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60Asking the Wrong Questionhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/01/002-asking-the-wrong-question
Thu, 01 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0500 I recently attended two conversations under the aegis of the Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions initiative. Both dealt with whether God exists”one directly, the other obliquely, by asking whether science makes belief in God obsolete. Both were so deeply unsatisfying that I have to wonder whether this enterprise should more aptly be named wrong questions.
To be clear, I think that the Templeton initiative is praiseworthy. The problem begins with the way all such conversations are framed. God, contra the late Richard Rorty, is not a conversation stopper, but the question Does God exist? surely is. It tilts toward the atheist’s strength, for it assumes that the religious believer is committed to the existence of something akin to unicorns or gremlins, for which there is not the slightest bit of evidence. In asking Does God exist? the atheist challenges the believer to produce sufficient evidence to persuade him. The believer cannot. That which counts as evidence for the believer can be explained or explained away by the atheist.
Evidence can always be interpreted in a variety of ways, some of them unfavorable to the believer’s case. (If you claim that God spoke to you in a dream, how is that different, as David Hume asked, from dreaming that God spoke to you?) The atheist will charge that the believer’s interpretation is gratuitous or merely circular: The believer is simply asserting the truth (of Scripture, for example) of precisely that which he must demonstrate.
When modern science is brought into the discussion, the believer is hard pressed to find a bit of room left for God to occupy. Our contemporary ways of thinking about nature leave little space for God-as-hypothesis. Science has no place for untestable hypotheses. Once again, the way such science-and-God questions are framed”Does science render belief in God obsolete?”diverts believers from testifying to the God they claim to love. It squeezes them into making existence claims on behalf of a distant God in a universe that doesn’t have a place for him.
From the atheist’s point of view, that is fine. It matters not at all whether the believer is pressed to defend the existence of Zeus or the God of Israel; for the atheist, it’s all mythological and superstitious in the end. The believer is reduced to having to defend the God of Israel as if he were Zeus”just another fictive entity in a universe now known not to contain such things. When the believer protests that the sort of God the atheist asks to be convinced of is not his God, the atheist protests that the believer is diluting the tradition. If the believer invokes a notion such as metaphor to explain religious language, the atheist already feels that he has won. And so he has. For the question Does God exist? is immediately prejudicial to those who take seriously the God of Israel.
In fact, the God of Israel is not one about whom existence claims can be made in any straightforward fashion. This is both a theological assertion and, leaning on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a logical one. Martin Buber, on the eve of the First World War, was asked by a visitor, an English clergyman who worried about Buber’s soul, whether he believed in God. As Buber waited with him for the train and the indefinite parting to which the war would condemn them, Buber answered, reluctantly, yes. The pastor was satisfied.
Later Buber ruminated on what he had said. He felt that he had erred. The God he encountered in prayer, awe, wonder, and the small graces of the everyday was not a being about whom one could speak in the third person. God was not the sort of thing about which one could say, yes, it exists or no, it does not exist. To speak in this way was already to be estranged.
God, Buber felt, could not be discussed but only addressed”and that in the second person as you. To speak of God as if one were speaking of a thing, however recondite and mysterious, or of a distant person, was to speak of nothing more than a fictive character. For Buber, it seems, the word
named nothing real. Rather, the use of the word
, in the context of address, absorbs one in a way of life that touches on the real. All that we can really say
God is what we can say
Faith, in this view, is never a set of belief claims. It is a way of life marked by trust, by affirmation of the goodness of being, by the repudiation of despair, and by an infinite openness to others and their needs. Buber contrasted religion, invidiously, to faith. Faith needs no tall tales. Religion cannot exist without them.
There is much that is wrong with this thoroughly existential view. Historical religions, as complex cultural and moral systems, do not fare well under it. (Buber was not an observant Jew in any traditional sense.) Nor am I sure that it sustains rational coherence. But there is also something honorable and right about it. The refusal of the faithful to be boxed into the existence question, as if it were the one thing needful, rings true. The faithful know that their way of life springs from mystery and goes to mystery. Their God, in Maimonides’ astringent view, bears no predicates. We are as little able logically to call God
as to call him
; it is piety, for Maimonides, not logic that guides us to use the former rather than the latter term.
God is one, in classical Jewish theology. This does not mean that God is numerically one, as opposed to two or three, but that God is unique: There are none like God. Nothing about which we know anything is in any relevant way like God. Therefore, our language categorically fails to touch the divine. To say of God that he exists or to say of God that he does not exist are both wide of the logical mark because they force God to be like all of those things and persons of which we can say X exists. That is, they force God not to be God. (Given this severely negative theology, Maimonides also had his work cut out for him to accommodate traditional faith.) Maimonides and Buber, in their very different ways, both articulate a truth: We cannot talk about God in the way that we talk about the creation. The question Does X exist? is a question about things and persons, not about the God of Israel.
I can well imagine an atheist at this point taking issue with this whole line of reasoning. It is one thing, he might say, to be unable to present credible evidence for the existence of your God. It is another thing to glory in your inability to do so. If
refers to nothing, why use the word at all? If God is unlike anything of which we can have knowledge, then what could justify your use of the term? We use words because they have meaning. It’s not meaningful to use meaningless words. This just proves my point, the atheist could conclude: The term
no longer has any conceptual work to do. We should pension the concept off to permanent metaphysical retirement.
The faithful need to argue at this point that the word still has work to do and that this work cannot be done with equal adequacy by any other term. Note how the question has shifted: We are no longer discussing whether God exists and going through the terminally unsatisfactory process of marshalling evidence or assembling proofs. (Even the medievals, who put great stock in proofs, knew that the intellectual project of proving the existence of God rested on faith. If faith was lacking, the proofs could not succeed in their work:
fides quaerens intellectum
.) We are now wondering whether a whole way of speaking is warranted. The task has shifted from a metaphysical one to a logical one: Are we warranted when we speak to”or, if we must,
One way of answering this question, presumably the one favored by the atheist, is that we are warranted in speaking to or about God only if God exists. We are warranted in saying It’s snowing outside only when it is snowing outside. Absent a discernible set of facts, one would not be warranted in making assertions about them. The atheist always wants to bring us back to the apparent paucity of facts. But are facts the only court of appeal for whether statements are warranted? Clearly not. There are many different warranted uses of language in which the stating of facts is beside the point.
So-called performative utterances constitute such a case. I christen you the good ship Lolly Pop does not state a fact. It brings a new fact into the world, as does I now pronounce you man and wife. Whenever we use language to change the world rather than to describe it, we reach beyond the practice of stating facts. Affirmations such as Love is stronger than death look factual in their surface grammar but are not. They are not testable in the way that statements of fact normally are, but they are no less meaningful and significant for that. Their significance lies in how life is lived in light of the conviction that they express.
Similarly, poems and stories model reality in complex ways and create new realities at the same time. They do not merely state facts. Could not religious language be more like these usages than like the standard, pedestrian use of language as a means of stating facts (or alleged facts) about the world? What seems to rule this out, the critic would charge, is that most statements about God in Scripture”most statements made day in, day out by ordinary believers”purport to convey factual content.
acts like the name of a being, whose existence is in dispute.
Against this, I would argue that the faithful ought to claim that, despite how the word
has been used for much of its linguistic career, the continuing warrant for the use of the term has little to do with the straightforward statement of facts.
plays a role in a way of speaking that is constitutive of a way of life, without which the world would be poorer and darker. The work it does is not to name a mysterious being who may or may not exist. The word
does not make a claim about the furniture of the universe. Rather, to speak of God is to underwrite a form of life that allows us to respond with love and courage and hope to the mystery out of which we come and toward which we progress. That some of our ancestors took the language of God in a mythological way, as a set of existence claims, is undeniable, although even here great ancestors, such as Maimonides, saw the problems that inhere in such naivete.
Wittgenstein taught us that language belongs to groups, not to isolated minds. Language reflects communal practices. Much of the reality that terms mark out is specific to the communities that use the terms. As any learner of a foreign language knows, reading a newspaper in that language requires learning about social and political realities specific to another culture. The abstract question Does God exist? is the question of an isolated mind. It tears
out of the context of communities who pray, celebrate, and serve, and it reduces the term to a cipher.
As the atheists were speaking at the Templeton events I attended, I asked myself what holidays I would celebrate if I were an atheist. What kind of community could atheism sustain? What degree of continuity, if any, could a perfectly atheist Western civilization sustain with its own past? This is not to suggest that religion is warranted only on account of the social, functional tasks that it performs. All sorts of false and pernicious things can enhance social solidarity and mobilization. Rather, it is to point toward a truth: As communal beings, we have constitutive ways of speaking that locate us in a meaningful universe and give moral contours to our shared form of life. An adequate conversation between a person of faith and an atheist cannot afford to neglect the questions of what we can celebrate, what we can hope for, what we must remember, what stories we can tell our children, and why we should bring children into the world.
I suppose that the question Does God exist? will not go away, for many people find it crucially important. Nonetheless, I would like to see it put aside. I would rather hear questions such as these put to atheists and persons of faith: Could you please make sense of love, courage, hope, and virtue? If you think that belief must be tied rigorously to evidence, on the basis of what evidence ought one to live a life of love, courage, and hope? What stories bear truth for you, and on what basis do you believe they do so? Is truth separable from stories with respect to matters of human significance? Can persons in the end live without a sense of the sacred? Do we inevitably discover sacredness in (or ascribe sacredness to) something central to our lives as persons and societies? If so, are we not better off anchoring the sacred in historic patterns of thought and conduct than in fresh enthusiasms? Does science open up a vista for us of wonder and delight, an iron cage of technical problems and complex moral consequences, or both? Does faith? And in the end, within reason, how shall we decide?
Alan Mittleman is director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Religion and the Legitimate Statehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/03/religion-and-the-legitimate-state
Wed, 01 Mar 2006 00:00:00 -0500 The idea of a social contract first makes its appearance in Plato’s
. Men are naturally prone to commit injustice, and thus injustice is naturally good, Glaucon, one of Socrates’ interlocutors, suggests. They would like to commit injustice constantly toward one another and not have to pay a price for it. But because they typically do have to pay a price, they decide to set down a compact among themselves neither to do injustice nor to suffer it.
]]>Covenant and Civilityhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/04/covenant-and-civility
Fri, 01 Apr 2005 00:00:00 -0500 For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity
by Irving Greenberg
Jewish Publications Society of America, 274 pp. $20 paper
]]>American Judaism: A Historyhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/05/american-judaism-a-history
Sat, 01 May 2004 00:00:00 -0400 This year marks the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America. In 1654, twenty-three Jews arrived in Dutch New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, fleeing the Inquisition. Although not the first Jews to set foot in North America, they were the first who intended to settle here. Try as he might, Peter Stuyvesant was unable to keep these hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ out of the colony. Economic considerations won out over religious scruples. The imperatives of trade and commerce competed with the imperatives of faith and religiously regulated public order. Jews found a promising opportunity for toleration in the shifting gap between these needs. So long as the Jews took care that the poor among them did not become a public burden and so long as they conducted their worship in the privacy of their homes, they were able to secure the rights to trade, to own property, and to participate in the body politic by serving guard duty. Jewish life begins in North America in a milieu not wholly unlike our own: a vigorous, forward-looking commercial civilization that was not disrespectful of the religious traditions of its past but was also not dominated by them. That was good for the Jews. But was it good for Judaism?
Jonathan D. Sarnas important new history,
, covers too many themes to be reduced to one central concern. But it is no affront to the scope and detail of the book to suggest that the question of Judaism and freedom lies at the foundation of the history he considers. Sarna begins at the beginning”with Recife and its European antecedents”and proceeds chronologically, with his first chapter, Colonial Beginnings, covering the dozen decades of American Jewish life that preceded the founding of the United States. Even before there was a Declaration, a Constitution, and a Bill of Rights, the question of Judaism and freedom was fundamental. Keeping in mind that Judaism lives in and is sustained by the organized community of Jews, the earliest challenge for American Judaism was how to constitute community in a new, postmedieval world. Initially, Jews tried to import the compulsory, centralized forms of community that they had known in Europe. Even as they existed in Amsterdam or London, such
, as they were called, were already less capable than their medieval antecedents of exercising power over their members, and in British North America it soon became apparent that the
did not stand a chance. Without effective state support for disciplinary sanctions, voluntary consensus was the only real cement for community. Although communities tried to discipline their members when consensus broke down (for example, over Sabbath violations or eating non-kosher foods), their bans had little effect. Eventually, the reality of a single comprehensive synagogue community broke down as competing synagogues arose. The religious pluralism that characterized much of colonial America became typical for Jews as well. Congregationalism replaced the European ideal of the
. Judaism was constituted as a religion, abandoning any residual claim to defining a public, communal order for Jews.
In the revolutionary period, the wholly voluntary character of American Jewish life would be given a republican interpretation. Judaism was felt to be uniquely compatible with liberty and self-government. The constituting documents of Revolutionary-era synagogues used the rhetoric of popular sovereignty and rights to assert their ideals. In this sense, an American Judaism arose that reflected the themes, possibilities, and crises of the American experiment. In every period, the forces shaping the religious life and thought of Christian Americans also played upon Judaism. Sarna, a master of American religious history, traces, for example, the impact of democratic culture upon Judaism during the period of the Second Great Awakening in much the same way that Nathan Hatch did for Christianity. The breakdown of traditional authority, and the emphasis on personal religious experience and free will provided an impetus to competing strategies for the renewal of Judaism.
The antebellum neotraditionalist Isaac Leeser, for instance, exploited the missionary possibilities of the printing press with vigor, translating the Bible for the first time into English, producing a national Jewish monthly, a prayer book, and much more. Leeser witnessed how effectively Christian evangelicals harnessed the press to spread their gospel. He created the Jewish Publication Society as an analogue (and defense against) such groups as the American Bible Society. The antebellum shakeup in religious authority also provided the context for the rise of Reform Judaism”a more radical strategy of adapting to America than Leesers revitalized traditionalism. The competition between these currents, which persists to the present day, reflects the democratic basis of American Judaism. As Sarna puts it: The question of how best to secure Judaisms future would be decided just like so much else was in America: by majority rule.
While every page of Sarnas elegantly written narrative yields insights into the development of American Judaism, the book does not confine itself to history alone. The themes that it details”the impact of democratic culture, the rather feckless quest for unity as a concomitant to the affirmation of pluralism, the perplexed status of religious authority, the voluntary option for religious identity and the (also increasingly voluntary) ethnic alternative”press forward into the present reality of Judaism as well. In his conclusion, Sarna brings his analysis of more than three centuries of Jewish life to bear on the dilemmas of contemporary Jews. In this case, the platitude is true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. In America Jews have been an ever dying people. Like Jews in earlier periods, contemporary Jews are acutely aware of dissolution and loss as well as revival and revitalization. Beginning in the postwar years, and increasingly in recent decades, Judaism has been marked by astonishing vitality at the center and unbridled assimilation at the not-too-distant periphery. This bipolar model, as Sarna calls it, induces a mood of anxious uncertainty. American Judaism radiates optimism concerning the future of American Jewish life, as well as bleak pessimism.
Sarna delineates several challenges that American Judaism must confront, all of which persist from the earliest encounter of Judaism with freedom. Foremost among them is the question of boundaries: determining who is in and who is out is an essential, if unpleasant, task of group maintenance. In an individualistic and authority-averse culture, the traditional definitions of Jewishness no longer win the approval of large numbers of Jews: there are movements that regard as Jewish those persons whose fathers but not mothers (the traditional criterion) are Jewish; and there are thousands who profess to be Buddhists and Jews, or evangelical Christians and Jews. Surveys of the Jewish population have to resort to ever more nuanced and imaginative criteria in order to capture the diversity of self-defined Jewish types. How, if everything in a democratic culture is resolved by majority rule, can an even notional Jewish unity be preserved when the members of the voluntary Jewish polity cannot agree on fundamental boundaries? Preserving Jewish unity, such as it is, is another of Sarnas daunting challenges. Other challenges for contemporary Ju-daism include authority and leadership (who speaks for the Jews both religiously and civically?) and the conflict of loyalties engendered by the clash between contemporary culture and historic Jewish norms (consider the question of gay ordination or marriage).
Does the history of American Judaism provide intellectual and moral resources to meet these challenges? That it does is apparently the faith that underlies this book. Beneath the books magisterial scholarship, there lies a passionate commitment to American Jewry. Sarna evidently believes that if American Jews learn their history, they wont be condemned to repeat it. He closes his book with a personal recollection and affirmation. At the beginning of his scholarly career, he says, he was warned that it would not be worth the trouble to study American Jewish history because the American Jews were doomed. Assimilation and intermarriage were inevitable; the writing was on the wall. It is to our great benefit that Professor Sarna did not heed this dismal advice. He took to heart, instead, a lesson from the history of American Judaism: that today, like so often before, American Jews will find creative ways to maintain and revitalize American Judaism. With the help of visionary leaders, committed followers, and generous philanthropists, it may still be possible for the current vanishing generation of American Jews to be succeeded by another vanishing generation, and then still another.
After 350 years American Jews are poised between hope and anxiety about their future. While both fundamental orientations are justified on the basis of history, this book tips the balance ever so slightly in favor of hope.
is Professor of Religion, Muhlenberg College.
Wed, 01 Oct 2003 00:00:00 -0400 What really troubles the authors is the ethos of the secular university itself, which may be summed up in Kants still arresting phrase,
”dare to think! The penchant of the university for unyielding skepticism and for Cartesian nostrums about the need to purge oneself of all preconceived notions before pursuing truth is the most potent threat to the well-being of Orthodox youth. As a result, Orthodox students in secular universities often find themselves attacked simultaneously by a myriad of challenging ideas. From day one Orthodox students often find themselves on the defensive in an attempt to ascertain what it is they believe, why they believe it, and whether they should believe it anymore. Precisely what practitioners of liberal education would count as success, the authors regard with grave suspicion”as well they should, if their aim is to preserve a traditional culture. But, one might ask, if ones aim is to preserve tradition, why go through a liberal education in the first place? Why think that you can have it both ways?
Thu, 01 Jan 1998 00:00:00 -0500 Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity
By Steven B. Smith
Yale University Press. 270 pp. $30
]]>Jews in Multicultural Americahttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/12/002-jews-in-multicultural-america
Sun, 01 Dec 1996 00:00:00 -0500For some decades, American Jews have made sense of the relation between their Americanness and their Jewishness through the concept of cultural pluralism. This concept allowed a flexible but expansive Jewish ethnic and religious identity to coexist with an equally normative American identity. The content of both Jewishness and Americanness may have been somewhat protean, but both mattered. Most Jews did not consider their Americanness to be simply a matter of citizenship, of what sort of passport they carried. Being an American implied a set of identity-shaping commitments. Citizenship in a liberal democracy, such as America, bore with it its own myths, history, and fellowship. Pluralism reconciled this complex American identity with an equally complex Jewishness.
]]>The Modern Jewish Conditionhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/10/the-modern-jewish-condition
Sat, 01 Oct 1994 00:00:00 -0400 Autonomy means to live under one’s own law: to discover the norms of a lawful life, a nomos, by or within oneself. Thus it is not, in principle, anarchic or anomic. Autonomy and authority are, as etymology suggests, paired concepts. Autonomy means that the self becomes its own authority, that authority per se is conditional upon the consent of the self. Autonomy takes self-directedness as its governing principle.
How does self-directedness come to have credibility as a moral concept? Its origins lie perhaps in the logic of responsibility; in the conditions under which we can attribute blame or praise to an agent. To be fully responsible, an agent must have freely chosen his course of action. The idea that we are responsible only if we can be said to have chosen or consented willingly to a course of action is certainly an old one. The great German Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen, attributes its discovery to the prophet Ezekiel, who, in contradiction to the exiles’ belief that “the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” asserted that every man suffers for his own sin. Ezekiel appears to have displaced the older biblical notion that God will punish the children for the sins of their fathers for several subsequent generations. Blame and punishment are neither collective nor hereditary. They are merited by individuals on a basis of personal desert. If Cohen is correct, the concept of autonomy in the sense of having to take responsibility for one’s own destiny-of having, on one’s own, to recognize what is right and to act accordingly-is not new.
What is new is the idea that the discovery of what is right is an idiosyncratic self-discovery. The self, as the field and the agent of moral discovery, acquires a whole new weight. The process of the self ratifying what it has discovered, that is, of consent, takes on a new prominence. Thus what is new is the construction of the self now held to be capable of aiming at an ideal of autonomy. Autonomy as an ideal renders the relation of the autonomous self to other selves, to community, to nature, and to divinity enormously problematic. The ethics and the anthropology of the autonomous self represent a departure from prior traditions of Western thought and religion.
The theme of autonomy has been of defining significance for modernity. Indeed, the major intellectual architects of the modern project have put the individual at the crux of their thought. Modern philosophy begins with the individual. For Descartes, often held to be the first modern philosopher, reality per se is discovered in self-reflection. Being depends upon the solitary, thinking ego for its self-disclosure. The little “I,” which was at best a microcosm of a vast, created (or, for Aristotle, eternal) macrocosm, now becomes the only open window onto the world of being. We cannot know, hence we cannot trust in, anything that is beyond what we can think. The little “I” has now become the arbiter of all that is.
If premodern men and women feared such radical independence, such excision from the context of an environing universe, moderns exult in it. Despite all of the modern talk of loneliness and alienation, the modern soul shrinks from attachments that are not of its own choosing. The modern soul, as Edward Shils put it, has a dread of metaphysical encumbrances. This dread is systematically expressed in the modern traditions of ethical and social thought. The newly definitive individual, stripped of constitutive attachments to primal groups and faiths, is an arbiter not only of what is but of what ought to be.
Although autonomy is not antithetical to authority per se, it is antithetical to traditional, heteronomous authority. Autonomy regards claims to authority that cannot be validated by, or in principle discovered within, the self as suspect. Traditional authority is based on claims to a superior wisdom, to divine revelation or to the accumulated and refined legacy of the ancestors. The modern ideal rejects this as so much paternalism. No prophet, philosopher-king, or historical collectivity knows better than the individual what the individual’s good is. No human arrangement affecting our lives and destinies that does not rise from, or merit the consent of, the individual so affected ought to exist. Furthermore, this consent is a private matter. No one can tell us what we ought to consent to. Society should not prescribe our good for us. Only we who know ourselves best, as John Stuart Mill argued, can decide what is our special good. There are as many goods as there are persons. Autonomy implies that we are epistemic and ethical worlds unto ourselves.
Traditional authority is enfeebled by modernity because it has become increasingly difficult to speak persuasively about the good as such: the human good, the good of man qua man, the common good in which all humans share. Tradition speaks about human beings in broad, species-wide categories: for example, “It is not good for man to be alone.” But what if some humans prefer solitude to sociality? Who is to say? As the postulate of a higher human nature lost ground, the good has been atomized into a near infinity of particularities. The old version of a common human nature which both Jews and Christians developed from Greek thought during the Middle Ages, namely, that man is a thinking being whose telos is found in the perfection of intellect which is also communio and imitatio dei, became incredible with the rise of modern science. The teleological universe of Aristotle was replaced by the mechanical universe of Newton. Nature was a gigantic machine, not a purposive process leading back and up into divinity. The heavens do not speak the glory of God, they speak the theorems of the calculus. Without a divinely directed, providentially purposive nature, human nature lost its human purpose. Man came to be defined increasingly by what had earlier been held to be his lower nature. As modernity progressed, it was the only nature that science could know.
The “scientization” of nature, that is, the triumph of the quantitative methods of the new physics and of the technological goal of mastery, as well as the loss of a Judeo-Christian anthropology of man as a being with a higher nature, not only atomized the concept of the good into an infinity of particularities, it also shifted the concept of the right, of
, into a different framework. Formerly, justice was a matter of the conformity of human institutions and practices with an inherent natural standard: of
was understood to strive toward the divine. Nature, in the earlier thought, implied an immanent natural law, which linked the mundane, the transcendent, and the human. In a more theistic key, nature was the field in which divine providence engaged in shaping human destiny. While these concepts of nature are not equivalent, they share a common horizon vis-a-vis the modern one. In modernity, by contrast, talk about justice need not appeal to a transcendent norm. What is just is what the individual consents to.
Raising consent to the chief, or at least to a chief, criterion of justice shifts the framework within which we understand justice from ontology to history. Justice does not seek ontological legitimation. Appeals to the way of things or the will of God do not matter. Even worse, they signal antimodern reaction. What matters is the history of the society in which institutions of justice are found. Suttee would be intolerable for Jews and Christians, but it is more than just, one might argue, for Hindus.
Moderns (at least those quintessential moderns, the Enlightenment founders of the modern project) have tried to avoid such culture-dependent relativism by positing a universal and primitive attribute of man qua man that could replace the now enfeebled natural law: namely, rights. Human rights are held to be culturally invariant human possessions that guarantee basic claims to life, freedom, and dignity for all. Yet there is no doubt that the discourse of rights derives from the prior traditions of biblical anthropology. It is a secularized, sanitized version of
b’tselem elohim bara otam
: in the image of God He created them. Can one doubt that should this historical link between rights and biblical monotheism be lost, rights discourse will collapse as well? There is no reason to doubt this intuition: the process is already well advanced. In many quarters, foremost among them the old USSR, rights discourse was, or was thought to be, a parochial, Western, Judeo-Christian language game. One can well imagine that an Indian devoted to suttee would resent an argument opposed to the practice based on rights no less than an argument based on the Bible. Both, especially at this end of modernity, appear to be so much cultural imperialism.
It is as if there were a law of the conservation of skepticism: that which was designed to replace biblical faith becomes as vulnerable to rational assault as biblical faith. Human rights are no less jeopardized by the intellectual climate of the world that first gave them systematic articulation than they are by governments who abuse and destroy their citizens.
What we are exploring here is how weak claims of authority are in the modern context. As the case of rights shows, modern reason is not able to sustain itself. The modern project of securing a universal human dignity irrespective of tribe, clan, race, or religion founders on its own parochialism. Having abandoned a belief in significant natural right, modernity sought its own anthropology of rational, enlightened man. But such a man proved to be nothing but parochial. The enlightened, autonomous self was nothing more or less than a European, a Western, self. Even Germany, where the Enlightenment had originally found great advocates, by the early nineteenth century had rejected central tenets of Enlightenment as too French. Thus modern reason, having rejected the old religious absolutes, tried to innovate its own absolutes only to discover that relativity, that cultural particularity, continued to haunt them. Without belief in revelation or in natural right we seem necessarily to be thrown upon the shifting fashions of history. And history, Hegel notwithstanding, is not the history of reason. History is the struggle of wills.
The autonomous self of modernity has put will at the center. It is will, the idiosyncratic will of the autonomous self, that chooses a course of life, that decides what is good and right for itself. Yet what is it that illumines the will which chooses? The once unquestioned light of revelation grew dim. It became an or ganuz, a hidden light. In principle, it is a light that cannot be lost in questions, only in too certain answers. Modernity was quick to foreclose the questions and to believe that its answers, tentative as they were, were the only answers. Thus revelation could only illumine the self if the self still sensed the openness of the questions: that is, if the will, in its sublime privacy, consented to such illumination. Of course, there are always such selves, but in modernity they sense, more than ever before, their aloneness. To read great works of mysticism such as the
Cloud of Unknowing
is to hear what the aloneness of the devout was like in a “religious age.” Yet there is a difference. That age at least recognized the cultural salience of the contemplative. His virtuosity, while surely not for everyone, made sense to everyone. Radical religious seriousness, while always entailing aloneness, was a publicly intelligible and valued phenomenon.
Modernity, however, was born in the retreat of revelation from the light of day, from the public world. The men and women who lived revelation-and the religious authorities that spoke in its name-became culturally solitary voices competing for a hearing at the door of modern reason. Thus the religious communities are no longer thought to be primal. They are derivative, voluntary: they derive from volition. They are not called into being by God, but by consent. Their authority, to the extent that they have any authority, is a matter of voluntary obligation. One consents to it within the framework of autonomy.
How does this consent work? For thinkers in the social contract tradition such as John Locke, community, including the communities formed in the name of revelation, arise from the decision and choice of individual humans. We band together to secure advantages that we are unable to secure by living singly. Community is no longer an organic and a priori condition of our humanness, as it was for Aristotle. Man is no longer a
, a being for whom sociality is a condition of soteriology, for whom community opens onto the horizons of both virtue and transcendence-rather, he is Homo sapiens, a thinking being who arranges his life in light of his calculations of gain and loss. Community is made, not found. It is not the condition of our being, but a consequence of it. Thus, the norms of community, including the communities of revelation, bind us only insofar as we consent to them, that is, only insofar as we continue to associate our lives with them through choice.
Why should we consent to the norms of the social order that we ourselves (or at least our social contracting ancestors) have allegedly made? It seems hopelessly crude to say that we should consent to them only if in the calculation of gains and losses we stand to gain more than we stand to lose by the association. A horde of self-interested, calculating, potential nomads could never amount to a society. How does one proceed from a radical doctrine of individual autonomy to sociality, to human solidarity? Those too, at least in sanitized, rationalized form, constitute a modern ideal. An early answer to the problem of consent and the origin of normative solidarity, i.e., political obligation-Locke’s answer-continued to borrow from medieval tradition. Locke did not make consent dependent on strict and arbitrary autonomy. Rather, consent is consent to what is right. What is right is determined by natural law. We ought to give our consent to what is right. We ought not to consent to what is wrong. Suicide, which Locke, for example, believes contravenes natural law in a fundamental way, is never something one could rightfully choose. Nor is slavery. Such consent is no consent at all. Thus Locke, writing in a religious culture in early modern times, heavily qualifies autonomy. A transcendent order of norms limits the range of moral possibilities that the will to consent may select.
As modernity progresses, however, these limitations weaken. Consent is shorn of its normative horizon and simply becomes an act of will illumined, if at all, by tastes and preferences. This possibility was glimpsed, or perhaps preached, by David Hume, who offered a radical critique of the social contract tradition. He saw in consent not a rationally informed moral act of affirmation, but a passional surrender to inherited, irrational prescriptions. Consensual affirmation of the authoritative norms of social life was a myth, an old wives’ tale for those who still thought that reason governs the life of man.
Kant sought to rescue autonomy and consent from Hume’s bleak vision by tying them firmly to reason. Yet for Kant, too, the authority that still resided in Locke’s natural law receded. Natural law as a source of authority is replaced by an ideal of a self-sufficient, solitary individual governing himself according to formulas of reason. The lawfulness that we discover in the logic of our own moral self-reflection is the only authority worthy of consent. Autonomous reason is the source of its own law. If one can will a course of action-a maxim-such that all other rational agents could also will it without self-contradiction, then that maxim passes muster. Formal criteria of universality, discoverable by practical reason reflecting on the experiences of moral life, set the parameters for what is right.
Such attempts to ground or justify autonomy all return to a calculation of gains and losses. For Locke, one has more to gain by living in society than in the state of nature. For Kant, one has more to gain by living under the universal moral law, discovered by individual reason, than by living under the partial and particularistic codes imposed by an external agency. One gains freedom, which, for Kant, appears as a kind of summum bonum.
Yet, there are other versions of individual gain and advantage. The most radical version, which modernity produced as a dialectical reaction to the stress on autonomous individuality, is the nullification of individuality altogether. Modernity offers the total absorption of the individual into a collectivity, usually a society or nation-state, as a putative version of a human good. Modernity has produced leviathans more terrible than Hobbes could have imagined or approved of.
The possibility of surmounting and transcending the autonomous individuality that modernity has itself unleashed in the form of absorption in a collectivity strengthens in proportion to the decline of biblical faith. The religious communities, Jews and Christians, continued to represent a social order that claimed ontological legitimation for itself: the Church as the body of Christ, the Jews as the chosen people. With the retreat of the public legitimating function of transcendence, society represented itself to itself as a more or less immanent affair: the product of decision, choice, consent. These, as we have seen, are relatively vulnerable grounds for social order. Given the modern idea that society is made, not found, that the human world is a product of volition, not nature, the way was cleared for radical experimentation, for inventing new, rational versions of social order. As biblical understandings of transcendence retreated, rival versions of transcendence filled the vacuum. The state could become an ersatz divinity offering salvation for those who sacrifice themselves to it. The strains and terrors of modern autonomy spawned a solution that both rejects modern autonomy and derives from it. This “solution” has not yet run its course.
Jews and Christians, as representatives of forms of community far older than modernity, have not a common, but a related, task: to model a way of life, both private and public, that is demonstrably superior to both the culture of radical autonomy and to its totalitarian antithesis. To do this, Christians and Jews need to recover the essential lineaments of their archetypal communities from the mass of adaptations they have made in the course of secularization. I am unable to say precisely what this might imply for Christians, but let me conclude with what it implies for Jews.
Modern Judaism has been pulled between two poles: the confessional and the national. Judaism has been constructed as nothing-but-religion and as nothing-but-ethnicity. The nineteenth century reinvented Judaism as the “Mosaic faith” of German or American or British Jews, and deemphasized the national and ethnic elements implicit in the tradition. Zionism and other secular movements, by contrast, rejected this confessionalization of Judaism, but substituted no less modern a construction of the ethnic and national elements. Secular peoplehood is no less a distortion of traditional sacral peoplehood than is sacred religion without peoplehood at all. With the success of Zionism, secular constructions of Judaism became dominant, either marginalizing the confessional model or creating a new form of confessionalization: Jewish religion as a civil religious appendage to Jewish national identity.
For Jews to reach a new/old self-representation of their communal reality entails the rediscovery of the Jewish
. Community is rather too weak a term to describe the sociality of the Jews. Jewish historical being is
chosen, voluntary, consensual and primordial, natural, and transcendent. One is born a Jew and one chooses Judaism. Judaism is found in oneself, not made. Yet one must also make one’s Judaism, that is, one must make oneself into a Jew. The law precedes one, yet one must make it one’s own. The massive, public otherness of the law becomes personal, intimately one’s own.
The resolution of this apparent paradox has been a major concern of modern Jewish theologians. Throughout modernity, Jewish thinkers have been simultaneously drawn to and deeply agitated by Kant. Kant’s stress on ethics, inner purity, and on the dignity and ennoblement of man through righteous will and action seemed like a convincing and a compatible statement of Judaism’s own ideal. Yet Kant’s uncompromising rejection of heteronomy seemed fully incompatible with Judaism’s revealed Law. Indeed, Kant called for a “euthanasia of Judaism” (Judaism represented pure heteronomy for him) as a condition of the moral development of mankind. Thus the Kantian version of autonomy became a persistent challenge to modern Jewish thought.
The time has long since arrived for modern Jews to free themselves from the Kantian dialectic of autonomy vs. heteronomy. It is a true dialectic only if we accept its metaphysical presupposition that human beings are or ought to be radically individuated beings; that community is derivative, not primal; that self and other are mutually exclusive. Judaism (and, it would seem, Kant himself-at least the Kant of the
Critique of Judgment
) rejects these premises.
The primary Jewish reality is not the individual agent but the historic polity in which the individual discovers his or her Jewishness. “Polity” is stronger than “community” because it resonates with the sense of obligation that characterizes the political. It entails as well a sense of continuity, primordiality, and objectivity that community has come to lack. On the other hand, polity must not be confused with “state” or any other political category where the emphasis is on sovereignty and the monopoly of legitimate violence. Polity refers to forms of social life more binding than community yet more decentralized than the modern state.
To belong to the Jewish polity means to live in a network of duties, obligations, rights, and privileges that has worldwide range and temporal depth. The ground of this order is the covenant: a binding intimacy of a human group with God that is characterized by both love and law. Two parties chose one another. The human party must still, in every generation, choose. This stress on consent as a condition of covenantal participation, that is, of life within the polity, satisfies the modern orientation toward autonomy. On the other hand, the divine partner clearly expects that the Jew will “choose life” and ratify, in both an individual and a collective way, the terms of the covenant, not the least of which is the halakhah, the Jewish way of life. The Jew ought to consent to what is right. Consent is not directed by radical autonomy, but by a bounded autonomy. Such autonomy is conditioned by a vision of the human good that claims ontological legitimation. This vision is at once both private and public. Just as the individual stood at Sinai only as a member of the Jewish polity, so too the individual stands before Torah today. Torah is both the law of the Jewish heart and the constitution of the Jewish polity.
With appropriate qualifications, Christianity’s understandings of polity bear resemblance to Judaism’s. The distinctions are of crucial significance, but so are the commonalities. Jews and Christians can moderate the excesses of the modern dialectic of autonomy by modelling legitimate authority within their polities. Such authority is neither sovereign nor arbitrary. It recognizes God as the only sovereign and so circumscribes its own reach and tendency. Such authority seeks consent, but asks that consent be illumined by a persuasive ideal of the common good. Such authority speaks the language of rights but never without the correlated language of obligation. Such an authority should renew our sense of relatedness to the natural world without denigrating or distorting the uniquely human. Here, Jews and Christians, either in dialogue if they are willing, or by cultivating their own gardens if they so choose, can become a
, a sign for the peoples, of a human life worthy of the name.
Alan L. Mittleman teaches in the Religion Department at Muhlenberg College. This article is adapted from a paper prepared in February 1994 for the International Jewish-Christian Conference on Religious Leadership in Secular Society in Jerusalem.
Sat, 01 Jan 1994 00:00:00 -0500 The Idea of Civil Society
by Adam Seligman
Free Press, 220 pages, $24.95
]]> The Scholar as Polemicisthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1993/03/003-the-scholar-as-polemicist
Mon, 01 Mar 1993 00:00:00 -0500 Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
by Hans Küng, translated by John Bowden
Crossroad, 753 pages, $39.50