Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Future of Religion

Richard Rorty
Gianni Vattimo
Edited by Santiago Zabala
New York: Columbia University Press, 2005

91 pages

Reviewed by Frank Kaufmann

The Future of Religion is an outstanding and important work. The editor, Santiago Zabala studied under Gianni Vattimo, and is now a researcher at the Pontifical Lateran University. His published work has tended to revolve around his teacher, having published a “dialogue” with Vattimo ‘Weak Thought’ and the reduction of violence, in 2001, edited Vattimo’s Nihilism and emancipation, Ethics, Politics, and Law in 2003, The Future of Religion in 2005, and presently he is preparing a Festschrift for Vattimo comprising a towering line-up of contemporary philosophers and theologians.

Richard Rorty is a meteoric American philosopher of our time, burning his way through philosophies and universities leaving us with an exciting and significant intellectual biography. Those who know him at all know him for walking away from his home turf of analytic philosophy, finally calling it “nothing more than the last gasp of representationalism.” Rorty is professor of comparative religion and philosophy at Stanford University.

Gianni Vattimo, once a student of Gadamer and and Karl Loweth at Heidelberg, followed those roots to advance the “Gadamerian culture of dialogue.” Vattimo now teaches at his alma mater, Turin as professor of philosophy.

The slim volume has four sections, namely Santiago’s introduction entitled, “Religion without Theists or Atheists,” Rorty’s essay, “Anticlericalism and Atheism,” Vattimo’s “Age of Interpretation,” and finally a three way conversation (or perhaps a moderated two way conversation) entitled, “What is Religion’s Future after Metaphysics.”

The Future of Religion is not easy to read or understand. It requires that the reader have strong familiarity with 20th Century Western (Continental and American) philosophy, especially with what is called the “post-metaphysical” period. Even highly educated people lacking this specific narrow philosophical, theological, and linguistic training cannot easily follow the book’s content. Imagine reading a debate among computer programmers debating the competencies of Perl and Linux languages. As much as one might find the first few sentences of such a conversation fascinating, most would tend to lose the thread once terms such as C, sh, csh, grep, sed, awk, Fortran, COBOL, PL/I, BASIC-PLUS, SNOBOL, Lisp, Ada, C++, and Python, were treated as common parlance, needing no explanation.

As such The Future of Religion should be seen as a “trade” book, by philosophers for philosophers (and a very narrow band of philosophers at that!) Most even highly educated people would have NO IDEA what these three people are talking about. Add to that a starting point for the conversation that takes the “death of God” for granted, and a strong temptation arises to dismiss The Future of Religion along with a blast of related scattershot decrying “everything that’s wrong with this world.” To succumb to such a temptation, however, would be to err. Leaving the extreme “in group” quality of the discourse aside, The Future of Religion represents a genuinely valuable and intellectually important encounter. Jean Grondin from the University of Montreal calls Rorty and Vattimo “the two most preeminent figures of postmodernism.” Nancy Frankenberry of Dartmouth College calls them “two of the world’s leading philosophers.” Radical progress requires on occasion that peers be free to pursue the horizons of their expertise unfettered by having constantly to translate themselves.

The premise of The Future of Religion is well conceived and works well. In fact, as we shall see, it embodies the very philosophical commitments of the thinkers involved. Rorty and Vattimo stand at the edges of anti-foundationallsm or anti-essentialism. They think hard at the edges of the postmodernism and bring from this elite precipice some of of Western philosophy’s strongest challenges. In response the “death of God, and the deconstruction of metaphysics,” Rorty and Vattimo wandered off in different directions, Rorty through Dewey’s door of pragmatism, and Vattimo through Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Zabala thought these men should talk. The result of all agreeing to do so is The Future of Religion.

Terms and thinkers which inform this conversation and are requisite for readers to understand this volume include Nietzche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Dewey, Benedetto Croce, Derrida, nihilism, historicism, postmodernism, hermeneuticism, and neo-pragmatism.

The Death of God

The term “Death of God,” was probably coined to provoke and anger theists,. If so it surely succeeded, and along with this childish penchant among the precociously bright, proponents probably enjoyed the teen-style lament “you just don’t understand.” The milder term for the same philosophical collection is “radical theology.”

S.N Gundry rightfully notes that the “death of God” movement of the mid-60’s never coalesced around a single center or definition for the notion. Presently these philosophical innovations have both social and linguistic implications and influences:

The social or historical element has its late (1960’s) roots in Gabriel Vahanian’s book, God is Dead, in which he analyzed the historical elements that contributed to “the masses accepting atheism not so much as a theory but as a way of life” [Gundry: m-bsoft.com/believe]. The linguistic side of the problem derives from “premise [that arose] among empirical analytic philosophers that real knowledge and meaning can be conveyed only by language that is empirically verifiable” [Gundry].

Together these sparked a fluid (and likely North Atlantic-centric) sense that “God” no longer functioned as a dominant or efficient category in modern society (giving birth to “this-worldly”, and secular theologies), and linguistically that the term “God” could no longer function as a verifiable or reliable referent. Thus “the death of God.”

The Rejection of Metaphysics

The “death of God,” is an unfortunate, provocative (albeit catchy and journalistically enticing) description of genuine and substantial philosophical challenges. Philosophy stumbled across three great difficulties regarding existence and experience. 1. Human existence is always “in history,” 2. Experience is always structured in the “linguistic a priori,” and finally 3. The devastating synthesis, namely the historicity of language itself!

These observations compel the rigorous philosopher to engage in the “deconstruction of metaphysics,” a task which results in “the end of logocentrism, the end of the privilege accorded by metaphysical thought to presence and voice incarnations of the Logos, capable of rendering Being available to a finite subject.” [Zabala: 6]

Rorty, Vatimmo and others thus reject any “authority that, in the guise of a scientific or ecclesiastical community, imposes something as objective truth.” (Zabala: 8] They insist rather in the “historicity of all knowledge,” believing that recognizing such allows for the dissolution of the modernistic dispute between religion and science (in which modernity gave science the upper hand). They speak of “the weight of objective structures,” and the “violence of dogmatism.” In its extreme, even “method,” and “grammar,” are looked upon with suspicion.

The vertigo and resulting sense of freefall coming from these positions is so intense that many react angrily and combatively to these philosophers and philosophical impulses. It is better, however, that such challenges be embraced, digested, considered and resolved, than merely opposed with a vigilante spirit. If people like Rorty and Vattimo have the stomach to stare these philosophical developments in the eye, we should pray diligently for their safe return from the Mount of disFiguration.

Rorty’s Hope

Rorty rejects the notion that philosophy can be done “a historically.” This means that philosophers believe our era is ready to grasp the relative nature of all beliefs, a theory that echoes Isaiah Berlin’s idea that there is “no Archimedian point” outside ourselves, our history, our language, or our concepts where we can stand we can stand to achieve and objective viewpoint toward all that we claim to know or believe." Postmodernists like Rorty are not blind to the implications of “a-ntology” (my neologism combining “a” as in apolitical, and “ntology” from the philosophical field “ontology.”).

He does not shy away from the implications of anti-foundationalism for moral and ethical concerns. Later in his essay he writes, “nor is there any need to attempt to reach an ahistorical, God’s-eye view of the relations between all human practices." [Rorty: 32]

How can Rorty (and later as we shall see the devout Catholic, Vattimo) remain so sanguine as the pillars of certitude crumble around them like the fall of the Roman Empire.

There is on the one side an admirable courage and integrity to these men who face the howling winds and philosophize on the edge. In another way they are simply dutiful, like the 9/11 firefighters, or the quartet as portrayed by Cameron in The Titanic. You deal with what is, and the near ritualistic execution of one’s vocation is the best way to meet crises.

Finally one can feel a touch of the rebellious teen in this community, the teen who enjoys the luxury of rebellion while enjoying the benefits of the father’s toil and sweat to pay the rent and feed the family.

It must be accredited to Rorty (and Vattimo) that they view these developments positively, and draw constructive conclusions. Rorty wisely abandoned the self-ascription “atheist,” and changed it to softer, more palatable ascriptions like “anti-clerical,” and “religiously un-musical.”

Ultimately Rorty extends Dewey’s pragmatism toward the philosophical ground of a utopian democracy, citing “what contemporary American philosopher Robert Brandom calls “the game of giving and asking for reasons.” [Rorty: 37]. Rorty plays fair in that he is not unwilling to confess his faith (while “sav(ing) religion from Onto-theology”).

My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendents will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal and the free agreement of a literate and well educated electorate. [Rorty: 40]

Vattimo’s Hope

Gianni Vattimo stands on the same ground, or perhaps sinks in the same quicksand as Richard Rorty. There is no difference between the two men insofar as their respective assessment of the possibility of metaphysics. Lest anyone accidently suggest something might actually be the case, early on in his essay Vattimo wants us to be sure that we know that when “Nietzche writes, “there are no facts, there are only interpretations” [that he is not making] an objective, metaphysical proposition.” [Vattimo: 44]. Okay, relative enough? We need not reiterate the anti-metaphysical efforts of postmodernists to provide tight enough security to protect us from the horror that something might inadvertently be recommend as true.

The difference between Rorty and Vattimo does not lie in how they read our condition, it lies rather in two things peculiar to their personal histories: 1. Rorty thinks of himself as “religiously unmusical,” and Vattimo considers himself a devout Catholic. 2. Rorty advances his philophical horizons more in the tradition of American philosophers, and Vattimo more in that of the “continental” philosophers. They pass through very different doors, but arrive at remarkable similar locations. This is the great beauty of this book.

Vattimo credits Christianity with the incipient impulses of Nietzche’s nihilism, and Heidegger’s end of metaphysics. For Vattimo (as we saw with Rorty) this is a positive direction. Vattimo explains, “Christianity introduces into the world the principle of interiority, on the basis of which “objective” reality gradually loses its preponderant weight.” [Vattimo: 46-7] … hermeneutics as a radically “nihilist” ontology … I believe we must” insists Vattimo, “[argue] that postmodern nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity.” [Vattimo: 47] These examples abound, “Christianity as a message of salvation consists above all in dissolving the peremptory claims of ‘reality,’ Paul’s sentence, ‘Oh death where is thy victory?’ can rightfully be read as an extreme denial of the ‘reality principle.’ [Vatimmo: 49 – 50], … [and] Wittgenstein’s phrase that philosophy (for us, this would be the postmetaphysical philosophy made possible by Christ) can only free us from idols.” [Vattimo:50]

The anti-authoritarianism of this impulse that we saw in Rorty’s explanations obtain with Vattimo as well, “All claims by historical authorities to command in the name of truth have been revealed as deceptions that absolutely cannot be tolerated in a democracy.” [Vattimo:54]

So where does Vattimo’s “Christianity,” and roots in continental philosophy take one to find solace from the queasy feeling of ever shifting sands? Interestingly Vattimo also arrives at “democracy.” Not the social democracy of a “domination free” society in which “love is the only law,” taken by extension from Dewey and the traditions of American philosophy, but rather as it expresses itself in “the philosophy of communicative action of Habermas… No experience of truth can exist without some kind of participation in community… [with] Gadamer hermeneutics, truth comes about as the ongoing construction of communities that coincide in a fusion of horizons… Truth consists above all in their being shared by a community.” [Vattimo: 51]

It is easy to see that the “redemption of nihilism” (my phrase) lies in fraternite. Whether it be the “pragmatic” unfolding of a democracy through shared practice (charity), or the unfolding of “what is true for all of us” (my phrase) through participating in the interpretation of our historicized moment in a “fusion of horizons.”

Rescuing the Orphans

There are a number of significant flaws in postmodernist philosophies, the most noteworthy being that unless one thinks really carefully, and really hard, and really faithfully it is simply not how we think. It is not how we feel. I think it requires that one be able to make a living out of thinking this way, before it starts to feel natural.

It is this innate or “gut” sense that postmodernist views are only really practical for the pampered elite that engenders some of the visceral reactions to postmodern philosophical propositions. The “I don’t know what they’re sayin’ but I know I don’t like it,” feeling, or “There are no facts? How about you’re on fire? Is that factual enough for ya, mister?”

This incongruence with lived experience, I believe, accounts for some of the strong, even emotional opposition toward anti-foundationalists, and hermeneutic nihilists. Since social and legal conventions require that we try to express ourselves philosophically without setting our dialogue partners on fire, let us see if we can identify elements in the human experience which challenge the analyses and conclusions of even the most superior postmodernists such as Rorty and Vattimo.

I Owe this All to …

The first thing to note in postmodernism is its extreme anti-authoritarian geneses. Hierarchy, power, authority, and any related elements in the human experience are presumed laden with oppression, exploitation, and other inevitable effects, all ultimately harming the welfare and impeding the eventual liberation and emergence of innate human goodness.

The problem with this view, its sybaritic appeal notwithstanding, is that it simply is not our experience with authority a vast percentage of the time. The negatives presumed by postmodernists describe only occasional experiences, and only with some authority. What is presumed to be “true” about hierarchy and authority in fact only describes the misuse, abuse, and exploitation of authority. But what of the 1,000’s of occasions in which authority is benign, if not downright pleasant? My children’s primary school crossing guard. An absolute authority. From the littlest one in Buster Brown’s to the bone-crushing driver of the 16-wheeler, obeyed this small lady absolutely! Always fun, often with a lollipop on hand, or scolding Junior for his ever-untucked shirt. My 18-year-old kids still visit her, still standing in the same intersection, and still getting a lollipop whenever they can.

I have never seen Blues performed when the artist did not pay homage to a teacher or an old great. It is an honor they LOVE to confer, humility, surrender, and glorification of an authority they gratefully embrace.

Examples abound. The point is that in this world, and in being human it is just a “fact” that there are those who “know” more. They are older and we not only permit, but keep doors wide open and in fact cherish any time these benevolent “higher ups” tell us what to do. What I describe here might be called the “vertical” dimension of the human macrocosm (if we consider the utopian fraternite of the postmodernists, the “horizontal” dimension). Both are sweet. They round out life. The flat utopias of Rorty and Vattimo are too flat. They do not match reality, and they omit a sweet and known part of human existence. Give me B.B. King, give me Yogi Berra, give me my 7th grade Latin teacher. And above all, if you are lucky (and many of us are) give me my mom and dad. Herein lies an axis of meaning and even “truth,” missing in the horizontal, two-dimensional utopias of Rorty and Vattimo.

Lord of the Flies

The second thing we “know” (somehow) that rejects even the most elegant siren-call of such enchanting postmodernists as Rorty and Vattimo, is that we do not order ourselves better when simply left alone. History and subjective experience of self speaks unequivocally of the existence of profound evil in human affairs. Again, even without the philosophical sophistication to challenge these brilliant thinkers, people of average intelligence know that communitarian constructs sprouting in the Petri dish of radical nihilism disremember the “truth” of evil in our experience, in our immediate and subjective “knowing.” We “know” that when things get really evil, you just cannot just talk them away. There are some “horizons” with which we know in our gut we are not meant to “fuse.” History and our present world are rife with evidence that part of the human condition and the resulting horrors of dehumanization are “true,” and they not reformed simply by talking long enough. Thus the second missing or errant element in the postmodern project is the naiveté that inadvertently inheres ironically within its sophistication. Even those without philosophical training “know” fraternite neglects to integrate this particular universal in the human experience.

The final critique of anti-essentialism, nihilism, and hermeneuticism I offer here takes up the epistemological shortfall in these postmodern systems. What Rorty, Vattimo and their contemporaries fail to incorporate in their analyses is the role of “doing” in “knowing.”

Until now, epistemology has concerned itself with the apprehension and affirmation of propositions.

The breakdown in that relationship, and the insistence that we have lost our ability to claim that one can “know” something as “true” plays a strong and major part in the legitimate challenges forged by postmodernists. Rorty was perfectly right as a celebrity pioneer to rent himself from the warp and woof of positivism, and the analytic tradition, that last gasp in which truth was sought by reducing language to mathematics. This could not fend off the horror as the referent similarly tore itself free from language.

It is accurate then that “truth seeking” in the realm of language-sodden propositions is a lost cause. The postmodern project, in my opinion is most intuitive in its rigorous refusal to permit reckless and sloppy truth claims singing blindly in the chasm between le mot and l’objet. In this I have no problem.

I have a problem with the solutions they propose, that they remain in the cave and offer irrational solutions that stay in the shadows.

Just as the forfeit of the “vertical” and of “authority” lacked sufficient imagination to take up life’s reality honestly, similarly the surrender to the end of metaphysics fails to find an imaginative solution to the legitimate epistemological challenge rightly put forth in postmodern observations.

It is in moving beyond the disembodied intellect and its relationship to proposition that the postmodern challenge can be met with solutions that match human experience and the fact that we all know it is possible to “know” something. The postmodern, epistemological challenge should not be met playfully, it should be met in a way that conforms to a full and honest gaze at life in the world.

The better solution is achieved by approaching “knowing” in a more wholesome, more well rounded, and more integrated way, one that considers the human being with greater nuance and through more aspects than merely its intellectual relationship to metaphysical proposition.

The development of an integrated epistemology is far-reaching and complex ultimately requiring the full involvement of mind-brain theory. It is impossible to fully develop this solution in this short space, but the necessary elements can be introduced.

The key to re-opening the possibility of knowing after postmodernism lies in affirming and recognizing the relationship between two key elements. These are: 1. Human beings are a microcosm of the universe in which we act. (i.e., we – including our brains – are made out of the same stuff we apprehend and manipulate), and 2. (The integrally related reality) action affects cognition.

Once philosophy approaches the reality of human knowing in this more full and integrated embrace, recognizing that proposition is transformed into knowledge through experience and action, (i.e. how we in fact live in the world), we can become free to benefit from the valuable observations of the postmodernists. Courageous and aesthetically pleasing thinkers like Rorty and Vattimo deserve their rightful place as contributors in the pull toward the peaceful world they envision.

For the old order of things has passed away

Rorty, Vattimo and the postmodern philosophical movement needs to restore and integrate “the vertical,” the sweet matrix of “authority” into a richer and fuller account of human life. Secondly they need a more intuitive and sophisticated grasp of the reality of evil. And finally they need to recognize and develop an epistemology that understands the relationship between action and cognition.

If these are taken up in earnest, they can develop radically new foundations (even as watchdogs to keep the old foundations away) for the next era of human spirituality, new and effective agents to pursue an ideal world. We could not have fresh ground awaiting new foundations were it not for great thinkers like Rorty and Vattimo who are willing to think so hard, facing the icy winds at the edges.