Wednesday, August 15, 2007


At the end of last month I mentioned the dialogue between the late Marxist-humanist philosopher Ernst Bloch and the Christian theologian Jurgen Moltmann. On 11 August 2007, Peter Thompson [picture], who is lecturer in German politics at the University of Sheffield and is currently in the process of establishing a much-needed Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies, had a very good piece in the The Guardian, Religion is not a delusion but a quest for 'home'. Thompson writes as an atheist. Inter alia he noted:

According to Ernst Bloch, "only an atheist can be a good Christian and only a Christian can be a good atheist." Since Bloch's death in 1977, he has been largely forgotten as a significant contributor to the debate about the role of religion in society. But in an age when theism is constantly in the news, it is time for a more considered atheistic response to the reawakening of faith than those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. What Bloch meant was that the Aunt Sally atheism as practised by those writers brings us no further in understanding either the historical or social roots of religion. For him it was not enough to posit religious belief as a delusion. The basis of belief, he said, rests in a social context.

The quotation from Bloch is actually from the Moltmann exchanges. Indeed, I think it might be Bloch who uttered the first phrase and Moltmann the second (at least according Jose Miguez Bonino, the Argentinian liberation theologian).

What characterised many past conversations between thoughtful non-believers and thoughtful believers (I am thinking about the progressive dialogues of the 1960s and '70s) was three things, it appears to me. First, a common commitment to building a better world. Second, a recognition that learning the distinctive language of the other was central to moving beyond unhelpful stereotypes and too-easy subsumptions. Third, a certain epistemic humility. These qualities are sadly lacking from the current 'debate' (at least the one the media and loud-mouthed activists foist upon us). We need more voices like Thompson's, and their equivalent among academicians of religion.

One key heir to the earlier ethos of seeking mutual enrichment rather than self-asserting approbation is Jurgen Habermas, whose work on structures and theories of rationality is formative within post-war European humanistic thought. It's noteworthy that while many of the atheistic headline-grabbers in today' s 'religion debate' (none of whom are specialists) start from a position of dismissiveness and contempt toward religion and its intellectual shaping within theology, Habermas has moved towards an ever-deeper engagement.

Eduardo Mendieta notes that, "[f]or Habermas, religion, as well as theology, is not only a precursor or prior stage of rationality, it is the very catalyst of rationalization." He is not a believer, but he understands that there is rationality to belief as to non-belief - and he recognises that it "is neither dead, nor completely taken over, [n]or supplanted, by philosophy. In fact, Habermas calls for their co-existence and fruitful dialogue. ...[He] goes a long way to show how religion continues to be generative for social solidarity (and unrest and enmity) and philosophical creativity" (Mendieta). Habermas's own primary dialogues have been with the Christian theologian Johannes Baptist Metz, with whom has had a long-term friendship, and with the Jewish theologian Gershom Scholem.

In English, see Habermas's recent essay 'Religion in the Public Sphere', European Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2006): 1-25. An interesting critical take - which challenges Habermas' readings of Aquinas, Hobbes and Hegel on the way to an alternative, theologically fecund account of practical reason rooted in textuality - is Nick Adams' Habermas and Theology. Mendieta has written a critical appraisal of this in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Meanwhile, the book many eagerly await in translation is Herman Düringer's Universale Vernunft und partikularer Glaube: eine Theologische Ausweertung des Werkes von Jürgen Habermas.


PeterThompson said...

Thanks for drawing attention to my piece in the Guadian. It would be good to get a more educated debate on the role of Religion and Post-Secularism going rather than the sterile mud-slinging which passes for debate these days.
Yes, Moltmann did add the second part of the adage but was more than happy for Bloch to take it up into his work. While I have problems with Habermas's position on these matters too, he certainly points towards the role of religious thought in the growth of critical rationalism.
Peter Thompson

Simon Barrow said...

Thanks, Peter. Good to be in touch. Likewise, I have problems with Moltmann (but admire him greatly).