The Consensual God
On the 80th Birthday of Jürgen Habermas
Without doubt, human beings live alone on the Earth. People may hope that life continues elsewhere after they pass away, but that is by no means certain. So what counts is to concentrate first on what is close at hand, on the here and now. All the rest of it, the transcendental things, can confidently be thrown overboard.
But can one really do that? In his speech accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in autumn 2001, just after the September 11th attacks, Jürgen Habermas kept his distance from all-too self-assertive secularism. Of course secularism was and is a success story. It helped to tame religions and curtailed claims that went too far, predominantly claims to political power. When popes and cardinals and all the well-armed troops behind them do not control what is thought, written, and researched across the land, thinking, writing and research are immensely better off. Pious ways of thinking, which are unfortunately all too often close to being tyrannical, no longer restrict the intellect, and what these intellects develop has long constituted the greatness of Europe. That was called enlightenment, modernity, progress. And for a long time people could be proud of these achievements.
That is, until the moment when it became apparent that the ‘post-metaphysical, disarmed world’ was once again re-arming in its fashion. That was the lesson people had to learn in the twentieth century, the era of great doctrines of salvation whose transformation into totalitarian systems was described by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer after the end of World War Two as the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’. From that time onwards one thing was certain: an enlightenment that is unenlightened with regard to itself is a monstrosity. In its National Socialist and Soviet variants, enlightenment turned into the most murderous and criminal systems the world had ever seen. The path to salvation led directly to the Nazi concentration camps and Communist gulags.
Habermas, born in 1929, witnessed those horrors. They shaped his entire thinking – and not just his but the thinking of his entire generation: Ralf Dahrendorf and Walter Jens, Martin Walser, Günter Grass, and Siegfried Lenz. They and many others processed, each in his or her own way, the dramas of these doctrines of salvation that failed so monstrously. If there was one good thing to be said about such doctrines, it is that they taught Western rationality not to believe too recklessly its own insinuations.
So how can rationality be politically tamed? Or rather, how can arguments be prevented from being assured of success and, beyond that, hardening into ideologies? Habermas explored such questions and the answers he provided supplied philosophical variants of the democratic self-discovery Germany adopted as its programme in the decades after the Fall. Habermas elevated the principle of ‘checks and balances’ into the noblest fundament of discursive order in modern societies: everything – almost everything – can be asserted and demanded, but it must be open to criticism and objections, must be accessible to public scrutiny. Everything is possible – but only after everyone has been heard.
Citizens were no longer to be subject to directives from above. Instead they themselves were expected to intervene publicly, to formulate points of view, and to allow these to become part of far-reaching discussion, leading ultimately to compromise. That procedure was known as ‘consensual’, and it expressed – and still does – the Federal Republic’s comprehension of itself. One might almost have thought that consensualism had become the country’s new religion.
So it was all the more painful when, at some stage, people became aware that the old religion of belief in a single God was scarcely of significance in Germany any longer. God had abandoned Europe, and the terrors of human dictatorship had not been enough to bring about His return. This was primarily felt by Christians (the Jews, after all, had all been killed), whose voices were less and less often to be heard in a culture of consensual disputation. Habermas, who adopted a phrase of Max Weber’s in describing himself as being ‘unmusical in religious matters’, was very late in noticing that these voices might be absent. He only voiced this thought in autumn 2001, i.e. after 9/11, at the ceremony where he was awarded the aforementioned Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.In his acceptance speech Habermas linked two themes: horror over the attacks, and concern about the consequences of the trivialisation of culture in an age of media expansion, initiated principally by the introduction of private television. The disputation culture of earlier years had declined into endless mawkish sentimentality and disinhibited self-preoccupation. In such a situation – thought Habermas – the time had come to recall the existence of other, and more weighty, subject matter. In his opinion, the most elevated themes, including that of moral sensitivity, could best be articulated with what remained of religious language. A largely secularly-oriented society was thus also dependent on its religious inheritance: ‘Non-destructive secularisation takes place by way of transformation.’
In that speech and in what he wrote during the years that followed, Habermas interpreted the decline of religion as a loss of valuable traditions – particularly in terms of the so-called clash of civilisations, which can be less agitatedly termed an ambiguous relationship mainly between West and East, Occident and Orient. He essentially sees such animosities as deriving from the West being the great beneficiary of modernity, above all of its political and material advantages. The Orient he views as being engaged in a long march which has not as yet led to any satisfactory destination. Poverty, authoritarian rule, and a level of education that is frequently low to the point of illiteracy: any people driven as harshly through modern times as the countries of the Arab world can scarcely be anything but disappointed. This disappointment may turn into rage over the self-satisfaction the West demonstrates with regard to the rest of the world, which appears with ‘the provocatively trivialising irresistibility of a martially levelling consumerist culture’, and in ‘a form divested of standards’. The West will lack credibility ‘so long as its concern for human rights amounts to little more than the export of market freedoms, and so long as at home it fails to restrain a neo-conservative division of labour between religious fundamentalism and erosive secularisation’. It is understandable why Habermas also mourns religion, the world’s largest manufacturer of meaning, from a sober and secular perspective. People are not only made happy by the world of things. The world of words is also important – honest words above all.
However, the question remains: are religions per se a guarantee of honesty? Can assertions be trusted just because they were made in circumstances viewed as transcendental? Quite obviously not. The history of a criminal Christianity has already been written, and the other religions are next in line. Religions easily risk appearing indoctrinating and absolutist. That is a problem for modern societies, including contemporary global society, whose task entails bringing about reconciliation between competing ideologies and faiths so that they may compete on a religious but not on a political level. This is not inconceivable since ‘different values do not exclude one another, unlike different truths’. Religious competition based on words and no longer on weapons would ultimately benefit religions themselves. Where tension is absent they have a greater chance of devoting themselves to their true concerns, i.e. the issues involved in an appropriate way of life: in other words, unrestricted cultivation of tradition, which Habermas believes to be the only possibility of reconciling tradition and modernity. After all, initiatives for new interpretation of old texts and critical re-evaluation of existing convictions only come about when religions no longer have to defend themselves against external pressures or fear for their existence – and thus do not become entrenched, either inwardly or outwardly.
Nevertheless, re-evaluation or revision does not mean throwing tradition overboard. A secular state based on the rule of law does not want that either, a post-secular one even less so – a state, that is, which refrains from turning its neutral world-view into a demand for secularism or atheism. Such a state would itself become doctrinaire and ideological: ‘Granting equal ethical liberties demands secularisation of state power but forbids excessive political generalisation of a secularised view of the world.’
Even today the dialectic of enlightenment is still getting up to its tricks – and it probably always will. How might they be brought under a degree of control? Probably only through debate on a global level, a debate in which the participants all have equal voting rights. And in the process, almost incidentally, something else would become apparent: the beauty of thinking in all its regional variations, in the brainwaves from all points of the compass, not least in the ideas contributed by both Orient and Occident.
is a Cologne-based cultural journalist.
Translated by Tim Nevill
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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