Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: AN AWARENESS OF WHAT IS MISSING – Jürgen Habermas, et al. [Vol. 3, #20]

“Polis and Ekklesia: Friends or Foes?

A Review of
An Awareness of What is Missing:
Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age
By Jürgen Habermas, et al.

 Reviewed by
Matthew Kaul.

An Awareness of What is Missing:
Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age
By Jürgen Habermas, et al.
Translated – Cieran Cronin.
Hardback: Polity Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

J Habermas - AN AWARENESS OF WHAT IS MISSINGFor a range of reasons, the question of the relationship between religious faith and liberal democracy has recently risen to the forefront of political and religious discourse. From Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to current President Barack Obama, from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to Pope Benedict XVI, from evangelical megachurch pastor Greg Boyd to scores of small church pastors across the country, an incredibly wide-ranging set of people have sought to address this question. 

The problem, stated simply, is one that goes back to Augustine, or even to Paul: how does the eternal kingdom of God relate to the temporal, fleeting, present power of the State? For a liberal democracy, the question is even more urgent, because there is no divinely-ordained kingship which we either submit to or disobey. Rather, (theoretically, at least) we ourselves are both subject and legislator. Is it the Christian’s responsibility, then, to legislate “Christian values”? What relationship should the religious citizen have to those fellow citizens who hold different religious beliefs? 

These questions are not merely theoretical. Rather, they highlight a tension fundamental to liberal democracy itself: On the one hand, in a democracy the people (again, theoretically) rule. All questions are settled through a process of deliberation and vote; after the votes have been counted, the losing side accepts the will of the majority. On the other hand, such a democracy depends for its continued existence upon a certain set of liberal values–the rights of the minority, for instance–which are not themselves up for democratic deliberation. Where exactly do religious beliefs fit in here? Are they the source and foundation of liberal values, as Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently argued? Or do they form an alternate, competing set of principles which threaten democracy, since they are not open to debate and deliberation but are the eternal, unchanging mandate of God? In short, when liberal democracy butts heads with religious belief, on whose turf is the battle fought? Do the political values of democratic society dictate the limits and bounds of religion? If it attempts to do so, does religion simply revert back to its transcendent source and refuse to accept the limits democracy sets?

An Awareness of What is Missing is a concise attempt to raise, if not quite answer, precisely these sorts of questions. Noted philosopher Jürgen Habermas has staked his career on defending the principles of the Enlightenment –liberal democracy foremost among these principles– against their postmodern detractors. But Habermas has always sought to move beyond the individualistic, subject-centered Enlightenment of Descartes to a relational understanding of “communicative rationality.” In Habermas’s vision, modernity works not because it sets each of us up as autonomous individuals who simply pursue our own self-interest. Rather, modernity is so revoluationary because it is founded upon a belief in deliberation, debate, argument –in short, in our capacity to communicate effectively with one another. 

Yet Habermas recognizes the potential threat religious extremism poses to this picture of communicative rationality. What good is debate, if your debating partner holds to different rules for the debate? Habermas eagerly sets out to demonstrate how religious belief is not, fundamentally, opposed to his vision of communication; in this book he attempts to talk with rather than simply about religious believers. The format of the book itself reflects this belief in talking with rather than about: Habermas’s brief essay is followed by the (equally brief) responses of four philosophers from the Jesuit School of Philosophy in Munich, with a final reply by Habermas. 

Briefly, Habermas’s essay, to which the other essays respond, does two things: 1. It attempts to lay out a few ground rules to which religion must adhere if discussion between it and secular reason is to take place: “the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality” (16). In other words, religion must “play by the rules” and not simply respond to disagreements with science or law by attempting to shout louder. 2. The essay also seeks to demonstrate what secular reason itself is missing in the absence of religion. Habermas believes that secular reason, especially in its scientistic variety (think the New Atheists) is forgetful of its roots in the Axial Age, when reason took root alongside the rise of the monotheistic religions. 

Furthermore, secular reason has been surprisingly unable to motivate its adherents towards communal moral action: “practical reason fails to fulfill its own vocation when it no longer has sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven” (19). Habermas’s emphasis upon the importance of community and of solidarity with the oppressed is the most striking point of his essay, and will certainly offer one point of common ground between his position and the self-understanding of many readers of the Englewood Review. Though it would be wrong to describe the agnostic Habermas as a neo-monastic, his willingness to be self-critical while at the same time calling religious believers to account truly does open up possibilities for dialogue with a wide range of religious believers. Given the urgency of the questions he raises, Habermas’s call to dialogue is one we should all take up.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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  1. Thanks for this review. I read Habermas (or more properly, I most often read others’ takes on Habermas)in my doc classes in education, so I really value this avenue into his thinking. I will add this book to the giant pile of “must read” books waiting for me to have more time to read.