“How should one explain the possibility of knowledge? And how should one account for the reality of the external world?” I have no idea.
The above quote comes from Gary Dorrien’s new book Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit. There is a part of me that doesn’t even want to begin to contend with these questions not because it is intimidating (it is), but because I have always questioned what benefit there is in waxing philosophical about what is or is not real. However, the introductory chapter of this book has confirmed to me that everything I have come to know and believe to be “real” is directly related to the questions Kant posed over 200 years ago. As Dorrien points out, “there were core afﬁnities that passed from Kant and Schleiermacher to Ritschl and Harnack. All theologians in this stream sought to make Christianity modern by accepting biblical criticism and the modern scientific worldview, and by ﬁtting Christian theology to the right kind of idealism.” My reality is built upon the foundation Kant laid.
While this may be a grand statement, the Enlightenment deconstructed 2000 years of philosophical surety in Europe. Perhaps it is no small wonder that we are still struggling with the precepts laid out by Kant and Hegel. In an age of convenience and instant gratification, it’s frustrating to watch people refuse to change with the times. But what are these times? How are we to contend with a radical re-ordering of reality that until 200 years ago would have been impossible to comprehend? I read the writings of my generation and the ones following it openly lambasting anyone who holds onto philosophical and theological relics from the past. What used to be a sporting disavowal of religion by the academic elite has become a common pastime of literate bloggers who take any and every opportunity to malign religious thinkers.
Anonymous bloggers and prominent secular atheists blame religion for the ills of the world. It is as though they are saying that if religion disappeared so too would war, prejudice, classism, racism, homophobia…and on and on. While they are justified in many of their critiques of religion and the ills it produces, I find myself agreeing with Jürgen Habermas and Mark Johnston that scapegoating religion for the world’s problems is uninspiring, reductive, and ultimately unhelpful. Scientism, Habermas reminds us, is nothing but a new faith – a salvific hope in a rational telos that catapults humanity away from the mire of [archaic] religious thought that refuses to let “us” flourish as we could.
Science and technology have certainly elevated humanity to unseen heights but have these heights served as a cure to social and psychological ills I listed above? Certainly not, and it is foolish to believe that it will. God, Johnston writes, is always that thing that humans believe to be greater than themselves. God dies when humans discover they have outmoded that which they presumed God to be. Science and technology has become this new God not because they are holy unto themselves but because they symbolize a new and untapped potential that may prove to be salvific. The heights to which technology can take humanity might be limitless but a singular hope in technology is vainglorious and shortsighted.
Social ills are cured by social correctives. As such, Habermas insists social institutions, especially religions, critique themselves with natural reason and law in order to hone, perfect, and rationalize their claims. If society is to be just then society must analyze the mores and values it projects. In terms of religion, if theology is to remain relevant and helpful it must subject itself to the reality that it finds itself in today. There is no point in appealing to the known subjective truths of the past that have been superseded by modern thought. However, how does one gracefully re-interpret 2000 years of theological thought? How do you re-order 2000 years of tradition without losing the soul that kept it alive for so long? How does one keep an alleged anachronism relevant in a society that has ostensibly outgrown it?
What a question.