Faith and Reason in the Post-Secular Age

Habermas Addresses the Jesuits in Munich

Jurgen Habermas’ text addressed to a specifically Catholic audience is one of two such important speeches of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The first, at the invitation of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, took place on January 19, 2004 with the then Prefect of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and future pope, Joseph Ratzinger, certainly aroused much world-wide attention.

This text was entitled Dialectics of secularization: On reason and religion (2005). The second speech, “An awareness of what is missing,” was presented from a shared podium with representatives of the Jesuit School of Philosophy—Norbert Brieskorn, Michael Reder, Friedo Ricken and Josef Schmidt—in Munich in February, 2007. In a sense, the themes articulated in this plainly spoken text are ones that are significantly present in Habermas’ work beginning from his peace prize speech in 2001.

Habermas (An awareness of what is missing: faith and reason in a post-secular age [2010]) begins his speech with a fascinating story of a secular memorial service for Max Frisch on April 9, 1991 held in St. Peter’s Church in Zurich. Several friends spoke, but there were no priests and no blessings. On reflection, Habermas found the form, place and progression of the service as rather odd. “Clearly,” he says, “Max Frisch, an agnostic who rejected any profession of faith, had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious ways of coping with the final rite de passage which brings life to a close” (p. 15).

For Habermas, this event was not about mourning over the irretrievable. One could also “view the ceremony as a paradoxical event which tells us something about secular reason, namely that it is unsettled by the opaqueness of its merely clarified relation to religion” (ibid.). “Merely clarified”: this interesting phrase suggests that both secular and religious citizens cannot rest satisfied with Kant’s boundary demarcation of faith and knowledge. They may have different world-orientations, but they inhabit a common world of secularized institutions and problem-situations. And faith-communities may act as reservoir of ways of seeing not accessible to secularized reason.

The cry of the heart for the twenty-first century

Habermas is deeply worried that matters can go very wrong for both sides. “We should not try to dodge the alternative between an anthropocentric orientation and the view from afar of theocentric or cosmocentric thinking. However, it makes a difference whether we speak with one another or merely about one another” (p. 16).

This message may well be his central cry of the heart for the twenty-first century. Do we speak with one another or merely about each other? This question cuts to the pith of our globalized world of accelerating hostilities. It affects the forms of discourse between religious and secular beings in a modernized world where the church has been separated from the state, and constitutional law and human rights instantiated in forms of thought and practices.

Habermas argues—persistently we might add—that if we want to avoid merely talking about one another, disdainfully or otherwise, we must fulfil certain requirements: “the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ science as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally acceptable discourses” (p. 16).

Habermas reminds his Catholic audience that the evolution of modern science precipitated the collapse of the “tradition extending from Augustine to Thomas” (p. 17). Modern philosophy placed metaphysics into an early stage of human cognitive development and treated “revelation and religion as something alien and extraneous” (ibid.). Habermas asserts that: “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged. Yet the perspective from which postmetaphysical thinking approaches religion shifts once secular reason takes seriously the shared origin of philosophy and religion in the revolution in worldviews of the Axial Age (around the middle of the first millennium BCE)” (ibid.).

Those of secular sensibility must become self-reflective

Basically, Habermas is urging those of secular sensibility to become self-reflective and awake to the dual origins of modern rationality (Jerusalem and Athens). He calls this “complementary intellectual formations” (p. 18)—in my view, the key concept in this speech to the Jesuits. Habermas perceives that in our catastrophic world of mayhem and disorder we cannot close any doors to cognitive, ethical, moral or motivational resources to address urgent and pressing problem-situations that need peaceful resolution.

It is unacceptable, he thinks, for a “blinkered enlightenment” to deny religion any rational content and, like Hegel, to keep faith subordinate to philosophy. Faith continues to remain opaque to secular thought; but the “confrontation between a self-critical reason which is willing to learn and contemporary religious convictions” (p. 18) persists. Although religious thinkers ought not to be too complacent with Habermas’ ideas, he argues—for the time being?—that religion is as yet an “unexhausted force” (ibid.).

The resources of religion are not yet exhausted

Here, we also remind ourselves that these unexhausted resources contain plenty of inflammatory fuel for support of deeply conservative and reactionary forces operating in our dangerous world. American Christian churches, for example, are highly likely to support their government’s current triumphalist adventurism–attempting to undermine the viability and strength of Russia through engineering a neo-fascist led coup in the Ukraine in the bleak winter of 2014 and circling Russia and China with a military ring of fire.

Habermas worries that: “Postmetaphysical thinking cannot cope on its own with the defeatism concerning reason which we encounter today both in the postmodern radicalization of the ‘dialectic of the enlightenment’ and in the naturalism founded on a naive faith in science” (p. 18). Basically, Habermas thinks that postmodernist forms of thought have forfeited the ability to defend universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. He places considerable hope that Christian churches and their membership will not forget the centrality of the universal theme of “doing justice” in a world where the exploited and marginalized are forgotten.

This is the gist, I believe, of his argument that “practical reason fails to fulfil its own vocation when it no longer has sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, what cries out to heaven” (ibid.).

Heeding the cry of the orphan widow, stranger and the poor

Habermas’ intellectualist argument that knowledge of the genealogy of reason could enable secular citizens to sense that “something sacred” is contained in the language of Hebraic and Christian thought that God demands that we heed the cry of the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the poor (see N. Wolstertorff, Justice: rights and wrongs [2008]).

Faith remembers what secular society forgets. In the 9th Annual Lenten Vigil for the Silenced, sponsored by some Vancouver churches, their leaflet for public distribution states: “Our faith tradition calls for us to stand in solidarity with those with whom Jesus identified—the poor, the homeless, the shunned, the aged, the sick, the foreigners or refugees or migrants, the outcasts, wrongly imprisoned, those ‘aged out,’ etc. and et al.” In contrast, the Market chooses to forget with cold indifference.

Habermas is tensely aware that there is a resurgence of religious renewal, both Muslim and Evangelical, in different parts of the world. He also knows only too well that: “This resurgence is going hand-in-hand with an increase in the frequency of conflicts between different religious groups and denominations. Even though many of these conflicts have different origins, they become inflamed when they are codified in religious terms” (p. 19). In this speech Habermas observes that the fundamentalist mind-set (encountered in Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu forms) “clashes with fundamental convictions of modernity” (p. 20).

Both sides must lower the drawbridge

In light of conflicts between religious and secular citizens within the liberal democracies as well as sectarian battles within Muslim societies, Habermas urges those of us inhabiting the “liberal state” to resist “mere conformity of the religious communities to a legally imposed freedom of religion and science” (ibid.).

He declares: “The constitutional state must not only act neutrally towards worldviews but it must also rest on normative foundations which can be justified neutrally towards worldviews—and that means in postmetaphysical terms. The religious communities cannot turn a deaf ear to this normative requirement. This is why those complementary learning processes in which the secular and the religious sides involve one another come into play here” (p. 21).

It surely is a “momentous step” (p. 21) for the drawbridges to be lowered from both sides.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.