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DIALOGUES BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON

THE DEATH AND RETURN OF GOD IN MODERN GERMAN THOUGHT

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By John H. Smith

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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 "Dialogues Between Faith and Reason: The Death and Return of God in Modern German Thought" by John H. Smith (Cornell University Press, 2011)

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"Dialogues between Faith and Reason is a terrific book. It presents complicated ideas and histories in an extremely open, clear fashion and it makes those ideas speak to pressing issues facing the world today. It is beautifully written, conceptually powerful, and an authentic invitation to dialogue."

--Kenneth Reinhard, UCLA

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Dialogues tells a story about how we got to where we are and hopes that the very telling of that story will help create a way for readers themselves to engage in reasonable dialogues about matters of faith. "Where we are"-assuming that "we" refers to contemporary Western and largely Christian societies-is a paradoxical situation that some thinkers now call "post-secular." For many, "God is dead." Indeed, for many the death of God, as Nietzsche claimed, is not just a matter of what some people believe but is the fundamental condition of the modern secularized West. And yet, "where we are" is also in the middle of a "return of religion" in many cultural arenas. We are furthermore experiencing a crisis in so far as communication between these two cultural positions seems to be failing. To understand this "post-secular" situation requires an investigation into the way in which the process of secularization unfolded in a dialectical relationship with and not just against thinking about faith and religion. Dialogues explores how, over the last four centuries, thinkers who used rational arguments to justify faith often undermined it, and how thinkers who saw rationality at its strongest (e.g. in modern science) came to recognize the need for faith to address its insufficiencies.

Dialogues argues that such a dialectical relationship is inscribed into the very history of thinking about Christianity, especially within the modern tradition that grows out of the Reformation and continues through a mostly Protestant philosophical reflection on how and whether faith can be justified--although this tradition clearly has relations to others, e.g. Catholic and Jewish thinkers. It focuss on some of the most influential points where differing modes of rationality were brought to bear on questions of faith: Luther and Erasmus debating the free will and biblical exegesis; seventeenth-century attempts to marry the ratio of mathematics and natural science with theology; Kant's grounding of faith (Glaube) in a morality that is in turn grounded on practical reason; Hegel's philosophy of Absolute Spirit that postulates the identity of God and world; the positive (Feuerbach, Marx) and negative (Schleiermacher, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard) reactions to the Hegelian model, all of which sought to delimit Reason; Nietzsche's final declaration of the death of God, and his more important claim: "We killed him!" whereby nihilism is seen as an inevitable consequence of the "will to truth" inherent in Christianity itself; Heidegger's turn from metaphysical onto-theology to post-metaphysical Being. The book concludes with three chapters addressing "returns" of religion after the "death of God": in twentieth-century Protestant, "dialectical" theology around the magisterial figure of Karl Barth; in the projects of Jewish thinkers like Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, who, between the World Wars and with knowledge of their Christian peers, developed "dialogical" responses to "atheistic theology"; and in the writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedikt XVI, who has meditated extensively on the relationship between fides et ratio. The story is carried along by two dominant narrative threads, both of them deeply ironic:

1. The slow death of God unfolds thanks to thinkers who are trying to take religion seriously and who believe that appeals to rational argumentation can halt the slide down the slippery-slope to atheism-and yet each one might actually be propelling us further and faster into the abyss; 2. This dialectical history is contained already "in the beginning" of Christianity itself, i.e. in the identification of the divine and logos stated poetically in the opening to the Gospel according to John. It follows from this inherently ironic structure that the narrative components-faith and reason, God's death and the return of religion-will play themselves out like partners in an ongoing historical conversation.

There are several reasons for focusing on this particular tradition. In many contemporary debates, for example about the rise of Biblical fundamentalisms in the US or about the process of secularization in modernity or on possibilities of a "reformed" Islam, appeal is made explicitly or implicitly to categories that have been laid out and analyzed within German Protestant theology and philosophies of religion. Moreover, students and others who might want to participate in discussions on such basic questions as "Does God exist?" need the conceptual background set down by these major thinkers. Finally, in order to avoid a hypostasized notion of "religion," Dialogues explores how specific ideas about reason and faith played themselves out in specific debates by specific individuals, especially in the German Protestant tradition, which was so influential in defining Western modernity. Some of the key questions that permeate this tradition are: Must faith give a reasoned account of its basis? If not, then is it limited to a sphere of silent irrationality? And would such a divorce not grant free rein to a techo-scientific rationality? While if so, then what is the role of rational argumentation in justifying faith? And once one starts to appeal to reason in order to explain faith, has one thereby abandoned a notion of God as a transcendent, "wholly Other" (in the words of Barth)? These questions are as alive now as at any time over the last 500 years when they have been debated by the thinkers dealt with in this book.

Dialogues is a book intended not just for fellow scholars but also for the kinds of students (and interested general readers) that the author has been teaching for years in courses on the history of modern Western, Christian (esp. German Protestant) thinking about God and the world. Both religiously oriented and non-believing students benefit from tracing the 500-yearlong tradition from the Reformation to the present which has led to the "death of God"-and His return, again and again. The book explores the "dialogues" between faith and reason that characterize Western modernity, dialogues that take place in many different ways because faith and reason take on different meanings as they interact. The book aims for the kind of impact the author has experienced in the classroom, namely the possibility for dialogue between those increasingly opposed forces in our society, the secular and the religious. It is a common reaction from students and colleagues on both sides of the divide to respond: "I never knew all this nuanced philosophical thinking on these topics existed!" For this reason, although grappling with a broad historical perspective and many complex philosophical positions, the text is written in as accessible a manner as possible to reach as large an audience as possible. More academic debates are located in the footnotes.

Dialogues fits in and works with some of the major recent publications in critical theory and the philosophy of religion by such diverse figures as Talal Asad, Philip Blond, John Caputo, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, John Milbank, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Gianni Vattimo, and Hent de Vries. It also connects to books in the American context that address the role of religion in US public life, esp. the university (William Connolly, Stanley Fish, George Marsden). Where this book is different, however, is that it goes back in detail, although in a generally accessible way, through the traditions of thought that many contemporary works take for granted. The argument is guided by statements like that of the Frankfurt School sociologist Max Horkheimer, namely: "We see after the Renaissance a process whereby the more science rises up and extends its mode of thinking in opposition to theology, the more philosophy takes upon itself the task of supporting Christian doctrine"; or like that of the contemporary hermeneutical scholar, Gianni Vattimo, namely: "post-modern nihilism is the actual truth of Christianity." But these statements make full sense only for those who know the development of modern Western, especially German Protestant, philosophy and theology. The goal of Dialogues between Faith and Reason is to provide that necessary background in the form of a traditional history of ideas, even as it makes a theoretically informed argument concerning the dialogical interrelationship between reason and faith.

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John H. Smith is Professor of German at the University of California, Irvine. Beginning January, 2012, he will hold the Diefenbaker Chair at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. He is the author of Dialectics of the Will: Freedom, Power, and Understanding in Modern German and French Thought and The Spirit and Its Letter: Traces of Rhetoric in Hegel's Philosophy of Bildung.

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