The purpose of this class is to consider central philosophical questions arising from the nature of religious belief. We will explore such matters as the nature and existence of God, the character of the miraculous, differing conceptions of immortality found among the world’s religions, and the problems posed by religious pluralism. Throughout, the class will emphasize two crucial matters: the importance of reason and argument (hence the significance of analyzing arguments both for and against the existence of God); and the great diversity of religious ideas.
Field WorkCountry: Russia
Day: 1 - St. Petersburg - Thursday, 29 August
Our field lab in Saint Petersberg will have two parts. In the morning, we will be visiting one of the world’s most famous art museums, the Hermitage. Founded by Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century to house her vast collection of western art, the Hermitage houses many famous paintings. The Russian Orthodox tradition values the visual arts, via the concept of the icon, as a mode of creating a private sacred space and a two-way street between the individual and divinity. You will see many icons while you are in Russia, although most of the art icons are located in the Russian Museum. However, the Hermitage has its own share of famous religious art from western masters: Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta; Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and Abraham’s Sacrifice; and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus and Cupid. Students will also see secular paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, and many others. In the field lab reports, students may reflect on any of these questions: How do you think the artist viewed his creative process in relation to divinity? How does a religious picture function as a vehicle for prayer or other divine communion? What other roles might visual images play in religious communities? In what ways can looking at, or experiencing, visual art become a “spiritual” experience; Does visual art have to depict a religious subject to enhance or promote a “spiritual” experience? Did you have any such experiences while looking at art at the Hermitage? If viewing the art at the Hermitage stimulated other questions and answers, please feel free to explore them in your field lab reports. In the afternoon, after lunch in a restaurant, we will be visiting the Dostoyevsky memorial apartment and museum in order to have some insight into our primary author/philosopher on the subject of evil. We are going to be reading some of Dostoyevsky’s account of evil from his novel The Brothers Karamozov. This was the last apartment where Dostoyevsky lived in Saint Petersburg from 1878 to 1881, and the apartment is still filled with memorabilia relating to his life and work. Dostoyevsky based many of his stories and novels in Saint Petersburg, particularly in the Vladimirsky region of the city where the apartment is located. The second part of our field lab will be a visit to the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian monarchs. A tour of the Winter Palace will give students insight into Russian history, as well as provide a basis for additional discussion on the problem of evil. Here are some examples of issues that you might write about. What insights did you learn about Fyodor Dostoyevsky that would help you understand his philosophy in the Brothers Karamazov? What was Dostoyevsky’s theory about the afterlife, and what impact did those beliefs have on his theory of evil? Dostoyevsky lost a son during the writing of the Brothers Karamozov---how did grief shape the philosophy articulated in the book? What role does grief or suffering play in the development or strengthening of religious beliefs? Is there a difference between evil and suffering? There is a murder of a father in this book---does the killing of a parent violate “natural law”? In what way? Should divine punishment, if there is such a thing, be harsher if the person murdered created the life of the person who murdered? What would a secular argument in favor of punishing parricide more harshly look like? If you are familiar with the Hindu and Buddhist notion of karma, how does that notion manifest itself in Dostoyevky’s book? From the perspective of the Romanov children who were eventually assassinated, how would you analyze the problem of evil?