Saturday, June 12, 2010


(h/t Crooked Timber)

In Ireland to receive the Ulysses Prize from the University College Dublin, Jurgen Habermas sat for an interview on a variety of topics, printed in today's Irish Times. Among them is Habermas' growing interest in the social phenomenon of religion, in particular in secularized western nation-states.
I associate this sociological observation [i.e., that religion continues to be a vital force in those societies where it was formerly considered to be dying out] with a diagnosis of a more philosophical kind. Secularly minded people should recognise religion as a contemporary intellectual formation. Over the past two millennia, western philosophy has repeatedly borrowed images, meanings and concepts from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and has translated them into its own secular language. We cannot tell whether this process of appropriation has run its course or whether, on the contrary, other semantic potentials remain untapped. Of course, such a receptive and dialogical relation is only possible towards non-fundamentalist traditions that do not close themselves off from the modern world.

In the last sentence, Habermas betrays a certain ignorance of the history of Christian thought. In fact, "fundamentalism" is a modern reaction, the flip-side of the modernist tendencies of critical Scriptural studies and the challenge of doing Christian theology with integrity in the modern world. The history of fundamentalism is short, can be traced pretty clearly in both popular and more refined forms back to no earlier than the mid- to late-19th century, and is not so much closed to our contemporary world as part of a larger protest against elite demands for "progress" that span the ideological, cultural, and social spectrum.

Having said that, I am pleased that a leading liberal European intellectual of our time recognizes the reality that, as a human phenomenon, religion in some manner, fashion, or form, continues to live on even in those places where it had once thought to be atrophying. I continue to be wary of Habermas' insistence that "dialog" needs to be done on terms amenable to a certain contemporary sensibility, precluding "fundamentalism" from the get-go without, necessarily, defining what constitutes that. A professed belief, say, in the bodily resurrection of Jesus might just be thought to be "fundamentalist", therefore outside the bounds of consideration. Rather than submit a priori to the intellectual imperialism that would demand the sacrifice of faith for the promise of scraps from the contemporary intellectual table, it might just be possible to have a discussion that insists the modern, contemporary world and its intellectual and existential pretension are, at heart, questionable propositions.

Indeed, the idea of "post-secular" itself presents the same kind of problem as "post-modern". Does not the presence of a variety of religious communities, and their growing social and political influence, negate the whole secularization thesis?

I think it was Bruno Latour who wrote a book entitled We Have Never Been Modern, arguing against the appellation "post-modern" by insisting that "modernism" was, for the most part, not a term easily applied in a variety of senses. I think "secular" and "post-secular" kind of deserve the same fate. Rather than attempt to draw any final conclusions concerning the potential of religious life and ideas and their relative social and political import, it might just be necessary to consider them as part of the larger, ongoing human project, waxing and waning in importance over time.

Note: Edited to clear up a tendentious point made by a commenter, to clarify and sharpen my point, and to simplify my argument. I hope . . .

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More