"no harm, no foul"
Monday, August 25, 2003
MORAL REASONS, AND RELIGIOUS REASONS: A few places in his recent (I should say, recently translated) book, “The Future of Human Nature,’ Jurgen Habermas tries in various ways to translate certain religious claims into moral ones – or more generally, give a secular gloss to some religious terms. This isn’t just an idle exercise: certainly, one wants to say that the great religious of the world were on to something, even if we can’t accept that “something” in the form in which they present it. Moreover, and perhaps a bit cynically, it is undeniable that religious language has great rhetorical force – and if we can preserve that force, while at the same time giving those (religious) claims a more acceptable grounding to us secularists, so much the better.

The locus classicus of this type of “translation” perhaps comes from Kant, who said that we could think of the moral law as also and at the same time a set of “divine commands”; a gloss which suggests that the true content of divine commands was, all along, the moral law. He also suggests, in the Groundwork, that Jesus was the Holy One, precisely because he lived up to the imperatives of the moral law. A little after Kant, Feurbach was to do this type of translating in spades, by suggesting that all references to God are really just tacit references to human powers, or human wishes and hopes.

The passage in Kant’s Groundwork shows the trouble of this type of translation, however. Kant writes that even Jesus himself had to check with what the moral law said (going through the universalizability tests, for instance) before he acted rightly. So the authority of Jesus qua moral teacher is only the authority of Jesus qua follower of the moral law. Kant also writes, in his Religion with the Bounds of Mere Reason, that we can’t possibly think that the command of God to Abraham to kill his son was really a command from God – God would never command a thing so contrary to the moral law.

But saying things like this just begs the question of whether religion is itself an independent source of claims, that Jesus, for example, is himself the source of what we ought to do, rather than just a personification (the most perfect one, to be sure) of the Moral Law. More specifically, moral translations of religious claims ignore the possibility that their might be specifically religious goods which will sometimes conflict with the realization of moral goods – and to say that they can’t, that we have to dismiss religious claims that conflict with moral ones really just assumes away the possibility of those religious goods.

I used to think that giving moral readings of religious texts was a way to preserve religion (and perhaps paying it a sort of compliment) by getting at its essence or its moral core and so enabling it to survive in a “postreligious” climate. I thought, to use Hegel’s word, that we could “aufgehoben” religion – canceling it in one sense, keeping it and perhaps raising it to a higher level in another sense. But now I think this can’t be done, because by translating religion this way we are in fact eliminating it, by getting rid of the possibility that religious claims might have their own, independent source, and that they might be tied to their own specific set of goods. It is not a way of complimenting religion, but instead constitutes a sort of condescension – by claiming to know what religion was “really” all about in the first place, while at the same time denying religion any sort of independent validity.

I’m tempted to say that if we think religion has no validity, we should just say it. And we should say that although certain religious myths may have a moral meaning, that meaning has to be separated from the stories that surround it, and put on a different footing. “Translating” does nobody any good – it insults those who are genuinely religious (and so believe the myths to be much more than myths), and it intimates that perhaps there is no independent ground for our moral claims apart from the religious contexts in which those claims are found and gain a lot of their resonance. At least, this is what I’m tempted to say.

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