Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not A Way Forward

On second and third thoughts, and despite Feodor's endorsement - which I understand, and grant - I cannot see where Habermas' attempted partial turn toward "religion" can avail itself as even a conversation-starter. In particular, this description of Habermas' position by Stanley Fish sticks out and calls out for a response:
. . . Habermas does not want to embrace religion wholesale for he does not want to give up the “cognitive achievements of modernity” — which include tolerance, equality, individual freedom, freedom of thought, cosmopolitanism and scientific advancement — and risk surrendering to the fundamentalisms that, he says, willfully “cut themselves off” from everything that is good about the Enlightenment project. And so he proposes something less than a merger and more like an agreement between trading partners: “…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.”

As Norbert Brieskorn, one of Habermas’s interlocutors, points out, in Habermas’s bargain “reason addresses demands to the religious communities” but “there is no mention of demands from the opposite direction.” 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.

Briekskorn is exactly on point. For what possible reason would the Church surrender its ratio? For entry in to the public realm, but only on terms inimical to its unique vocabulary? What of the Church's critique of state action? Is it not already compromised by accepting these terms?

While some of Habermas' further comments seem to suggest a certain begrudging acceptance of a role for the religious life as more than a social palliative, I cannot but think that Habermas is not so much offering a new way forward so much as acknowledging the status quo as one that at least offers to believers a role that is no longer intellectually second class.

Furthermore, a short retort on the marvelous gains of the Enlightenment. With the victory of instrumental rationality, we have seen the perfectly sane, bureaucratized butchery of millions of human beings in the pursuit of goals that were rationally defended. The hands of the Enlightened are as bloody as the rest of ours, and an appeal to some kind of instrumental, functional superiority for the "rational" claims of the Enlightenment project would be lost in the screams of the dead, if they could speak. Since they can't, I think my own feeble objection will have to suffice. Like America's perpetual innocence, always lost yet always found again in a heartbeat, the nobility and humanity of the Enlightenment project is declared atop a mountain of corpses. While this makes it no different than most other human projects, intellectual or political, it does not make it, morally speaking, able to pronounce upon the rational or moral acceptability of other dissonant voices.

Virtual Tin Cup

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