‘An Awareness of What Is Missing’ reviewed by Tom Angier

An Awareness of What Is Missing

Trans. Ciaran Cronin. Polity, Cambridge, 2010. 96pp., £12.99 pb
ISBN 9780745647210

Reviewed by Tom Angier

About the reviewer

Tom Angier lectures in Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, and works on Moral Philosophy. He …


This slim volume is the outcome of a discussion held in 2007 between Jürgen Habermas and philosophers from the Jesuit School for Philosophy in Munich. Since Habermas’ contribution occupies a mere twenty-one pages, the book is effectively even slimmer than it appears. Indeed, anyone interested in Habermas’ views on the relation between faith and reason will find little here that goes beyond his much more substantial collection of essays, Between Naturalism and Religion (Polity 2008). Nonetheless, the present volume is worthwhile reading, and this for two main reasons. First, it was inspired in part by Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address in 2006, which, besides upsetting many people in the Muslim world, was itself an attempt to elaborate the relations between faith and reason. And second, it represents an attempt to engage a section of the academic world – viz. philosophers in Catholic universities – who rarely appear on the radar of philosophers in mainstream, de facto (if not de jure) secular institutions. So despite what I will argue are severe shortcomings, especially from a left-political perspective, this collection of brief exchanges is valuable, if only as a brave attempt to challenge the self-imposed constraints of current academia.

A key question to raise at the outset is the force of Habermas’ title – what does he mean by ‘an awareness of what is missing’? In chapter one, Reder and Schmidt, the more impressive half of the four-strong group of Jesuit respondents, cite various sources for Habermas’ phrase: Bloch, Adorno, Brecht and the contemporary German philosopher, Johann Baptist Metz (11n. 5). What these thinkers are said to have in common is the idea that post-Enlightenment, secular reason is somehow crucially wanting, that it has shown itself unable to supply or sustain what religious culture once supplied or sustained. Central examples here are rites of passage, social solidarity between classes, and a secure, resolute legitimation of the political community. One might wonder whether Brecht, for one, should be invoked in this context: after all, even if states have claimed legitimacy on religious grounds – as the British state still (nominally) does – Brecht would not view such claims themselves as legitimate, and he would laugh out of court the suggestion that religion, as historically embodied, promoted solidarity between classes. Granted, secular reason does find it difficult to fill the gap left by religious rites of passage – as Habermas’ description of Max Frisch’s dreary, thoroughly secularised memorial service bears out (15-16). But relative to Habermas’ wider project, this cultural deficit is of only limited significance. For his central concern is that, whether or not religious cultures have tended to foster the common good, many people in the West are turning to them in the hope that they will do so (something which Pope Benedict’s recent visit to the U.K. has, arguably, confirmed). In light of this movement in favour of an increased role for religious culture(s), a pressing question thus arises: how are we to negotiate the respective claims of secular reason and religion?

Before setting out Habermas’ answer to this question, it is worth noting there are two ‘fundamentalist’ options he is committed against from the start. The first option, which could be called ‘secular rejectionism’ – the kind of option represented by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – holds that religious cultures and practices should be excluded from our societies as far as possible. They are pernicious and retrograde social forces, which in Hitchens’ phrase ‘poison everything’, and hence should not be tolerated by a just social order. Habermas rules this option out, and I take it for good reason. For not only would such a root and branch assault on religious culture be unworkable and hugely counterproductive, it falsifies the historical record, by glossing over the fact that many of the West’s cultural achievements cannot be dissociated from religion (Oxford and Cambridge were papally sponsored institutions; abolitionism was largely a religious movement; the Catholic Church provides a quarter of Africa’s healthcare). Indeed, Habermas notes ‘the shared origin of philosophy and religion in … the Axial Age (around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.)’ (17, cf 80), thereby recognising that ‘philosophy’ (or ‘reason’) and ‘religion’ need not be monolithic or mutually exclusive categories. The second option, which Habermas also depreciates, could be labelled ‘religious rejectionism’, and is represented most furiously by Osama bin Laden, although radically anti-modern forms of religion have, of course, been around for a long time. But even where such forms are most benign – such as, perhaps, Mennonitism can claim to be – they are never accepted by a majority, because they depend on a wholesale rejection of new knowledge and technology, no matter how beneficial these turn out to be. Once again, then, Habermas is right to reject rejectionism.

The option which Habermas takes most seriously, although he ends up rejecting it as well, is that put forward by Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address of 2006. According to his rendition of the Pope’s view, we should deny ‘there are good reasons for the polarisation between faith and knowledge which became an empirical feature of European modernity’ (22). There are no such reasons, on the Pope’s view, because Christianity – as basically a version of Jewish theism – proved hospitable to and incorporated rational enquiry from the beginning, in the form of Greek philosophy. This can be seen in John’s invocation of Christ as the Logos, and subsequently in the tradition forged by Augustine and Aquinas of synthesising ‘Greek metaphysics and biblical faith’ (22). According to the Pope, then, ‘modern, postmetaphysical reason’ took a wrong turn in abandoning this synthesis – for Mediaeval Christianity had already essentially overcome any potential antinomy between faith and reason through its own practice of reasoned faith. Now to this proposal of a ‘worldview synthesis’, as embodied in Hellenised Christianity, Habermas makes some telling, if brief responses. First and foremost, he argues, that synthesis remains determinedly metaphysical, in a way criticised by perhaps the most powerful philosophical mind of modernity, namely Kant. So if the Thomistic synthesis is to be vindicated, it must at the very least put forward an equally powerful rebuttal of Kant’s critique (something Alasdair MacIntyre acknowledges in God, Philosophy, Universities (Continuum 2009)). Moreover, it was Kant who did most to shape the distinctively modern notion of autonomy, which, Habermas contends, ‘first made possible our modern European understanding of law and democracy’ (23). And moving beyond Kant to Hegel, he presses that modern historicism does not ‘necessarily lead to a relativistic self-denial of reason’ (23). Far from it – for as a ‘child of the Enlightenment, it makes us sensitive to cultural differences and prevents us from over-generalising context-dependent judgements’ (23). Even if some of the details here are questionable, Habermas has at least managed to put the proponents of a renewed yet perennial Thomistic Christianity on the defensive. For as he goes some way to showing, the intellectual legacy of modernity is deep, wide-ranging and influential in a way that precludes its being substantially bracketed, or simply bypassed. What solution to the problem of faith and reason does Habermas recommend instead?

So far as I can see, he recommends not so much a solution, as a mutual retreat. For although he makes the admirable stipulation that secular and religious parties to the debate should speak ‘with one another’, not ‘merely about one another’ (16), his positive conception of their interrelation looks very much like an amicable separation, rather than any form of shared labour for the common good. And this doctrine of separation can be seen in the way he effectively assigns each side to the argument different competencies and spheres of operation, adjuring each to respect the competencies of the other. The ‘religious side’, Habermas contends, ‘must accept the authority of “natural” reason as the fallible results of the institutionalised sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality’ (16). Equally, he stresses that ‘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’ (16). What are we to make of this proposal?

Although Habermas’ proposal appears innocuous enough, on closer inspection its positive political vision is, I think, markedly lacking, and its assumptions so skewed in favour of an etiolated liberalism (and an emasculated religious sphere) that it is structurally incapable of formulating a viable solution. Let me start with its positive political vision. On the one hand, Habermas genuflects towards Rawls’ notion of liberal ‘neutrality’, claiming that ‘The constitutional state must … act neutrally towards worldviews’ (20-21). Likewise, he makes conciliatory noises to the effect that ‘religious utterances can make a meaningful contribution to clarifying controversial questions of principle’ (22). But on the other hand, it is clear that the power relations he envisages here are strongly asymmetrical. Even if religious communities are permitted (as they are not by Rawls) to employ ‘religious language’ in the public square, secular reason need take note of religious norms only insofar as they are ‘in accordance with its own standards’ (80). All public policy must be framed and justified in ‘postmetaphysical’ terms, and, Habermas ultimately admits, whatever the ‘prehistory’ of secular reason, it ‘treats revelation and religion as something alien and extraneous’ (17). Full stop.

This Pax Habermasiana moves very little, I suggest, beyond Habermas’ earlier work, in which he looked forward to the thorough secularisation of society. And that it fails to make progress is a function of its starting-point, according to which ‘secular reason’ is exhausted by Rawlsian liberalism, and religion tends to be confined to metaphysical claims, viz. to the ‘truths of faith’. On this construal, it is not surprising that a rapprochement between the two becomes impossible – because they hardly touch each other. Completely absent here, in other words, is a more capacious conception of reason, informed by socialist or Marxist thought, which could, in turn, find much common ground with the core of Jewish and Christian social teaching, which draws on the prophets’ and psalmist’s invocations of a God who defends and vindicates the cause of the poor and the dispossessed. For all his recognition of the need for ‘solidarity’, then, and his sparse references to how this is undermined by the ‘imperatives of the market’ (73), Habermas’ theoretical resources have become socially so impotent that he can do little more than stand back and bemoan the improbability of any ‘mobilisation’ towards a more just, ‘reformed global order’ (74). But the resources are there, in the ‘secular’ work of those like David Harvey and Erik Olin Wright, and ‘religious’ works such as Caritas in Veritate. All that remains is for them to be acted on, and the ineffectual pieties of liberalism to be overcome.

19 October 2010

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *