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Philosophy of Religion

The Philosophy of Religion pathway 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 pathway 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 pathway 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. Throughout the year, 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. Students in this pathway are expected to attend the D Society seminars.



Module 1. Michaelmas Term 2023. Nature: Mechanism and Anti-Mechanism


Module Coordinator: Douglas Hedley,


The concept of ‘nature’ is polyvalent and perplexing. This module 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.

There will be four classes this term, each lasting for two hours. No prior knowledge


of classical languages or history is required for this module.


Objectives. The aims of the module 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 Module


    • Seminar 1. Nature as φύσις (phusis)
    • Seminar 2. Nature as natura
    • Seminar 3. Mind and World
    • Seminar 4. Divine Ideas and the Problem of God’s Aseity


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 module coordinator. Essay titles must be approved by the degree committee. Some indicative questions are:

    • Nature and Religion. Is God beyond nature?
    • Nature and Aesthetics. What is the role of imagination in our perception of nature?
    • Nature and Panpsychism. Is Mentality fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world?
    • 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?


Module 2. Michaelmas Term. Islamic Philosophical Theology: The Ashʿarī School through the lens of systematicity and development of theological method

Module Coordinator: Dr Yasser Qureshy


This seminar series is conceived to explore two interrelated aims.


Firstly, to bring to light the systematic character of the classical Ashʿarī school. ‘Systematic’ is here meant to convey the idea that the theologians under consideration built an architectonic of knowledge with comprehensive and integrated categories of understanding the world, taking in the ontology of the cosmos, its metaphysics, its logical thought structure, its semantic categories and additionally for the purposes of this seminar series, the science of optics. Importantly, such an understanding saw these disciplines not as mutually exclusive or siloed categories but as continuous fields of inquiry that contributed towards building a complete and holistic worldview. In constructing such a worldview, Ashʿarī thinkers did not see speculation about the world as something removed from understanding God’s word as revealed in the Qur’an. Here, the importance of the science referred to as uṣūl al-fiqh as a method to interpret and understand Scripture, as well as the way this science complements broader theological method, will be explored. Understood in this way, the systematic nature of Islamic philosophical theology can be appraised from at least three perspectives:

How the internal topics of Islamic philosophical theology fit together. For instance, how discussions on metaphysics, ontology, types and sources of knowledge, God’s attributes, and prophetology are inter-related and cross- dependent.


How Islamic philosophical theology as a science fits together with other sciences such as uṣūl al-fiqh, adīth, and Qur’anic exegesis to form an integrated set of disciplines. For instance, uṣūl al-fiqh is taken as the science that determines how scripture is to be understood through a particular theory of language, a particular theory of abrogation, and a particular theory of resolving seemingly conflicting evidence. It is through the hermeneutical principles of uṣūl al-fiqh that Muslim scholars have come to understand scripture the way they do, and some of the things that have come to be understood through this method have theological implications.


The manner in which the various Islamic sciences stand in a relation of subordination to a foundational science which bestows the other sciences with their first principles. Within such an epistemological hierarchy, some sciences are more primary, which means they are epistemologically more foundational, and other sciences rest on these prior sciences. Such an idea is Aristotelian in stock, modified by Ibn Sīnā (d. 427/1037), and then brought into the Islamic theological tradition in its earliest form by Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111). In this epistemological hierarchy, Islamic philosophical theology serves as the epistemological guarantor for all other sciences.

The second aim of the seminar series has a methodological focus, wherein we will explore the logico-epistemological development of the classical Ashʿarī school, and how it came to reject its earlier logical methods, thus paving the way for its subsequent move towards a more robust epistemological base in the form of Avicennan logic. The interplay between the two aims will be anchored in a case study of one of the most significant theological disputes in classical Islamic theology: the beatific vision (ru’yat Allah).

Entering the fray of Islamic philosophical theology in the 11th century is important for at least the following five reasons: (i) it represents the culmination of the steadily growing influence of Avicennan philosophy on the thought of Muslim theologians;

  1. we find in this period a group of theologians representative of the mature phase of Ash‘arism, specifically through the works of Abū al-Ma‘ālī al-Juwaynī and his group of students: Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Abū al-Qāsim al-Anṣārī, and Ilkiyā al- arrāsī; (iii) this period provides the turning point when we can now more meaningfully describe Ash‘arī theologians as philosophical theologians based on their adoption of Avicennan modes of reasoning which saw them move away from dialectical argumentation towards demonstration (burhān); (iv) the influence this period exercised on subsequent thinkers, resulting in the post-classical tradition of theology that becomes significantly more philosophical in nature and scope; (v) it further allows us to understand and modify Ibn Khaldūn’s division of the Ash‘arī school into classical and post-classical as a distinction of method and intricate philosophical argument rather than a temporal distinction.

Teaching will be by four two-hour seminars augmented by two one-hour supervisions.


Module aims. This module provides a systematic and methodological framework through which to explore questions in classical Islamic philosophical theology, specifically in relation to the Ashʿarī school. MPhil students taking this module will


be able to identity and assess the undergirding of a major theological question. By so doing, the module intends to show the Islamic philosophical corpus as a source that has creatively and critically addressed perennial questions of philosophy in general, and perhaps offer argumentative pathways and tools with which to engage newly emergent questions of concern to contemporary philosophers.

The module proposes an approach wherein one is able to ‘do’ philosophical theology. Instead of limiting the scope of the study of Islamic philosophical theology in its classical and post-classical stages to a study of historical tradition, the module expands the scope to an active, critical, and systematic revisiting of this philosophical canon and offers a further step in the increasingly growing attempts to develop a global perspective on Islamic philosophical inquiry. It is hoped the module will also go towards challenging the narrative that Islamic philosophy was mostly barren (or worse, parasitic on actual philosophy), and that Islamic intellectuality fell into decadence and decline from the 12th century onwards. The module may also be offered to postgraduate students from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies interested in the tradition of Islamic philosophical theology, as well as those in the Classics Faculty interested in the engagement—and at the hands of Ibn Sīnā, the reworking—of Aristotelian thought in the Arabo-Islamic tradition.


Module outline:

    • Seminar One: The interplay between philosophical theology and scriptural hermeneutics
    • Seminar Two: Physical theory: atomism
    • Seminar Three: Development of theological method
    • Seminar Four: Systematicity and development of method through a case study on the beatific vision.

The module assessment is by a 5000-word essay. Students may select a title from the list below, in consultation with the module convenor. Alternatively, students may formulate their own title on a suitable topic, in discussion with the module convenor, within the area of the module. Titles are subject to the approval of the Degree Committee, Faculty of Divinity. In either case, the choice of essay subject will be dependent on the availability of appropriate supervision. Sample essay questions include:

    • With systematic considerations in mind, what regulatory function does atomism serve in the classical Ashʿarī school?
    • Would the Ashʿarī theory of occasionalism work within a hylomorphic ontological model?
    • Ghazālī: “analogical reasoning is inadmissible in theology” (la qiyās fī al-

ʿaql). Discuss.

    • According to Ghazālī, a mutakallim does not need to know logic. How correct is this assessment?
    • How motivated were the Muʿtazila by theological commitments in adopting an extramission theory of vision?
    • To what extent do the theological positions of the Ashʿarī and Muʿtazilī schools influence their respective ontological commitments?
    • Can classical Ashʿarism be considered truly systematic?
    • With reference to the classical Ashʿarī and Muʿtazili theological schools, do competing theories of language imply competing theological positions?



Module 3. Lent Term. Gesture, Perception, Event


Module 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 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 module 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 6 seminars.


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


Seminar Topics

    • *1. The Gestures and Postures of Prayer in Medieval Europe (HW)
    • *2. Augustine: Truth and Event (CP)
    • *3. Anselm: Perception and Revelation (CP)
    • *4. Aquinas: Truth and Being (CP)
    • 5. Gesture, Perception and Revelation in Dante (HW)
    • 6. Catherine of Siena: Performing the Passion; Performing Compassion (HW)


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 pathway 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

    • Does the idea that we think with our whole bodies and the environment favour a realist, or merely a phenomenological approach to truth?
    • Is Anselm’s argument fundamentally a Platonic one?
    • What role does an anticipation of beatitude play in Anselm’s Proslogion?
    • In what sense for Aquinas is truth to be distinguished from being?
    • Does Aquinas’s consideration of Christ as the Incarnate Truth add anything decisive to his philosophy consideration of truth in general?
    • If truth is embodied, is it also devotional?



Module 4. Lent Term. Sergii Bulgakov – Speculation and Subjectivity


Module co-ordinator: Dr Joshua Heath,


Russian philosopher-theologian Sergii Bulgakov (1871-1944) has long been recognised as a seminal figure in twentieth-century Christian thought. That recognition has only grown with the ongoing efforts to translate his immense corpus into English, such that the full breadth of Bulgakov’s intellectual achievements (and complexity) has come increasingly into view. For Bulgakov’s name was long associated with his controversial reflections on ‘Sophia’ or the ‘Divine Wisdom’. This module will get beyond this fixation on Sophia, by offering an alternative path through Bulgakov’s mature theological and philosophical output. This alternative path will take the concept of subjectivity, or ‘personhood’ [lichnost’ in Russian] as the cornerstone of Bulgakov’s intellectual edifice. We will thus read the works on language and subjectivity produced by Bulgakov in the 1920s and interpret his subsequent theological output (especially the ‘major’ dogmatic trilogy) in light of those works. For Bulgakov’s more speculative tendencies, manifest in his work on angels, his distinctions between different kinds of eternity and nothingness, and above all in his notion of ‘Sophia’ and its place within the Trinity, are all part of this reflexive project of thinking about what it means to be a created, human subject. Thus, Bulgakov’s works from the 1920s allow us to understand his speculative project, not as an extended flight of fancy, but as a discipline, an ascesis that responds to Paul’s injunction to ‘be transformed by the renewal of your mind’ (Rom. 12:2).


Teaching will be by four two-hour seminars.


Module aims. This module aims to acquaint students with one of the most important voices in contemporary Christian thought. As well as introducing students to an influential strand of reflection on Christian doctrine, this module will also use Bulgakov’s work to reflect on what is at stake in theological and philosophical thinking more broadly. It also provides students with a sustained opportunity for


close reading of difficult texts, enabling them to elucidate the stakes of the kinds of hermetic text that populate the theological and philosophical landscape.

Prerequisites: A Michaelmas Term module from either the Christian Theology or the Philosophy of Religion track. All required texts are available in translation and while reading knowledge of Russian is helpful, it is not in any way required.


Module outline

    • Seminar One: Language and Personhood
    • Seminar Two: Personhood as Ascesis
    • Seminar Three: Creation and The Fall; or, Time and History
    • Seminar Four: Thinking the Trinity


Description of Assessment. This module is assessed by a 5000-word essay. Students may select a title from the list below, in consultation with the module coordinator. Alternatively, students may formulate their own title on a suitable topic, in discussion with the coordinator, within the area of the module. Titles are subject to the approval of the Degree Committee, Faculty of Divinity.

Coursework. Students will be expected to present at least once per term. Oral presentations will be agreed with the module convenor 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 Essay Questions.

    • Is Bulgakov’s definition of the world as the predicate of the subject compatible with his account of the world’s reality?
    • Is Bulgakov’s theory of predication plausible as a theory of language?
    • What picture of intersubjectivity emerges from Bulgakov’s writings on ascesis?
    • What are the implications of Bulgakov’s interpretation of ascesis and/or prophecy for intellectual activity?
    • What does it mean for a created subject to be eternal?
    • How does Bulgakov’s understanding of what it means to be a fallen subject interact with his understanding of what it means to be a created subject?
    • Can Bulgakov’s Trinitarian texts be considered apophatic?
    • Is Bulgakov’s account of the transcendence of the Father coherent and/or admissible?


Module 5. Lent Term. Theology in the Anthropocene


Module 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: The module will be taught with a one-hour class in the first week, to discuss the reading for the term, and two three- or four-hour workshops on two successive Fridays in the middle of term.


Seminar Topics:

    • 1. Introducing theology in the Anthropocene (optional
    • 2. Sin
    • 3. Creation
    • 4. Mission
    • 5. Afterlife


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 module coordinators, or they may select one questions from the list below:

    • What, if anything, is theological about the concept of the Anthropocene?
    • ‘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?
    • Can a doctrine of creation still be relevant to the Anthropocene?
    • ‘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.
    • Is there a future after the end?



Module 6. Lent Term. Science of Creation- Premodern Theories


Module Coordinator: Suf Amichay,


The founders of the philosophical traditions in all three Abrahamic religions believed that their theories of nature should be able to account for the beginningor the eternityof the world. Many of these theories, although no longer taken seriously by modern scientists, are echoing in the background of our modern theological beliefs. Today, we mostly study them out of context, only looking for their theological claims, and overlooking their scientific intent; but these theories were meant to offer a true account of nature and the world. By learning to contextualise them within the history of science, students will gain a fuller understanding of the theories and the motivation for their composition.

The module will introduce students to crucial points in the intersection of Abrahamic religions with the history of pre-modern Western science. We will take ‘science’ to mean a comprehensive theory of the physical world and the natural law. The seminar will focus not on the question of whether God created the world, but on different explanations of how such creation manifests through nature. We will employ methodologies taken from the field of history of science to assess the place these traditions assigned to God in the world, and to examine different approaches to divine action and natural law.


Methodology. The paper aims to introduce MPhil students to the critical reading of historical, theological and philosophical texts on a postgraduate level. Both the ability to read a text closely and to criticise and engage with its content will be taught and asked of the students; students will be asked to be aware of historical context, philological connections and philosophical consistency in the text, as well as the relation of those to bigger, metaphysical-theological questions. When possible, the seminar will try to avoid texts often taught in the faculty. All texts will be taught in English translation, no knowledge of other languages is required. No prior courses are required. Students are expected to participate in meetings of either The Medieval Philosophy Reading Group or The Aristotelian Society.

Seminars Overview:

    • Seminar one: The Philosophical Foundations of Western Cosmogony
    • Seminar two: Early Jewish Exegesis of Genesis 1:1
    • Seminar Three: Medieval Theories of Matter and the Creation of the World
    • Seminar four: Creation and Early Modern Science
    • Seminar five: Eccentric Theories of Creation


Coursework. Students will be required to read all primary sources and preferably most secondary sources before the seminar. The seminar will be taught with the Socratic method, by asking the students questions and leading them to draw their own conclusions based on close reading of the texts. Through the seminar, each student will be required to prepare at least one primary text and present it at the beginning of the proper discussion; the student will then be expected to be active in the following discussion. Students will receive 2x1hr supervisions.

Assessment. The paper will be assessed through a written essay of about 5000 words, referring either to a text from the syllabus with an original question, or to a different scientific text about creation. Students will be expected to apply the methodologies learned in the seminars in their essays. As part of the learning process, the questions will be formulated by the students with help from the convenor. This is meant to prepare students for more advanced research, as coming up with research questions is an essential part of scholarship. Secondary literature will be assigned for each chosen question.


Sample Questions:

    • Can the fashioning of the world in the Timaeus be called creation?
    • What is the role of meteorology in the creation story of Chagiga?
    • Are Philoponus’ arguments for the temporal finitude of the world Aristotelian?
    • What is the place of God in Newton’s theory of space?
    • Is De Radiis a theory of cosmogony, or only of cosmology?