Vattimo and Theology

There is a new series by Continuum Book that engages contemporary philosophy from a theological perspective. Adorno and Theology, Wittgenstein and Theology, Habermas and Theology,  Girard and Theology, Zizek and Theology. They are also offering new readings for the 21st century of Kant and Theology, Hegel and Theology, Kierkegaard and Theology. Most of them look good and will surely engage discussion.

This past week, I went to a book signing for Vattimo and Theology– Thomas Guarino

There is little good material on Gianni Vattimo in English but here is a book review in English and here is Vattimo’s blog (in Italian- Columbia UP has a link to the blog embedded in a translation program).

Vattimo translated Gadaemer into Italian, and took hermeneutics to a Nietzsche influenced extreme. Everything is just interpretation, there is no truth in the text.

Now, how can a catholic priest teaching in a conservative seminary use an atheist, nihilist, gay, anti-clerical, anti-revelation thinker as a basis for a book? The approach not to take is to call this is heresy and forbidden and violates what we were taught. So what does that leave? One can show how other contemporary theologians have rejected his thought. (There is an article in Modern Theology- that does that)  Or one can take Vattimo’s positive points and re-graft them onto tradition.

Instead the author of the new book attempted the following two approaches. One can use it as a self-corrective for how tradition is currently being presented. One can use it to understand what current intellectuals are thinking so that one can respond to the issues of our age

Some of the points in the book:

Cardinal Ratzinger – decried the dictatorship of Relativism, Vattimo argued against Ratzinger that dogmatic claims are the bigger problem and let’s have charitable tolerance.

Secularism, in the post-religious sense, should not be decried but treated as a chance to practice the weak virtues of charity-love without dogma and as a vibrant fruit of religion. Religion has been kept out of the public sphere, but now that it is weakened, it should be brought back into the public sphere.

Vattimo says “I believe that I believe” – meaning that I have faith in the human concept of belief not in an object of believe. So whereas the Enlightenment taught we cant know the truth of religion, Vattimo argues that “faith” is the acceptance that one is heir to a library of the textual tradition of faith and to a socio-cultural world of religion. Modern rationalist liberals want to treat religion as symbolism, or metaphor. In contrast, Vattimo has faith in faith so he takes religion at face values but know that there is nothing behind it. There is no one meaning, all is a fable, all is interpretation, there is no truth out side the cave.

  • “It is only thanks to God that I’m an atheist”
  • “I believe that I believe” (credere di credere)

Guardino argues that this is not theologically sound. We need for revelation, and belief but Vattimo gives us an insight into our age. Guardino best line: “Vattimo makes cultural liberals look like scholastic divines”

Vattimo recites the Latin prayers from the Roman Breviary three times a day, and he says it is not because he believes but as an acceptance of tradition. There was a wide range of opinions what to make of that behavior. Does that give him a weak faith? Does ritual without a traditional sense of faith count? What would Jews make of this ritual behavior?

Unfortunately, we have nothing similar from the Jewish community. We do not have a series like this. There is little Jewish theological engagement since the early 1960’s, except among a few academics. Why cant Jews put out a series like this?

We spend all our time discussing bad ideology about our denominations, maybe responses to actual philosophers might better clarify our beliefs? Maybe a Reform and Orthodox response to Vattimo might teach us more than a rehashing of denominational generalities.

What can Jews learn from Vattimo? Does it reflect our congregants state of faith? How would we respond to Vattimo? What corrective does it offer us?

How would an Orthodox author successful learn from a heretic?

As a side point: It is interesting to watch the major philosopher of our age Jurgern Habermas learning to use Twitter.

Update: Jürgen Habermas says he’s not on Twitter

Over the last several days there has been considerable hubbub around the fact that pioneering media theorist Jürgen Habermas might have signed up for Twitter as @JHabermas. This would be “important if true”, as Jay Rosen put it. Intrigued, I tracked him down through the University of Frankfurt. I succeeded in getting him on the phone at his home in Sternburg, and asked him if he was on Twitter. He said,

No, no, no. This is somebody else. This is a mis-use of my name.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

12 responses to “Vattimo and Theology

  1. When I first came to YU and met Rabbi Shalom Carmy he had a copy of Nietzsche sticking out of his bag. I asked him about it and he said that reading Nietzsche increased his yirat shamayim by forcing him to ask whether his beliefs fall into the categories of beliefs that Nietzsche attacked.

    I just put myself down as a follower of Habermas. That is a post modern dissertation all to itself.

  2. Wouldn’t the work of the Shalom Hartman Institute be trying to address some of these questions?

  3. lawrence kaplan

    I remember years ago hearing a paper on Jewish life in Europe. The lecturer, a sociologist, told a story about a recent Seder of expatriates in Paris. The Seder began with the leader holding up the cup of wine and saying “Amen” and drinking it. At the time this stuck me as perfect example of contentless belief, of affirmation of the affirmation. I found it fascinating from a sociological point of view, but — O simple soul that I was!– I didn’t realize it could form the foundation of an entire philosophy or theology.

  4. Jeff- I dont see anything like confrontations with Habermas, Vattimo, or Adorno coming from SHI.
    They seem to have conclusions of pluralism rather than asking what we can still learn from Nietzsche?
    They seem to start with the Talmud and work outward, rather than start with he philosophy and bring one’s Rabbinic education to bear on it.
    However, you may be right about their anthologies of the Jewish Political Tradtion.
    But even here, it is the Sages as understood by Waltzer and Sandel and not a clear essay- what can we use and not use in Sandel. I may be wrong- but I would like to know about serious Jewish reviews of Adorno, Habermas and Vattimo. And I mean serious and engaged, not a few remarks in a footnote or a paragraph.
    Izgad- I just put myself down as a follower of Habermas. That is a post modern dissertation all to itself.
    Do you want to give us a summery?

  5. Alan — your description of the Hartman Institute sounds accurate. I just did a search on their site for “Habermas” and perhaps not surprisely, nothing was returned.

    And on the other hand, the Catholic tradition seems to have been in dialogue with philosophy from the beginning. In fact, as I am sure you know, Cardinal Ratzinger and Habermas, authored a book together The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion. Even the conservative theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar was deeply involved in philosophy and was a fascinated by the work of Nietzsche. And of course their is the direct influence of Heidegger on the work of Karl Rahner.

    I wonder if Catholicsim’s outward view and engagement with philosophy is directly related to its mission of conversion and global focus, while Judaism’s lack of interest is indicative of its more inward focus?

  6. I would argue that it the failure of MO to confront post modern ideas that has turned the Post-Orthodox moment into a crisis.

  7. Here is a review of a work that seems in line with this discussion:
    St. Paul Among the Philosophers
    Articles by Caputo, Kearney, Badiou, Žižek, Boyarin, et al.

  8. My sense is that we do not see real engagement like this because Orthodoxy is not really willing to leave what it considers the safety of its intellectual moorings. Halakhah is so intimately connected to its entire intellectual tradition that it is difficult to have a discussion of the level of philosophy and theology that does not threaten the perceived self-sufficiency of halakhah.

    If Orthodoxy was to really engage Habermas, for instance, than it might come right up against the charge that for all its pretension to intellectual integrity, Halakhah in its exclusionary discourse, scarcely passes the bar for communicative rationality. Now that would be fine if Halakhah claimed immunity from the demands of rational discourse because it was channeling revelation. But that trope has been abandoned by Orthodoxy because it does not want to place revelation in any context where it is subject to historical mediation.

    In sum, if Orthodoxy had a firm theology of Halakhah at its disposal then it might not feel like any engagement with secular philosophy was wagering the house.

    Unfortunately, instead of a theology of halakhah, one of its its key 20th century figures left us with a weak phenomenology of halakhah.

  9. AS-
    Can I get you to write a longer fuller comment explaining “Halakhah in its exclusionary discourse, scarcely passes the bar for communicative rationality.”
    I will do some Habermas posts when I done with my computer problems, but a long comment or mini post from you would get us started.

  10. I think halakha could be a form of communicative rationality in some ways.
    For instance, Habermas speaks of the lifeworldly, sittlichkeit character of the spheres which are steered by communicativity. Since halakha can be an alternative steering mechanism to capital, it can be seen as defending, in some way, this realm of sittlichkeit against instrumental reason.

    Where Halakha falls short is only inasmuch as it is not MODERN. For Habermas, we represent the sphere of sittlichkeit via communicativity because of a historical narrative. The central player in this narrative is the Kant of the second critique. As a perceptive classmate of mine noted, Habermas makes practical reason do all the work. So there is an utterly norms governed thing going on (like Halakha) but without metaphysical bugbears. I think on some level it is fair to say that this distinction is arbitrary. But Habermas has a fairly strong secularization theory and will copy and paste straight Weber (not taking into account the more recent stuff, just Communicative Action).

    What would be interesting to see would be an appropriative effort to use the language of communicativity about Halakha. Just remember a few points. First, its like a tube of toothpaste, and if you squeeze the Weber narrative on one end, saying that we do not live in a world of secular purposive rational action, you are also squeezing the need for a critique of instrumental reason (albeit one severely watered down from its Adorno roots). Second, that in practical reason and communicative rationality, the best argument gets to win. Is this really the case with halakhic debate?

  11. [I think that this mini post/comment, coupled with Chakira’s comment, could get us started with Habermas, so feel free to use it as such]

    Right now I can only offer the following brief comment that overly compresses what could be at least a book chapter. Those not familiar with Habermas should note that he talks about communicative rationality as an aspect of modernity. Therefore this constitutes a consciously external and modern critique of halakhah – although one that perhaps reveals the paradoxes in modern apologetics.

    Before starting we need to ask how to characterize halakhic claims. More specifically we must ask where the binding normative force of halakhic claims come from. Sociology could adequately describe a community in which a certain species of claims were taken to be binding, along with the varieties of social coercion that are employed to ensure compliance, but this would not but this would not account for internal rules of justification that are capable of shaping beliefs.

    One obviously wrong answer is to assume that halakhic claims aspire to truth, and that the truth conditions are correspondence to the revealed will of God. The binding force of halakhah in both ritual and moral domains derives solely from the authority of a just God.

    This is the wrong picture for a few reasons, mostly because halakhah is “not in heaven.” The correctness of a halakhah derives not from its correspondence with a revealed word, but at least in part because it comes to be regarded as the correct interpretation of a text by means of a rational, internally consistent, discourse. The metatheory of halakhah, were it ever to be carefully explained, would not need to make any reference to God whatsoever in describing how halakhah functions to determine its correctness. At best there is some God-granted authority to interpret at the very root, but within the discourse this authority is neither appealed to or contested (except rhetorically), so it is moot.

    Halakhah can therefore be construed as a species of rational communicative discourse. Indeed, in its internal dialectics it seems to aspire to be a rational discourse in that it follows rules of interpretation, precedent, etc. that are universally recognizable by all participants. If this is the case then a Habermasian would likely say that halakhic claims, like moral claims, aspire not to truth (having conditions of rightness constituted independent of the halakhic community) but rather to validity.

    In general Habermas thinks that normative validity claims implicitly contains not merely the intersubjective ought, but to the universal/deontological. The deontological nature and binding force of normative claims stems from the idea the very participation in a discursive practice presupposes the acceptance of certain normative principles. In other words, we could not exist as a community of language-users capable of achieving basic communicative rationality (like coordinating behavior) without background normative assumptions which everyone implicitly relies upon in any discursive practice.

    Now clearly halakhic claims cannot be “redeemed” in the same way that Habermas thinks that regular normative claims can – nor would we expect as much. We would liken halakhic discourse in many ways to legal discourse. But Habermas claims (and here it is simply easier to quote) that:

    “Discourse theory explains the legitimacy of law by means of procedures and communicative presuppositions that, once they are legally institutionalized, ground the supposition that the process of making and applying the law lead to rational outcomes.” This rationality is proved not by the outcomes themselves, but procedurally “by the fact that addressees are treated as free and equal members of an association of legal subjects.”

    Because halakhah is an exclusionary discourse that does not even aspire to procedural equality, because addressees are not treated as equal, and because this inequality, instead of bearing a very high burden of rational justification is claimed to lie in a revealed metaphysical ontology, its claim to communicative rationality breaks down.

    Halakhic discourse does not devolve into literal incoherence, and anyone familiar with legal discourse will not find it entirely foreign. But this is precisely because rabbis address each other, and sometimes learned laypersons, as equals (it by no means breaks from communicative rationality simply by appeal to various metaphysical processes or the like). On Habermasian grounds it breaks from communicative rationality when it treats its subjects unequally who themselves have no part in shaping the discourse.

    At this point halakhah either makes a sharp premodern return to a mythical worldview, or remains modern but employs an instrumental rationality in its treatment of some of its subjects (I don’t think it’s quite strategic rationality because it lacks the pretense of equal participation). I think that both of these are in play. Sometimes in contemporary halakhah difference and exclusion are justified naturalistically (in a sense because some subjects do not transcend nature, they are regarded as a part of the natural world to be intervened upon) and sometimes by appeal to a premodern mythology. And sometimes it is a rather interesting hybrid.

  12. I will post AS and come back to chakira after the issues have been discussed

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