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Philosophy of Religion MPhil Pathway

Philosophy of Religion

The MPhil in Philosophy of Religion reflects the distinctiveness of the field which has developed at Cambridge over the past 100 years. The subject area has come to be defined by an attention to metaphysical frameworks, questions of ontology and epistemology, poetic form and an interdisciplinary approach, as well as a concern to address current philosophical developments from a philosophico-theological perspective, and a commitment to bringing pre-modern sources to bear upon contemporary philosophical questions.

The MPhil in Philosophy of Religion is designed for students interested in metaphysics – the nature of (ultimate) reality and God within reality. It explores theoretical, historically contextualised and poetic-liturgical approaches to these questions, with close attention to primary sources and textual forms. The three modules which are available this year investigate, respectively, (1) nature (theology and the Anthropocene), (2) the meta-physical or spirit (including human spirit), and (3) spiritual additions to nature which constitute perceptions, gestures and events disclosive of the divine.

The course welcomes students whose previous study was in theology and philosophy as well as cognate fields, such as classics and comparative literature. It attracts students from all over the world, with the training provided forming an ideal foundation from which to proceed to doctoral research, whether in the UK or internationally.

The MPhil in Philosophy of Religion is primarily a research degree over a nine-month full-time programme, and a part-time option is now available. Priority is given to the pursuit of the individual student’s research in the form of a thesis, which they work on alongside two 5000-word essays, each linked with a termly module (MT and LT). Three module seminars are on offer this coming year, in specific areas of philosophical theology, reflecting current research interests in the Faculty. From these, each student will study two modules, one in MT and one in LT.

The MPhil in Philosophy of Religion offers students a rounded and flexible Master’s programme which provides them with an introduction to two connected fields within its scope, while allowing them to specialise in their own area of particular research interest. It offers a thorough training in the key techniques of higher-level academic study and research specific to the field, including languages and methodological skills. It is an inter-disciplinary programme, linking Philosophy, Theology and Comparative Literatures and Cultures (ELAC). The teaching staff and examiners have diverse backgrounds and interests (Catherine Pickstock, Douglas Hedley, Simone Kotva, Hjoerdis Becker-Lindenthal, James OrrHeather Webb and Adrian Mihai). Throughout the course, students will be supervised by a dedicated supervisor who will guide their research towards the completion of an original topic chosen and developed by them in consultation with their supervisor. In addition, students will benefit from the Faculty’s and Cambridge’s vibrant research environment, participating in the D Society seminars, as well as the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism, and other research seminars, guest talks, workshops and other events throughout the year.

Learning Outcomes

The MPhil in Philosophy of Religion provides an in-depth study of key areas of research in the field, and all students will have a supervisor who will guide them through the requirements of the course, and, most crucially, their thesis.

Students will be introduced to methodological and analytical skills necessary to understand and evaluate existing research, and to pursue original research in their own fields of interest. Through individual supervisions and module seminars, students are introduced to the more specialised and intensive nature of research required at a postgraduate level. By the end of the programme, students will have acquired the following skills:

  • an enhanced understanding of recent developments in Philosophy of Religion, as well as an appreciation of the broader theoretical approaches and intellectual idioms that inform its study;
  • acquired the analytical capacity to pursue independent study of primary sources in Philosophy of Religion, and to evaluate the findings of secondary sources; and
  • acquired the ability to situate their own research findings within the context of other interpretative approaches in the field.

Beyond the MPhil in Philosophy of Religion

The majority of our MPhil students go on to pursue doctoral research in Cambridge and elsewhere. Students wishing to continue to the PhD at Cambridge are expected to achieve an overall mark of 71% in the MPhil, with a grade of at least 71% in their thesis. Admission to the PhD degree is subject to the availability of a suitable supervisor.

 

Michaelmas Term 2019

Nature: Mechanism and Anti-Mechanism

Course Coordinator: Professor Douglas Hedley

The concept of ‘nature’ is polyvalent and perplexing. This course surveys the main intellectual traditions from the “classical” period of Western philosophy (approx. 550 BCE) up to, and including, current trends in contemporary philosophy. The texts we will read from these traditions deal with fundamental questions about Nature and its relation with Ethics, Aesthetics, Political Theory, Human Nature, and Metaphysics. The range of answers they present to these questions laid a foundation to our contemporary attitudes and patterns of behaviour toward nature.

The four classes in this term, each lasting for two hours, will be led by Professor Douglas Hedley and Dr Adrian Mihai.

No prior knowledge of classical languages or history is required for this course.

Students must attend the D-Society.

Objectives

The aims of the course are to:

  • Initiate the student to reflect upon the concept of nature in a philosophical manner. This reflection should enable the student to develop the necessary competences (abilities and attitudes) susceptible to enhance the quality of a dialogue on the various current debates concerning nature. 

  • Become acquainted with the history of philosophy, by studying a specific metaphysical theme. 

  • Develop a critical thinking about philosophical issues in general, and about the idea of nature in particular. 


Structure of the Course

I. Nature as φύσις (phusis)

II. Nature as natura

III. Nature between Mechanism and Vitalism 


IV. Nature and Reality 


Assessment

This module is assessed through a 5,000 word essay. Students may select an essay subject from the list below, or may write on a suitable topic agreed in consultation with the course coordinator. Essay titles must be approved by the degree committee.

Sample Questions

  1. Nature and Religion. Is God beyond nature? 

  2. Nature and Aesthetics. What is the role of imagination in our perception of nature? 

  3. Nature and Panpsychism. Is Mentality fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world? 

  4. Nature and Convention. Is taste subjective, or conventional, or both? 


Nature, Free-Will and Determinism. If one accepts that the universe is governed by natural laws, does this entail determinism?

Lent Term 2020

Gesture, Perception, Event

Course co-ordinator: Professor Catherine Pickstock

Whilst the Middle Ages were influenced by certain Greek philosophical traditions which regard truth and science as an abstraction from matter, time, body and contingency, at the same time the central doctrine of Christianity, that of the Incarnation, suggested that truth has been fully manifested in one particular time, as one particular embodied person.  Here, truth is as much a performative manifestation as it is a theoretical indication of the universal.  It also consists in Christ’s deeds and gestures (for example, the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday) as much as in his words.  Later Christian thought tended to resolve this tension in terms of a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural levels of understanding.  But this was much less true of earlier Christian thought which made no abrupt distinction between philosophy and theology, or between metaphysics and liturgical illumination.  Hence, the Greek pagan and Biblical traditions tended to be seen as mutually interfering.  Furthermore, the notion of a ritual and performance dimension to truth was not wholly alien to the later tradition.

This M.Phil. module investigates this mutual interference in the High to Late Middle Ages.  Seminars will focus on a selection of Latin, Italian and English primary sources that range between literary, devotional, or philosophico-theological modes as a main focus, with associated readings. The first two sessions which introduce the main research questions under consideration in the course as a whole.

Teaching provision: 4 x 2 hour seminars.  Compulsory seminars for students are indicated by an asterisk, but they are encouraged to attend all 5 seminars.

Prerequisites: A Michaelmas term module from either the Christian Theology or the Philosophy of religion track.

Divinity Graduate Seminar: D Society (Philosophy of Religion)

Seminar Topics

*1. The Gestures and Postures of Prayer in Medieval Europe

*2. Truth and Event

*3. Perception and Revelation

*4. Truth and Being

5. Gesture, Perception and Revelation in Dante

Module aims: This seminar would allow extension of ongoing research collaborations into teaching, and provide an institutional framework for the exploration of questions that are relevant to the study of medieval texts but which transcend the boundaries of specialism of any one lecturer or faculty.  Philosophy of Religion M.Phil. students will be able to identify and assess questions pertaining to theories of truth not just in the more narrowly cognitive sense but also as performed ‘representations’ of reality.

Description of Assessment: This module is assessed through a 5,000 word essay.  Students may select a subject from the list below, in consultation with Professor Pickstock.  Alternatively, students may formulate their own title on a suitable topic, in discussion with the Professor Pickstock, within the area of the module.  Titles are subject to the approval of the Degree Committee.  In either case, the choice of essay subject will be dependent on the availability of appropriate supervision.

Coursework: Students will be expected to present at least once.  Oral presentations will be agreed with module co-ordinator and will be 10-20 minutes in length.  Students not presenting at a given seminar will be expected to contribute a critical reflection paper, of two doubled-spaced sides, for each seminar.  These should be submitted not later than 4 pm the day before the class.

Sample Questions

1. Does the idea that we think with our whole bodies and the environment favour a realist, or merely a phenomenological approach to truth?

2. Is Anselm’s argument fundamentally a Platonic one?

3. What role does an anticipation of beatitude play in Anselm’s Proslogion?

4. In what sense for Aquinas is truth to be distinguished from being?

5. Does Aquinas’s consideration of Christ as the Incarnate Truth add anything decisive to his philosophy consideration of truth in general?

6. If truth is embodied, is it also devotional?

Nicholas of Cusa as a Philosophical Theologian

Course Coordinator: Dr Silvianne Aspray

This module draws on the thought of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) as a means to consider key issues in philosophical theology.  Students will read parts of Cusa’s work and bring it into conversation with other sources old and new.  This will enable them to retrieve elements of Cusa’s thought to think through questions like: What does it mean for God to be transcendent?  What is the metaphysical relationship between creation and the transcendent God?  How can human beings know anything about that which transcends their finite horizon?  What role may liturgical and artistic mediation play in knowing God?  How can finite language speak of the infinite?

There has been a resurgence of interest in Nicholas of Cusa in English speaking theology and philosophy in recent decades.  Cusa’s creative and paradoxical thinking straddles the Middle Ages and nascent modernity.  As such it offers unique possibilities for a ressourcement in a time when we need to re-think many of modernity’s classic tenets, such as the objectivity of knowledge, the neutrality of language and the immanent frame of reference when describing the world.  It has even been argued that in Cusa’s thought there may be the seed for an ‘alternative modernity’ (Johannes Hoff).  Doing philosophical theology with Nicholas of Cusa therefore also serves to understand the genesis and contingencies of secular modernity.

Teaching Provision: Five seminars of two hours each (students are required to attend four of them) in weeks 2-6 of term, plus an introductory meeting in week 1.

Module Outline

Introductory meeting| Introducing Nicholas of Cusa: Life, Work, and Significance

Seminar 1| Cusa and Genealogies of Modernity

Seminar 2| Transcendence: Cusa and the Neoplatonic Tradition

Seminar 3| Knowledge: Cusa and the Discovery of the Self

Seminar 4| Representation: Cusa, Perspectivity and Truth

Seminar 5| Mediation: Cusa and the Question of Artefacts and Technics

Module aims: The module studies philosophical and theological understandings of transcendence, knowledge, representation and mediation by bringing the work of Nicholas of Cusa in conversation with other ancient and contemporary authors.  M.Phil. candidates will explain issues in philosophical theology in dialogue with various sources and make specific connections between instances of a similar problem.  They will apply these insights to understandings of the genesis and nature of modernity.

Senior Seminar: The D Society (Philosophy of Religion) or Christian Theology

Description of Assessment: This module is assessed through a critical research paper of 5,000 words.  Students are encouraged to formulate their own essay question in consultation with the course coordinator or they may select one question from the list below.  All essay titles need to be approved by the Degree Committee.

1.  In what ways does Nicholas of Cusa’s thought embody an ‘alternative modernity’?

2.  Is Nicholas of Cusa’s understanding of the relationship between God and the world fundamentally a platonic one?

3.  What is the relationship between the One and the many (or: between singularity and universality) in the thought of Nicholas of Cusa?

4.  How does Cusa’s understanding of infinity compare with Descartes?

5.  What would Cusa have thought about Descartes’ method of finding a “firm foundation” for our knowledge?

6.  What can Cusa’s “science of praise” contribute towards a renewed understanding of theological and philosophical method?

7.  Is Cusa’s search for truth fundamentally ‘liturgical’?

8.  Why does Cusa prominently draw on artefacts like the icon or the beryl in his philosophical and mystical theology?

9.  What, if anything, can Cusa contribute to contemporary philosophical discourse about technics?          

Theology in the Anthropocene

Course Coordinators: Dr Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal and Dr Simone Kotva

The Anthropocene is the name recently given by scientists to mark a new epoch in which human beings have become the earth’s primary geological agents.  The concept of the Anthropocene has put humanity back into planetary history, confronting her with collective responsibility, but also culpability, for the earth and its future.  These (often) unacknowledged debts to theology pose as both challenge and invitation.  Should the Anthropocene’s anthropocentrism encourage a reactionary turn to the post-human or a critical recuperation of Christian humanism?  How does the dizzying scale of geological time contrast with environmental theology’s concurrent tendency to favour smaller-scale paradigms of an ‘incarnated’ present?  The module will study the Anthropocene as an emergent concept, approaching it critically from the perspective of environmental theology.  Following an introductory seminar, four classes will address the Anthropocene through the following themes: sin, creation, afterlife, and apocalypse.

Prerequisites: A Michaelmas Term module from either the Christian Theology or the Philosophy of Religion track.

Teaching provision: Five seminars of one and a half hours each.

Seminar Topics:

1. Introducing theology in the Anthropocene

2. Sin

3. Creation

4. Afterlife

5. Apocalypse (optional)

Module aims: The module aims to study understandings of environment, eschatology and ethics in relation to the conceptual and geological framework of the Anthropocene.

Description of assessment: The module is assessed through a critical research paper of 5,000 words.  Students may formulate their own essay question in consultation with the course coordinators, or they may select one questions from the list below:

1. What, if anything, is theological about the concept of the Anthropocene?

2. ‘Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat/sighing through all her works gave signs of woe’ (Milton).  Does a theology of climate change depend upon the idea of sin?

3. Can a doctrine of creation still be relevant to the Anthropocene?

4. ‘If memento mori is sauce for the individual, I do not know why species should be spared the taste for it’ (C.S. Lewis).  Discuss the significance of ‘remembering death’ for Anthropocene ethics.

5. Is there a future after the end?