One of the most important living philosophers has turned his attention to the relationship between faith and reason. In doing so, Jürgen Habermas has continued to fulfil his exemplary role as a public intellectual committed to the practice of reasonable communication as a model for politics. Given what some have called the “return of religion” to the public sphere, Habermas’ contribution is sure to be widely-discussed. It also deserves a wide hearing among North American Christians.
Allow me to simplify Habermas’ ideas and put his project into slightly more mundane terms. He posits that one important way of understanding the pursuit of truth and the good life is as a shared quest. This obviously places a good deal of weight on the nature of human communication. Our ability to communicate with one another cannot hinder our ability to realize the good life, otherwise such a view is doomed. In practice, many of the more extreme voices present in North American society – a good number of which are religious – thrive on obfuscation that undermines communication, however much they pay lip service to objectivity.
There is a sense in which Christians of all stripes embrace the pursuit of the virtuous life as a shared endeavour – the church, after all, has typically been understood as a kind of called-out community, an ekklesia. When I think of my own religious upbringing, I think of the Sunday School classes and youth groups where together we wrestled with Scripture, working out our faith to the best of our limited abilities.
How does this relate to current debates about reason and faith? In a recent conversation between Habermas and several scholars at the Jesuit School for Philosophy in Munich, the nature and role of communication was considered central to an effective dialogue between faith and reason in the public sphere. This conversation, recently printed as An Awareness of What is Missing, is a model of the kind of reasonable communication that it calls for. In the course of the discussion the participants build upon the basic notion that any discussion of the relationship between reason and faith must begin between interlocutors who speak with and not about one another. They suggest that the partners of this kind of dialogue should start by taking each other and their core convictions seriously. Further, it is necessary that the primary assumption in such a conversation must be that each person’s own convictions are intelligible, and that these convictions will be presented in a reasonable manner.
In a world that can too easily succumb to easy polarizations and glib assertions, we need to be reminded that conversations about core commitments should be dialogues with and even for one another. All too often, all we get is shouting.
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