An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age

In 2007 Jürgen Habermas conducted a debate with philosophers from the Jesuit School for Philosophy in Munich, Germany. This little book, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Polity Press, 2010), includes Habermas’ speech, the contributions of his interlocutors, and Habermas’ reply to them. According to Habermas, secular reason is unsettled and opaque, for it never truly is secular, as it always seeks clarification through its relation to religion. In this sense secularization functions less as a filter separating out the contents of tradition than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition.

The background of this text is set against the the sociological debate on secularization of the 1970s and 1980s. In western countries, sociologists posited that religions where destined to lose ever more of their importance with progressive modernization and individualization. Yet this hypothesis has not been confirmed; on the contrary, today religions play an extremely important role in western societies.

The social traces of religions are to be found in several domains: (1) They take positions on political questions or engage in public debates—Christianity of course but also other religious communities, including Muslim, Buddhism,  and Hinduism, are all becoming increasingly important actors within western civil societies. (2) Religious symbols and language games are being transposed into other, not genuinely religious, domains. Unmistakeable borrowings from religious traditions can be found in film, theater, and advertisement and in how mass events are orchestrated. (3) From a global perspective, religious communities play an important role in very many regions of the world. Indeed, today global political strategies are difficult to conceive without reference to the relation between religion and politics. (4) The discourse concerning secularism has also undergone a pronounced change. Today almost no one speaks of an imminent “extinction” of religions or of the religious. (5) Philosophy, too, has dealt with this phenomenon in recent years.

Religion is thus once again a topic of debate. It is not strictly a return to religion; rather, what we are witnessing is a renewed attention to the religious.

Over several decades of work, Jürgen Habermas has consistently responded to political and social developments surrounding the topic of religion. In his early work, we find references to the social role of religion that are clearly influenced by the secularization hypothesis.

In this early work Habermas sees religion in the Comtian sense, in a historical developmental phase, soon to be replaced. Habermas assumes, for example, that with the development of modern democratic society, the function of religion in fostering social integration is essentially transferred to secularized communicative reason. Religion is in danger of blocking precisely this communicative action because it does not leave the religious participants in discourse free to enter the “presuppositionless” space of rational communication, but instead equips them with clear directives concerning the goal of the discourse. Hence Habermas calls on the religious citizens not to absolutize their one-sided judgments but instead to submit to the conditions of a liberal state.

Later in his career Habermas seems to change directions. On the occasion of Gershom Scholem’s eightieth birthday, Habermas says: “Among the modern societies, 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.”

A decade later Habermas evinced even more clearly the importance of religion in modern society. For Habermas now stresses the need to reflect on the religious if we are to be able—for example—to understand the central concepts of the history of ideas, which in many cases developed out of religious convictions.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Habermas has addressed the topic of religion explicitly, inquiring into the relation between religion and the basic assumptions of his own social theory and ethics.

In his Peace Prize lecture (2001), Habermas develops the idea that the secularization hypothesis has now lost its explanatory power and that religion and the secular world always stand in a reciprocal relation. Faith and knowledge, although clearly separate from one another, inherently depend on a constructive coexistence.

This relation of mutual dependence between faith and knowledge was emphasized once more in Habermas’ conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger, conducted at the Catholic Academy in Munich in 2004. According to Habermas, democracy depends on moral stances which stem from “prepolitical” sources, for example from religious ways of life. They play an important role for democracy as a background and a source of motivation, even though they cannot serve as normative guidelines for the democratic procedures. Religious utterances also take on a more positive function, for instance in virtue of their meaning-endowing potential, for deliberative democracy as part of the plurality of opinions within society. Religious and secular utterances cannot be clearly separated in any case, which for Habermas is a further pointer to the need for a process of mutual translation.

The first contribution is made by Norbert Brieskorn, who offers a commentary on Habermas’ text. He begins by analyzing in what sense does Habermas use the term “missing.” Brieskorn makes the distinction between negatio and privatio, and argues that Habermas is concerned with the latter, a deficiency in the sense of privatio. “Reason lacks something which it could have but does not and which it painfully misses. It lacks something which belong to it and is part of its constitution.”

Brieskorn then asks what, exactly, is missing? Modern reason does not take the finitude, the mortality of humanity sufficiently seriously, or at any rate it leaves this “phase” to itself, or even suppresses it altogether. Modern reason is also too individualistic in character, and thus must transform itself in intersubjective terms. To judge from Habermas’ own remarks, modern reason is missing religious rites, solidarity, and knowledge of whether the political community is aware of being founded on secure and resolute convictions concerning its legitimacy.

Michael Reder is the following essay, where he argues for a stronger interconnection between faith and reason, through which the cultural expressions of religious forms can also ultimately be “thematized.”

According to Reder, Habermas sees modernity in danger of “spinning out of control.” The liberal state, which depends on the solidarity of its citizens and their motivation to participate in public discourses, finds itself confronted with this problem. If sources of motivation dry up as a result of uncontrolled secularization, the whole project of deliberative democracy is at jeopardy.

By contrast, says Reder, Habermas sees in religion the social function of a moral resource. But as Reder correctly points out, religions perform a range of social functions beyond morality: “Shaping culture life, coping with contingency, and he thematization of the relation between transcendence and immanence are further functions of religions.”

Friedo Ricken takes as his starting point Habermas’ proposed “translation” of the contents of religious belief into the language of enlightened reason. If the proposed translation is not to remain superficial and abstract, Ricken argues, then we must attend to what Habermas calls the “genealogy” of faith and reason that points to their common origin. Philosophy and religion have a shared origin; they represent two “complementary intellectual formations.” By “complementary” he means that they supplement each other and depend upon each other. Philosophy expresses the fact that human beings bear a likeness to God, namely: they are beings endowed with and bound by freedom. Because every human being is an image of God, all human beings are equally free.

Ricken also offers a detailed treatment of Habermas’ major disagreement with the Pope, namely on the concept of Hellenization. Habermas understands by this “the synthesis of faith and knowledge forged in the tradition extending from Augustine to Thomas.” To this the Pope responds that this idea of a synthesis of Greek metaphysics and faith is no longer viable in this form. Pope Benedict XVI understands Hellenization as an inner-biblical process which reaches its conclusion in the prologue to the Gospel of John. According to Ricken, the Pope’s primary concern is to draw attention to the fact that the connection with Greek philosophy can already be found in the earliest documents of Christianity,  from which it follows that reason plays an indispensable role in the representation of the contents of faith. Thus the encounter between Athens and Jerusalem takes place already within the Bible, not in late antiquity or the medieval period, which Habermas maintains.

Finally, Josef Schmidt argues that the condition for a successful dialogue between faith and reason highlighted by Habermas requires that people must speak with and not about each other. The partners in dialogue should take each other seriously, in particular regarding their core convictions. They must assume at least the intelligibility of  the latter and thus introduce their own convictions into the conversation in a “reasonable” manner. “A fair dialogue is characterized by the fact that the partners take each other seriously, and hence do not speak about one another but with one another. But this requires that one should not assume from the outset that the other’s convictions are irrational, so that one does not regard them as even capable of being true nor, as a consequence, as worthy of discussion, but merely as in need of explanation.”

The volume concludes with Habermas’ reply to these contributions. The question of how societies will develop during the twenty-first century and of the challenges that this will pose in the light of global dynamics must remain largely open. However, it is more than probable that religion will play a continued and decisive role in these social processes.

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