Here is a recent essay that deals with my research and its place in the broader conversation about the role of religion in public life. It’s a bit of an update on my doctoral work at Georgetown as I move into the dissertation phase. I hope you enjoy it.
Today, many crucial questions face humanity, among them: What does it mean to be human? What values flow from our definition of humanity? How do we manage the pluralistic nature of today’s society? Answering these questions effectively is no easy task. Yet, effectively pursuing these questions is critical to avoiding a repeat of the abuses incurred on humanity by totalitarian regimes of the past, and addressing the existential threats to our collective future.
What makes our current religious and political environment one of the most vital and fascinating in human history is the present challenge of pluralism. On this side of the postmodern era, no particular methodology or worldview can make absolute claims in a secular public square to the knowledge and values that we need to address the challenges of our time. Yet a public square naked of the faithful is neither tenable or justifiable on secularism’s own terms. Instead, a new model of inquiry, debate and engagement is needed to handle the pressing questions of the age.
My research agenda entails mapping out a typology of Christian responses to political limitations on religion on the international stage. This includes a full range of responses, from force, to political engagement, to societal retreat and other categories. Questions and conclusions raised in each era from the Enlightenment to the current age have had profound implications for global religious traditions. This includes how these traditions have handled contemporary challenges, and how political systems have handled competing voices and rights claims.
Many countries are candidates for more inclusive and representative systems of government. The elites of these (often highly religious) countries are scrutinizing how secularism has unfolded in the West, taking stock of its opportunities and limitations for their own people. In the meantime, how communities across a range of traditions develop peaceful engagement in the political process, or continue down the path of conflict, matters in every nation.
My research agenda goes beyond simply mapping responses. It includes the role of values as well. That is, my typology will attempt to identify responses that have the greatest accordance with religious norms found within expressions of Christianity in particular, and the functional norms of secular society (i.e. human autonomy, social justice and the rule of law).
There are many domains where effective models of engagement are needed. Despite being a strong populist political motivator, religion seems to be struggling within the public dialogue about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human. In this area of inquiry, scientism attempts to reduce answers to questions about human existence to a limited materialist perspective. This perspective, however untenable, could have profound ethical consequences. Therefore the stakeholders that should engage in reasoned deliberation about these questions cut across a diverse range of perspectives – far beyond the purveyors of scientism. Economics also hosts a variety of ethical and political questions that are ripe for a broad range of inquiry from both quantitative sources and those that delve into the values at stake in economic decisions.
The list of domains goes on. The degree to which models are devised for inter-communal resolutions to these issues may determine the degree to which they are effectively solved in a way that does not perpetuate conflict or inequities. Interdisciplinary engagement among traditions revitalizes the broad range of ethical questions facing humanity, and helps preserve civilization according to the resonant values of many traditions. Hopefully, my research will help contribute to a more effective path in this area.
Even so, the current social and political climate presents a series of ongoing challenges and limits for religious groups. Theology, which once sat at the helm of a comprehensive view of the divine and earthly order, can no longer assume the same function in the secular public space with a host of religious and social views. This creates considerable tension for traditions that for millennia have built all-encompassing visions of the world. These worldviews once compelled states and individuals to adhere to a particular metaphysical and moral order. Today, religious groups try to maintain a distinct identity in the face of competing worldviews, including a resolutely secular order where humanity’s relationship God is not seen by all as an a priori component of forming a just and rational society.
Theology has diversified with the times as new requirements for engagement with the world have emerged. In terms of forming a basis of an ethical life, theologians must first take into account the enduring Enlightenment idea of moral autonomy and the immanent authority of the secular state. Contemporary religious movements, while maintaining their distinctive theologies and outlooks, must also work out theologies of engagement with competing worldviews. This will inform new horizons as to where are they headed in a globalized, pluralistic world.
Modernity has been shaped by the philosophical, scientific, and cultural developments from the Enlightenment era through the postmodern period. Key features of modernity include secular government (in a variety of forms), the rise of scientific authority, the ascendency of economics as a priority of politics, and the autonomy of the nation-state in tension with individual rights. To understand modernity’s trajectory, it is helpful to take brief look at the intellectual and political developments that have led to the current environment.
Prior to the Enlightenment, religious authorities held a Neo-platonic view humanity’s place in the world. This was often characterized as a crucial link in the “Great Chain of Being” between heavenly domain (God, angels, etc.) and the physical, natural world (animals, plants, rocks). Given the nature of the Church’s role in medieval Europe, this view of the cosmic order had a direct bearing on the organizing principles for human affairs. The Pope, as God’s earthly representative held a higher place along the Chain as it descended to humanity from heaven through the Church, to members of royalty on down through the ranks of society. In this way, political and religious matters organized according to this hierarchy followed the divine order.
The Reformation, and subsequently the Enlightenment, effectively broke the Great Chain as the authoritative view of the cosmos. Through the work of Decartes, Kant and other key thinkers, the locus of authority in the modern era shifted from the church to the individual. Thomas Aquinas and the tradition of scholastic theology sought an looked to Aristotle’s philosophy for a framework of how the world is ordered under God. However, modern and postmodern thinking has explored the limits of how human beings can know the world as it is in itself, much less form a comprehensive framework of reality.
After the Enlightenment, European philosophers looked to the authority of Reason in shaping the life and destiny of the individual and society rather than theology and the Church hierarchy. A person’s place in the Enlightened world was not defined by a traditional theological vision. Rather, the individual was their own autonomous moral agent that used their own mind to evaluate knowledge and ethics. The autonomy of the individual, based on the ability to reason, arises as the chief value from which rights and ethics spring. It reflects a picture of human existence related closer to an anthropological view of the human being in nature, than a theological view connecting people to God. The morally autonomous individual employs reason (rather than providence or other revealed precepts) to determine ethics and courses of action.
Another major effect of modernity is what Mark Lilla refers to as the “Great Separation.” Just as individuals were freed from a view of the cosmos based on a particular theology, political institutions and philosophy were freed from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and its ideology. As a result, the path of an individual’s enlightened self-determination was moderated by the new political structure based on the nation-state, and eventually liberal democratic secularism. Governments, based on a grand social contract as characterized in Hobbes’ Leviathan, required citizens to trade some levels of personal autonomy in exchange for a political order that delivered certain goods, such as civil law and security.
As a result, theology and the Church hierarchy no longer held direct lines of authority over the lives of either individuals or the state. Normative values claims based upon a particular view of the cosmos were contested in a public space occupied by individuals and groups that hold a wide variety of competing views. Today, theologians and religious groups are still coming to terms with this contested environment.
As importantly, modernity has changed the manner in which functionally normative values may be asserted in the public space. On one side of the coin, commands gathered from scripture is naturally rejected by those coming from competing traditions. Engagement outside of the tradition requires an argument that reaches beyond foundational texts. On the other side of the coin, the authority and legitimacy of the theologian’s work must fit their religious tradition, or that work loses its legitimacy.
A range of options emerges in this environment. Some theologians and religious communities set a trajectory away from engagement in public space in order to protect their theological and ethical orthodoxy. Others shape their tradition to fit conclusions outside their tradition to the extent that it produces metaphysical and values claims that are incommensurable with their historic community. Yet even others continue to seek a position that deals with incommensurabilities in a way that does not preclude engagement, and at the same time does not trample tradition. Below are some examples.
In After Virtue, Alastair MacIntyre demonstrates one route through the challenges of modernity. He constructs a philosophical understanding of the world that attempts to reclaim an objective, Aristotelian understanding of virtues, or features of personal character drawn from one’s own defining narrative, that can be applied across traditions. He seeks a philosophical path (distinct from theology) through which objective virtues can be discovered and applied in an otherwise chaotic public space where no foundational authority anchors society.
MacIntyre’s thesis is seen by some critics as an effort to escape Nietzsche’s idea that all traditions and ethical systems are merely fictions which individuals are free to choose, alter or discard entirely. MacIntyre struggles to adequately deal with the question of the competing conclusions communities may come to regarding what constitutes character traits that lead toward a good life. Where MacIntyre reaches for universal features of human character that can be recognized across traditions, much in the same way Kant sought universal moral via reason, After Virtue ends up reaffirming Nietzsche’s argument that all such claims are fictions subject to scrutiny. MacIntyre’s subsequent books attempt to address some of these problematic areas. Later writings also reflect MacIntyre’s conversion to Roman Catholicism and adoption of a Thomist metaphysical outlook, which MacIntyre sees as a requirement to achieve a purposeful horizon when it comes to questions of virtue.
MacIntyre’s fellow traveler in Radical Orthodoxy, Stanley Hauerwas , argues that the incommensurability between modernity and Christianity is found in the nature of the two systems. The rules of argument for modern philosophers and theologians revolve around universal abstract notions, such as: What is the self? How do people come to “knowledge?” In parallel to MacIntyre, Haurwas identifies Christians as people defined by their own distinct narrative. The Christian faith deals with a particular people living under the assumptions and experiences of a particular story about God’s role in history. In this view, modern philosophical secularism deals with universals of the human condition that cannot enter into a dialogue with the particulars of the Christian story without compromising its universal stance.
Part of Hauerwas’ thinking revolves around the question of whether human beings are creatures who participate in meaning of a universe created by God, or are merely another meaningless accident of evolution in a natural world that is contained unto itself. For Hauerwas, a theologian cannot accept the epistemological suppositions and rational ethical program of modernity without setting Christianity on a course to dissolution. He cites Kant, through works such as Religion Through the Limits of Reason Alone, as moving the locus of theology from the exterior relationship between God and humanity to interior rationality. By handing the interrogation of nature to a materialist view at the expense of natural theology, Hauerwas says modern theologians were left ultimately without the conceptual resources to make the Christian God intelligible according to modernity’s terms.
John Milbank and others in the Radical Orthodoxy movement seek to restore a vision of the universe that is connected to a Neo-platonic view of God’s magisterial role over the whole enterprise. A commitment to this view of God, and the preserving role of the church through history, shapes Milbank’s view that modern, liberal theologians have committed a catastrophic error. That is, to the extent that theologians have accepted the premises of modernity they have fundamentally altered the role of the church from a redemptive agent in history to an agent of degeneration: “The Church enacts the vision of paradisal community or else it promotes a hellish society beyond all tenors known to antiquity: corruptio, optimi, pessima.”
In contrast to the adherents of Radical Orthodoxy, some thinkers have rejected disengagement from modernity’s intellectual and political milieu. These theologian and political philosophers come from a variety of traditions, and have created a host of conclusions and models. This includes those who have advocated a full embrace of modernist conclusions about epistemology and secular politics, to those who choose to argue from their own traditions for a reform of how the status quo handles inter-communal dialogue.
Writing during the turn of the century and prior to World War I, the concerns Ernst Troeltsch observed are as salient now as they were in his day. Troeltsch recognizes the challenge for religions following Nietzsche’s assertion that it is invalid to articulate objective truths and value claims in the face of the historicity of all dogmas and metaphysical assumptions. Troeltsch offers a hope that liberal Christianity can emerge from the challenges of the modern spirit to form a new community that retains a familial connection to traditional Christianity, but forms its answers to modernity in ways relevant to the contemporary situation.
There were certain aspects of modernity that troubled Troeltsch about the idea of this new type of Christianity. The incommensurable dilemma Troeltsch identified was how a spiritual community within the historic Christian church could deal effectively dealt with modernity’s emphasis on subjective judgment and the inescapable historic context of metaphysical and values claims. His answer was a radical redefinition of how faith is God was expressed through liberal Christianity.
Troeltsch’s vision moved the theological center of authority away from theologians subject to church approval, to those that spoke in terms of independent subjective reasoning and scientific development. At the same time he argued that modernity did not necessarily remove the possibility of God, it just relocated it to the place of mystery. According to Troeltsch, this left room for the development of a fully modern expression of religious faith.
But what would this faith look like? He reconceived the church as a voluntary association based on common (relative and subjective) metaphysical and moral assumptions. Troeltsch’s vision of liberal Christianity saw modernity as making a compelling case against the exclusivism of historic Christianity: “All the relativism and all the subjectivism in the world can only mean, after all – unless they aim at an all-consuming skepticism – that the last word has not been spoken in any religion or denomination, that we are always only moving toward absolute truth, that it is always a question of proximate values. Within this framework he saw a modern Christianity that recognizes the constraints of subjectivity and relativism, and affirms a looser definition of God’s sovereignty over history and truth. Notably, Troeltsch mentions that, “Every affirmation of an ultimate, absolute being requires a doctrine of last things also with respect to the temporal development of the human spirit.” Evoking this horizon of eschatological hope and an idealized destination for humanity as part of the modern theological project would become an important component of political theologies throughout the 20th century, from Carl Schmitt to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reinhold Niebuhr was a critic of the type of liberal Christianity that Troelsch embraced. Even so, he saw modern democracy as crucial barrier against injustice when it was married to a strong spiritual orientation. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr argued for the role of the church from what can be seen as a compelling sociological perspective. He argued that reason is often subservient to the self-interests of a group, so reason itself cannot be the arbiter of justice and ethical action. Furthermore, societies have trouble dealing with the competing interests found among their constituent groups. The immoral society in his equation is encompassed by a low capacity for compassion, a diminished emphasis on self-transcendence, and an increasingly unrestrained will to power over others.
Yet, Niebuhr argues that it is through the democratic system that individuals, particularly Christians, can exert their moral convictions in the public square. He empahsized that harmonious social relationships need to be cultivated using both a reasoned sense of justice as well as benevolent sentiments. Religion’s critical role in a society is to reign in the spirit of selfishness that emerges within a society by employing sensitivities found in a distinctly religious perspective.
Where Milbank, Hauerwas and MacIntyre see the fundamental outlooks of secular modernity and Christianity as mutually antagonistic, Wolterstorff argues that the agenda of a political theology engaged with the modern world is far from over. That is, Mark Lilla’s obituary for political theology does not tell the complete story.
Wolterstorff revives and redefines the Calvinist idea of Providence at work in the present secular age. That is, Christians who believe God works through history may still retain a belief that he is working in the world’s present system and through parties and institutions that do not recognize Him in the same way as the Christian believer does. At the political level, this means engaging with others in a pluralistic environment on issues where values of human dignity and other public goods are held in common. This differs from, for example, John Rawls’ view of overlapping consensus in that Rawls calls for a meeting point among political actors on the grounds of Reason alone. Wolterstorff argues that each may make their case with the full weight of their tradition as the basis for advocacy. He argues that the Rawlsian experiment of reason-based consensus has failed to generate agreement, so the viable option is to recover a much more rounded dialogue among religious and nonreligious actors.
Wolterstorff does not deny what Milbank and others see as the corrosive effects of a Leviathan-like state. However, he sees the state as nevertheless forming an instrument of God’s providence: “States are fallen powers. They are evil. They oppress and kill people. But what’s the alternative? Chaos is the alternative. Human existence is impossible in conditions of chaos. Human existence needs order. And states – all states – secure order. Willy-nilly they secure order. There cannot be a state that does not secure some degree of order. So given the necessity of order for human existence, states are historical necessities. Evil though they are, their continued existence is a manifestation of God’s providential care for humankind. For God to abolish these structures would be to bring human existence in history to an end.”
Wolterstorff also sees the state as being under the judgment of God, even as it acts as, in some respects, a mediator of God’s providential will. The Christian citizen participates in the secular political process in order to limit the evil that might be done by the state. Conversely, Christians who disengage from secular social and political participation have a degree of moral culpability for the evil that takes place in their state. Therefore, a political theology that recognizes the pluralistic environment of the present age is a necessary component of the role of the church. The theologian may hold views incommensurable with modernity and with other actors in the public space, but that does not absolve the theologian from working out an ethic of engagement.
Modes of Political Engagement
Discerning the most justified manner in which religious, specifically Christian, communities engage the secular public square requires several criteria. First, the mode of engagement must be intelligible among others from different perspectives and traditions. Second, and potentially in tension with the first criteria, is that the engagement must allow the religious actor or community to carry their religious identity with them into the public space, including their justification for a particular stance. Third, the mode of engagement must pursue an egalitarian path with respect to justice for all in the society (as opposed to special rights for their own religious group). Below are several modes of engagement proposed by leading thinkers that variously handle each of these criteria.
Mode 1: John Rawls
The goal of Rawls’ model for liberal democracy is a society that is organized with no privileged status for a particular ideology, and is designed to achieve justice for those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The model relies on public policy discourse based on reason alone. Policy positions derived from religious ethics outside the common language of reason is disallowed as it may create an imbalance of power in the secular public square.
Since the laws of a state are compulsory, citizens must be able to explain, using rational arguments, why they believe a diverse society should be organized in a particular way on a given issue. In this way, Rawls argues that no community or comprehensive doctrine rises above another in public discourse. Coalitions are built and laws are passed in a liberal democratic system when groups of citizens find common rational grounds (overlapping consensus) for a policy based on rational argument. The origination point for a particular value claim underlying the policy might come from a variety of sources within each community within the liberal democracy. However, the consensus is built upon common rational language, and not from religious or other ideological reasons.
In terms of seeking justice, Rawls’ argues that a liberal political state first assumes the stance of freedom and equality among all citizens regardless of status, wealth or accident of birth. A key functional value is that justice equals fairness. That is, a just state recognizes that (particularly economic) inequalities always arise in society, so society should be organized to favor the less advantaged to promote equality among all citizens (the difference principle). Rawls argues that the moral and ethical claims developed through reason alone in the liberal political system stand on their own as normative principles (the original position) resembling Kant’s categorical imperative. In his later works, Rawls qualifies this by arguing that the original position constitutes a path forward for a liberal state, and not a transcendent, universal moral truth. Rawls’ model scores well on the first criteria: making an argument from a particular tradition intelligible to others. However, the chief criticism of this model is that it forces religious actors to shed religiously-specific arguments in the public space, and therefore give up key parts of their identity. It also gives a de facto privileged position to those outside of a religious position.
Mode 2: Karl Barth
Barth argues that the modernity puts up an unwarranted barrier between God and humanity, making God unknowable for the modern person. This has a detrimental effect on the development of ethics, since knowledge of God and the implications of God’s work in the world is a defining feature of how a Christian develops a moral outlook. Specifically, the humanity of God personified in Christ compels Christians to see saints and sinners alike as brothers and sisters under God. From this perspective, Christian ethics are set on a trajectory on developing a more loving system of ethics and moral values. In light of the redemptive work of Christ, the loving moral system is also a more just moral system.
The state occupies a unique position with respect to the Christian community. By nature, the state seeks its own ends to some extent. Yet, it is also carries a divinely defined role. The religious (in Barth’s case, specifically Christian) community holds the state accountable, and should reject efforts by the state to violate Christian ethics or exert undue authority or influence over the Church. In cases where the state deviates from its biblically sanctioned role, Christians have a responsibility to pursue earthly justice by rejecting the state or working to reform it.
Barth’s model suffers in the criteria above because it holds a very limited place for pluralism. While the Christian can enter into the public space with their identity intact, Barth’s system (historically placed in mid-century Protestant Germany) does not translate well into a much more religiously diverse environment. In today’s social and political ecosystem that relies on exchange with a multiplicity of religious perspectives both within and outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Barth’s Christian-specific system does not translate well into the contemporary situation.
Mode 3: Catholic Social Teaching
When it comes to seeking earthly justice within a modern society and government, the headwaters of Catholic Social Teaching are found in in humanity’s relationship with God, out of which flow the dignity of the human person and an individual’s freedom of conscience. Classic papal encyclicals on the topic tie the idea that, just as a Christian’s relationship with God is not based upon coercion but a free act of love, the Church must also promote universal freedom, dignity and justice in society. This includes the right of all people to free religious practice, the promotion of human equality and a special concern for the poor. Whereas Rawls’ system based justice on equality according to an Enlightenment view of the individual as an autonomous moral agent, Catholic Social Teaching sees protection of the individual’s freedom of conscience and egalitarian concerns as derived from humanity’s relationship with God. The church’s role is to defend this dignity in through the protection of private property, endorsement of worker organization (unionization), use of surplus wealth for the advancement of the poor, and a general civic orientation toward the common good. Totalitarianism and socialism violate the transcendental dignity afforded by God to every individual in this teaching. This pursuit of the common good for all society is an integral part of bringing the Gospel to the world, according to Pope John Paul II.
Catholic Social Teaching scores well on most of the criteria for religious engagement. First, it brings arguments to the public square that are imbued with theology, but speak well to conversations of the day about human dignity and autonomy. It also does not compromise the identity of the religious actor advocating for the perspective in the public space. Third, it aims for an egalitarian social and political environment for all. However, it remains by nature a specifically Catholic response. Other Christian traditions might do well to adopt many or most of its general facets at some level, but by nature it remains denominationally confined.
Mode 4: Communicative Engagement
Among the modes discussed here, Jürgen Habermas and others that fall under a “post-secular” perspective. Habermas offers a continuation of the modern project by recognizing the limits of, for example, the pure liberal political vision of John Rawls without dispensing of the role of reason in public discourse. He recognizes that, rather than creating a society unified by reason and the pursuit of a common sense of social justice, modernity has produced a continual mitosis of sub-groups within the state, each pursuing their own vision of the good. This pluralist explosion requires a reassessment of how comprehensive doctrines (that is, religions and other ideologies) are handled in the public square.
Habermas observes the certain limits of modernity. This includes the problematic place of religious identity in public discourse, and the failure of liberal political systems to account for the declining resonance of secular interpretations of contemporary trends. Habermas emphasizes that, even though reason remains as a preeminent arbiter of discourse, greater communication of religious worldviews should be encouraged in the public square as a means of validating the free right to a religious identity, and the enduring nature of religion as a stable source of values.
Scanning the Horizon
What does this new dialogue look like? Paul Ricoeur is among those who have tried to blaze a philosophical path that avoids the false dilemma of objectivism vs realism. In order to get “beyond the ‘circle of hermeneutics,” Ricoeur envisions dialogue among philosophers and theologians as a wager rather than a proclamation: “I wager that I shall have a better understanding and of the bond of the being of man and the being of all beings…That wager then becomes the task of verifying my wager and saturating it, so to speak, with intelligibility. In return, the task transforms my wager: in betting on the significance of the symbolic world, I bet at the same time that my wager will be restored to me in power of reflection, in the element of coherent discourse.”
According to this wager, the person enters into a non-privileged public conversation that reflects their hermeneutical location, but recognizes the limits of that perspective. Submitting the argument requires putting it into a language that those from other perspectives can understand. The arguments themselves are changed and broadened in the process, as is the hermeneutical perspective of the thinker. Those engaging in the dialogue from other perspectives must confirm or deny the argument according to their own perspectives through mutual intelligibility, and so also experience a broadened perspective. Agreements on “wagers” may come and go, but mutually respectful dialogue, humble in its approach and recognizing the fallibility of any hermeneutical perspective illuminates the path forward.
In contrast, absolutist approaches seems to perpetuate conflict, whether from particular orthodoxies of identity or from the reductive posturing found in scientism. Unfortunately, this seems to be the ethos of the day in some sectors of the public square. Concerns for human rights, the benefits of scientific research, and the production of values by religious and nonreligious communities are all potentially beneficial attributes of the contemporary public climate. However, each of these features does not necessarily promote the pragmatic dialogue Bernstein and others are talking about. An overemphasis on rights alone creates pockets of competing political factions that engage in perpetual conflict. Scientism runs the risk of moving science itself from a bracketed task of describing a portion of reality to a totalizing stance that it describes everything about reality. On the other hand, religious communities often abdicate their role in making an intelligible, interdisciplinary case for human values that makes sense to the broader public.
In her Draft for a Statement of Obligations, Simone Weil offered a different starting point for shaping an individual’s role in the public space. In short, Weil’s point of departure was a “profession of faith” that there is an absolute outside of human experience that manifests itself in a “longing” for the good inside every person. This longing for the (unreachable) absolute forms a connection between every human being. This connection places people on equal footing with the other when it comes to their connection to the good. Inequalities arise in the areas of economics, accidents of birth and other factors. However, the idea that humanity is bound together by the pursuit of the good has the ability to shape the political sphere.
For Weil, the Obligation one has to another person in removing roadblocks (or “privations of the soul”) that hinder the pursuit of the good comes prior to the assertion of rights for oneself. In public life, this includes creating an environment of free intellectual expression, where (in today’s language) no hermeneutical perspective holds an authoritative place of privilege. That is not to say anything goes: Weil views deliberate falsehood and doctrines that negatively impact the Obligation and an individual’s pursuit of the good as a threat to public health and should be dealt with by the state. The state retains a compulsory role in the lives of its citizens, but only insofar as it preserves the role of the Obligation one person has toward another in advancing their pursuit of the good.
The love of the good beyond human experience compels a corresponding love toward other human beings in advancing their own pursuit of the good. The Obligation requires a love for others, and to see others advance in their own pursuit of the good.
The pragmatic approach to dialogue between individuals and communities of varying hermeneutic perspectives perhaps requires an element of Weil’s vision of the Obligation under a certain definition of the word love. Defining love as commitment and action to protect the good of another (vs. an emotional or physiological response) forms a synonymous connection between “love” and “Obligation.” Yet, it is not a personal (Herbraic/saintly) love that she is necessarily talking about, but one that is connected to an abstract universal concept that cuts across the lines of relativism and objectivism. In other words, pragmatic discourse among different hermeneutical perspectives requires the element of love/Obligation, as defined above, in order to bootstrap the conversations that Bernstein and others see as a critical part of a better future.
The concept of “postfoundationalism” takes up the theological challenge to engage in conversation with a framework that transcends Cartesian Anxiety, postmodern relativism and the ascendance of materialism. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen envisions this new project with a broader view of rationality. If one is to argue for the existence of God, and for certain values related to a religious perspective, one must have a robust set of reasons for these claims. In order for these to be the best possible reasons for a belief, then they must not only have an internal coherence in a particular system, they must also be intelligible beyond that system. In doing so, theology becomes an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor: “[First] we should be able to enter the pluralist, interdisciplinary conversation between research traditions with our full personal convictions, while at the same time reaching beyond the strict boundaries of our own intellectual contexts; second, we should indeed be able to justify our choices for or against a specific research tradition in interdisciplinary conversation.”
At history marches forward, dialogue among traditions ultimately benefits a secular society through the refinement of arguments and values claims that occur through communication. As demonstrated particularly in the ideas of Wolterstorff, Niebuhr and others, one need not shed one’s religious identity to participate in the public conversation. This is particularly true in light of the state’s limited capacity to define the agenda for social justice. Habermas envisions communicative action, the active rational deliberation among communities in a pluralistic environment, as the way in which justice for everyone is defined and carried out within the state as a way to temper the Rawlsian impulse of a liberal state that seeks to marginalize religion. These and other emerging ideas leave room for religious communities to play a role in public deliberation without abandoning the egalitarian and universalizing ideals of the modern secular project.