“The Future of Religion” at Amazon
A REACTION TO THE BOOK • NOTES AND QUOTES • SOME NOTES ON WEAK THOUGHT • JEFFERSON • THE VATTIMO SOLUTION • CHRISTIAN NIHILISM AND UNDEVELOPED CONSEQUENCES • THE CHRISTIAN MESSAGE AND “THE CLASSICS” • AN EARLIER "FUTURE OF RELIGION" •
BEING HERE —
What I wish to point out by analyzing the situation in which we find ourselves — the situation of being thrown into a already existing, object-and-idea-filled time and place — is that knowledge is an interpretation and nothing else: and that statement itself is an interpretation.
Things appear to us in the world only because we are in their midst and always oriented toward seeking a meaning for them. In other words, we absorb and possess a pre-understanding that makes us interested subjects rather than neutral screens for an objective overview. Interpretation is the only “fact” of which we can speak.
As one of the classic authors of 20th Century hermeneutics, Luigi Pareyson, wrote, “The object manifests itself to the degree to which the subject expresses him- or herself, and vice versa.” I am not espousing some kind of empirical idealism like Berkeley. In interpretation the world is given; there are not “subjective” images alone; yet the being of things is inseparable of the being-there of the human being.
Not long ago an Amish teen from Chardon was killed when he tried to dislodge a sagging power line tangled in the wheels of his horse-drawn buggy. Such tragedies highlight the gaps between a faith-based existence and life in the modern world and reveal that we need to be mindful of how the other half lives.
Philosophers Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo believe that the secular and faith-based worlds are becoming irrevocably estranged. This is what I take from my reading of “The Future of Religion,” edited and with an introduction by Santiago Zabala. I think this slim volume of two essays and a question-and-answer section will be open to a wide variety of readings; this review is only one interpretation.
Rorty and Vattimo believe a drastic split is imminent between modern, secular life and traditional belief in mainstream religion. And they want to build a bridge between these worlds, to save something important to many people: belief in something bigger than themselves. The only problem is that the religious life they suggest — an interior life of private meaning or the “nihilism” of Christianity — is probably either incomprehensible or offensive to most ordinary churchgoers. But you decide. I’m already on board.
One way to grasp “The Future of Religion” is through a quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” (Nietzsche wrote in one of his late unpublished notes that, “there are no facts, only interpretations. And this too is an interpretation...”)
This means that the authors believe our era is poised to grasp the relative nature of all beliefs, a theory that echoes Isaiah Berlin’s idea that there is “no Archimedean point” outside ourselves, our history, our language or our concepts where we can stand to achieve an objective viewpoint toward all that we claim to know or believe. It also relates to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that “all testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system,” and that we are not taught truth but “judgments and their connection with other judgments.”
To the best of our knowledge the burning questions about “the truth of the matter” have reference to nothing more than our personal background or shared history. Understanding this concept strips away the deadly energy that fuels so many of today’s conflicts, or at least it would if it were widely understood. And it means that all the pressing issues and heated debates about science and religion — each of which wants to be the sole source of ultimate truth for humankind — may some day be seen as nothing more than a symptom of our inadequacies. Indeed, the future may regard us as quaint and juvenile, sadly comical, or even tragic, like pagans killing each other because we can’t agree who’s tougher, Zeus or Hercules.
Rorty and Vattimo help us transcend such facile debates through an understanding of the finer points of pragmatism and hermeneutics, and this is where the typical reader is likely to furrow his brow. Enlightenment is a tough sell.
CULMINATION OF THE CHRISTIAN IDEAL
While I get more inspiration from Rorty’s views, Vattimo will shock the churchgoer with his belief that the modern secular world isn’t different from Christianity but the very culmination of it. He believes that when God incarnated himself in Jesus, he basically turned the world over to us lock, stock and barrel. Therefore, all the people striving to explain the world in secular or scientific terms — Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Karl Popper, just to name a few — are doing God’s work. They are not to be vilified as heretics but celebrated as heroes. I doubt Nietzsche believed he was doing God’s work when he famously proclaimed, “God is dead,” but I find it a fascinating and delightful thesis.
Moreover, Vattimo believes the ultimate message of Christianity dissolves all notions of objectivity, eroding the very claims most believers cite as proof. Religion looks very different from this perspective; I am reminded of the car commercial: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile!”
DEMOCRACY AND FUNDAMENTALISM
Let’s get back to that tangled buggy and its relationship to our American way of life.
Rorty and Vattimo promote their views as being essential to democracy, and this is where they run head-on into President George W. Bush and his faith-based presidency. Rorty and Vattimo seem to be saying that fundamentalism and democracy can’t long endure together. Traditional religion depends on fixed and final truths; democracy is built on innovation and diversity, hence, the disconnect.
I think this book owes a debt to Popper, who offers a simple way to contextualize some of the volume’s complicated ideas. Popper believes the “strain of civilization” drives us to look for fixed ideas, deities or unseen forces on which to base our decisions and practices. This leads to dogma and a “closed society” where disagreement is disallowed. He also believes “the open society” is based on the freedom of individuals to discuss issues and decide the merits of new ideas and practices. Dogmatic living gives way to pragmatic, “piecemeal” planning.
We know that when the church bans same-sex marriage or women in the clergy, some people — those with one foot firmly in the open society — back off, the same way they would avoid a power line in tangled in their wheels. And they may decide to leave the buggy where it sits and hitch a ride on something better.
While it might take a while to grasp all the insights in “The Future of Religion,” once you catch on, you’ll know how to avoid the shock of transition when moving from one realm of belief to another.
NOTES AND QUOTES
VATTIMO: Weak thought is not simply, “the idea of a thinking that is more aware of its own limits, that abandons its claims to global and metaphysical visions, but above all a theory of weakening as the constitutive character of Being in the epoch at the end of metaphysics.”
RORTY: Weak thought might be called, “philosophical reflection that does not attempt a radical criticism of contemporary culture, does not attempt to refound or remotivate it, but simply assembles reminders and suggests some interesting possibilities.” And he adds …
“We will always be held captive by some picture or other, for this is merely to say we shall never escape from language or from metaphor — never see either God or the Intrinsic Nature of Reality face to face. But old pictures may have disadvantages that can be avoided by the sketching of new pictures. Escape from prejudice and superstition, Dewey thought, was not escape from appearance to reality, but escape from the satisfaction of old needs to the satisfaction of new needs. It was a process of maturation, not progress from darkness to light.”
VATTIMO: Defined as the ontology of actuality, philosophy is practiced as an interpretation of the epoch, a giving-form to widely felt sentiments about the meaning of being alive in a certain society and in a certain historical world. … Philosophy is not the expression of the age, it is interpretation, a possible source of alternative interpretations.
RORTY: Some of us cannot circumvent the metaphysical logos without mutilating ourselves, without curtailing our knowledge of what made us what we are (including the mutilations that made us what we are), and thus our knowledge of what we are. ... Some people may not be able to walk away from the metaphysical logos without losing their sense of who they are.
VATTIMO: If God is dead, if philosophy has recognized that it cannot with certainty grasp the ultimate foundation, then philosophical atheism is no longer necessary. Only an absolute philosophy can feel the necessity of refuting religious experience. … Nietzsche writes that God is dead because the faithful, who believe in him have killed him. In other words, the faithful who have learned not to lie because it was God’s command, have discovered in the end that God himself is a superfluous lie. However, in light of our postmodern experience, this means: Since God can no longer be upheld as an ultimate foundation, as the absolute metaphysical structure of the real, it is possible, once again, to believe in God. True, it is not the God of metaphysics or of medieval scholasticism. But that is not the God of the Bible, of the book that was dissolved and dismissed by modern rationalist and absolutist metaphysics.
RORTY: Jefferson’s example helped make respectable the idea that politics can be separated from beliefs about matters of ultimate importance — that shared belief among citizens on such matters is not essential to a democratic society. … Citizens of a Jeffersonian democracy can be as religious or irreligious as they please so long as they are not “fanatical.” That is, the must abandon or modify opinions on matters of ultimate importance, the opinions that may hitherto have given sense and point to their lives, if these opinions entail public actions that cannot be justified to most of their fellow citizens.
Gianni Vattimo has an ingenious solution to the problem of sacred versus profane and science versus religion.
He thinks that when God gave his only Son to humanity, he also gave over all power and authority as well. This would mean that the secular world is the culmination of the religious world, that being devoutly secular is commensurate with being extraordinarily religious, that devoting yourself to figuring things out is the only form of religious practice left open to us; otherwise, we are idol worshippers worshipping idly.
Here’s how Rorty describes Vattimo’s idea:
“His strategy is to treat the Incarnation as God’s sacrifice of all his power and authority, as well as all his otherness. The incarnation was an act of kenosis, the act in which God turned everything over to human beings. This enables Vattimo to make his most startling and important claim: that ‘secularization … is the constitutive trait of authentic religious experience.’”
Viola! No more contention between religion and science, for science is the workhorse of religion.
Christianity will only attain all its antimetaphysical consequences in our Age of Interpretation by reducing “reality” to a “message,” and if we haven’t yet developed fully the antimetaphysical consequences of Christianity, it is because we are not yet nihilistic enough.
“Not nihilistic enough” means, “that every time we start again to discuss these implications we realize that there are many more implications than the ones we have already imagined …” Nihilism allows us to come up with a philosophy of multiplicity, which provides a general way forward without trying to sum up all possibilities or put forth new foundations … something that opens up the largest possible framework for discourse, something that dissolves foundational ideas that used to be the starting point for discussions.
A new attitude toward Christianity can come about if we realize that, aside from any eternal or absolute claims, we are living in a society deeply influenced by Christianity. Do we expect that new paintings will eliminate the need or desire to look at old ones? Do we think that new writers will cause us to abandon Homer or Cervantes?
“The Christian message has cogency insofar as we recognize that without it our historical existence would not make sense (or that we would make different sense of it). The example of the classics of a literature, a language, a culture is illuminating here. Just as Western culture would be unthinkable without its Homeric poems, without Shakespeare and Dante, our culture in its broadest sense would not make sense if we were to remove Christianity from it,” Vattimo writes. “The classics are something that has become a model without having any foundations.”
Rorty adds that, “Right, they are classics because of the effect they have on us, not because of the source they came from.”
This opens the way for Vattimo’s idea: One can make a commitment to Christianity solely because of its teachings, totally leaving aside any questions or claims about the origins those teachings.
In 1909 Charles Eliot, professor emeritus of Harvard University, delivered an address entitled “The Future of Religion,” which struck dismay into the hearts of the more conservative. This was another attempt to return to a simple core value. The new religion, Eliot believed, would have only one commandment: the love of God, expressed in the practical service of others. There would be no churches and no scriptures; no theology of sin; no need for worship. God’s presence would be so obvious and overwhelming that there would be no need for liturgy. Christians would not have a monopoly on truth, since the ideas of scientists, secularists, or those who belonged to a different faith would be just as valid. In its care for other human beings, the religion of the future would be no different from such secularist ideals as democracy, education, social reform, or preventative medicine. This extreme vision of the Social Gospel was a recoil from the doctrinal disputes of recent decades. In a society that valued only rational or scientifically demonstrable truth, dogma had become a problem. Theology could easily become a fetish, an idol that became a supreme value in itself instead of a symbol of an ineffable and indescribable reality. By seeking to bypass doctrine, Eliot was trying to get back to what he regarded as fundamental: the love of God and neighbor. All the world faiths have emphasized the importance of social justice and care for the vulnerable. A disciplined and practically expressed compassion had been found, in all traditions, to yield a sense of the sacred, as long as it did not become a do-gooding ego trip. Eliot was thus attempting to address the real dilemma of Christians in the modern world by building a faith that relied more upon practice than upon orthodox beliefs.
“The conservatives, however, were appalled. Faith without infallible doctrine was not Christianity in their view, and they felt obliged to counter this liberal danger. In 1910, the Presbyterians of Princeton, who had formulated the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture, issued a list of five dogmas, which they deemed essential: 1. the inerrancy of Scripture; 2. the Virgin Birth of Christ; 3. Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross; 4. his bodily resurrection; 5. the objective reality of his miracles.
“Between 1910 and 1915, they issued a series of twelve paperback pamphlets entitled “The Fundamentals,” in which leading conservative theologians gave accessible accounts of such doctrines as the Trinity, refuted the Higher Criticism, and stressed the importance of spreading the truth of the Gospel. Some three million copies of each of the twelve volumes were dispatched, free of charge, to every pastor, professor, and theology student In America … fundamentalists would see it as the germ of their movement.”
Guiding ideas from the introduction by Santiago Zabala.
“It is in the 'weak thought' of Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo that the new postreligious culture, which is to say the future of religion after the deconstruction of western ontology, is taking shape.”
Today, at the end of this epoch, we are witnessing the dissolution of the philosophical theories that thought they had liquidated religion. After modernity there are no more strong reasons either to be an atheist refusing religion or a theist refusing science; the deconstruction of metaphysics has cleared the ground for a culture without those dualisms.
There exists an intermediate way between entrusting oneself to a divine substitute and entrusting oneself to individual preferences; this way consists of weakening and dissolving the ancient European concept of “Being” and the very idea of “ontological status.”
Rorty and Vattimo start from the fact that before the Enlightenment humanity had duties toward God, whereas after the Enlightenment it also had them toward reason. However, both the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason traveled down the wrong road. The present book starts from the position that humanity has entered the Age of Interpretation, ushering in a new culture of dialogue.
This new culture abandons the notion that philosophy can be practiced independently from history and that the study of our current way of proceeding can give us an understanding of the structure of all possible ways of proceeding.
We are no longer involved in the quest to contact something that exists independently from us, but rather with the unending formation of oneself.
It was John Dewey's merit to have argued that we achieve full political maturity only at the moment when we succeed in doing without any metaphysical culture, without the culture of belief in nonhuman powers and forces.
As soon as one realizes, thanks to hermeneutics, that every critical thought comes about within a historical condition that makes it possible and supplies its foundation and framework — realizes, that is, the historicity of all knowledge — the division between scientific and humanistic culture becomes less evident.
To surpass metaphysics means to stop inquiring into what is real and what is not.
Wherever there is an authority that, in the guise of a scientific or ecclesiastical community, imposes something as objective truth, philosophy has the obligation to proceed in the opposite direction.
Postmetaphysical thought aims at a program of weakening that reduces the weight of objective claims and structures and also the violence of dogmatism. The task of the philosopher seems to be the reversal of the Platonic program: The philosopher now summons humans back to their historicity rather than to what is eternal.
Bearers of this new thought do not want to present their ideas as anything more than a form of skepticism about all possible concepts, including the ones they themselves propose.
With the end of metaphysics, the aim of intellectual activity is no longer knowledge of truth but a conversation without recourse to absolute authority. The space left open by the deconstruction of metaphysics must not fill up with new truths. It is the fragmentation of old truth that opens space for new thought.
Postmodern individuals have learned to live without anxiety in the relative world of conjecture. The postmodern person manages to live without neurosis in a world where God and truth are no longer present. The ideal of absolute certainty is for that person only a myth proper to humankind’s early stages, when ignorance and powerlessness drove us into reassuring and sheltering beliefs.
Postmodern persons do not suffer any residual nostalgia for the lost days of complete certainty. Such a person exerts himself to realize the ideals of relativity, pluralism and tolerance and to prevent any particular vision of the world from imposing itself on him by means of the authority attributed to it.
Thought must abandon its objective claims to prevent Christianity and other forms of absolute metaphysics from linking violence with fidelity.
“Weak thought” looks for compatibility only with religious faith that is trying to “privatize” itself, not with religious faiths that found churches or adopt political positions. The future of religion depends on clergy’s willingness to allow each believer to privatize his or her own faith. Belief is then linked solely to individual capacities. It is a faith without precepts, grounded on private motivations not public declarations.
Religion, from this perspective, is not a method of discovering truth but a practice of bracketing all questions regarding truth. Whatever future awaits us will depend on our ability to annul reasons for conflict.
If the church continues to present itself with the force of authority, it obliges believers to privatize their faith. Religion is a self-marginalizing activity. The truth of Christianity is a dissolution of the metaphysical concept of truth itself.
“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little