Critical Theory and Religion

An interesting find on the consistently superb blog Mirror of Justice, written by two dozen law professors teaching at Catholic law schools.

The Cambridge professor of theology,  Denys Turner, has noted “in much continental philosophy, from Heidegger to Levinas and Derrida, it is  acknowledged, with varying degrees of unease at having to concede the point, that the predicaments of our culture have an ineradicably theological character.” Back in 2004, Paul Griffiths made a similar point in a First Things essay, titled “Christ and Critical Theory,” which explores the Christian yearning of the likes of Lyotard, Badio, Eagleton (then a disaffected post-marxist), and Zizek.

If one takes the Crits to be involved with a philosophical engagement with difference, then their connection to a form of Christianity has been noted by theologians for some time. Points of contact exist between apophatic religion and the philosophical concern for difference, religious skepticism, and lived experience. Apophaticism is a via negativa approach to the divine where God is nameless because, in the words of Meister Eckhardt, “no one can say anything or understand anything about him.” The Crits, in their veneration of difference, negate the hegemonic traditions, thus leaving a space for apophasia, since positive namings of God are a part of the negated tradition.

What remains paramount for the Crits is experience. The lived experience of moral sentiments substitute for rational discourse, since such discourse is viewed as hopelessly rooted in authoritative traditions of moral reason that must be de-centered. Some, such as de Lubac, Balthasar, (and recently Pickstock and Millbank), see a genealogy for this in Ockham’s nominalism–the separation of language from reality.

What would any of this mean for Judaism? Can any of this turn be used to create an ethical turn and moral sentiments toward love, fear, hospitality, and engaging the other?

16 responses to “Critical Theory and Religion

  1. I can’t answer your question, but I do feel that nominalism and the rejection of essences has major consequences. First there is the tendency to turn questions of essences of things into questions of the meaning of words and then slowly move to the idea that we are dealing with different ways of talking which carry with them their own rules of infrerence. The sense that theological claims of Judaism are facts, that we discover but do not create halacha , and all the rest of this hyper-realism do not fare well in nominalist environments.

    Closer to home, where would Brisk be if were forbidden from differentiating beteen essence and accident, and was required to speak about the word and not the thing? I think imho DOA.

  2. SO, any thoughts on a hypo-realism Judaism?

  3. Hyperealism is what we have, and it is that way of understanding the dogmatics of Orthodoxy that is allowing for all the cheeky assaults on charedim and emuna peshuta.

    It occurred to me that the debate say on Torah min Hashamayim keeps on going back and forth between Sinai is a historical event, factual and true(hyper-realism) and Sinai is just a story/a way of talking (nominalism.) The first even if it is easy to explain within a modern framework is a hard sell in religious circles. The second, though easy to sell is difficult to buy and gets lost somewhere in the wilds of epistemology.

    There is something in between which might be called constructivism, which is significantly different than saying it is all made up. One example of a construction is Rawls description of the veil of ignorance. It isn’t a historical fact but it isn’t just an old wives tale either. Another example is the story Freud tells about the primal horde, and how the sons kill the father etc. This understanding of the primal horde as something other than made up anthropology is brought out very nicely by Satlow and Kenneth Reinhard, and by Robert Paul in his book “Moses and Civilization”. Constructivism is a type of structuralism which argues that the particular structure that generates the surface material is somehow primary. For example if this Moshe Kline that you discuss on 1/18 can really develop some strong congruence between chumash and the mishna , that could then possibly be developed into an argument that such structures are more than random accidents.

    • I will think about your answer before replying. But is the sort of thing that you envision like Maimonides construction of the idea of the magical Sabians, we are the non-Sabians?
      or are you seeking a return to a Leibowitz Kantian view of Revelation?
      You examples of Rawls and Freud, makes me think that you would like the construction to be ethically motivated more than “historic” or monotheistic .

  4. Another possible example of an in-between way is kabbalah. In this regard I think this new book by Wolfson ‘Open Secrets’ is of enormous significance. I can’t understand why it is not being discussed.

  5. correction…sorry…’first’ and ‘second’ in the second paragraph of my first comment should be exchanged.

    Adding to that example…we find almost the same controversy in the philosophy of mathematics. Platonism is easy to understand and does justice to our feeling that mathematics corresponds to some fact but it becomes very difficult to understand how we gain access to this mysterious world of numbers. Nominalism doesn’t account for our feeling that mathematics is more than a useful way of talking. The possibility of a middle way, of a reduction of numbers to sets and the establishment of a set theory without paradoxes and after Godel is way beyond my competence, but is the central issue which in turn has had enormous consequences for logic.

  6. The social contract tradition reads Kant’s ethical theory in a Rawlsian way. The little I know about Leibowitz, he uses Kant as a proof text of sorts in praise of the glories of heteronomy, the starry heavens above and all of that, without any understanding of a transcendental deduction. He thinks the facticity of the rules is reason enough.

    For a pattern or structure to be primary it has to answer the question why this particular pattern and not some other. It could be, as in the case of Rawls, a justification that each of the premises that constitute the original position are plausible if we are going to try to work out what are the principles of morality. In the case of Freud there is some important congruence between the story of the primal horde and the resolution of the Oedipal complex. The parricide story is of particular significance, because a similar event occurs in the life of each individual; nothing to do with morality. Robert Paul tries to show, I think successfully, that there is a congruence between the Freud story and the chumash narrative, the parricide being that of Pharaoh.

    What’s wrong with the Sabian story is that once it was shown to be a fiction somehow it couldn’t function in the way that it was intended, the proof being that in fact this story was never taken up again or embellished.

  7. You give two options: nominalism and constructivism. And use language of “difficult to sell” or compelling. Are we talking sociologically? psychologically? What are we trying to overcome in the sell?
    Post-moderns would find the Rawls and Freud type arguments wanting and none compelling- they are too real, not soft enough, not theological enough.
    The Sabian story lasted for centuries with many embellishments and lasted until Robinson Smith in the 19th century. I think Marc Angel uses a version of it to say that Torah is rational compared to the Sabian Haredim.
    I do not think a post-modern reading of Sinai would ever yield a nominal metaphor, that is very modern.
    Apophasism, Minimal Theology, Sinai without Being would probably be the way the people mentioned in the post would deal with a historical dogma.
    Turner would look to its effect on the person as part of spirituality, a Sinai spirituality that is not a story but a presence in our lives.

  8. how about immanentization ala Spinoza, Deleuze and the post Bourdieu people in France?

  9. Spinoza addressed these issues in ttp and ethics.
    What does Angel say for me to respond to?

  10. I have been arguing for a long time that post-moderism is no more or less hospitable to Orthodox Judaism than the modernism upon which Torah UMaddah is based.

    One way that I like to present the issue is as follows.
    The challenge of modernity was, “Why put on Teffilin when you get up in the morning.”
    The challenge of post-modernity is “Why get out of bed at all?”
    Since we seem to get out of bed anyways, putting on Teffilin doesnt seem so unreasonable.

    • I have always liked the way Vatimo put it.
      Medievals asked: what effect did it have?
      Moderns asked: What does it mean to me?
      post-moderns ask: what does it say?
      If moderns could make Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Hegel as part of Orthodoxy, then Derrida, Habermas, and Ricoeur, and Vattimo should not be any harder.

  11. Maybe there is already the genesis of a de-centered phenomenology of halakaha in Orthodoxy were lay people stop trying to break into the interpretive fortress of the learned class (something that people attempted to do unsuccessfully by starting to write aggadic midrash again) and instead speak of the sentiments involved in performance/nonperformance of mitzvot.

    The problem is that in the context of American culture this tends to turn inward rather than a communal turn toward the other.

    It also seems that Modern Orthodoxy in its quest to be modern has so privatized religious life that its members can scarcely articulate an thick idea of communal experience.

  12. Yes, but it seems to have reached its apotheosis in MO. Think about valorizing as its spiritual figurehead a person who was an unabashed elitist who barely wrote about community and is esteemed for having some complicated and rather arcane inner spiritual life.

    What other streams of Orthodoxy have gone down this path to such an extent?

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