Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

117: Jürgen Habermas Part II:
An Awareness of What is Missing, Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In his essay, “An Awareness of What is Missing, Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age,” Jürgen Habermas notes that “the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rite de passage which brings life to a close.” There is a certain awkwardness of having an atheist or agnostic funeral at a church or cemetery. The author tries to identify the source of the awkwardness of secular death rites because it is a representative example of what is missing in the post-secular age. How society overcomes this awkwardness may be the solution to what is missing in our post-secular age.

It seems that religion in the modern world understands itself: it knows what it has to do and it has an answer for everything. Modernity is less clear cut. Modernity does not know itself or what it is to do in all cases. The awkwardness of a non-religious funeral is the evidence of this problem. The solution is not a once and for all law or dogma type of solution that is the ideal of science and religion. Therefore the solution is ever changing, dialectic: changing the other and informed by the other. This requires ground rules of respect for the other. Religious and non-religious people and institutions must not talk of or past the other; they must talk with each other.

The author then turns to giving a brief outline history of the dialectical history of thought in the western world. Modern science forced its predecessor, the philosophy, the handmaiden of theology, of the middle ages to drop its metaphysics that dealt with nature. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. In the sense that every branch of knowledge requires first principles metaphysics is indispensable; in the sense of a particular set of first principles or starting point any metaphysics will do: one does not need to be committed to a particular tradition.

By taking what we consider science out of philosophy “the synthesis of faith and knowledge forged in the tradition extending from Augustine to Thomas fell apart.” The author found it interesting that these Augustinian and Thomistic traditions were a synthesis of faith and Greek philosophy in their own right. Now, “modern philosophy assimilated the Greek heritage critically in the form of an, if you will, ‘postmetaphysical’ thinking, at the same time it discarded Judeo-Christian sacred knowledge.” And yet religion still remains attached to modern philosophy but in a different way than metaphysics did.

The author draws on the notion of the Axial Age (the first millennium BCE) during which simultaneously around the world many systematically organized forms of transcultural world views (religions) appeared from the particular stories of subcultures. “Viewed from the perspective of the cognitive advance from mythos to logos, metaphysics can be situated on the same level as all the worldviews which emerged at that time….Each of them made it possible to take a synoptic view of the world as a whole from a transcendent point of view…”

In this way both traditional metaphysics and religion are part of the history of our modern secular reason. It is secular reason that allows non-religious people in modernity to “communicate concerning their place in the world.” And yet this modern secular reason is not complete as the awkwardness of a secular funeral demonstrates that something is missing. For the author, “[t]his modern reason will learn to understand itself only when it clarifies its relation to a contemporary religious consciousness….Faith remains opaque for knowledge in a way which may neither be denied nor simply accepted.” There is an antithetical (sometimes violent) confrontation between faith and knowledge in the modern world due to this lack of clarity of relation. The full separation of religion from science has not worked; and yet we fear, with good reason, the integration of religion into science. This lack of imaginable direction has led to a feeling of defeatism in secular modern reason. The author’s “motive for addressing the issue of faith and knowledge is to mobilize modern reason against the defeatism lurking within it.”

This defeatism of modern secular and practical reason comes from its good reasons for justifying “universalistic and egalitarian concepts of morality and law which shape the freedom of the individual and interpersonal relations in a normatively plausible way. However, the decision to engage in action based on solidarity when faced with threats which can be averted only by collective efforts calls for more than insight into good reasons.” All the science and consensus behind climate change does not seem to make much difference politically and yet a few words in the bible about the place of women in the world can lead to a mobilization of millions against the Equal Rights Amendment to the USA constitution. “Practical reason fails to fulfill its own vocation when it no longer has sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.”

This missing clarity is particularly important today with the surprising rise of religious nationalism and fundamentalism that sees secularism in general and secular states in particular as the problem.

The modern secular liberal constitutional democracy depends for its legitimation on the conviction and good will of its citizens. “In order to acquire this legitimation, it requires the support of reasons which can be accepted in a pluralist society by religious citizens, by citizens of different religions, and by secular citizens alike. The constitutional state must not only act neutrally towards worldviews but it must also rest on normative foundation which can be justified neutrally towards worldviews – and that means in postmetaphysical terms.”

All world views have degrees of shared intellectual history that provides degrees of common ground that started in the Axial Age. This shared common intellectual history is a source of what is missing in dialogue between religions and secularism. When we ignore the history of philosophy and metaphysics we lose the connection between world views that makes an understanding possible. The way forward, the missing piece that can contribute to “the modern self-understanding of secular reason [is by] tracing the genealogy of the ‘shared reason’ of people of faith, unbelievers, and members of different religions.” In this way we can bypass the more recent doctrines and dogmas that separate us and look for the common original thoughts that were created in the Axial Age that can actually unite us and which we all share.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren