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Ars Disputandi Volume 3 (2003) ISSN: 1566 5399

Erik A. Anderson

Critical Faith: Toward A Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and Its Public Accountability
By Ronald A. Kuipers
(Currents of Encounter Studies on the Contact between Christianity and Other Religions, Beliefs, and Cultures 19), Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002; ix + 331 pp.; pb. 65.00, $ 77.00; ISBN: 90-420-0853-9.

1 Introduction Ronald A. Kuipers has written a very ambitious and stimulating book calling for a revised understanding of religion and its relation to public life. As the title of his book implies, Kuipers' ultimate aim is to justify a role for religion in the public discourse of contemporary societies. He paints with a broad brush in pursuit of this aim, covering topics that range from the relationship between faith and reason, the meaning of religious language, and the epistemology of religion, to the place of religion in the discourse ethics of Jrgen Habermas. The book suffers somewhat from this breadth. Before I touch on some of the book's shortcomings, however, let me rst give an overview of each of the book's ve chapters. 2 Overview Kuipers devotes much of Critical Faith to debunking a conception of religion that arose during the Enlightenment and continues to be in uential today. In Chapter One, `Reconsidering the Relationship Between Faith and Reason,' he takes aim at the Enlightenment conception of religious faith given paradigmatic expression by John Locke. Kuipers presents Locke as reducing religious faith to a purely intellectual assent to a set of abstract propositions. The basis for accepting these abstract propositions is supposed to be evidence that is in principle available to rational persons generally and requires no prior ` duciary commitment' to grasp (23). Locke thus gives expression to the idea that a universally shared human reason, unin uenced by any prior religious commitments, should serve as the ultimate arbiter of religious faith. Reason alone should govern what religious propositions people accept and the degree of con dence they place in them. Kuipers argues that this conception of religious faith and its relation to reason is no longer tenable. The faith that Enlightenment thinkers place in the power of universal reason is just that a faith that cannot itself be given a rational
November 18, 2003, Ars Disputandi. If you would like to cite this article, please do so as follows: Erik A. Anderson, `Review of Critical Faith: Toward A Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and Its Public Accountability,' Ars Disputandi [] 3 (2003), section number.

Erik A. Anderson justi cation (39). The Enlightenment conception of religion relies on a false dichotomy between `rationally ungroundable' faith, on the one hand, and pure rationality, on the other. A more adequate conception of religious faith will see this dichotomy as false and recognize that any overall approach to human existence `receives its orientation from a trusted source of guidance, or, in other words, from a spirit' (36). Kuipers then tries to develop a more adequate conception of the relationship between faith and reason that does not rest on false beliefs about the independence of reason from all ` duciary commitments.' On this alternative conception, reason is not a neutral arbiter that enjoys sovereign independence from our deep faith commitments. Rather, reason is internal to and inescapably colored by these commitments, which do not themselves admit of a purely rational justi cation. As a result of this shift in the understanding of reason, it is no longer appropriate to ask purely epistemological questions about whether religious beliefs can be justi ed to all rational persons (an illusory goal). Instead, the criteria of rational assessment must shift from the epistemological to the practical (moral and political) realm. The application of reason to faith takes the form of employing moral and political criteria to determine whether our `spiritual commitments' need to be modi ed in order to better serve `the continued redemption of a hurting and vulnerable world' (42). In Chapter Two, `Legitimacy without Legitimation?,' Kuipers continues to critique aspects of the Enlightenment conception of religion. Here his focus is on the philosophy of language and knowledge developed by some of Locke's more recent heirs, the logical positivists. Kuipers claims that two elements of positivism continue to wield a detrimental in uence on philosophical approaches to religion: `propositional atomism,' the view that only `individual beliefs or statements' are `possible candidates for knowledge' (62), and `reductionistic empiricism,' which looks for `a direct correspondence between these isolated ideas, concepts, or propositions and the various experiences of the world that impress themselves upon us' (63). Kuipers argues that these two elements of positivism are alive and well in philosophical approaches which assume that individual religious statements can be extracted from the complex web of `religious life patterns, myths, narratives, and doctrines' (62) and then rationally tested using purely neutral criteria (60). Against propositional atomism, Kuipers stresses that religious statements must be understood in light of the role they play in the lives of actual religious communities if their full meaning is not to be distorted or lost. Religions embody responses to experiences of `transcendence or mystery' that cannot be adequately described in terms of beliefs and concepts that are universally shared (84). If philosophers are to truly understand the meaning of religious statements, they must reject propositional atomism and approach religion in a more anthropological manner by `empathic projection of oneself into the life pattern one hopes to understand' (91). Kuipers also rejects reductionistic empiricism as the proper way to rationally evaluate religious statements once their meaning is known. His argument for
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Critical Faith: Toward A Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and Its Public Accountability rejecting this kind of rational legitimation of religion has already been given in the rst chapter; here he addresses the worry that doing without rational legitimation leaves us with a kind of deism that precludes `any possibility for shared, public criticism' of religion and prevents us from claiming that `one style of reasoning or life pattern is better than another' (97). His response to this worry is to reiterate that there are moral and political as opposed to epistemological criteria that we can use to comparatively evaluate different religious ways of life (102). In Chapter Three, `Speaking of Spirit,' Kuipers provides a more in-depth account of the meaning and `cognitivity' of religious language that expands upon the holistic account of meaning introduced in Chapter Two. The question he seeks to answer is whether we can see religious language as having cognitive, i.e. `truthconveying,' content once we have rejected propositional atomism. Kuipers addresses this question by focusing on the metaphorical character of many religious uses of language and then arguing that metaphors possess a cognitive dimension that cannot be captured by more literal modes of utterance. Metaphors enable us to understand one thing in terms of another, such as God in terms of `father' (145). The metaphorical extension of `father' to God allows us to describe God in terms of something that is more familiar and directly given to our experience. By using the metaphor of `father' we are able to convey God's loving kindness, care for us, power, nurturance, and so on. This use of metaphor is cognitive in that it attributes to God qualities that God either truly possesses or fails to possess. But it is not mere ornament because a more literal mode of utterance would rob us of the ability to fully describe these attributes of God. Kuipers goes on to consider whether religious language should be given a realist interpretation, i.e. whether we should see it as successfully putting us in touch with a reality that exists independently of what we think or say about it. Kuipers supports a quali ed realism. On the one hand, he endorses the view that `religious traditions are not fraudulently rooted in fancy, but instead express genuine and meaningful responses to a basic experience of something real' (151). On the other hand, he emphasizes that religious statements are fallible, incomplete, and colored by perspective. His is thus an attenuated realism that seeks to incorporate criticisms often made of more robust versions of realism by those who adopt an irrealist position. In Chapter Four, `Religious Faith as Personal Knowledge,' Kuipers develops an `alternative epistemology in the philosophy of religion' (160). He portrays Enlightenment epistemologies as founded on the possibility that the knower can dominate, control, or master the known. As an alternative to these views, he envisions the proper attitude of the knower as one of `openness and receptivity' in the face of `a horizon of meaning that indeed gives things to be known, but at the same time also cannot be mastered or manipulated' (192). We should see human beings as dwelling within a larger, transcendent reality from which truths are `given' or `received' but which cannot itself be fully mastered by human reason. This conception of knowledge emphasizes the limits to human beings' rational mastery and independence from the world they seek to know. As Kuipers puts it, `human beings are not self-suf cient, autonomous creatures, but are instead

Erik A. Anderson creatures whose identities are implicated in a relationship with a reality that transcends or goes beyond what they can possess and control, intellectually speaking' (201). Kuipers thinks that this alternative picture of human knowledge is one that adequately captures and is indeed suggested by the receipt of revelation from God (or some other `trusted source of meaning') in the context of religion. On this view, `religious life patterns' count as embodying knowledge `when they put people in an edifying relationship with life's enveloping mystery, when they encourage people to achieve just and ethical connections with human and non-human others, and when they help people to live meaningful lives within a milieu that ultimately transcends them in knowledge and power' (167). Kuipers' alternative epistemology is thus a kind of pragmatism according to which we should count religion as a form of knowledge when it bears good fruit by guiding the lives of adherents in meaningful and morally edifying ways. In Chapter Five, `Religion and Critical Rationality,' Kuipers addresses Jrgen Habermas' argument that religious believers and worldviews have no role to play in public discussions concerning what norms contemporary societies should adopt. Habermas thinks contemporary societies should be governed by norms that can be the focus of an `intersubjective consensus' as a result of having been `communicatively redeemed' through public argument and discussion. Habermas' `communicative rationality' requires people to transcend their particular worldviews in order to `achieve universal agreement for our validity claims' (249). Public discussions regarding the validity of norms should thus invoke only the `formal' or `universalizable' elements of each citizen's perspective, which are plausible candidates for universal acceptance, and not the particular elements of a citizen's religious worldview. In order for citizens to engage in this kind of public deliberation, they must be willing and able to adopt a `post-conventional' stance in relation to their religious beliefs. Adopting a post-conventional stance requires religious believers to assume a perspective of critical detachment from their religious views, to allow those views to be publicly criticized and challenged, and ultimately to accept only those aspects of their religious views that can be rationally justi ed. It is precisely this demand for a post-conventional stance that Habermas thinks religious believers cannot accept: `For [Habermas], religious commitment is constituted by the duciary acceptance of a disclosure that is beyond discussion and so cannot be communicatively appropriated' (287). Therefore, according to Habermas, religious believers and beliefs have no role to play in public debates over the validity of norms. Kuipers responds to Habermas by pointing out that his conception of a postconventional stance is overly demanding. It is unreasonable to require religious people to subject all of their beliefs to the demand for public justi cation and then to accept only those that can be `communicatively redeemed' in the eyes of all rational persons. This is unreasonable because no point of view, not even Habermas' own, could stand up to such a test. Rather, as Kuipers has stressed in earlier chapters, all worldviews (religious and secular) have a ` duciary' or `sacred'
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Critical Faith: Toward A Renewed Understanding of Religious Life and Its Public Accountability element that does not admit of a purely rational justi cation. Therefore, we should accept the weaker claim that a post-conventional stance simply requires religious citizens to subject their beliefs to critical re ection whenever circumstances render certain of those beliefs both publicly relevant and problematic. Rational scrutiny is required only `in special situations of problematic disagreement in which one is called upon to argumentatively defend or assess a speci c tendentious position one holds' (268), and even then need not extend to one's worldview as a whole but only to the `tendentious' beliefs in question. Kuipers observes that religion is not essentially hostile to critical re ection but only to mistaken Enlightenment notions of what that re ection involves (228). Finally, Kuipers defends a positive role for speci cally religious discourse in public debates. On the one hand, Kuipers is skeptical that public discussions can make do with only those argumentative elements that can be accepted by all rational persons. For example, he suggests that public discussion about `the suffering and marginalization that people with alternative sexual orientations have had to endure' (269) cannot proceed without appeal to the narratives, scriptural passages, and insights that are internal to the Christian tradition (268 269). On the other hand, Kuipers is con dent that speci cally religious elements can `be put forward as part of a pluralistic dialogue that forgoes chauvinism and exclusivism, even while it remains animated by substantive worldview commitments of the various discussants' (292). The main barrier to introducing religious views into public discussion is that religious people are often unwilling to make those views `vulnerable to intersubjective deliberation and argumentation' (284). The remedy is not to exclude religion as such from the public sphere but to stipulate that only religious people and worldviews that are willing to open themselves up to rational scrutiny and criticism have a legitimate place in public discussion. 3 Assessment The reader should by now have a sense of the breadth and complexity of the position that Kuipers develops in Critical Faith. The book has many strengths. Unfortunately, however, Kuipers' discussion strikes me as inadequate where a number of important questions are concerned. Consider rst his discussion of theological realism. Kuipers endorses the view that `the theological realist can afrm that her use of language depicts reality, without assuming that her particular depiction is exhaustive or exclusive of any other depictions' (154). This simultaneous af rmation of religious realism and religious pluralism is problematic. How can a depiction of God (or some other religious reality) be accurate and, at the same time, fail to be exclusive of what are at least apparently incompatible depictions? Perhaps one can af rm realism without having to declare that at least some religious depictions are `false,' but one gets no argument to this effect or discussion of this important issue in the philosophy of religion from Kuipers. A second problem emerges from his discussion of the moral and political criteria that we should utilize to critically evaluate religious forms of life. Where do these moral and political standards come from? Are they internal or external to

Erik A. Anderson the religious traditions that they are to evaluate? Kuipers is not clear on this point. He rejects the Enlightenment's appeal to universal criteria of rationality, but he appears to suggest that moral and political criteria possess the very universality and neutrality that he denies to reason. Aren't universal criteria of morality as problematic as universal criteria of rationality (if the latter are indeed problematic)? If the moral and political criteria he has in mind are supposed to be internal to religious traditions, then he hasn't adequately addressed the moral diversity that exists within and among different religions. Are the moral standards of one religion to be applied to all others? Should we hold religions accountable to their own internal standards? What if we judge the moral standards of another faith to be severely immoral from the perspective of our own moral standards? What if there is internal disagreement within a particular religion regarding the content of its own moral standards? Once again, Kuipers is in the region of a number of important philosophical questions that his account fails to address. A nal problem appears most readily to someone who has followed the American debate over the place of religion in public life that has centered on the work of John Rawls. Rawls does not elicit even a mention in Kuipers' book. But more importantly, an issue that has been central to the American debate is scarcely recognized by Kuipers. This is the problem that religious discourse arguably fails to be rationally accessible and acceptable to non-adherents. If a person cites her religious beliefs as a reason for the public acceptance of a norm, then arguably she fails to provide a non-adherent with a reason for him to accept that norm. It is this apparent lack of public accessibility and acceptability that has most often been cited as a reason for excluding religious worldviews from public debates. If successful, this objection rules out any essential role for religious beliefs as such, whether or not their possessors are open to public criticism. Kuipers' defense of a public role for religion thus does not even touch what seems to me to be the main philosophical objection to granting religion such a role. For these reasons, I regard Kuipers' book as less-than-successful overall. Nevertheless, the book is praiseworthy in a number of respects, particularly in its emphasis on the importance of issues in the philosophy of language and epistemology for the question of religion's public role, as well as for the diverse array of thinkers whose work Kuipers explicates and synthesizes in developing his own position. Despite its aws, the book is a welcome addition to the struggle to retrieve religion from the private sphere to which it has mistakenly been banished by proponents of Enlightenment.

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