Monday, April 5, 2010

Culture Clash

After listening on Easter Sunday to news stories about the Catholic Church being secouée and ébranlée by what Cardinal Soldano had the temerity to dismiss as jacasseries (in the French translation; ABC News preferred the more delicate "idle gossip"), I was amused to wake up on Monday morning to discover this review, by a puzzled French philosopher, of Richard Swinburne's Is There a God?, a treatise in the finest tradition of British analytical philosophy. To say that there is something of a culture clash here is to put it mildly. The reviewer, Denis Moreau, first has to persuade his readers that the whole idea isn't daft: in France, according to Bernard Sève, the philosophical question of the existence of God has for generations been considered "obsolete, at best something to be stuffed away in the closet reserved for the history of outmoded ideas," not a question for active investigation under the rubric of philosophy.

Well, perhaps. I'm not sure that "rational theology," the heading under which Moreau would like to place Swinburne's work, is consuming many neurons in Anglo-American philosophy departments either. And as for l'Être Suprême in French philo, I might note that I recently dipped into a Harvard colloquium on "Derrida and Religion," in which any number of learned scholars promised to turn Derrida into a theologian of sorts, albeit--it seemed from the introductory lecture, which was all I could manage--in a distinctly ironic mode, distinguished by punning on the word "Adieu" (variously read as à Dieu and a-Dieu, get it?). So, if "rational theology" is flourishing in England, "irrational theology" is apparently flourishing in France, or at least in that tiny colony of American intellectuals that feasts on the French-accented post-Nietzschean post-modern.

All of this high elucubration on the Summum Bonum no doubt has something to do with the evident refusal of the faithful to shed their beliefs, as modernization theory used to say they should, and with their even more evident inclination to act on those beliefs: witness any number of items from the recent news, from the armed militia of God in the American Midwest to a pair of blonde "Jihad Janes" prepared to assassinate a Danish cartoonist to evangelical churches springing up across France (according to a France2 JT report) to the Belgian burqa ban (the Belgians, apparently, don't read the opinions of the French Conseil d'État).

Perhaps some kind reader will explain to me what links all these phenomena together. I am as puzzled by the analytical theologians as I am by the post-Derrideans and the Hutaree. Perhaps, at bottom, I was doomed by my mathematical training to think like Laplace, who, when asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in his theory of the cosmos, replied, "Sire, je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là." Many people do, however, and it seems that one really ought to try to understand them. I don't, however, expect to find much help in Richard Swinburne's book, even in French translation. (On the other, Mitchell Silver's book, linked to above, has been of some help.)


yabonn_fr said...

flourishing in France, or at least in that tiny colony

So it's not really flourishing in France?

I'm not sure I see how religious wackiness (as long as it's not a new type of it) could make the subject of god more interesting to philosopher.

Other potential funny culture clash moments : a french review of one of the "Darwin was right" books, of the "Explained by the pre-hominids in the savannah" book, of the Zinn books ("it's... huuuh... a history textbook?"). Libertarianism, too I suppose.

Unknown said...

My no doubt simplistic answer is that when it was possible to accept the idea that religious belief would wither away as modern, "enlightened" thought took its place, the philosophical interest in the nature of religious conviction also waned. But now that it is clear that religion and modernity are perfectly if not entirely comfortably compatible and indeed that the latter might in some sense provoke, necessitate, or stimulate the former (as compensation, antidote, repoussoir, or what have you?), philosophers are once again interested in what William James called the "varieties of religious experience" and the innumerable species of religious thought. There is also a sense in which philosophy has developed as a companion to and cloak for religion, and some philosophers have been unwilling to give this up, for reasons about which I--tone-deaf in religious matters--can only speculate, but certainly not here, in Blogger's tiny comments box.

satchmo said...

Art, I think I'm getting your point more clearly via this second remark than via the initial post.

Certainly this is a complex subject that's impossible to address adequately in a blog comment. To risk my own no doubt simplistic remarks, however, I still think an updated Weberian rationalization thesis makes general sense if one appreciates that extremist religious phenomena always proliferate in times of systemic crisis (such as the present). Such extremist movements (e.g. Jihadists, Hutaree, etc.) may emphasize religious themes, but arguably they are better understood as responses to long-term secular trends and transforations than as phenomena that are fundamentally religious in nature. Religion may not wither away, but it is certainly transformed in historical terms.

I'm not sure I can see many links between the current Vatican scandals, extremist movements, and scholarly discussions in analytic philosophy circles or in a Harvard colloquium on Derrida and Dieu. Philosophers have long struggled to relate their discipline to theistic discourses and I'm not sure whether there's anything fundamentally new here, besides perhaps (yet) another attempt to appropriate Derrida outside the terms of hermeneutic phenomenology where he seems to me best understood. Is this very different from attempts in the 19th or 20th centuries to reconcile philosophy with theism and religious institutionality, from Hegel to Jaspers, etc. Same old same old, perhaps, in this field.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment, Satchmo. Perhaps I can clarify my point further by saying that what seems strange to me is that religion still seems to have such extraordinary power to inspire "vocations," by which I mean a readiness to devote much of one's energy to a transcendent purpose, be it hermeneutic or terroristic. And this despite the fact that almost no one today sees religious thought as comprehensive in the way I imagine it used to be. And I would have thought that the power to elicit vocations was in some way related to the ability to make comprehensive sense of the world.

satchmo said...

When one talks about religion's ability to inspire vocation and to offer a comprehensive sense of things that appeals to many, my mind goes back to basic Durkheim and his formulas about the way religion transforms collective/social forces into the sacred. So that the higher reality (superior to individual forces) is the power of human collectivity transformed into the sacred, etc.

And somewhere in Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, doesn't he argue that whereas traditional societies create their gods in a states of exaltation, modern ones create theirs in response to systemic crises, etc.

Obviously an immense subject, in any case!

Anonymous said...

it may be useful to note that in France, religion is closely associated/ confused with the Church, ie the Catholic Church. whereas in the US, due its protestant heritage, religion is institutionally diffuse and invariably a phenomena whose apparent wackiness stems from its bottom-up structure.
In Catholic countries, religiosity is normally channeled within the bounds proscribed by the institution.
Even today, when someone is born again, in France, they're often said to go back to the Church whereas in the US, the born-again's mojo is his personal relationship with Jesus.

"Enthousiasme", bearing witness and ostentatious displays of holier-than-thou-ness are frowned upon by such a staid millenial institution as the Gallican Church whereas the youthful and exuberant Evangelical denominations promote such behavior both in the New World and elsewhere.

In regards to religion & philosophy in France, there again the sanction of institutions and authoritative figures is key. Its odd Moreau says that the question of God's existence has been rendered obselete. He omits Levinas, Ricoeur, Marion, etc. - the "tournant théologique de la phénoménologie française" has been debated since the early 1990s. The Revue Critique had an issue on "Dieu" (no.704-705) in 2006 - no other than Marion, Brague, Balibar and Meillassoux
contributed, to name but a few. That's a powerful line of thinkers. Worth the read, too, despite, though it's basically not intelligible for analytical philosophy.


MYOS said...

Most people I know - not philosophers - can't figure out how a country can be modern AND religious. For Ireland, it seems a remnant of times when Catholics were oppressed, but other than that... I'm also currently living in an area where Petit Père Combes chose to live and am astounded to see the difference in Vendée or thereabouts, where some townships literrally don't have any public school, your only choice is a Catholic school.

I second CP in that "religion" and "Catholic" are thought of as being synonymous (questionss I was asked more than once: "are protestants christians?" "aren't protestants kind of catholics with no pope and no statues?")
Since Boniface IV got beat up by Francis I (I think - it's been a while since that college class... Pope/French King) and thus granted some freedom to the French Catholic Church, their bishops have had some leeway, as evidenced by the one from a conservative parish who nevertheless stated that 1° the Church functioning as a monarchy, with the Pope as King, and not as a Democracy, is not a Divine Mandate - it will change, although it may take 100 years 2° celibacy was invented in the 12th century and can easily be changed 3° the first and greatest mistake by the Church was when it condemned contraception, because it forced Catholics to choose between progress and faith, and of course they chose progress.

Humans need causes to defend. Some may go to extremes to defend it/them. Some need back/white or can't think beyond. And if they're ensconced in their cause as an institution and that cause also is their sole reason to live, then we have a conflagration of catholic-church-scandal proportions.

Fact is, raping a child is not one of the seven deadly sins, is it? If the Church hasn't updated its list in 2,000 years, we may have an issue, but an easy answer too? (I don't know, seriously.)

If you like grey, anthracite and pearl, I highly recommend the film "Tete de turc".

Cartesian said...

I am not following the catholic church, but here is something very important about God:

Unknown said...

What we call philosophy--modern philosophy--never strays very far from the field (from the questions, from the procedures) of scholastic philosophy. There could be no C.S. Peirce, no pragmatism, without the work of the scholastics on signs and meaning....No Descartes without Suarez.... This is news?