Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe – II

In the first part of the post on Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe we ended considering Ratzinger’s call for the recognition of Europe’s deeply religious roots, and Habermas’ ‘religious opening’. Recently there has been some talk of Habermas experimenting some form of conversion, one spanish article heading called “Saint Jurgen Habermas” and Peter Berger (see below), in denying a personal conversion, recognizes the expectation of something of the sort. Much of this seems to have come about following an excellent article by Phillipe Portier on Habermas and Religion. While the article in “El Mundo” does quote Berger and Portier there is still some suggestion that Ratzinger and Habermas are in more agreement than they may actually be. But the biggest problem of “El Mundo” surrounds the idea of a kind of personal dimension to Habermas’ ideas, which are worthy of holiness. The best response to this and a summary of Portier’s article, I think come from Berger’s post, with a highlight below:

I am not sure what Habermas’ personal beliefs are. But I don’t think that his change of mind about religion has anything to do with some sort of personal conversion. Rather, as has been the case with most sociologists of religion, Habermas has looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory—that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion—does not fit the facts of the matter. Beyond this acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the contemporary world, Habermas admits the historical roots in Biblical religion of modern individualism, and he thinks that this connection is still operative today. Yet, when all is said and done, Habermas now has a positive view of religion (at least in its Judaeo-Christian version) for utilitarian reasons: Religion, whether true or not, is socially useful.

Let us stipulate that smoking is unhealthy. Let us then assume that a tribe in some remote jungle believes that tobacco smoke attracts malevolent spirits. A public health official sent into the region does not, of course, share this superstition. But he makes use of it in dissuading people from acquiring a taste for newly available cigarettes—because he knows that some people do the right thing for a wrong reason. Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason. And that will be the end of the demonological theory of tobacco smoke.

Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, is useful for the solidarity and moral consensus of society. The problem is that this utility depends on at least some people actually believing that there is the supernatural reality that religion affirms. The utility ceases when nobody believes this anymore.

Edward Gibbon, in chapter 2 of his famous history of the decline of the Roman Empire, has this to say: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful”. When you cross the philosopher with the magistrate, you get Habermas.

Berger is very cautious with any religious affiliations, and the smoking example is quite cynical. He suggests Habermas thinks religion helps people do the right things for the wrong reasons. Portier too explicitly distances Habermas from the thought of Ratzinger on a central point. Speaking oh Habermas’ views he says

“religion has helped to establish the idea of solidarity. It has countered alienation and helped to rebuild a “mode of living” where all get their due. “It grasps the symptoms of a failed life” and “constitutes a source of culture which can promote standards of consciousness and citizen solidarity.”24 Current conditions make the presence of religion even more necessary, because colonization of the world by “turbo-capitalism” and technology has intensified human subjugation. Because of the rise in the power of utilitarianism and the silence of intellectuals,25 we have “lost all clinical definitions for social pathologies.”26 These reflections, Habermas points out, build on ideas of thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, who in their own time had resisted the rule of traditional atheism and had accorded “religious images a potential truth.” 27

Some have seen in this mode of argument, which is based on the idea of man’s loss of his original nature and of its possible regeneration through religion, an indication that Habermas has surrendered to a view in which faith would subsume reason.28 But this is not, I would argue, Habermas’ purpose. Even if he concedes that religion should play a role in history, it is not the same kind of role as envisioned by Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger. Like Kant, Habermas views faith as a complement to reason, not as its basis.

The Refusal of Metaphysical Entrapment

Joseph Ratzinger held that Grotius principle of Etsi Deus non daretur29 is the exact opposite of Sicuti daretur Deus—“Act as if God exists.” The words are a warning. In the face of modern thought that seeks to place man solely under the rule of natural reason, reason must be prevented from going off the rails by a transcendent standard. Habermas recognizes religion as the source of a civilized life, but he insists that it should not be in a position to govern politics. His view operates on two levels: on the plane of religious belief, society must not impose a single standard of behavior on its citizens; on the plane of the institutional order, the State must be free to act beyond any kind of submission to positions of communities of belief.”

While Portier’s point is clear, one must wonder if John Paul II and Ratzinger’s idea is that faith subsume reason, and be a basis for reason, rather than a complement. The opening line of the encyclical Fides et ratio seems to suggest otherwise: 

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth;
Is it also the case that Ratzinger is proposing that religion govern politics? While reflecting on the relationship of Islam with secularism, it seems that Ratzinger does actually sincerely believe in the legitimacy of politics’ authority in its own sphere. And his rescuing of the Enlightenment in Subiaco speaks of the same. So while at the personal level Habermas does indeed seem to take a distance and very utilitarian approach to the value of religion, and ultimately his personal position of God rests in his own freedom, conceptually Habermas and Ratzinger may be closer than expected. Sure, at this point it seems that Habermas’ current position on religion is not essentialist  as Portier affirms and he is committed to a Kantian anti-metaphysical position, incompatible with Catholicism. But if Habermas is committed to a “reason animated by belief (provided it does justice to reason)” then one wonders, where this reason will lead Habermas, who is committed to the  “rule of the best argument”. By making the relationship of faith and reason as well as Truth at the center of his thought, Pope Benedict XVI is hedging his bets that intellectually honest thinkers will come to God through reason and in freedom.

Benedict XVI said to the Roman curia on December 22, 2006:

“The Muslim world today finds itself facing an extremely urgent task that is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians beginning in the age of the Enlightenment, and that Vatican Council II, through long and painstaking effort, resolved concretely for the Catholic Church. […] 

“On the one hand, we must oppose a dictatorship of positivist reasoning that excludes God from the life of the community and from the public order, thus depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.

“On the other hand, it is necessary to welcome the real achievements of Enlightenment thinking – human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its exercise, recognizing these as elements that are also essential for the authenticity of religion. Just as in the Christian community there has been lengthy inquiry into the right attitude of faith toward these convictions – an inquiry that certainly will never be concluded definitively – so also the Islamic world, with its own tradition, stands before the great task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.”

6 thoughts on “Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe – II

  1. How is it that Robert C. Newman’s “A History of Higher Criticism” was never published? I’m afraid Habermas represents and academic establishment that has excluded incisive criticism of its on “higher criticism” of the Bible. Two popes condemned this spectacular academic racket before Pope Benedict engaged Habermas.

    I see no opening in the “public sphere” so jealously guarded by the likes of Habermas as a arena of “good lives” for intellectuals in, uh, the old East German Communist sense. I’m just interested in human heritage as a source of experience in health care, for such such tasks as rehabilitating the victims of old East German industrial racketeering. And for that I must face a minefield manned by the Primitivists of Academe who think consciousness itself was a revelation by Socrates.

    Yes, I’m annoyed, finding that it took a lawyer Harvey Wheeler to break the ice and help bring to light that among the herbs mentioned in the Bible and endlessly mistranslated, is Black Seed, well known in the ancient Greek Medicine but preserved only as Unani Tib half a world away. Yes, you can throw heritage away and police public discourse to cover up the criminal negligence, but that won’t do anything for your health-care overheads or solvency.

    Behind the scandal of Newman’s unpublished critique stands the fact that Thomas Hobbes uncovered a vein of archaeological discovery in the saga of Deuteronomy recovered from the pagan Temple of Anath. Yet he and countless academic careerists after him failed to follow the trail, which leads all the way back to Egypt, where the domains of Anath were awarded to Seth in the settlement of a raging dispute with Osiris and Isis, to which Moses was very likely a witness.

    No, the “critical theory” which Habermas represents is a bankrupt mess of evasive pretensions. And sensitive peopel in Egypt still weep over the endless suffering in Syria, unrequited after three and a half thousand years.

    1. Dear Orwin, thanks for your response. I apologize for the delay. I must admit my ignorance in not fully understanding your point. It would be great to see some example you have of how the two previous Pope’s engaged what Habermas proposes in a different way. Thanks.

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