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In our Habermas seminar today we read “The Boundary Between Faith and Knowledge”, where Jurgen Habermas uses Kant’s philosophy of religion to try and resuscitate one of the old modes of religious dialogue proposed during the Enlightenment. Habermas wants the philosophy of religion to be the mediator between the private religious beliefs of believers and the public policy of the secular state. It is the form of religion that is malleable enough to be translated into public dialogue, whereas the content must be left for “internal apologetics”. In the Kantian sense, religion must be used as a motivator, a way to promote the desire for universal harmony. Therefore, the actual particular beliefs of any given religion are inconsequential. Elsewhere, he calls this a sort of “methodological atheism”, where no religious beliefs are assumed at a given, mediating point. This is how Habermas extends his thinking into the rhetoric of the supposed “return of religion”.

In one sense, I appreciate that Habermas is willing to bring religion back into public dialogue. In fact, at one point, Habermas denigrates the “Hegelian” synthesizing tendency in favor of a more dialogical one. On the other hand, I can’t really see what religious practitioners have to gain from this proposal. The brief mention of Kierkegaard (and Barth and Bultmann following him) as the religious thinker contra philosophical translation par excellance is quickly supplemented by a needless connection of the Dane to existential self-realization (and the aforementioned German’s antagonisms toward National Socialism). In fact, it is only Schleiermacher who really seems to fit the bill of Habermas’s “religious modern”.

As it seems to me, Habermas seems to be plenty afraid of those religious believers who are willing to pledge their vote without attesting to the standards of “communicative reason” (e.g. Christian fundamentalists). He would rather have it that these believers bring only those beliefs appropriate to be translated into the public sphere, leaving other “obscurantist” concepts at home (or, more precisely, at church). Bringing Kierkegaard and Barth back into the discussion, it is precisely this restriction that must be refused by orthodox believers. The form and content of the Christian faith are inextricably tied. Ethical imperatives are empty without dogmatic underpinnings.

While I believe it is necessary to dialogue with Habermas (as any philosopher of willing to suffer religious interlocutors is a divine gift), it should be noted that he (and others) seem to be up against the wall. Habermas ends the chapter here with a quip directed towards the “followers of Nietzsche” (mainly Heidegger). Such “religious” philosophers (ironic?) are categorically excluded by Habermas from the public sector. Their obscurantism is seen as perpetuating the nihilism of much of the public perception of politics, and are, therefore, to be ignored. In the end, Habermas seems to be denote three different positions with the sphere of religious dialogue concerning politics: 1) Nihilists, who are to be ignored (French postmodernism); 2) contemporary theologians, who need to translate their political theologies into the language game of political philosophy (Milbank, Taylor, probably even the Pope); and 3) religious moderns, who are to be engaged with wholeheartedly… if they exist.

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