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Religion and the One 1979–1981

Frederick Charles Copleston

Table of Contents

Copleston’s Gifford Lectures explore the religious significance of metaphysical ideas of ‘the One’ and ‘the many’. The idea of an ‘ultimate reality’ is one found throughout religiously oriented philosophical systems, and finds expression in many contrasting ways. He examines the metaphysical systems found in traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, the Advaita Vedanta, Christianity and Western philosophy in general. He assesses the various philosophical presumptions and methods that have led thinkers in different traditions to insist on the ineffability and immanence of the One through mysticism, and others, informed by rational methods, on its transcendence. He outlines the relationship that ought to exist between the sort of metaphysics he is concerned with here and science, as well as ethics, worldviews and, ultimately, truth.
Sam Addison
University of Aberdeen
KEY WORDS: Absolute, Advaita Vedanta, Being, Bradley, Brahman, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Metaphysics, Monism, Mysticism, Neoplatonism, Nirvana, Samkara, Science, Taoism
• • • • •
In his Gifford Lectures, Copleston explores the relationship between religion and philosophy from “Western” and “non-Western” perspectives. In particular, he focuses on expressions of the common idea of ‘the One’, be it conceived of as some theistic God, the Absolute, Emptiness or whatever.
The first lecture, ‘The Metaphysics of the One and the Many’, aims to draw out common ideas as well as significant dissimilarities between various attempts to relate the world of plurality with the one ultimate reality, as is common in religiously oriented philosophical systems. Copleston criticises the contention that the metaphysics of the One and the many belong to a pre-scientific phase. He then elaborates on the connection between religion and the metaphysical systems under consideration, and then on the significant theme of escapism. After outlining the various ideas with which ‘the One’ has been identified and how ‘the many’ can be understood in light of these, he comments on methods available for discriminating between such theories.
The next lecture, on the One in Taoism and Buddhism, begins with some historical aspects of Chinese philosophy with respect to Confucianism and Taoism. Copleston then explores Taoist understandings of the many in relation to the One, or the Tao, and then moves from its philosophical aspects to its mysticism. This leads to a discussion of the Buddhism imported into China, focussing on its doctrines of ‘emptiness’ and ‘nirvana’ as a religious goal. Zen Buddhism’s conception of the Absolute is then examined, as are some psychological interpretations of Zen. The lecture concludes with reference to the supposed connection between the philosophies of the Far East and the worldview of modern physics.
The next lecture moves on to India and its notable philosophies and their religious inclinations. Copleston tries to dissociate Indian philosophy from monism, suggesting that the majority were in fact pluralistic, and that some were not as religious as is commonly supposed. He focuses on Samkara, presenting an account of his qualified monism or non-dualism, and then Madhva’s criticisms of the Advaita Vedanta. He then examines the views of Ramanuja and others in their attempts to adapt Samkara by bringing in elements of personalism, thus developing the religious possibilities of the Advaita Vedanta.
Lecture 4 is concerned with Islam, with its powerful emphasis on God’s transcendence and the implications of this for the notion of mysticism in Islamic philosophy. Copleston begins with a historical look at Al-Ghazali and his attack on the Greek-influenced Averroes and Al-Farabi, following it with an account of Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi and the ‘metaphysics of light’. The next section shows how this developed into the philosophical, theosophical and mystical thought known as the Hikmat, exemplified in Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi.
The next lecture turns to Western philosophy and the One. Copleston begins with Greek philosophy and the role of religion in Greek culture, focussing on Plotinus. The next section highlights the difference between ancient Greece and medieval Christendom, in that—owing perhaps to the Church – the philosophy of the Middle Ages was distinctly religious. He goes on to present a brief account of Hegel, taking him to have transformed the theistic concept of God into the Absolute. Hegel’s pronouncements on religion lead into a discussion of Bradley’s conception of the Absolute and his view of philosophy as necessarily usurping religion. A discussion of the Absolute, science and the phenomenal world is next, followed by remarks about the attitude of Christian theologians and transcendent metaphysics.
In Lecture 6, Copleston considers the idea of the world of plurality as the appearance of a One that is conceived of as the self-developing or transforming universe, such as is apparent in Taoism. After discussing some linguistic points, he attempts to outline the movement of the mind from the world of many to the One, as exemplified in the arguments of Aquinas. The lecture concludes with a consideration of the identification of the world with the One in light of the notion of transcendence.
In lecture 7, Copleston examines how a notion of the One informs and is informed by the idea of the self. With reference to Taoism, Wittgenstein, Fichte and Samkara, he explores and criticises various ways in which the self can be viewed as part of or distinct from the world, and as a subject and agent.
Lecture 8 examines a significant aspect of many theories and ideas of the One, namely, mysticism and the possibility of mystical knowledge. Copleston begins with a look at the concept of experience and how interpretation relates to it to get an a priori handle on claims of mystical experience. He then looks at transcendence and ineffability, the description of experience and the role that mystical experience plays in the construction of a worldview.
The penultimate lecture focuses on ethics, metaphysics and social ideals, beginning with an analysis of the relation between normative ethics and metaphysics, assessing attempts to derive ethical principles from metaphysical claims and the well-known concerns over the possibility of deriving normative principles from metaphysical facts. Copleston then discusses the historical and conceptual relation between social ethics, religion and philosophy, before questioning the view that ethics can remain an entirely autonomous discipline.
Copleston begins his final lecture, ‘The Succession of Systems and Truth’, by reflecting on the role of metaphysics, comparing it with science in terms of succession, progress and worldviews. He then looks at possible criteria for assessing the cognitive value of metaphysical hypotheses and their potential for truth and verification, and then at the idea that metaphysics is basic to science. Copleston concludes his lectures by reflecting upon the metaphysics of the One, religion and the plurality of philosophies.
Sam Addison
University of Aberdeen
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Templeton Press