It’s not a new insight that many contemporary secular movements substitute for God. Communism, nationalism, left-liberalism, and other encompassing causes offer a kind of transcendence for individuals, who can find meaning in commitments to moral progress in the world. But what happens when progress doesn’t occur? The failure of secular movements to deliver can lead to great frustration and bitterness, without the consolations of ultimate justice in the world to come. That, suggests Harvard philosopher Michael Rosen in a new book from Harvard University Press, The Shadow of God, is our current predicament. Here is the publisher’s description:
Once in the West, our lives were bounded by religion. Then we were guided out of the darkness of faith, we are often told, by the cold light of science and reason. To be modern was to reject the religious for the secular and rational. In a bold retelling of philosophical history, Michael Rosen explains the limits of this story, showing that many modern and apparently secular ways of seeing the world were in fact profoundly shaped by religion.
The key thinkers, Rosen argues, were the German Idealists, as they sought to reconcile reason and religion. It was central to Kant’s philosophy that, if God is both just and assigns us to heaven or hell for eternity, we must know what is required of us and be able to choose freely. In trying to live moral lives, Kant argued, we are engaged in a collective enterprise as members of a “Church invisible” working together to achieve justice in history. As later Idealists moved away from Kant’s ideas about personal immortality, this idea of “historical immortality” took center stage. Through social projects that outlive us we maintain a kind of presence after death. Conceptions of historical immortality moved not just into the universalistic ideologies of liberalism and revolutionary socialism but into nationalist and racist doctrines that opposed them. But how, after global wars and genocide, can we retain faith in any conception of shared moral progress and, if not, what is to become of the idea of historical immortality? That is our present predicament.
A seamless blend of philosophy and intellectual history, The Shadow of God is a profound exploration of secular modernity’s theistic inheritance.
Following on Marc’s recent posts on skepticism and knowledge, here is an interesting-looking new book from Notre Dame Press: What Happened to Civility: The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project, by philosopher Ann Hartle (Emory). As Donald Frame once observed, Montaigne expressed skepticism about customs and culture (“Que sais-je?”), but never about the ultimate authority of the Church and its teachings about eternal life. In fact, accepting certain background assumptions about eternal truths may have allowed Montaigne space to tolerate diverse opinions about wordly things. In her new book, Hartle suggests that what she calls Montaigne’s project of “civility” depends on taking “sacred tradition” for granted. Perhaps, as a practical matter, liberal tolerance requires that a society accept certain assumptions without debate, so that doubt can be expressed on other subjects. What do I know? It’s worth thinking about.
Here is the publisher’s description:
What is civility, and why has it disappeared? Ann Hartle analyzes the origins of the modern project and the Essays of Michel de Montaigne to discuss why civility is failing in our own time.
In this bold book, Ann Hartle, one of the most important interpreters of sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, explores the modern notion of civility—the social bond that makes it possible for individuals to live in peace in the political and social structures of the Western world—and asks, why has it disappeared? Concerned with the deepening cultural divisions in our postmodern, post-Christian world, she traces their roots back to the Reformation and Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne’s philosophical project of drawing on ancient philosophy and Christianity to create a new social bond to reform the mores of his culture is perhaps the first act of self-conscious civility. After tracing Montaigne’s thought, Hartle returns to our modern society and argues that this framing of civility is a human, philosophical invention and that civility fails precisely because it is a human, philosophical invention. She concludes with a defense of the central importance of sacred tradition for civility and the need to protect and maintain that social bond by supporting nonpoliticized, nonideological, free institutions, including and especially universities and churches. What Happened to Civility is written for readers concerned about the deterioration of civility in our public life and the defense of freedom of religion. The book will also interest philosophers who seek a deeper understanding of modernity and its meaning, political scientists interested in the meaning of liberalism and the causes of its failure, and scholars working on Montaigne’s Essays.
In March, Palgrave Macmillan will release Ethical Exploration in a Multifaith Society by Catherine Shelley (Solicitor, Archbishop’s Faculty Office). The publisher’s description follows:
This book considers the theory and application of ethics for a multifaith society. Much ethics taught in the UK has been dominated by Christian ethics, their relation to secularism and by the Enlightenment’s reaction against theology as a basis for ethical thought. In contrast to these perspectives this book brings secular and theological ethics into dialogue, considering the degree to which secular ethics has common roots with theological perspectives from various traditions. The book assesses the application of ethical and theological principles in today’s multifaith society. Aiming to enhance ethical understanding and awareness across divergent worldviews, identifying at what points divergence does occur, the author examines topics such as reason and ethics in theology, natural law, utilitarianism and deontology and differences of approach to interpreting religious scriptures. The focus on ethical methods is illustrated through topical concerns in religion and ethics, for example sexuality, marriage and education and religion in relation to global ethics and human rights.
In May, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Violence, Religion, Peacemaking,” edited by Douglas Irvin-Erickson (George Mason University) and Peter C. Phan (Georgetown University). The publisher’s description follows:
This volume explores how religious leaders can contribute to cultures of peace around the world. The essays are written by leading and emerging scholars and practitioners who have lived, taught, or worked in the areas of conflict about which they write. Connecting the theory and practice of religious peacebuilding to illuminate key challenges facing interreligious dialogue and interreligious peace work, the volume is explicitly interreligious, intercultural, and global in perspective. The chapters approach religion and peace from the vantage point of security studies, sociology, ethics, ecology, theology, and philosophy. A foreword by David Smock, the Vice President of Governance, Law and Society and Director of the Religion and Peacebuilding Center at the United States Institute of Peace, outlines the current state of the field.
In April, Image Books will release “Believers, Thinkers and Founders: How We Came to be One Nation Under God” by Kevin Seamus Hasson (Founder and President Emeritus of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty). The publisher’s description follows:
Next month, Columbia University Press will release “Reimagining the Sacred” edited by Richard Kearney (Boston College) and Jens Zimmermann (Trinity Western University). The publisher’s description follows:
Contemporary conversations about religion and culture are framed by two reductive definitions of secularity. In one, multiple faiths and nonfaiths coexist free from a dominant belief in God. In the other, we deny the sacred altogether and exclude religion from rational thought and behavior. But is there a third way for those who wish to rediscover the sacred in a skeptical society? What kind of faith, if any, can be proclaimed after the ravages of the Holocaust and the many religion-based terrors since?
Richard Kearney explores these questions with a host of philosophers known for their inclusive, forward-thinking work on the intersection of secularism, politics, and religion. An interreligious dialogue that refuses to paper over religious difference, these conversations locate the sacred within secular society and affirm a positive role for religion in human reflection and action. Drawing on his own philosophical formulations, literary analysis, and personal interreligious experiences, Kearney develops through these engagements a basic gesture of hospitality for approaching the question of God. His work facilitates a fresh encounter with our best-known voices in continental philosophy and their views on issues of importance to all spiritually minded individuals and skeptics: how to reconcile God’s goodness with human evil, how to believe in both God and natural science, how to talk about God without indulging in fundamentalist rhetoric, and how to balance God’s sovereignty with God’s love.
Thanks again to Marc and Mark for letting me bog here for the past few weeks. It has been great fun. Just another couple of items before I go.
I wrote a piece recently in The National Catholic Register on the upcoming Court term. The article focuses mostly on decisions that affect religious liberty.
Also, this piece purports to explain to us the real origins of religion. It is not supernatural or transcendent at all of course; scientists are here to make us recognize what we think of as divine reality are only misfired genetic cues. We want to attribute agency to things, so for things that don’t have a clear agent (the weather, natural disasters), we invent one: God. The scientists have even come up with a name for our disorder: HADD, the hypersensitive agency detecting device.
Not to worry if you don’t like that explanation, however: the folks in white lab coats tell us religion could simply be an adaptation of “normal” evolutionary drives like cooperation. People who were religious were better playing with others, and so had a better chance of surviving.
Of course, all this is quite beside the point, and very old hat. Historian Christopher Dawson was complaining in 1931 that “[a] theory is not regarded as ‘scientific’ unless it explains religion in terms of something else – as an artificial construction from non-religious elements.” But as he also explained in his work, religion is something else entirely, a mode of being and experience that cannot be reduced to a byproduct of something else. One would have thought these points would be retired by now. As Russell Saltzman explains in First Things, one thing the scientist don’t consider as a spur to religious thought is our common experience of death. The sense of existential loss of ourselves and others opens a potential meeting space for the divine, and may be the true precursor to religious experience.
Besides, arguments like this always seemed to beg the question. Even if religious feelings “evolved,” why wouldn’t that also be consistent with them being true? I tend to think a God would use our natural development and capabilities to bring us to Him, at least in part.
In November, Indiana University Press will release “The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology” by Marius Timmann Mjaaland (University of Oslo). The publisher’s description follows:
In this phenomenological reading of Luther, Marius Timmann Mjaaland shows that theological discourse is never philosophically neutral and always politically loaded. Raising questions concerning the conditions of modern philosophy, religion, and political ideas, Marius Timmann Mjaaland follows a dark thread of thought back to its origin in Martin Luther. Thorough analyses of the genealogy of secularization, the political role of the apocalypse, the topology of the self, and the destruction of metaphysics demonstrate the continuous relevance of this highly subtle thinker.
Pragmatism has been called America’s most distinctive contribution to philosophy. And pragmatism has certainly influenced American law–see, for example, the contributions of Richard Posner to jurisprudence. Here is a new book that explores American philosophical thought before the 20th century pragmatist explosion, American Philosophy Before Pragmatism, by Russell B. Goodman (University of New Mexico), to be released in September by Oxford University Press. The publisher’s description follows.
Russell B. Goodman tells the story of the development of philosophy in America from the mid-18th century to the late 19th century. The key figures in this story, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the writers of The Federalist, and the romantics (or ‘transcendentalists’) Emerson and Thoreau, were not professors but men of the world, whose deep formative influence on American thought brought philosophy together with religion, politics, and literature. Goodman considers their work in relation to the philosophers and other thinkers they found important: the deism of John Toland and Matthew Tindal, the moral sense theories of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and David Hume, the political and religious philosophy of John Locke, the romanticism of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant. Goodman discusses Edwards’s condemnation and Franklin’s acceptance of deism, argues that Jefferson was an Epicurean in his metaphysical views and a Christian, Stoic, and Epicurean in his moral outlook, traces Emerson’s debts to writers from Madame de Stael to William Ellery Channing, and considers Thoreau’s orientation to the universe through sitting and walking.
The morality of American slavery is a major theme in American Philosophy before Pragmatism, introduced not to excuse or condemn, but to study how five formidably intelligent people thought about the question when it was–as it no longer is for us–open. Edwards, Franklin and Jefferson owned slaves, though Franklin and Jefferson played important roles in disturbing the uneasy American moral equilibrium that included slavery, even as they approved an American constitution that included it. Emerson and Thoreau were prominent public opponents of slavery in the eighteen forties and fifties. The book contains an Interlude on the concept of a republic and concludes with an Epilogue documenting some continuities in American philosophy, particularly between Emerson and the pragmatists.
In August, the Oxford University Press will release “The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China,” by Sébastien Billioud (University Paris-Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité) and Joël Thoraval (Research Center on Modern and Contemporary China, School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS)). The publisher’s description follows:
After a century during which Confucianism was viewed by academics as a relic of the imperial past or, at best, a philosophical resource, its striking comeback in Chinese society today raises a number of questions about the role that this ancient tradition might play in a contemporary context.
The Sage and the People is the first comprehensive enquiry into the “Confucian revival” that began in China during the 2000s. Based on extensive anthropological fieldwork carried out over eight years in various parts of the country, it explores the re-appropriation and reinvention of popular practices in fields as diverse as education, self-cultivation, religion, ritual, and politics.
The book analyzes the complexity of the “Confucian revival” within the broader context of emerging challenges to such categories as religion, philosophy, and science that prevailed in modernization narratives throughout the last century. Exploring state cults both in Mainland China and Taiwan, authors Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval compare the interplay between politics and religion on the two shores of the Taiwan strait and attempt to shed light on possible future developments of Confucianism in Chinese society.