Theology Saves Philosophy from Nihilism

The term “postmodern” isn’t used in this essay, but it is certainly a postmodern critique.  The writer brings up many points.  He notes the conventional wisdom of what we might call the “modern” secular view that religion is not “rational” but emotional and thus prone to “impassioned” disagreement.

Most of us take for granted some variation of the following: religion involves heart-felt convictions and deep commitments, and therefore invokes impassioned disagreement, “exclusivist” and “intolerant” behaviour, and even violence. It is thus in dire need – given today’s social “problem” of “religious diversity” – of being (take your pick):

  • eradicated by means of education;
  • ignored until it withers away on its own; or
  • “updated” in order to become a good ally to the “progress” of the modern world.

The questions posed by philosophers of religion suggest that they believe that religion needs philosophy’s help in order to come to rational, peaceful resolutions to social conflicts inflamed or caused by religion.

His response to that conventional wisdom is a postmodern response.

I would suggest that it is imperative for us to see that the questions posed in this way (and therefore the answers that they imply) are a relic of a past. Recall for a moment that the central task to which the Enlightenment “project” self-consciously set itself – glorious and youthful, if also utterly naive – was to discern and possess the rational conditions by which the truth of things could be accessed, and thereby to dictate to every field of human inquiry the rational scope of its enterprise, the conditions by which it could properly proceed to secure knowledge of its particular object.

It was this intent to “dictate” to every other field of human inquiry what “reason” had to mean that has been unmasked by the postmodern critique. 

He also notes the link or connection between the secular’s assertion of a “universal” reason and the creation of modern fundamentalism.

 In the end, Kant’s critically purified reason “saved” the objective knowledge of the sciences, which furnished the model of knowledge he took for granted in the first place, at the high cost of resting this knowledge on subjectivity itself, which could only be presumed but to be universal. It also “made room” for faith, though only by banishing the transcendent realities of faith from the field of what is humanly knowable (again, according to the model of knowledge provided by physical science).

This was an unstable solution. Perhaps it could be argued that solutions like this actually created the conditions for the rise of fundamentalisms, since it secured the relegation of faith to a realm outside of reason. Hence, paradoxically, such rationalism and fundamentalism are bed buddies.

What motivates the current secular fundamentalism is fear.  Fear that it might be just another narrative and not a firm, objective, neutral, and universal foundation of truth.  If it is no longer a privileged form of reasoning, then it will need to make its case, as a narrative, like all others and recognized diversity.

Religious diversity demands that philosophy change, giving up its historic self-conception as a quest for the truth of things as such and become a mode of reasoning that does not question the pluralistic context, but rather serves it, showing how it is necessary and universal. The Enlightenment did not go this far, for it only sought, erroneously, to replace a once unified religious culture with the unity of a rationality proffered by physical science from outside of that religious milieu.

A few might read this essay and see some sort of assault on “reason” or the assertion that “irrationality” is a viable option.  And, of course, that would be to completely mis-read and misunderstand what is being asserted.  What the writer is suggesting is that we think about “reason” in a different way.

Theology in fact has the resources and potential to save both “reason” and philosophy.
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8 Responses to Theology Saves Philosophy from Nihilism

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Yes, there is fear involved, that the irrationality of man will defeat his rationality. Witness the contemporary Republican party, which massages emotions with unthinking mantras and easy formulas devoid of nuance or truth. We went through one dark age after having achieved so much. It would be a shame to go through another.

    “Religious diversity demands that philosophy change, giving up its historic self-conception as a quest for the truth of things as such and become a mode of reasoning that does not question the pluralistic context, but rather serves it, showing how it is necessary and universal.”

    As usual, reason is the devil's whore. What else is new?

    “Perhaps it could be argued that solutions like this actually created the conditions for the rise of fundamentalisms, since it secured the relegation of faith to a realm outside of reason. Hence, paradoxically, such rationalism and fundamentalism are bed buddies.”

    Gosh, religious people felt bad being called to account after centuries of claiming faith leads to knowledge, and became extremists .. in faith. Who is surprised? The pattern replicates every challenge to illegitimate authority, like the counter reformation, civil rights movement, etc.. I would suggest the better solution is to relegate yet a bit further, to the dustbin of our intellectual history.

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  2. Darrell says:

    One more time:

    “A few might read this essay and see some sort of assault on “reason” or the assertion that “irrationality” is a viable option. And, of course, that would be to completely mis-read and misunderstand what is being asserted. What the writer is suggesting is that we think about “reason” in a different way.”

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    I can read very well, and the words say that reason is bad, needs to be expanded, and that “religious” reason needs to be applied. That is oxymoronic. It is reassuring to hear that theology keeps itself in practice by talking out of both sides of its mouth with obfuscation and sophistry. Good on ya!

    “Yet it seems common sense, as far as God is concerned, to take what is given in revelation itself as a starting point and reason from there.”

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    If you read so well, please show us one place where the writer says reason is “bad”.

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    “Martin Heidegger called it the “end of metaphysics” – that is to say, our world is the world where the “highest values” of our past have irreparably lost their value, and where the justification of the universality of reason, the ability to dictate in advance what can and cannot be known and experienced, is no longer a right that any thinker or school can justifiably assert to possess.”

    Then he strives to redefine reason for the benefit of religion as being “diverse” and encompassing unreason, in essence. Quite a trick, for the gullible.

    “The Hebrew Bible calls this conception of truth emeth – that which is solid, firm, reliable and can be trusted with all one's weight. Such a religious rationality is wild and daring, but it is no monster. Perhaps it is the paragon of sanity itself. What but an ultimate divine word is capable of bearing the immeasurable weight that we sense our lives to bear and of which we find time and again nothing less is worthy?”

    As I said, it is the same old story of rationalizing unreason with alot of vaporous words. I am sure you don't see it that way, but that is because you put belief before reason, as the writer does, explicitly.

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  6. Darrell says:

    In other words, nowhere does he say reason is “bad” and nowhere does he denigrate reason. In other words, you simply don’t like his critique because it is directed toward your secularism. In other words, only you use “reason” correctly and everyone else is irrational. What a “reasonable” view to take. Perfect example.

    Please, go on—I love it when examples mirror exactly the thing being pointed out in a post.

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  7. Burk Braun says:

    Honestly, aren't you just a little bit suspicious when someone says.. ” the nature of reason needs to be expanded to cover what I believe”?

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  8. Darrell says:

    I am. Especially when atheists say it. The writer certainly isn’t saying such a thing. He notes:

    “However, let us take as an important step in the right direction the recognition that religious reason has implications for philosophy. Philosophy could hardly hope to make a contribution to the problem of religious diversity unless it were to gain from religious faith the paths of reasoning that overcome the “end of metaphysics” and transcend the utterly un-compelling flattening out of reason reduced to some artificial thought-out-in-advance conditions for what is possibly true.”

    He notes “paths of reasoning” so he certainly isn’t against “reason.” And he notes that “reason” as posited by the enlightenment was “artificial.”

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