While Jürgen Habermas is traditionally considered a secular philosopher with a Kantian approach to moral philosophy, The latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review includes an insightful piece by Richard Wolin called "Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies" (subscription). Wolin finds that Habermas,who he argues might be the world's leading living philosopher, has been writing more subtly on religious subjects and themes over the past few years and might be up to the great challenge of bridging religion with the secular world. Using both his writing and his life, Wolin takes a close look at the role Habermas is playing in our rapidly changing post-secular and moral universe.
Glance back at Habermas's philosophical chef d'oeuvre, the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981), and you'll find that one of his key ideas is the "linguistification of the sacred" (Versprachlichung des Sakrals). By this admittedly cumbersome term, Habermas asserts that modern notions of equality and fairness are secular distillations of time-honored Judeo-Christian precepts. The "contract theory" of politics, from which our modern conception of "government by consent of the governed" derives, would be difficult to conceive apart from the Old Testament covenants. Similarly, our idea of the intrinsic worth of all persons, which underlies human rights, stems directly from the Christian ideal of the equality of all men and women in the eyes of God. Were these invaluable religious sources of morality and justice to atrophy entirely, it is doubtful whether modern societies would be able to sustain this ideal on their own.
In a recent interview Habermas aptly summarized those insights: "For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love."
Three years ago the MIT Press published Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, an illuminating collection of Habermas's writings on religious themes. Edited and introduced by the philosopher Eduardo Mendieta, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the anthology concludes with a fascinating interview in which the philosopher systematically clarifies his views on a variety of religious areas. (A companion volume, The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers, also edited by Mendieta, was published in 2004 by Routledge.)
On the one hand, religion's return -- Habermas, perhaps with the American situation foremost in mind, goes so far as to speak of the emergence of "post-secular societies" -- presents us with undeniable dangers and risks. While theodicy has traditionally provided men and women with consolation for the harsh injustices of fate, it has also frequently taught them to remain passively content with their lot. It devalues worldly success and entices believers with the promise of eternal bliss in the hereafter. Here the risk is that religion may encourage an attitude of social passivity, thereby contravening democracy's need for an active and engaged citizenry. To wit, the biblical myth of the fall perceives secular history as a story of decline or perdition from which little intrinsic good may emerge.
On the other hand, laissez-faire's success as a universally revered economic model means that, today, global capitalism's triumphal march encounters few genuine oppositional tendencies. In that regard, religion, as a repository of transcendence, has an important role to play. It prevents the denizens of the modern secular societies from being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing demands of vocational life and worldly success. It offers a much-needed dimension of otherness: The religious values of love, community, and godliness help to offset the global dominance of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and manipulation that predominate in the vocational sphere. Religious convictions encourage people to treat each other as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.