Re: [xmca] Don Quixote meets Reinhold Niebuhr

From: steve thorne (
Date: Tue Oct 11 2005 - 22:41:59 PDT

hi mike and all -- the complex and problematic
interpenetration of social justice and religion
has come up recently in the work of Habermas.

some of you might be interested in this synoptic
account that recently appeared in the chronical
of higher education.



Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies

Among 19th-century thinkers it was an
uncontestable commonplace that religion's
cultural centrality was a thing of the past. For
Georg Hegel, following in the footsteps of the
Enlightenment, religion had been surpassed by
reason's superior conceptual precision. In The
Essence of Christianity (1841), Ludwig Feuerbach
depicted the relationship between man and
divinity as a zero-sum game. In his view, the
stress on godliness merely detracted from the
sublimity of human ends. In one of his youthful
writings, Karl Marx, Feuerbach's most influential
disciple, famously dismissed religion as "the
opium of the people." Its abolition, Marx
believed, was a sine qua non for human
betterment. Friedrich Nietzsche got to the heart
of the matter by having his literary alter ego,
the brooding prophet Zarathustra, brusquely
declaim, "God is dead," thereby pithily
summarizing what many educated Europeans were
thinking but few had the courage actually to say.
And who can forget Nietzsche's searing
characterization of Christianity as a "slave
morality," a plebeian belief system appropriate
for timorous conformists but unsuited to the
creation of a future race of domineering
Übermenschen? True to character, the only
representatives of Christianity Nietzsche saw fit
to praise were those who could revel in a good
auto-da-fé -- Inquisition stalwarts like Ignatius

Twentieth-century characterizations of belief
were hardly more generous. Here, one need look no
further than the title of Freud's 1927 treatise
on religion: The Future of an Illusion.
Today, however, there are omnipresent signs of a
radical change in mentality. In recent years, in
both the United States and the developing world,
varieties of religious fundamentalism have had a
major political impact. As Democratic
presidential hopefuls Howard Dean and John Kerry
learned the hard way, politicians who are
perceived as faithless risk losing touch with
broad strata of the electorate.

Are contemporary philosophers up to the challenge
of explaining and conceptualizing these striking
recent developments? After all, what Freud,
faithfully reflecting the values of the
scientific age, cursorily dismissed as illusory
seems to have made an unexpected and assertive
comeback -- one that shows few signs of abating
anytime soon.
Jürgen Habermas may be the living philosopher
most likely to succeed where angels, and their
detractors, fear to tread. Following Jacques
Derrida's death last October, it would seem that
Habermas has justly inherited the title of the
world's leading philosopher. Last year he won the
prestigious Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy
(previous recipients include Karl Popper and Paul
Ricoeur), capping an eventful career replete with
honors as well as a number of high-profile public

The centerpiece of Habermas's moral philosophy is
"discourse ethics," which takes its inspiration
from Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. For
Kant, to count as moral, actions must pass the
test of universality: The actor must be able to
will that anyone in a similar situation should
act in the same way. According to Kant, lying and
stealing are immoral insofar as they fall beneath
the universalization threshold; only at the price
of grave self-contradiction could one will that
lying and stealing become universal laws.
Certainly, we can envisage a number of
exceptional situations where we could conceivably
justify lying or stealing. In Kant's example, at
your door is a man intent on murdering your loved
one and inquiring as to her whereabouts. Or what
if you were too poor to purchase the medicine
needed to save your spouse's life?

In the first case you might well think it would
be permissible to lie; and in the second case, to
steal. Yet on both counts Kant is immovable. An
appeal to circumstances might well complicate our
decision making. It might even elicit
considerable public sympathy for otherwise
objectionable conduct. But it can in no way
render an immoral action moral. It is with good
reason that Kant calls his imperative a
categorical one, for an imperative that admits of
exceptions is really no imperative at all.

Habermas's approach to moral philosophy is
Kantian, although he takes exception to the
solipsistic, egological framework Kant employs.
Habermas believes that, in order to be
convincing, moral reasoning needs a broader,
public basis. Discourse ethics seeks to offset
the limitations of the Kantian approach. For
Habermas, the give and take of argumentation, as
a learning process, is indispensable. Through
communicative reason we strive for mutual
understanding and learn to assume the standpoint
of the other. Thereby we also come to appreciate
the narrowness of our own individual perspective.
Discourse ethics proposes that those actions are
moral that could be justified in an open-ended
and genuine public dialogue. Its formula suggests
that "only those norms can claim to be valid that
meet (or could meet) with the appro-val of all
affected in their capacity as participants in a
practical discourse."
Until recently Habermas was known as a resolutely
secular thinker. On occasion his writings touched
upon religious subjects or themes. But these
confluences were exceptions that proved the rule.

Yet a few years ago the tonality of his work
began to change ever so subtly. In fall 2001
Habermas was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize
of the German Publishers and Booksellers
Association. The title of his acceptance speech,
"Faith and Knowledge," had a palpably theological
ring. The remarks, delivered shortly after the
September 11 terrorist attacks, stressed the
importance of mutual toleration between secular
and religious approaches to life.
Last year Habermas engaged in a high-profile
public dialogue with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger --
who, on April 19, was named as Pope John Paul
II's successor -- at the cardinal's behest. A
number of the philosopher's left-wing friends and
followers were taken aback by his willingness to
have a dialogue with one of Europe's most
conservative prelates. In 2002 Habermas had
published In Defense of Humanity, an impassioned
critique of the risks of biological engineering
and human cloning. It was this text in
particular, in which the philosopher provided an
eloquent defense of the right to a unique human
identity -- a right that cloning clearly imperils
-- that seems to have piqued the cardinal's
curiosity and interest. Yet if one examines the
trajectory of Habermas's intellectual
development, the Ratzinger exchange seems
relatively unexceptional.

Glance back at Habermas's philosophical chef
d'oeuvre, the two-volume Theory of Communicative
Action (1981), and you'll find that one of his
key ideas is the "linguistification of the
sacred" (Versprachlichung des Sakrals). By this
admittedly cumbersome term, Habermas asserts that
modern notions of equality and fairness are
secular distillations of time-honored
Judeo-Christian precepts. The "contract theory"
of politics, from which our modern conception of
"government by consent of the governed" derives,
would be difficult to conceive apart from the Old
Testament covenants. Similarly, our idea of the
intrinsic worth of all persons, which underlies
human rights, stems directly from the Christian
ideal of the equality of all men and women in the
eyes of God. Were these invaluable religious
sources of morality and justice to atrophy
entirely, it is doubtful whether modern societies
would be able to sustain this ideal on their own.

In a recent interview Habermas aptly summarized
those insights: "For the normative
self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has
functioned as more than just a precursor or a
catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from
which sprang the ideals of freedom and a
collective life in solidarity, the autonomous
conduct of life and emancipation, the individual
morality of conscience, human rights, and
democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic
ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love."

Three years ago the MIT Press published Religion
and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and
Modernity, an illuminating collection of
Habermas's writings on religious themes. Edited
and introduced by the philosopher Eduardo
Mendieta, of the State University of New York at
Stony Brook, the anthology concludes with a
fascinating interview in which the philosopher
systematically clarifies his views on a variety
of religious areas. (A companion volume, The
Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the
Major Thinkers, also edited by Mendieta, was
published in 2004 by Routledge.)
On the one hand, religion's return -- Habermas,
perhaps with the American situation foremost in
mind, goes so far as to speak of the emergence of
"post-secular societies" -- presents us with
undeniable dangers and risks. While theodicy has
traditionally provided men and women with
consolation for the harsh injustices of fate, it
has also frequently taught them to remain
passively content with their lot. It devalues
worldly success and entices believers with the
promise of eternal bliss in the hereafter. Here
the risk is that religion may encourage an
attitude of social passivity, thereby
contravening democracy's need for an active and
engaged citizenry. To wit, the biblical myth of
the fall perceives secular history as a story of
decline or perdition from which little intrinsic
good may emerge.

On the other hand, laissez-faire's success as a
universally revered economic model means that,
today, global capitalism's triumphal march
encounters few genuine oppositional tendencies.
In that regard, religion, as a repository of
transcendence, has an important role to play. It
prevents the denizens of the modern secular
societies from being overwhelmed by the
all-encompassing demands of vocational life and
worldly success. It offers a much-needed
dimension of otherness: The religious values of
love, community, and godliness help to offset the
global dominance of competitiveness,
acquisitiveness, and manipulation that
predominate in the vocational sphere. Religious
convictions encourage people to treat each other
as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.

One of Habermas's mentors, the Frankfurt School
philosopher Max Horkheimer, once observed that
"to salvage an unconditional meaning" -- one that
stood out as an unqualified Good -- "without God
is a futile undertaking." As a stalwart of the
Enlightenment, Habermas himself would be unlikely
to go that far. But he might consider
Horkheimer's adage a timely reminder of the risks
and temptations of all-embracing secularism.
Habermas stressed in a recent public lecture "the
force of religious traditions to articulate moral
intuitions with regard to communal forms of a
dignified human life." As forceful and persuasive
as our secular philosophical precepts might be --
the idea of human rights, for example -- from
time to time they benefit from renewed contact
with the nimbus of their sacral origins.

Last April Habermas presented a more systematic
perspective on religion's role in contemporary
society at an international conference on
"Philosophy and Religion" at Poland's Lodz
University. One of the novelties of Habermas's
Lodz presentation, "Religion in the Public
Sphere," was the commendable idea that
"toleration" -- the bedrock of modern democratic
culture -- is always a two-way street. Not only
must believers tolerate others' beliefs,
including the credos and convictions of
nonbelievers; it falls due to disbelieving
secularists, similarly, to appreciate the
convictions of religiously motivated fellow
citizens. From the standpoint of Habermas's
"theory of communicative action," this
stipulation suggests that we assume the
standpoint of the other. It would be unrealistic
and prejudicial to expect that religiously
oriented citizens wholly abandon their most
deeply held convictions upon entering the public
sphere where, as a rule and justifiably, secular
reasoning has become our default discursive mode.
If we think back, for instance, to the religious
idealism that infused the civil-rights movement
of the 1950s and 1960s, we find an admirable
example of the way in which a biblical sense of
justice can be fruitfully brought to bear on
contemporary social problems.
The philosopher who addressed these issues most
directly and fruitfully in recent years was John
Rawls. In a spirit of collegial solidarity,
Habermas, in his Lodz paper, made ample allusion
to Rawlsian ideals. Perhaps Rawls's most
important gloss on religion's role in modern
politics is his caveat or "proviso" that, to gain
a reasonable chance of public acceptance,
religious reasons must ultimately be capable of
being translated into secular forms of
argumentation. In the case of public officials --
politicians and the judiciary, for example --
Rawls raises the secular bar still higher. He
believes that, in their political language, there
is little room for an open and direct appeal to
nonsecular reasons, which, in light of the
manifest diversity of religious beliefs, would
prove extremely divisive. As Habermas affirms,
echoing Rawls: "This stringent demand can only be
laid at the door of politicians, who within state
institutions are subject to the obligation to
remain neutral in the face of competing
worldviews." But if that stringent demand is on
the politician, Habermas argues, "every citizen
must know that only secular reasons count beyond
the institutional threshold that divides the
informal public sphere from parliaments, courts,
ministries, and administrations."

With his broad-minded acknowledgment of
religion's special niche in the spectrum of
public political debate, Habermas has made an
indispensable stride toward defining an ethos of
multicultural tolerance. Without such a
perspective, prospects for equitable global
democracy would seem exceedingly dim. The
criterion for religious belief systems that wish
to have their moral recommendations felt and
acknowledged is the capacity to take the
standpoint of the other. Only those religions
that retain the capacity to bracket or suspend
the temptations of theological narcissism -- the
conviction that my religion alone provides the
path to salvation -- are suitable players in our
rapidly changing, post-secular moral and
political universe.

Richard Wolin is a professor of history,
comparative literature, and political science at
the Graduate Center of the City University of New
York. His books include The Seduction of
Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism
From Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton
University Press, 2004).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 5, Page B16

> >
>> Mike Cole wrote:
>> >While in Spain my wife and I read Don Quixote, well, the first book of
>> Don
>> >Quixote.
>> >It was an odd experience in some ways because at first the novel is both
>> >familiar and
>> >alien. We know some of the most outrageous misadventures but not the book
>> >from which
>> >they have been abstracted. We know what it means to be quixotic, or at
>> >least, we know
>> >conventional uses of the term.
>> >
>> >But reading an early 16th century novel is not akin to reading John
>> Grisham
>> >or even Saul Bellow.
>> >The form of story telling is archaic with many sidetrips and it takes a
>> long
>> >time (it took me a long time)
>> >to enter the world imagined up by Cervantes, drawing upon his often
>> bitter
>> >experiences.
>> >
>> >Talking about the book yesterday we seemed to converge on the idea that
>> part
>> >of what made the novel
>> >more compelling the more one read, and after one was through reading, was
>> >the realization that Don
>> >Quixote, in his manifest madness, humanized the world around him. Not
>> just
>> >in his imagination, but
>> >in the reality as narrated by Cervantes.
>> >
>> >Today, reading the work of a colleague about topics far from xmca
>> discourse,
>> >apparently, I came upon
>> >a quotation from ISCAR or mathematics education. Yet it appears to
>> describe
>> >rather precisely, in the
>> >idiom of religous thought, the foundations for the power of Don Quixote
>> to
>> >humanize his enviroment, and,
>> >oddly enough, the foundations for what I believe to be the efficacy of
>> the
>> >5th Dimension activities I engage
>> >in. Here is what Niebuhr wrote. What do you think?
>> >mike
>> >
>> >>From Moral Man and Immoral Society
>> >Furthermore there must always be a religious element in the hope of a
> > just
>> >society.
>> >Without the ulrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will
>> ever
>> >have the
>> >courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible; for the vision of
>> a
>> >just
>> >society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those who
>> do
>> >not
>> >regard it as impossible. The truest visions of religion are illusions,
>> which
>> >may be
>> >partially realized by being resolutely believed. For what religion
>> believes
>> >to be true is
>> >not wholly true but ought to be true; and may become true if its faith is
>> >not doubted (p. 81)
>> >_______________________________________________
>> >xmca mailing list
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> --
>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Ana Marjanovic-Shane
>> 151 W. Tulpehocken St.
>> Philadelphia, PA 19144
>> Home office: (215) 843-2909
>> Mobile: (267) 334-2905
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
>xmca mailing list

Steven L. Thorne
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Associate Director, Center for Language Acquisition
Associate Director, Center for Advanced Language 
Proficiency Education and Research
The Pennsylvania State University
Interact > 814.863.7036 | | | IM: avkrook
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