Religion and the Mode of Practice in Michael Oakeshott

Here is the intro to Elizabeth’s essay:

Michael Oakeshott’s religious view of the world stands behind much of his political and philosophical writing. Yet it is difficult to get a firm grasp on what religion means to Oakeshott. His ideas about it constitute nothing that most people would recognize as religious. He rarely writes about God, creeds, dogma, metaphysics, theology, or transcendent experience. Many readers find it a stretch to see his thought as religious at all. How, then, can one reasonably assert that it was an essential part of his philosophy?

To appreciate the centrality of religion in Oakeshott’s work we must attend to two preliminary tasks. First, there is the obstacle of the language Oakeshott employs to discuss religion. His most explicit consideration of it took place only in his youth, during the 1920s and 1930s. During these years he was immersed in the philosophical school of British Idealism, and his usage of such technical terms as abstract and concrete will likely be foreign to a present-day audience. Readers of Oakeshott also must consider his view of modality, because his explicit discussion of religion occurs as part of a discussion of the particular “mode” of practice. The first task, therefore, is to explain these concepts and to place Oakeshott’s theorizing within the philosophical context in which he wrote.

The second task is perhaps more important, as well as more interesting. It is fundamentally a work of translation or, perhaps better, transposition. Because the “key” of British Idealism serves nowadays more to obscure than to clarify, the present essay aims to transpose Oakeshott’s provocative ideas into language more accessible to a modern reader. It aims to answer the following questions: What is the experience that Oakeshott calls religion? How is it related to the mode of practice? What exactly is the character of the religious person? Clear answers to these questions depend not only on Oakeshott’s own work but also on the writings of others who have described a similar experience.

Thus I proceed first to discuss Oakeshott’s view of religion and modality in his own terms. I then attempt to illuminate his idea of religion by describing it in less technical language, drawing upon other thinkers who share a similar view. Finally, I turn to an evaluation of his view as a whole, considering whether it can stand up to criticism and whether it has any value for present-day reflection on religion.