Park:

What I mean by this, in the traditional philosophy of religion, there are only certain topics that have been discussed dominantly, and those topics have been based on the Judeo-Christian tradition. And because of that, there are a number of issues that have been excluded in this discussion. But, as you know, religion is really broad, especially what I call the act of religion. There are religious traditions, religious texts, religious doctrines and institutions, and rituals, all kinds of things. There are a lot of different issues. So I’d like to see this global, not only something related to the world in terms of geographical religious tradition, but in terms of topic, so then we can address those topics which have been excluded so far.

Jin Y. Park:

And then critical, obviously, we use this expression a lot, critical thinking. But what does it mean, exactly? And then sometimes people think that critical means criticizing something. Well, that is not exactly what we mean by critical. So in this case, I’d like to think about critical in the way that, to look at things and then examine the foundation of an argument, for example. If you claim [inaudible 00:05:03], and then critically approach that statement means that what is the foundation of that claim? Does it make sense? And then after you approach that from the foundation of that argument, also trying to place that in the context, and [inaudible 00:05:22] doesn’t make sense in Judeo Christian tradition, doesn’t make sense in Buddhist tradition or Hindu tradition, then you get different answers.

Jin Y. Park:

So put them together in a way that I’d like to think of global critical philosophy of religion is a kind of discipline in which we not only examine the religious traditions around the world, but also the topics that are related to religious phenomenon, all the topics globally. The whole thing, entirety of religious tradition, and does that by contextualizing our questions, and also examining the foundations of certain kind of claim that we are making about certain religions or religious phenomenon.

Jin Y. Park:

And you asked how this might be different from something like comparative philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

Now, this discipline called the comparative something has a lot of problems for a long time. Comparative literature, comparative philosophy, comparative philosophy of religion, in a way that the question is, what is meant to by comparison, is it methodology or content? Actually I teach a, quote unquote, comparative philosophy course, Derrida and Buddhism, that has been one of my major fields. And at the beginning of the semester I ask students, what does it mean that we do comparative philosophy between Derrida and Buddhism? What do you do with this? So Derrida has this, and the Buddhism has that, okay we compare them, there are similarities and differences. It’s actually fun to see that.

Jin Y. Park:

But so what? There we get to, that’s really the core of comparative philosophy. So in other words, if we do not get to, so what part, I mean, it might be fun to compare Judaism and Buddhism, but so what? What do you want to do with that? And I think there, you can use a comparative philosophy religion as just a methodology, or if you get to the content of it, so what do we do with this comparison? You might get to something similar to what we just defined about global critical philosophy of religion. So it depends on how you approach that.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

And comparative philosophy of religion, or comparative philosophy, it sounds like, and usually that’s what happens, it sounds like comparing two separate independent entities. So here is a tradition called Buddhism, for example. Here is the entire tradition called Christianity. You compare them, they are separate.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

And I think a global critical philosophy of religion is not really approaching the different religious traditions from that perspective, that’s what I meant when I said contextualizing certain questions. And how about the multicultural philosophy of religion? I think it’s opposite of comparative philosophy. For example, multiculturalism is more content based. Multiculturalism is an effort to recognize different cultural traditions. Plurality is the kind of basis of this multiculturalism, but then, so what? There are different traditions of culture, what are you going to do with that?

Jin Y. Park:

So there it comes again, the so what issue? And here, we once again get to the content issue, comparing and recognizing different kind of cultures and traditions. Now what do we want to do with that? I think that content is what the global critical philosophy of religion is kind of trying get at, from my perspective. In other words, I think the significance of this project in a way can be explained by comparing what Peter Hershock says in his Valuing Diversity, the difference between variety and diversity.

Jin Y. Park:

So nowadays, at the university, we hear a lot about diversity and inclusion. I think it’s the same at your university too. And okay, what do you mean by diversity? If you bring students from different countries and culture, Asians, Africans, African Americans, and white people, colored people, put them together on campus, does not make it diverse. It’s a variety. We have a variety of students from different colors, colors of skin. Right?

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

And if each kind of individual leaves separately without getting connected to one another, what’s the point of bringing them together? So as Peter Hershock says, variety means simply co-existence. That’s better than exclusion, but then that does not mean that actual inclusion. You just bring those students from a [inaudible 00:10:33] place and then just to place them on campus, and if you do not take care of them and teach how their culture can help other cultures to understand each other, what’s the point?

Jin Y. Park:

Diversity, Peter Hershock says, is a kind of narrowly simple co-existence, it’s the awareness of interconnectedness. So in other words, how the understanding of Asian religious tradition can help understand Christianity. Or how understanding of Jewish tradition can help somebody to understand the Buddhist tradition. So this kind of interconnectedness and the mutual influence in the identity formation and understanding of its own tradition is, I think, the benefit or significance of global critical philosophy of religion.

Nathan Loewen:

Right. Since you mentioned students, I think we could jump to a question that heads into the practical issues. You covered a lot in that response, and now that you mentioned students, it might be worthwhile for us to hear from you about how you translate your understanding of global critical philosophy of religion as you’ve just talked about it. How do you translate that into your pedagogy and strategies that you would suggest for an undergraduate student body? Where do you go there? Could you lead us in that direction please?

Jin Y. Park:

Right. So I think one of the obvious efforts to do this global critical philosophy of religion in our curriculum is to bring in this kind of non-Western philosophy religious traditions. So I don’t know how many people actually teach the philosophy religion as an independent course. At my university, in my department, we have Philosophy of Religion course, but this is only for upper level grad course. We don’t have Intro to Philosophy of Religion. But the way I do it, I incorporate it in my religious heritage of Asia, or the kind of world religion course.

Jin Y. Park:

So, first thing, that obvious thing that we can do is really add those non-Western religious traditions in your curriculum and see how students respond to those materials, and help them understand non-Western traditions. But at the same time, ask them how this understanding of non-Western religious traditions helped them understand the religious traditions that they are familiar with.

Jin Y. Park:

So that’s the kind of first thing that we can do. The second thing is, as I mentioned before, to think about different topics. Traditionally, philosophy of religion is, does [inaudible 00:13:25], and so then why is there evil in the world? And so, and so forth. But bringing different hot topics that are really relevant to us today.

Jin Y. Park:

And one of the thing I usually do is gender issues. Gender in Buddhism, for example, gender in Confucianism, and think about how this different gender, women or men, actually understand the same religious tradition differently, and they are treated different. What does that mean for us when we understand religion? So kind of draw from practice and the meaning of religion from marginalized groups, not only women, but then socially marginalized groups, and things like that.

Jin Y. Park:

So the first one is geographically drawing from different religious traditions, especially include non-Western materials. The second one is, topically, we included those religious practices of those people who have been marginalized or excluded in the traditional philosophy of religion discourse. But this does not necessarily mean that Western religious traditions cannot be part of global critical philosophy of religion.

Jin Y. Park:

For example, actually this semester I’ll be teaching one credit course, titled Religion Without Religion. You should know what this means, right? So it’s obviously [inaudible 00:14:52] there is a philosophy of religion. That he’s a philosopher of religion, but his religious approach. Capital called it religion without religion. So what I try to do is to read some sections of Derrida’s work. And think about what it means to practice religion, what do we know about religion?

Jin Y. Park:

So this is a way of using Western material, but then critically approaching, critical Derrida asks, when do we pray? To whom do we pray? And this is a whole question about prayer. And then how do we do the prayer in the [inaudible 00:15:30] and things like that.

Nathan Loewen:

Right.

Jin Y. Park:

So this is one of the case that by using Western tradition, you also do a critical approach to the philosophy of religion. So, yeah, so I think there are various different ways that we can actually incorporate this in our curriculum.

Nathan Loewen:

Thank you so much for are answering these questions. These are a great way for us to start moving into our discussions about what global critical philosophy of religion can turn into, particularly for different teachers and instructors across the United States.

Nathan Loewen:

Thanks for listening. For more information about the Global Critical Philosophy of Religion Project, please visit our website at globalcritical, and that’s all one word, .as.ua.edu. There you will find our participating scholars, publications, sponsors, projects, and contact information.

Nathan Loewen:

Study Religion is a production of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. For more information about our department, please visit the website at religion.ua.edu, or you can search for our department on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Facebook, SoundCloud, Apple podcasts, or Spotify podcasts.