The Future of Religion
by Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo
Columbia University Press, 112 pp. $24.50

The Future of Religion is the perfect primer in post-metaphysical historicism: it’s short, it’s clear, it’s repetitive, and it leaves no doubt at all as to its central purpose and point. Its claim is that the proper future of religion in general and Christianity in particular is to produce men like Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo and to nurture the culture in which they flourish. In so far as Christianity can manage this, it will survive; insofar as it cannot, it will wither.

Rorty and Vattimo are men quite sure of their place in the vanguard of history, and they’re eager to tell you their story so that you, too, may become an acolyte, formed in their image by the gentle pressure of their civilizing thought. Rorty, the apostle of irony, endorses without irony the idea that there really is a European mission civilisatrice ”and that he knows the content of the mission. Neither he nor Vattimo mentions manifest destiny or the white man’s burden, but these ideas lurk disturbingly close to the surface of their urbanely arrogant prose. Theirs is the burden of the civilizing mission, theirs the weary destiny of the avant-garde, bound always to explain to the laggards, the revisionists, and the simply stupid what the real story is.

So what is the real story? It’s simple enough, and although the American Rorty and the Italian Vattimo have been formed by different philosophical and religious traditions (pragmatism and red-diaper communism for Rorty, hermeneutics and cradle Catholicism for Vattimo), they agree on most of its elements. The first element in the story is that metaphysical thought”also called “onto-theology,” “realism,” “objectivism,” and so on”has been decisively abandoned by the West. The abandonment of metaphysics, as Vattimo puts it, is the form of thought that corresponds to our epoch. Next comes the claim that this now-abandoned metaphysical thought is incompatible with democracy and the exercise of civic responsibility and virtue. And finally there’s the claim that religion, though slow to achieve this, is moving inexorably in the same post-metaphysical direction: away from being a contributor to the ordering of the public sphere, and toward being a private comfort that may foster civic virtue.

This much Rorty and Vattimo hold in common. They agree, too, in being historicists. For them, any claim is necessarily an “interested response to a particular historical situation,” in Vattimo’s words”or, as Rorty puts it (ventriloquizing Hegel), what we do when we do philosophy is to hold our time in thought. The authors are, of course, clever enough to see that these historicist claims too must be historicized. They too are interventions to be understood indexically and historically, not as though they encapsulated eternal truths about the way things must necessarily be. They are simply the kinds of things we must say now if we are to speak in a way that corresponds to our epoch.

Rorty and Vattimo differ about what caused Christianity to begin to overcome its metaphysical captivity and grow into the handmaiden of democracy. In Rorty’s view, it was a slow and painful accommodation to the ideas of the Enlightenment, which found their emblematic expression in the France of the late eighteenth century. In Vattimo’s view it was something intrinsic and proper to Christianity: God’s self-emptying incarnation began a process that gradually emptied Christianity of metaphysical lusts, with the result thatleast for right-thinking quasi-Catholics like himself”Christianity can now be understood exhaustively as a “call to practice” without metaphysical assumptions or implications, a call that can be summarized with the word “love” and interpreted as entirely concordant with postmodern nihilism. This, he says, is “the actual truth of Christianity.”

One thing it isn’t, of course, is the Catholicism of the Church, and Rorty and Vattimo return to agreement in excoriating that institution. They insist that democracy and civic virtue require anticlericalism, and they are not embarrassed to approach endorsement of hatred for priests and their doings, as well
as for the magisterial teaching of the Church.

All this is, at one level, a quaintly old-fashioned form of Whig history. History is progress toward a goal: We move up from the darkly metaphysical slime of the oppressive Church and its corrupt priests toward the high ground and clear light of democracy, led by the fearless professoriate. Morals, on such a view of history, can easily be drawn from historical narratives. Rorty is explicit about this, and it goes nicely with the idea that Europeans have a mission civilisatrice . The most important moral to be drawn from our history as told by Rorty and Vattimo is that metaphysical ways of thinking and talking, wedded as they are to the vocabulary of truth and realism, are dangerous and better refused. This Whiggish ap proach to history is itself an old story. Readers of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or David Hume’s Natural History of Re ligion will feel themselves at once in familiar territory. Gibbon and Hume saw themselves as history’s van guard, civilizing the savages by telling the right story, and so do Rorty and Vattimo.

But the bland vieux jeu flavor of this Whig story is made piquant by the theoretical gloss Rorty and Vattimo provide”a gloss certainly not found in Gibbon or Hume. The first element in this theoretical gloss is the idea of a simple refusal. A whole vocabulary”that of truth, reality, objectivity, universality”is identified and refused. It is not argued against, not shown to be incoherent, not opposed by its mirror image, but simply refused. In rejecting realism, Rorty and Vattimo do not espouse or argue for anti-realism; and in rejecting metaphysics they don’t argue (or even suggest, at least when they’re being careful) that metaphysics is impossible. They are “post-metaphysical” rather than “anti-metaphysical”: they aren’t against metaphysics; they’re sim ply after it, subsequent to it. They’ve left it behind. Refusal is not denial. It is, instead, the abandonment of one lexicon and the deployment of another. Someone who turns from philo sophy to jazz improv isation has not refuted or rebutted philosophy, but merely refused or abandoned it. To refute or rebut would still be to practice philosophy, and this Rorty and Vattimo do not wish to do.

The refusal is followed at once by a narration. This is post-metaphysical historicism, after all, and what historicists do is narrate. Indeed, a consistent historicist can do only this, and so Rorty and Vattimo intervene in philosophy by refusing its vocabulary and telling a story about why that vocabulary was once usable and now isn’t. This story may mention, but cannot use, the terms of the refused lexicon, for if those terms were to be used the refusal would be incomplete: the refused vocabulary would still be in play. By providing a narrative frame for the emergence and decay of philosophy’s lexicon, Rorty and Vattimo intend to illustrate the contingency of that lexicon and the possibility of talking in other ways”for example, in the way that historicists talk.

The theoretical gloss is com pleted, burnished to a high shine, by a commentary on the refusal and the narration. A good deal of what’s in this book consists in such commentary. Rorty and Vattimo repeatedly tell us that their refusals and narrations do not imply that the refused vocabulary is being argued against. No, it’s just that they prefer a different way of talking. They understand that their narrative intervention is itself utterly contingent, itself to be understood exhaustively as a creature of a particular time, place, and set of interests. They think and hope their intervention may prompt others to take up this way of talking, to embroider upon and extend its tropes, to apply its lexicon in new and imaginative ways. But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There are no argumentative or persuasive resources available to them other than the seductively attractive narrative, and it is part of the seductiveness of their position to be clear in acknowledging this.

Post-metaphysical historicists win, when they do, not by out-arguing their opponents, but by out-narrating them, by telling a story with sufficient verve and inventiveness that others also want to tell versions of it, and in doing so to abandon their older stories”in this case, the stories about truth and realism. Bebop, in the hands of geniuses like Charlie Parker, effectively displaced Swing and the big-band sound in the 1950s, and the way in which it did this is exactly analogous to the way in which a consistent post-metaphysical historicism tries to displace its opponents.

A carefully consistent post-metaphysical historicism of this sort is not easy to refute, since it does not use a vocabulary in which refutation is even a recognizable item. Arguments against this kind of theory have no more purchase than arguments against bebop. They amount to saying, “Just stop that””or, more politely, “Won’t you listen to me?” The post-metaphysical historicist is likely to respond, like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.” Refutation and coercive argument is not what interests him. Offer that sort of thing, and he’ll explain why, historically, you’ve come to talk like that.

Thomists, phenomenologists, and analytic philosophers emerge from encounters like this with an obscure sense of frustration. Something has not gone right. Some point has been missed. Rorty and Vattimo, by contrast, emerge serene. Things are easier for them: The refusal and the narration are easy gestures, and it takes only a modicum of literary flair and historical confidence to peg the acolyte of truth and demonstrative argument as a creature from another age.

How, then, to respond? One perfectly proper response is to make one’s own refusal. If something is offered, without argument, as an object of seductive charm, the offer can be refused without embarrassment or justification. There are people who don’t like Charlie Parker’s playing, and unless they’re uncommonly foolish, they don’t spend a lot of time arguing about it. They just listen to Mozart instead. The enterprise of post-metaphysical historicism requires for its own success that people listen, adopt, and imitate. Not doing this, therefore, serves as a refusal Rorty and Vattimo can recognize.

But there is another kind of response that may sometimes be useful. It, too, is an intervention rather than an argument. Rorty and Vattimo can themselves be pegged, and it’s easy enough for Christians to do this with our own technical lexicon. We can explain to ourselves what kind of performance Rorty and Vattimo offer. We can diagnose their performance as a bad case of libido dominandi , in which their own egos have been written so large that they must depict history as a story of progress culminating in their own genius. We can counterpose to this unrestricted superbia the Christian virtue of humility. And we can narrate the emergence of post-metaphysical historicism as the last, dying gasp of a story the West has told itself about its own supremacy. This counter-narration will not persuade Rorty and Vattimo of anything. But it will convict them, and that’s enough.

Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Brazos).