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The Power of Religion in the Public SphereReview - The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere
by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Cornel West
Columbia University Press, 2011
Review by John McSweeney, Ph.D.
Feb 14th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 7)

The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere reproduces extended versions of lectures delivered by Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Cornel West, at a public event in New York in 2009, together with edited transcripts of their dialogues on that occasion. Framed by an extended introduction by the editors and an afterword by Craig Calhoun, the book offers the immediacy and vibrancy of a 'live' engagement by leading intellectuals with central questions concerning the place of religion in the public sphere today.

The opening contributions by Habermas and Taylor offer contrasting theorizations of religion in the public sphere. As the editors underline, Habermas is the seminal architect of the notion of the public sphere as a "space of reason-giving, a realm in which reasons [are] forwarded and debated, accepted or rejected." (pp. 2-3) In recent years, he has come to recognize that religion may well contain "buried moral intuitions" (p. 65) which prove to be vital to contemporary social life. The role of religion remains circumscribed, however, insofar as Habermas holds that these moral intuitions cannot be justified in the public sphere on religious grounds, but only insofar as they can be and are translated into universal-rational terms. In his lecture, Habermas deepens his rationale for this position by examining the idea of "the political" within the political theology of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt bemoans the dissolution of the traditional mythological-sacred sovereign power of the king, and its unification of society, in the "flows" of modern liberal-democratic societies. Against Schmitt, Habermas argues that the very emergence of the public sphere depends upon the transformation of this religiously-guaranteed space of sovereignty into a historical space of public discourse -- a space constituted, in important respects, only in the exercise (the "flows") of its rationality. Religiously-grounded reasons are thus, for Habermas, fundamentally at odds with the very constitution of the public sphere.

By contrast, Taylor criticizes the characteristically modern tendency (exemplified by Habermas) to single out religious viewpoints as illegitimate within the public sphere. He instead argues that modern secularism centers on religion as a matter of historical accident. Its primary focus is a shift from the authority of the king to that of a nation or a people. The essence of the public sphere, he contends, lies in protecting a people in their belonging to and practice of diverse outlooks, granting them equality of treatment and a fair hearing in the social and political spheres. For Taylor, state neutrality before differing outlooks serves this purpose; it does not reflect a positive exercise of pure 'reason alone' -- something, which he argues, is merely a myth of the Enlightenment. He calls for a genuinely pluralistic public sphere which engages religious outlooks no less (or more) than others, beyond the modern fetishization of religion as the enemy of reason and progress.

The dialogue between Habermas and Taylor makes their fundamental difference clear: where Taylor calls for a pluralism of radically equal outlooks, Habermas presupposes the mutual good-will of religious and non-religious persons in translating and being receptive to the "moral intuitions" of religions, respectively. Butler offers insightful comment on this disagreement when she cautions, in her opening remarks, about speaking of 'religion' without attending to the historical specificity of the concept in relation to specific religions. She calls for attention to the fact that certain religions (in the specific public legitimacies and illegitimacies ascribed to them) help to delimit the public sphere (e.g. Christianity in the West), whereas others (e.g. Islam) are often taken to be fundamentally at odds with it. Explicitly in the final roundtable discussion, she suggests a tension in the positions of both Habermas and Taylor: that each, in principle, resolves the problem of 'religion' in relation to the public sphere. That is, while much remains to be worked out in practice, an effectively unambiguous place is granted to religion by each. For Butler, by contrast, the historical specificity of the religions and of their evolving intersection with the public sphere allow for no unproblematic delimitation of 'religion' or of religious identities in relation to it. Rather, this relation cannot but remain a problem.

The main focus of Butler's lecture offers a deepening deconstruction of identitarian notions of religion. Examining the problem of how one might critique instances of what she considers Israeli state violence without succumbing to anti-Semitism, Butler develops a Jewish concept of cohabitation in dialogue with the work of Hannah Arendt. She argues that corollary of the Jewish experience of exile is the idea that one cannot choose with whom one cohabits the earth. An exilic ethic is one that acknowledges the fundamental limit to one's self-possession and is motivated to act for the dispossessed of the earth. From this perspective, it is Jewish to criticize (dispossessing) state violence wherever it occurs. Her more fundamental point is that there is no simple notion of Jewish identity: to belong to the Jewish faith is, in a certain sense, to be dispossessed of belonging. Indeed, contra Taylor (and Habermas), Butler refuses any notion that we can we speak in any straightforward communitarian terms of religious "groups." Rather, she refigures the public sphere as a space of difference, in which attention to one's self-difference, religious and non-religious, is an ethical act of remembrance of that which is all too often excluded by dominant paradigms of identity and rationality.

West self-consciously situates his contribution as a jazz-like improvised performance of a broadly similar kind of remembrance that owes much to Walter Benjamin -- but from the side of religious faith. He calls for a prophetic remembering and exposing of suffering that is typically obscured by power -- what, following Benjamin, he terms the "catastrophe" generated for many by 'progress.' Central here is a capacity to act with imagination and empathy so that we are open to other discourses, contexts and experiences beyond our own concerns and enabled to grasp this catastrophe. "Prophetic religion," as he puts it, "is an individual and collective maladjustment to greed, fear and bigotry." (p.99) It is a religious stance no less fractured than Butler's notion of identity: it is an always fragile glimpsing of the wrongs and exclusions of history, which typically ends in failure, often before the recalcitrance of power.

The final dialogue between all four thinkers offers an interesting perspective on their differing views in terms of the notion of translation. Habermas supposes religious moral intuitions can be translated into more fundamental rational terms; Taylor sees translation between any outlooks as an infinite task that grants equality to religious and non-religious viewpoints alike; Butler problematizes the very possibility of such translation; while West acknowledges the possibility of such translation but rooted in prophetic empathy and imagination.

The strength of this book, across its multiple contributions and dialogues, is that it offers an accessible window on key contemporary approaches to the question of religion in the public sphere. Indeed, the different contributions themselves convey something of what Calhoun, in his afterword, terms the diverse and "radical challenges and radical questions" that emerge at the interface of religion and the public sphere. If the book has a weakness, it is that its introduction and conclusion are perhaps more summarizing and contextualizing than critical. How these thinkers differ and the stakes of their differences might usefully have been made more explicit. As it is, this task is left perhaps too much to the reader. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of significant thinkers on these questions generates a valuable matrix within which to consider the place of religion in the public sphere.


© 2012 John McSweeney


John McSweeney is Hyde Fellow in Philosophy, at Milltown Institute, Dublin, Ireland. This review has been prepared with the support of funding by the Irish Jesuits through Milltown Institute.


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