Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4


A Review of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.
By Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas,
Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, et al.
Paperback: Columbia UP, 2011.
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Reviewed by Josh Wallace.

When I hear a sermon or a lecture, I often wonder what sort of script the speaker is using. Not just prepared remarks propped on the lectern or stored in the memory. I’m curious about the cultural scripts that shape and guide what she has to say, the tacitly assumed goals, strategies, evaluative criteria of public discourse.

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere is less scripted than most essays collections in ethics or political philosophy. That’s because The Power of Religion isn’t an essay collection. It’s a conversation, minimally edited by Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, between Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West. And conversation occasionally careens outside the parameters of the lecture hall.

The October 22, 2009, event this volume recapitulates sought to carry forward dialogue about religion, secularism, and the way we talk about the common good. Fittingly, the event was less four renowned public intellectuals reading four papers and more three discussions between the participants.

Language, deliberation, and translation are key themes that run throughout the four essays and all three discussions. The public sphere is the realm of public conversation about the common good. But a second, unnamed theme runs alongside this consistent concern with language: a concern with power.

While Habermas never says so plainly, he holds that religion should have only mediated access to power: religion may only determine the public good in translation, in language purified of its sectarian eccentricities. Following John Rawls, Habermas maintains that in public discourse, religious reasons may inspire or reveal the common good in distinctive ways, but any course of action must be justified on the basis of “public” (vs. “religious”) reason.

In the first discussion, Taylor objects to Habermas’ assumption that religion is a special case in a diverse society.  In the early twenty-first century, Western societies comprise any number of “comprehensive views of the good,” both religious and nonreligious. The goal of discourse within the public sphere is to discern how to achieve for all groups the cardinal virtues of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. For Taylor, there is no wholly neutral language, unsullied by any grounding in a particular worldview. Participants in the conversation about the public good should speak and seek to understand and act as those who do so from particular viewpoints.

Judith Butler and Cornel West hold a second discussion. But rather than proposing what public discourse ought to be, Butler and West speak out–testify–from within extant discussions. Butler calls Israeli state violence to account on the basis of diasporic traditions within Judaism. West prophesies against domination by economic elites in the American technocracy.

Butler and West reverse the power dynamics assumed by Habermas and Taylor. Instead of disputing over the ways in which religion should or should not have access to power, Butler and West display religions’ powerless power of suffering to address the public. Butler meditates on Walter Benjamin’s irruption of (silenced) suffering through remembrance. West enacts the prophetic tradition that both sustains and mobilizes the oppressed.

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere is at its performative best in its third and final discussion between Craig Calhoun and all four of the other participants. Taylor names translation–translation between worldviews, translation of memory into action, translation mindful of the untranslatable–as a theme running through all their discussions. Through interruptions, misunderstandings, and silences, the conversation evokes and discloses something new for each participant, yet never arrives at a conclusion, marking a microcosm of the task of discerning the common good in the public sphere.

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

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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