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Democracy, Religion and Philosophy: A Review Essay Democracy, Religion and Philosophy: A Review Essay
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-01-17 11:38:38
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“I cannot understand how any realization of the democratic ideal as a vital moral and spiritual ideal in human affairs is possible without surrender of the conception of the basic division to which supernatural Christianity is committed.”

                                                                                          --John Dewey, A Common Faith

“Rather I would suggest that the future of religion is connected with the possibility of developing a faith in the possibilities of human experience and human relationship that will create a vital sense of the solidarity of human interests and inspire action to make that sense of reality.”

                                                                                          --John Dewey, What I Believe.

book01The two above quotes by John Dewey stand out at the very top of the introduction by Santiago Zabala (the editor) of a book titled The Future of Religion by the late Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, two well known philosophers, the first an American and the second a European, an europarlamentarian and a member of the Italian party “L’Italia dei Valori” [Italy for Values]. Both of them were also at one time first rate philosophy professors and authors of innumerable books. I personally met Vattimo at Yale University in 1978 when he was still a young professor and scholar but already famous and was quite taken by his great erudition and humanity. The book first appeared in Italy as Il Futuro della Religione, Garzanti Editore, 1994. It was subsequently translated in English and published by the Columbia University Press in 1995. Basically, aside from the introduction by its editor Santiago Zabala and a concluding dialogue between Zabala, Rorty and Vattimo, the book can be divided in two parts: chapter one titled “Anticlericalism and Atheism” by Rorty and chapter two titled “The Age of Interpretation” by Vattimo.

What those two essays have in common is their criticism of the metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy. The Greeks of course had arrived via natural theology, unaided by revelation, to the idea of God whom Aristotle calls the First Mover or the First Cause. But the challenge of Rorty and Vattimo, not unlike that of Nietzsche, goes well beyond philosophy to a reevaluation of the very foundations of belief in God.

Both philosophers, despite the fact that they are both post-modernists, insist that the skepticism toward metaphysical truth does not necessarily imply the rejection of religion but rather the opening of the horizon toward new ways of imagining what it means to be religious. What it means to place the emphasis on charity, solidarity, and irony. In fact solidarity, charity and irony is the subtitle of the book. This is indeed a valuable and exemplary transatlantic collaboration between two brilliant philosophical minds, a signal contribution to the joining of American pragmatism and European hermeneutics. It also delves deeply into the exploration of the limits of traditional religious belief and modern secularism.

In "Anticlericalism and Atheism" Rorty argues that the end of metaphysics opens the way for an anti-essentialist religion. What does he mean? Basically that a new conception of religion  will aim at achieving the gospel's and the prophets’ promise that at a certain point in time God will not consider humanity as a servant but as a friend. In "The Age of Interpretation," Vattimo who has often criticized the Church in which he grew up in Turin, explores the nexus between Christianity and hermeneutics in light of the Heideggerian dissolution of metaphysical truth. He argues that just as in hermeneutics, interpretation is essential to Christianity, which introduces  the principle of interiority and dissolves the experience of objective reality into "listening to and interpreting messages." This exploration had already been conducted by that other philosopher of religion, Soren Kierkegaard, the father of modern existentialism, in his famous Fear and Trembling. What is unique in this book is that it is written in a world that is post-modern, post-metaphysical, and post-Christian.

The book is post-modern not only because it is anti-metaphysical but because it challenges modernity on two fronts; on two questions that remain largely unexamined and unanswered. The first question is this, How, despite the prophets of doom that from time immemorial have declared religion dead and useless, may modernity come to terms with the religious impulse that is still alive and well in the modern world even after centuries of hegemony on the part of science and philosophical rationalism? Secondly, how may those who do not discern meaning in religion begin to understand those who do, rather than throw ad hominem vituperations at each other across a negative dualistic divide?

Rorty frankly admits that in the past he had cavalierly declared himself an "atheist" and now laments the fact that he did not have a more sophisticated and nuanced description of his thinking on religious belief, thus preventing what might have been a fruitful dialogues on the subject. He in fact rejects in this book the "atheist" label replacing it with "anti-clerical," This evolution in Rorty’s thought predisposes him for a fruitful and positive dialogue with the Catholic Gianni Vattimo, whose approach to the philosophy of religion is hermeneutical, that is to say, influenced by Gadamer and Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche after all who wrote: “There are no facts, only interpretations, and this is also an interpretation.” That statement by itself could be a proposal for radical relativism.

Vattimo in turn leads us through a bold analysis of nihilism attempting to transform it into something positive. He claims that this positive nihilism results from the precedent of  a long traditional discussion about the meaning of the Gospels and of the Cross. A novel perspective indeed. For Vattimo, both the Church and science valorize a false "objectivism" and a pursuit of "Truth" at the expense of truths - that is, at the expense of what William James and Dewey referred to as the truths accumulated through a lived experience in community; the truths that actually make life worth living.

Vattimo argues that one of the worst faults of Catholic Church leadership as well as other religious denominations, is its clinging to this kind of positivist objectivism in theological and social matters, rather than embracing the Church as an important institution that provides useful and interesting ways to interpret the world. He claims that the Church's long history of vying with science for the claim to objective truth has led it down the wrong epistemological road. Thus both Vattimo and Rorty agree that Catholic religion and philosophy have taken the same  wrong epistemological turn in attempting to make philosophy "the mirror of nature" rather than a discourse about how to live virtuous lives with space for poetry, myth and solidarity.

So the two philosophers recommend that charity (love) is what modernity must aim for. But then the question arises: is all this conversation based on Gadamer and Nietzsche’s convoluted philosophies, really necessary to get us to the very same conclusion that Christian saints and prophets and martyrs have been reaching for many centuries? But then again, the St. Augustine slogan (or the hippy’s of the 60s for that matter) “love and do what you wish” may be a bit too simplistic for those who take philosophy and theology seriously.  

Be that as it may, philosophers Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo believe that the secular and faith-based worlds are becoming irrevocably estranged. Rorty and Vattimo believe a drastic division is about to happen between modern, secular life and traditional belief in religion. They want to build a bridge between these two estranged worlds, to save something important to many people: belief in something larger than themselves. But is there an Archimedean point outside of ourselves, outside of our systems, from which to achieve an objective viewpoint or all we all in Plato’s cave and the best we can hope is to arrive at judgments as they relate to other judgments? Does the truth simply refer to a shared experiences and history? Which is to say, has the Enlightenment still to enlighten itself?

In any case, Vattimo and Rorty not unlike the theologian Bonheoffer are bound to shock the average churchgoer with their belief that the modern secular world isn't  really different from Christianity but the very culmination of it. They both believe that when God incarnated himself in Jesus, he basically turned the world over to us. Moreover, Vattimo believes the ultimate message of Christianity dissolves all notions of objectivity. Both Rorty and Vattimo seem to be saying that fundamentalism and democracy can't long endure together. Traditional religion depends on fixed and final truths while democracy is built on innovation and diversity. This explains the two above mentioned quotes from Dewey’s work in the introduction to the book. There is certainly plenty of food for thought here but then again, as Aquinas and Kierkegaard have well taught us, while faith and reason can be harmonized and not made exclusive of each other, faith, without violating reason, may eventually lead us beyond reason. One conclusion to be derived by this book is that religion appears to be integral part of human nature and one disposes of it at the risk of losing one’s own humanity; and that is why those who are enthusiastically predicting its demise to be replaced by a rationalistic “enlightened” politically correct stance (and it has been predicted many times before) may have to endure a very long waiting.


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Leah Sellers2013-01-18 07:48:42
Well done, Brother Emanuel,
I have long wrestled with and Thought about all of these Ideas, and variations of these Ideas.
When I attempted to BeCome a Missionary Baptist Missionary, I bumped into Internal/External Philosophical,Ethical and Moral difficulties within the fundamental and rigid Belief Systems and Traditions within The Church itself.
I have always felt myself to be a Child of God - an Acolyte of Christ. But my Beliefs and Ideas were also very attached to Nature, because I was very much a Child of Nature.
Mom said that the third word out of my mouth after "Mama and Da-da" was "Shower" (my childish pronunciation of Flower). I have always felt more comfortable outdoors wandering in the forests and splashing around in streams and rivers, observing and reaching out to the Animals I might encounter than indoors. Thusly, my Beliefs and Ideas about God and Christ were never Fundamental or Rigid. Rather they were Organic, Cyclical, Mutable, Open to the Elements of Earth, Fire, Air and Water, Open to Change, to Our Interconnectedness with all of Life's Energies, and the ever moving, expanding and shrinking Cycles of Life and Death.
So, I didn't fit. I Believe that Universal Love is the Key to Our Truer Selves and Potentialities, not dogma.
Although I had Friends who were considered HIppies,I was always considered to be a Floater,because I have always liked knowing folks from all walks 'n talks of Life, and because I Believed that Love breeds Responsibility towards the Self and Others - not selfish and ultimately destructive hedonism.
Nature taught me that there is no such thing as perfection or perfect Balance or perfect Love, but that Imperfection itself is oddly a state of what could be Seen and Felt as at State of Perfection.
Our greatest Attributes and Characteristics are just as important as Our greatest Flaws and Imperfections, because the tension created between the two throughout Our Lifetimes is the Energy which can feed Our Greatest Creations and Actions in Life, just as it can also produce Our Greatest Destructions and Nihilisms. The Energies which direct all of that perpetually available and fluctuating Energy is the Free Will - Our Energetic Intentions.
Democracy is Experimental, Open to Diversity and Innovation, and potentially Open to Change - to Evolution. Just like Nature. Just like Love. Just like Spirituality.
Religions (and Governments) based purely within rigid dogmas, traditions and systems unwilling to Transform, Transfigure or Transmutate will eventually die. Intelligent, Aware, Loving, Nurturing and Sustaining, Transformative, Evolutionary Spirituality will not.
When Christ Transfigured He BeCame a part of Two Worlds (Human/Earthly and Spirit/Cosmological, a multitude of Realities and Universes, Finite and Infinite. He BeCame the Essence of Existence and NonExistence Energies. He Embodied and DisEmbodied the Essences of the Innovative and Diverse Energies of Nature and the Cosmos.
He was the Nomadic Carpenter. The travelling Guiding Light - the Shooting Star of the Heavens. The Builder of Future Nations.
Ideas and ever expanding and forward reaching Thoughts are amazing little (and at times monumental) things to Cogitate upon, Experience and BeHold.
Thank you for your poignant article, Brother Emanuel.

Emanuel Paparella2013-01-18 10:35:22
Thank you for the dialogue Leah. As you know, I have been contributing to the magazine for some five years now and there have been at times vehement disagreements, especially when it comes to the topic of religion per se, quite often given a bum rap by those who consider themselves “enlightened” and progressive. Indeed I consider the disagreements all well and good to further a vibrant honest dialogue as long as it does not degenerate into a diatribe and ad hominem arguments. It is because the editors of Ovi support that policy as constitutive part of free speech which attracts me to the publication. More than any modest intellectual contribution I might have carried to the magazine, I have been insisting in those five years that for a vibrant dialogue to flourish on any issue we need to be willing to follow the argument wherever it leads and still remain convivial while at the same time be ready to examine the assumptions of any of our principles. Not to begin with that is to run the risk of reinventing the wheel. In the final analysis it is bold visionary thinking more than worldly “success” that will carry the day if we wish to affect change in the world in which we live and have our being, for it is the truth that shall make us free. You have been exemplary and inspirational in that respect.

Lawrence Nannery2013-01-30 18:56:51
I would make a distinction between the factual basis of a religion and the value system it teaches.
Revealed religions are at a disadvantage vis a vis primitive religions, which are not revealed, because if what is claimed as a fact is not a fact, or not thought to be a fact, it loses any persuasiveness it might have to those not brougt up in the particular revealed religion under discussion.
That leaves religiious authority in the realm of values. It seems to me that a "way of life" is what religion is reduced to in that case. A need for sturcture and a need for holiness drives some people to enter religions they were not born into, not the purity or nobility of the religion itself.
Weber showed in detail how Christianity engendered values in society that were imitations of those who deeply believed in the values, but did not necessarily wanted to accept the authority of the churches that orgininally supported them, for example, the necessity for civility in a society in order to maintain modern democratic institutions.
Getting rid of the philosophical and metaphysical bases of the way of life on modernist grounds seems to me to be sterile and irrelevant. The hermeneutic goes too far Emmanuel, so far that the two authors, with whom I am familiar with but not attracted to, confuse being good with being nice.
Calvinism is a good example of a dominant modernist interpretation that evolved materialist values that characterize modern ilfe more clearly and more deeply than any other modern development, paving the way for the self-satisfaction that characterizes the succesful groups in all modern nations, an orientation that I think is not at all good or redemptive, no matter how much money they leave to the poor after their deaths.

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