Habermas On Karl Barth And Other Heavy-Hitting Theologians

Habermas and the religious turn

One of the most truly remarkable events in intellectual history in recent times is Jurgen Habermas’ “religious turn” in the last two decades. Those of us writing about Habermas in the 1980s and 1990s (such as myself) spoke of the “linguistic turn” in critical social theory. We understood the epochal theory of communicative action in this light; those of us who dug our spades into learning theory ground appropriated his work toward developing a coherent theory of adult learning in time and space. I attempted to articulate Habermas as learning theorist in my edited book, In defense of the lifeworld: critical perspectives on adult learning (1995), in numerous articles (including historical studies using Habermas’s framework) and a second book, Designing the just learning society: a critical inquiry (2005). In the last ten years I have been focusing much attention on Habermas’ “religious turn.”

Habermas is remarkable in the way he can be present at a symposium with theologians discussing his work as it pertains to “public theology” and begin his response to their work with the disclaimer, “Well, I don’t know all that much about theology…” while proceeding to demonstrate the reverse. He can give a speech honouring the great Jewish scholar of the Kabbala, Gershom Scholem, where he seems to have an insider’s view, to have read these mysterious texts. As I have pondered this, it strikes me that the German universities have a great tradition of academic theology—theology has significant respect, and theologians have, historically, been leading German intellectuals (one can think of Schleiermacher or Von Harnack).

So Habermas does his work in a milieu where he is likely to meet with theologians like Johann Metz or Helmut Peukert or younger scholars like Edmunds Arens and others. But that is not it entirely: the Frankfurt School of Amazing Intellectuals (my name for the Institute for Social Research) included scholars like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer, all Jews who were immersed in theological themes and sensibility. Theological modes of thinking seep into your pores in Germany, and of course, seminal social theorists like Max Weber shaped their understanding of modernity with the sacred/secular binary as well as the enchantment/disenchantment worldviews. I might even be pressed to consider Jurgen Habermas as a deeply “religious” thinker, even though he claims to be “religiously unmusical.” That may be so, but writings on various dimensions of our post-secular world (including dialogue with  Pope Benedict and the Catholic philosophers in Munich) betray an insider’s view (Habermas’s wife, Ute Wesselhoeft’s father, Werner, was a member of the “Confessional church” in Germany that opposed Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s). Habermas appears to be open to the disclosure of meaning available to us as human beings in the great religious traditions (he speaks of their ”semantic potential,” but not that alone). In this sense, he is once again a kind of avant-garde intellectual in his old age. As always, he does not fear to travel into non-trendy places.

Kant has shaped Habermas’ understanding of modernity

Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, has shaped Habermas’ understanding of modernity: its way of understanding faith and knowledge, ethics, justice, politics, culture, law and the good life. Kant is a watershed thinker: we can talk, I think, of pre-Kantian and post-Kantian modes of doing philosophy and of understanding the social sciences. Habermas places himself in dialogue with Kant’s philosophy of religion: he wants to know what he (and we) can learn from him towards thinking about the boundary between faith and knowledge. We know that a great dialogue has been going on down through the ages on the tremulous relationship between faith and reason (one thinks of the architectonic work of St. Thomas Aquinas in this regard). But in recent times one cannot think this relationship without thinking with and against Kant.

In his essay, “The boundary between faith and knowledge: on the reception and contemporary importance of Kant’s philosophy of religion,” in Between naturalism and religion: philosophical essays (2008), Habermas sets out his argument. Although it is a difficult, even at times, dense text, I want to draw out a few interesting elements of his painstaking presentation. Kant certainly presents critical challenges to Christian believers. In his famous Critiques and book, Religion within the boundaries of mere reason, Kant sets faith-knowledge outside the realm of the empirically demonstrable. We cannot know anything empirically verifiable about God or the Transcendent, we an only believe that so and so exists or acted in such and such way. In other words, Reason—now in the philosophical driver’s seat—kicks religion out of its rule and domain.

But Kant doesn’t give up on religion or the Transcendent. It takes on a “practical meaning of transporting the transcendent divine standpoint into a functionally equivalent inner worldly perspective and to preserve it in the form of the moral standpoint” (p. 228). The idea of “transposition” or “translation” will become central to Habermas’ project, his religious turn and will orient him to engaging religion in the public sphere. The Enlightenment flattened the human horizon, and Kant now understands the transcendent not to have disappeared, but shifted (or transposed) its locus to an innerly world moral orientation to the world. We can, I think, recognize this interpretive move as the fundamental strategy of all liberal theology that most surely follows in Kant’s wake. One can certainly—as Habermas observes—see that Adolf Von Harnack (1851-1930), the great German theologian, followed Kant in locating the “kingdom of God” in the inner world of personal devotion. Kant, in sum, “redeems religious contents through translation” (ibid.).

Hegel and the post-Hegelians

Hegel, Habermas argues, critiques Kant’s dismissal of religion by measuring its positive contents in terms of the abstract concept of reason. Hegel thinks that this sets up religion as reason’s adversary. But Habermas says that Hegel is still thinking within a Kantian framework—in the sense that he is working within a “horizon of a rationally extended knowledge. He too upholds the claim of the philosophical enlightenment to justify the truth content of religion in rational terms” (p. 229). However, like Kant, Hegel engages in translation. As superior partner, philosophy takes the audacious liberty of translating the incarnation of God in Christ into the working of Absolute Spirit in history: realizing itself in various unfolding historical forms (such as the state). Habermas criticizes Hegel for abandoning the possibility of a new beginning, promised in any eschatological reading of the not-yet. It seems that Hegel has condemned himself to a fatalistic reading of history.

Habermas argues that the post-Hegelians—Marx and Feuerbach—turn Hegel on his head from the “perspective of an intersubjective reason incarnated in the body and language and situated in history and society, and reaffirmed the Kantian priority of practical over theoretical reason” (p. 231). This certainly merits a lengthy discussion as do all these themes! But notice, Kant and Hegel deflate religion, and so do Marx and Feuerbach (Karl Barth certainly recognized this in his own philosophical ruminations). Marx argues that religion reflects disruption in social conditions and conceals the “alienated life from itself” (p. 231). Both Kant and Marx believe that the destruction of the “false contents” of religious (or metaphysical) beliefs will lead to authentic existence. That’s the beating heart of the Enlightenment. We can see, then, that the kingdom of God gets transformed into an “ethical community” for Kant and a “secular embodiment of a revolutionary form of emancipated society” (ibid.) for Marx. Kant’s translation is appropriated by liberal theology, and Marx’s by liberation theologians. This tension plays itself out in our own times.

Habermas’ affection for Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)

Habermas has a deep affection for Schleiermacher (as did Barth). For Protestants, Schleiermacher is their Kant. For a start, he respects the boundaries laid down by Kant (in his critique of metaphysics). But he shifts these markers “between faith and reason to the advantage of an authentic faith beyond mere reason by working out the intrinsic logic and the autonomy of religion using the basic concepts of the philosophy of consciousness” (p. 232). This is a truly brilliant intellectual maneuver. So Schleiermacher, in the cloak of philosopher, wants to know what it means in a “performative sense to have faith” (ibid.). One senses the troubled spirits of Christians in the age of the Enlightenment (where their own intuitions and understandings of “enlightenment” derives from a different source of light) driving Schleiermacher’s thinking.

Schleiermacher assigns “religious belief a transcendent place of its own alongside knowledge, moral insight, and aesthetic experience. The religiosity of the person of faith takes its place alongside the familiar faculties of reason. In the feeling of piety of the person of faith is immediately aware of his own spontaneity and his absolute dependence on another. Schleiermacher shows how self-assurance and the awareness of God are intertwined. His famous argument begins with the inner-worldly position of a subject who is characterized by responsiveness and autonomy and by an alternation between passive and active relations to the world” (p. 233). Habermas expounds Schleiermacher with great astuteness and sensitivity. He says that, for Schleiermacher, once we turn away from the world we are “overcome by a feeling of utter dependence as it becomes aware of the spontaneity of its own conscious life” (ibid.). As we become self-conscious, we become acutely aware of the one who makes consciousness possible in the first  place. Now religion can claim equality with religion.

The Big Idea here is surely a breakthrough of sorts for Christian faith. The insight that all religions have the same rational origin “enables the churches—and the dogmatic interpretations of the respective ecclesiastical faiths to find a legitimate place within the differentiated structures of modern society” (p. 234). One can see Habermas pushing toward his own engagement with contemporary religious expression. Here we can see, then, that theology could “quietly take its place within the university as one practical discipline amongst the others by employing the best scientific methods to elucidate certain dogmas” (ibid.).

Barth to the rescue?

But Habermas argues that there is a price to be paid. In the cultural Protestantism of the late 19th and early 20th century we can see the “integration of the Church into society and the privatization of faith rob the religious relation to transcendence of its disruptive power within the world” (ibid.). Habermas observes that Barth’s nemesis, von Harnack, “invited the suspicion of a blunting of religious seriousness” by accommodating “religion to the spirit of modernity in the course of modernization” which robbed “solidaristic practice of the religious community of the power of reforming—and especially the energy of a revolutionary power—practice in the world” (p. 235). For Harnack, the presence of God withdraws into the depths of the individual soul, leaving the social and political order to secular power.

“For Karl Barth,” Habermas maintains, “such a philosophical conception of religiosity and religion [i.e. that of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard] is plain ‘unbelief’—the Christian revelation ‘transcendence of religion.’ Barth and Bultmann side with Kierkegaard in a dogged attempt to do justice to the inner normative logic of revealed faith and the Christian life in faith against the tide of historical thought, the secular pressure of society, and the irreconcilable opposition between faith and knowledge. But this confrontation takes place on the foundation of postmetaphysical thinking that shields the critique of modernity against reactionary anti-modernism (as demonstrated by the political stand of Barth and Bultmann against the Nazi regime” (p. 235). In this compact commentary Jurgen Habermas nails Barth’s position precisely. The choice of the word “dogged” is apt: we know what a gargantuan effort Barth made to articulate this inner normative logic of a revealed faith. We humans cannot  build bridges across the great ditch separating humanity from God. God must disclose reality to us – so says Karl Barth.

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.