Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Novus novus ordo seclorum

I was lately pointed to this a review by Stanley Fish in the New York
Times of the book An Awareness of What is Missing, by Jürgen Habermas and interlocutors, on the matter of secularization. (A while ago I semi-colluded with Amod in too-easily dismissing Fish--this was with regard to a different review--so this may seem like a bit of back-pedaling here, but my interest here is with Habermas, who is a much heavier hitter). Fish describes Habermas as "the most persistent and influential defender of... Enlightenment rationality" (which, I would say, he is, along with his contemporary the late Hans Blumenberg), so it is of some interest to compare Habermas' recent thinking on religion and secular society with those of Tzvetan Todorov, whose book In Defence of the Enlightenment occasioned the conversation between him and A.C. Grayling on which I remarked last post.

One can also check out Habermas' views in this interview, or this

In thinking over the issues raised in the comments to my little rant about Grayling's dismissive attitude towards religion (specifically, but not limited to, Christianity), I've been asking myself, what sort of relationship do
I envision between various religious traditions and secular discourse? On some accounts, Fish's included, Habermas would seem to be ready to be satisfied with secularism playing nice, and the religions offering their essentially therapeutic and pastoral insights for the purposes of laying pedagogical foundations in ethics.
“…the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.”
So Habermas. Fish comments:
Religion must give up the spheres of law, government, morality and knowledge; reason is asked only to be nice and not dismiss religion as irrational, retrograde and irrelevant. The “truths of faith” can be heard but only those portions of them that have secular counterparts can be admitted into the realm of public discourse. (It seems like a case of “separate but not equal.”) Religion gets to be respected; reason gets to borrow the motivational resources it lacks on its own, resources it can then use to put a brake on its out-of-control spinning.
The very basic notion here is that liberal rationalism, or rational liberalism, can tell us how to be reasonable, or tolerant, or kind, but not why, and therefore that it is defenseless when challenged by those who accuse it of bankruptcy or ask it flat-out to defend its values. Habermas thus proposes that these values shall be justified not by secular discourse at all, but by the traditional discourses--i.e., religions--which have always provided such rationale.

So far as this goes, I am more or less sympathetic to this, though I don't doubt that many a nonbeliever will be able to insist that "we can be good without God," (a claim I do not dispute, assuming we mean "without believing in God").

But it's important to note that Habermas' revisiting the question of secularism is essentially a sociological, not a philosophical, intervention. He is questioning whether "the decline of religion" really is a foregone conclusion. (Blumenberg also came to suggest that this was not so; that religion, or at least myth, was likely to be always with us.) Habermas' reasons for this reconsideration are at least as empirical as they are formal. Religions are in fact not retreating like glaciers in the face of secularist warming trends. The dangers of this sort of empirical reasoning are, I trust, apparent, and I certainly do not hang my own hopes upon them. Trends come and go and even a century does not provide a good statistical data set, especially in our age of accelerating change. In fact I do not think there is any way to settle such empirical questions about history except the old fashioned wait-and-see method.

This isn't to rule such exhibits out of court; just to reiterate Lessing's point that no amount of historical facts can get us to the eternal.

The most interesting and, to me, congenial thinking on secularism is being currently done by Charles Taylor, whose book A Secular Age, and talk here (hat tip to Archive Fire), go a long way to articulating the ways I think we can fruitfully think the secular, and within the secular. (The site Immanent Frame also offers a good deal of worthwhile speculation and thought following on, among other things, Taylor's proposals). Taylor offers, it seems to me, a coherent (albeit somewhat revisionist, in today's academic climate) historical account of the genesis of secularism and, more importantly, a plausible vision of how religious (and not only religious) values can function within a society that sees itself as secular in a sense, precisely by showing the ways that
religious encounters are served by the terms of secular vocabulary (which, a questioner during the Q&A following the talk astutely points out, are essentially liberty, equality, and fraternity). This turns around the situation that Habermas envisions; Taylor not only suggests what's in it for religions, but intimates that this is really one ultimate reason for defending a secular world.

I largely agree with Taylor here, so I want to conclude with a very brief sketch of what I envision as the desirable balance between a secular "suspension" or "bracketing" of spiritual questions, and the various traditions which pursue them. My sketch here focuses on Christianity, but I fancy it could be expanded. However, it's in part a critique of a good deal
of contemporary Christianity, and this I don't feel competent to undertake with regard to other traditions.

While these musings on what's amiss with Christianity are essentially moves in an intra-Christian polemic, and so not always of interest to those on the outside, I do want to offer a brief expansion, because this polemic is for me one side of a two-front war. (I can't really apologize for the combative language; I use the metaphors that lie to hand, and at the moment this is how I see it).

In the last post, I said: there is all the difference in the world between having a star to steer by, and riding a tram car. What I meant here is that there is a genuine territory called spirituality, for which the great religious traditions offer descriptions, maps, compasses, even sometimes guides, but no instant and easy access. Getting there, and finding your way around there, is up to you. (This is a call for responsibility, not for some "theology of works," I am obliged to say in the interest of forestalling a predictable Protestant objection. Doubtless there is a moment or a sense in which it makes sense to realize and say that "I have done nothing at all, God has done everything." But the notion that faith will settle all your questions is of such evil fallout that one is bound to fight against it. Count me, in this respect, on Bonhoeffer's side against the notion of "cheap grace.")

Far too many, on either side, think that the tram car is what is offered; they only disagree with whether there is a tram car or not. I maintain that there is no tram car
and that there is a real mountain.

The critics on the one hand have concluded that since the tram car does not exist, neither does the territory or the journey itself: those who are on the journey are really, I don't know, sitting in their rooms pretending. But those on the other side have decided that they will line up for any tram car, even one that is really just a waiting room and a travel brochure, rather than "settle" for an actual journey; if they can't have the tram car, they don't want the territory.

I don't want to take this metaphor and run away with it; to get snagged by arguments over who says "the territory is real but you can only reach it via this mountain pass," for instance. But I do know that I am hard pressed to say which are worse, those who settle for a pretend tram, or those who claim that the journey itself is only pretend.

I hope for in a rapprochement between secularism and spiritual traditions is not the detente Habermas seems to envision, nor even Taylor's secularism-for-religious-encounter, though he comes closer. What I hope for is the acknowledgment that the territory is real, and that the real journey is far more interesting and worthy (and less dangerous) than an imaginary ride on an imaginary chairlift.


  1. I'll get around to commenting in more detail in the next few days. I'll be returning to my marathon schedule of 3 13hr days. That's when I do most of my reading.

    I just wanted to point out this comment from Fish above:

    "reason gets to borrow the motivational resources it lacks on its own, resources it can then use to put a brake on its out-of-control spinning."

    That is the sort of nonsense that is likely to put me into my own rant!

  2. There are I suppose several sorts of secularists or possibly as many as there are societies. Their style reflects the trajectory of the history of the societies engagement with the notion of the separation of church and state. For some this was a founding principle and for others this was a slow growth towards a polity organised on principles which all could agree on, a non-sectarian nucleus of general concensus. There will be a foregoing of hegemony for the sake of the common good.

    Of course the écrasez l'infâme crowd have always been with us and they too have their opposite numbers. Those countries which claim to be Christian or Islamic or Hindutva turn out to be full of hypocrites because really at any time in any society whatever the nominal affiliation only at most 10% will be religious. The majority who do not accept the rationality of this minority will not be likely to be swayed by arguments from them though they may listen respectfully. A majoritarian electoral system will not reflect the views of this sizable minority. That is the first thing that needs to be altered so it will be interesting to see what happens in Britain tomorrow.

  3. To dy0genes: I don't find Fish that compelling at all-- his relativism is self-refuting and his pragmatism is uninterested in anything that diverges too far from his liberal predispositions, and incurious about anything that could suggest he might be wrong. Habermas and Taylor are both serious and bracing thinkers, however. I think their arguments about reason "lacking resources" are far more nuanced that Fish's gloss (not that he gets it all wrong).

    to ombhurbhuva: yes, there is secularism and secularism. So too sectarianism and sectarianism. And I'll take the Voltaireans over the witchburners (my use of the h-word ["heretic"] notwithstanding) any day. Habermas' earlier argument was that secularism always accompanies certain social developments; this has had to be revised. But I think the general notion of the "trajectory of history" is not wholly useless. There are however more bumps in the road to come.

  4. I've had a chance to go over the links you've supplied and I have a few thoughts.

    First of all when you speak of defending secularism you're preaching to the choir. Liberty, equality and fraternity all the way! And let's avoid the guillotine and witch burnings as well.

    Let me explore a bit what so revolted me about Fish's comment. At the risk of just beating up on each others straw men let me try to interpret his assertion that reason is in need of motivational resources. I think what he is declaiming is the frequent moral relativism found in liberalism and its inability to condemn or elevate values. Religion, he seems to suggest, has some real non-arbitrary alternative--something like the assertion of a divine order which he sees as privileged and valid. Well this reasonable person, for one, has not been convinced by the relativist fad and I feel totally comfortable condemning things I dislike and elevating those I do. If I deigned to explain myself, which I certainly don't feel obliged to do for Mr. Fish, I would simply say that it is a matter of taste, a matter of aesthetics. He would probably be even more shocked to learn that I'm raising my kids that way. When I tell my daughter to not yell at her brother I simply tell her it is ugly. He may claim that I am being arbitrary but I would counter that the theist is just as much so, merely removing the responsibility back one step. I would claim that both positions are equally arbitrary and equally valid.

    His other description of reason being "out of control" and "spinning" I find more incomprehensibly pejorative. It reminds me of another comment I read recently (can't recall where) about scientists pursuing technology "compulsively". I am only guessing but I suspect there is some residual puritanism behind this. The puritanical drive was to direct all devotion and passion to the pursuit of Christ and demote all other activities to duties performed for the glory of God. (I hope that isn't too far off, I don't really know that much about puritanism). What is at play here is the exact opposite of ars gratia artis. The complete misunderstanding that science is an art and is pursued with the same passion that inspires the musician or the athlete. Would he take the same tone with the student who has read all night (not if he was reading the bible?) or the child who won't come in from the dark because he's still shooting baskets? Perhaps there is also a bit of fatigue with change motivating his comments. Maybe he's tired that the crazy scientists keep coming up with all those new fangled devices. If only they would stop with all that "spinning"!

    I for one am willing to grant you that your religious life is not a delusion. I actually think the swing of history is on your side on this one. It is a vocal minority, emboldened by the violent excesses done in the name of religion that you have to contend with.