Blog author: jballor
by on Thursday, September 29, 2005

An article by City University of New York professor Richard Wolin celebrates the legacy of Jürgen Habermas, who represents a shift from philosophers such as Marx and Nietzsche. “Among 19th-century thinkers it was an uncontestable commonplace that religion’s cultural centrality was a thing of the past,” but in the words of Habermas, “For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”

Wolin himself is able to appreciate that at least some aspects of religion may be meritorious:

laissez-faire’s success as a universally revered economic model means that, today, global capitalism’s triumphal march encounters few genuine oppositional tendencies. In that regard, religion, as a repository of transcendence, has an important role to play. It prevents the denizens of the modern secular societies from being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing demands of vocational life and worldly success. It offers a much-needed dimension of otherness: The religious values of love, community, and godliness help to offset the global dominance of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and manipulation that predominate in the vocational sphere. Religious convictions encourage people to treat each other as ends in themselves rather than as mere means.

That a world leading philosopher like Habermas is ready to give some positive credit to religion in general and Christianity in particular is noteworthy, and at the same time promising. Perhaps we might see concord in the future between religion and philosophy, as the latter deals with the inherent religiosity of the human person. Conflict between the two was not always as bitter and strident as it can be today.

Thus John Calvin is able to affirmatively cite pagan thinkers in his Institutes. He appeals to Cicero to argue the universality of religious practice: “But, as a heathen tells us, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. Even those who, in other respects, seem to differ least from the lower animals, constantly retain some sense of religion; so thoroughly has this common conviction possessed the mind, so firmly is it stamped on the breasts of all men.”

Indeed, this universality of religion is so important to Calvin that he sees it as constitutive of what separates human beings from animals: “Thus Gryllus, also, in Plutarch (lib. guod bruta anim. ratione utantur), reasons most skillfully, when he affirms that, if once religion is banished from the lives of men, they not only in no respect excel, but are, in many respects, much more wretched than the brutes, since, being exposed to so many forms of evil, they continually drag on a troubled and restless existence: that the only thing, therefore, which makes them superior is the worship of God, through which alone they aspire to immortality.”