Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Peter Gordon Reviews "An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age" by Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas has been getting a lot of press lately, most of it revolving around his most recent books, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (2010, Polity Press, 87 pp., $14.95) and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (2011, Columbia University Press, 137 pp., $19.50).

In this article from The New Republic, Peter Gordon offers a lengthy review of those two books. I think Gordon gets that a lot of people have misunderstood Habermas's recent interest in religion as some form of conversion - rather, I believe, we are seeing a movement from thesis (religion as social norm) to antithesis (secularism) to thesis (translation). Habermas seems to hold hope that secularism and religion can some to understand each other through the reason of translation. He is interpreted by Gordon as saying, "for the sake of democracy itself one should not exclude from the public sphere any religious culture whose normative insights might admit of translation."

In essence, even religion has something to offer the modern/postmodern society if we can translate its insights into democratic language.

This is a great, though long, article - but I find it very useful.

What Hope Remains?

An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age
By Jürgen Habermas
(Polity Press, 87 pp., $14.95)

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere
By Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West
Edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen
(Columbia University Press, 137 pp., $19.50)

On October 14, 2001, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas stepped up to the lectern at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt to deliver a short address called “Faith and Knowledge.” The occasion was his acceptance speech of the Peace Prize, a yearly honor that the German Book Trade organization has bestowed for more than fifty years upon intellectuals, writers, and artists from across the globe. The prize was well-deserved: more than any other philosopher in living memory, Habermas has gained international prestige not only for his philosophical labors but also for his spirited role as a public critic who has not wavered in his commitment to the ideal of a just and rational society.
Granted, these days Europe is going through a period of diminished expectations: as the European Union falls into economic disarray, older dreams of tolerance and social inclusion have lost ground. Ruling conservative parties in Germany, England, and France have rushed to embrace shortsighted policies of privatization even while they compete against the far right in a cynical game of vote-mongering xenophobia. There is little cause for hope.

This is what makes Habermas’s speech ten years ago so remarkable. Before that date, the German philosopher rarely addressed themes of religion. Since that date, he rarely speaks about anything else. In 2004 he met at the Catholic Academy in Bavaria with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) for a philosophical discussion concerning the role of religion in public life, now available in English as The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion. His most expansive volume of essays on religious matters appeared in 2008 as Between Naturalism and Religion. In 2010 his Munich conversation with a group of Jesuit theologians was published in English as An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. And more recently he met in New York with three philosophers (Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, and Cornel West) for a public colloquy, the transcript of which has appeared as The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. All of this is rumored to be the preparatory labor for a new and major work on religion that, so far, has appeared only in fragments.

The sheer intensity of this turn in Habermas’s concerns is striking, especially in a thinker who has never betrayed any sign of personal faith. Habermas was and apparently remains “religiously unmusical” (to cite Weber’s famous phrase). But at least one critic has announced this as a “turn” in Habermas’s thinking, prompting the thought that we may be witnessing an intellectual conversio, after the Latin vertere, to turn or to change. When he delivered his acceptance speech at the Paulskirche, Habermas was well past his seventy-first birthday: one could imagine he had entered upon a phase of thinking where the former confidence in systematic reason is giving way before the existential questions that confront us all. One could even characterize this phase as a Spätstil, or late style—a term that his teacher Adorno used to describe the more fragmentary and experimental compositions of the aging Beethoven.

But such talk of a secular conversion in Habermas’s recent work risks serious misunderstanding. Readers sympathetic to religion may rush to conclude that the paradigmatic philosopher of modern reason has at last seen the light, while stolid advocates of secularism may despair that a cherished ally has fled the camp. The worst (and clumsiest) mistake appeared in a 2010 New York Times column by Stanley Fish, who announced that Habermas had come to recognize the “inability” of secular society “to go it alone.” The problem is not merely that “going it alone” is too casual a phrase to capture Habermas’s intentions. Fish sought to prove this idea by quoting a line by Habermas that appears in the editor’s introduction to An Awareness of What Is Missing. “Among the modern societies,” Habermas wrote, “only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.” It is a striking turn of phrase, but its significance is uncertain. Did Habermas mean to say that religion contains insights indispensable for humanity, insights that secular reason cannot surpass? Fish thought so. The problem is that the German editor was quoting from a speech Habermas gave for the eightieth birthday of Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, more than thirty years ago, and Habermas was explaining Scholem’s perspective, not his own.

To understand what Habermas is really up to in his most recent work requires the kind of patience and precision that has been in terrifically short supply in much of the popular controversies concerning the place of religion in modern politics. It is our good fortune that much of what Habermas has written now appears in English collections—Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity (2002) and The Frankfurt School on Religion (2004)—both edited by Eduardo Mendieta, who brings to this task a rare combination of theological sensitivity and theoretical rigor. When viewed in this wider perspective, Habermas’s turn to religion no longer comes as a great surprise. On the contrary, it should strike us as a natural amplification of philosophical and political themes that have preoccupied him for many years.

Read the whole review.
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