Reading Rorty as Theology
By Todd Shy
Ten years ago when I graduated from seminary, what peace of mind I finally managed was due in part to reading an atheist philosopher of unimpeachable regard, Richard Rorty. I owe more, I suspect, to William James and Saul Bellow, to long conversations with fellow student-skeptics, and to numerous failed attempts at writing fiction, but when I discovered Rorty in my second year of three, I swallowed him for a time, as Luther might say, feathers and all. In a new volume of interviews, Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself, Rorty describes his broader audience in terms I still recognize: “My readers are people who are looking for a way out from the view they absorbed, without much liking it, when they were young.”
Like his hero John Dewey, Rorty has flourished—not without ostracism—both inside and outside the academy. As a public intellectual, away from debates about Heidegger and Quine, Rorty has been not so much gadfly as wedge, giving purchase for stuck thinkers to budge free. Instead of converting readers to a cause, he helps overcome inertia. Philosophy, to use Rorty’s term, is therapeutic: it helps heal certain wounds and that’s pretty much all. It loosens knots that should never have been tied. America’s leading philosopher describes a lifetime of work in yeoman terms: “The reason I write philosophical books is all the other books I have read, and my reaction to those books. I react to some books and not to others.”
Modest though Rorty’s vision of philosophical influence remains, part of its task has always included addressing, and usually chiding, religious belief. Here, for example, is how he described his utopia in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989):
For in its ideal form, the culture of liberalism would be one which was enlightened, secular, through and through. It would be one in which no trace of divinity remained, either in the form of a divinized world or a divinized self. Such a culture would have no room for the notion that there are nonhuman forces to which human beings should be responsible.
In Take Care of Freedom, he notes, “The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century notion that man would never be able to let go of religion has turned out to be wrong.” Again: “I think that the development of a secularist culture is very important for social progress.” And in an interview called “On September 11, 2001,” one of four previously unpublished interviews in this new book, Rorty remains pessimistic about religion:
Whether the possibility of rearing new Martin Luther Kings is worth the risk of rearing new Jerry Falwells is a matter of risk management. To my mind, the advantage of getting rid of the Falwells is worth the risk of getting rid of the Kings. But I have no knock-down argument to bring to bear. I just suspect that the continued existence of the churches is, by and large, more of a danger than a help to the rise of a global democratic society.
The grandson of Social Gospel champion Walter Rauschenbusch, Rorty applauds part of the Christian heritage for accelerating egalitarianism, but the ovation, at best, is polite: “It’s certainly true that Christianity softened Europe up for the idea of egalitarian democracy. But I suspect the idea would have emerged eventually even if we had all worshipped Baal.”
In this light, Rorty’s dialogue with the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, published early in 2005 as The Future of Religion, is intriguing. This slim book suggests what others had already observed: a greater generosity toward religion than Rorty had shown before.1 In dialogue with Vattimo, Rorty asserts that while he remains “religiously tone deaf,” he wishes that he had never described himself as an atheist but rather as “anticlerical.” The problem with religion has been its institutional abuses. Rorty’s modified utopia can allow a respectable place for religion, but only a religion “that has been taken out of the epistemic arena, a religion that finds the question of theism versus atheism uninteresting,” a religion that “suits your solitude.” In other words, religious institutions might jam up the machinery of a liberal democracy, but religion cultivated away from the public realm can provide private bliss. And Rorty is all for private bliss. He sees nothing objectionable to your establishing meaning in your life by serving the poor or speaking in tongues (or playing video games) as long as you don’t justify your meaning in terms of some larger principle “out there.” Our ideas about God cannot resolve our differences, but our experience of God is as valid as any other experience. Rorty recognizes that many religious believers will be “reluctant to privatize religion completely by letting it swing free of the demand for universality,” but this is still a far cry from a utopia in which “no trace of divinity remained.”
Rorty’s entire conversation with religious believers hinges on this distinction between private projects and public obligations. If the distinction holds, then Rorty can serve as a kind of ally of religious belief. If the distinction fails, Rorty’s utopia fails utterly. He elaborated on his vision in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: “My ‘poeticized’ culture is one which has given up the attempt to unite one’s private ways of dealing with one’s finitude and one’s sense of obligation to other human beings.” Religious belief can inspire either or both, but Rorty asks us to give up “the attempt to hold all the sides of our life in a single vision, to redescribe them with a single vocabulary.”
Has Rorty somehow “found” religion? Clearly, not for himself. He does not make a case for religion as a desirable private project, but he does demonstrate respect for the attempt of others to do so: “People like Vattimo will cease to think that my lack of religious feeling is a sign of vulgarity, and people like me will cease to think that his possession of such feelings is a sign of cowardice.” Rorty has learned from William James not to dismiss religion as counterfeit experience, even though—like James—he finds himself unable to share the experience. His prose, however, sometimes soars in Emersonian, even homiletic, fashion:
Anything from the sound of a word through the color of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can, as Freud showed us, serve to dramatize and crystallize a human being’s sense of self-identity. For any such thing can play the role in an individual life which philosophers have thought could, or at least should, be played only by things which were universal, common to us all. . . . Any seemingly random constellation of such things can set the tone of a life. Any such constellation can set up an unconditioned commandment to whose service a life may be devoted—a commandment no less unconditional because it may be intelligible to, at most, only one person.
This imagery of constellations suggests artistic order rather than rational order. Religious visions are constellations too, Rorty acknowledges, and as such must abandon metaphysical claims in favor of something more like art.
Rorty’s public-private distinction has invited predictable controversy. In a review of Stephen Carter’s book The Culture of Disbelief, Rorty insists that religious justification be excluded from political debate because religious argument is a “conversation-stopper.” Faced with appeals to “understanding God’s will,” Rorty flashes impatience: “But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, ‘Gee! I’m impressed. You must have a really deep, sincere faith?’ ” In an exchange in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Nicholas Wolterstoff took Rorty to task for limiting discussion this way: “I, in turn, am at a loss to know why Rorty would not instead try to get inside Carter’s way of thinking for a while, so as to see whether he couldn’t get him to change his mind; and then, if he is unsuccessful at that, declare that he, Rorty, disagrees with him.” In response, Rorty declared himself “chastened” and “more cautious,” but also unmoved:
The fact that Psalm 72 belongs to a set of Scriptures claimed by various ecclesiastical organizations which I regard as politically dangerous is not a good reason to hinder Wolterstoff from citing this Psalm, any more than the fact that many people regard Mill’s utilitarianism as morally dangerous is a good reason to stop me citing On Liberty. Neither law nor custom should stop either of us from bringing our favorite texts with us into the public square.
And then this extraordinary elaboration:
So it would be nice if I could appeal to a principle which differentiated between citing Psalm 72 in favor of government-financed health insurance and citing Leviticus 18:22 in opposition to changes in the law that would make life in the U.S. more bearable for gays and lesbians. But I do not have one. I wholeheartedly believe that religious people should trim their utterances to suit my utilitarian views, and that in citing Leviticus they are, whether they know it or not, finding a vent for their own sadistic impulses. But I do not know how to make either of these propositions plausible to them. . . . There is nothing called ‘reason’ that stands above such struggles.
In The Future of Religion, Vattimo poses the question back to Rorty this way: “But what can we do when we find this spontaneous preference for a more human and democratic society lacking? Do we merely acknowledge the insurmountable conditions of belonging to different communities?” Rorty does not think philosophy (or theology) is any good at resolving this dilemma. Instead, poets and politicians must generate ideals of hope. Imagination not rationality must be the agent of change. And where Rorty sounds cavalier (“I do not have one”), he is being consistent with—and this is a strange word to use in writing about Rorty—the humility of his project. It is not that philosophers must stop arguing, but that they must limit their scope to what they are good at, which is clearing the ground of metaphysical nonsense, and helping people understand the background of new ideas.
The issue for the religious believer reading Rorty, then, is whether she can be satisfied with religion as—another Rorty term— “romance,” private project, individual bliss. The exchange with Wolterstoff shows that Rorty isn’t insisting on mysticism or Amish-style withdrawal. He insists instead that religious argument assume the posture of persuasion and that, as with artists or novelists, this vision stand without justification apart from its actual resonance. A religious visionary has impact in the public realm because his vision overlaps with other people’s needs or desires. Rorty cites Martin Luther King, Jr., as an example. That these visions can be antiliberal, fascist, demagogic, racist, or homophobic, Rorty freely admits. We have King, and we have Falwell. Rorty wishes we didn’t have Falwell. He can’t say much more than that. Here, the coolness of his cynicism can be off-putting. In his review of The Future of Religion, Paul J. Griffiths describes an “obscure sense of frustration” reading Rorty. “Some point has been missed. Rorty and Vattimo, by contrast, emerge serene. Things are easier for them.” Wolterstoff confessed he sometimes found Rorty’s tone “menacing.” Reading the 11 interviews in Take Care of Freedom, one does indeed long for more evidence of anguish, and maybe regret. Too often Rorty seems tone-deaf to tragedy.
For all his famous challenges, Rorty’s ideas continue to have relevance for religious thought in at least two important ways. First, by clearing away metaphysical debris from philosophical conversations, Rorty shows how one might clear away theological debris as well. The Christian can read Rorty and walk away irritated, but she can also gain clarity about why she believes in the first place. For the one who believes because it is True, Rorty is indeed menacing, because he thinks all claims to Truth are illusions. For one who believes because she inexplicably loves, he can be therapeutic, because, like Emerson, Rorty inspires us to revel in experience and not to suffocate it with justification.
The second way Rorty is relevant for religious believers is that he weakens traditional challenges to religion. What those of us who read him in seminary looked for, I think, was not philosophical validation of religious belief, but philosophical space to explore it. Modern science and philosophy had usurped the throne of dowager theology, but then Rorty toppled them too and declared the throne properly vacant. The ladders we all climbed to get there could be kicked away. Like political hierarchies, intellectual ones also had to go. Traditional theology, it turns out, was the handmaiden of tyrants. Rorty cleared ground in the name of maximizing freedom on which one could rebuild.
He made the hecklers pause. We all had to rebuild and redescribe our beliefs, not just the evangelicals.
The religious believer, however, cannot swallow Rorty, feathers and all, for long. His vision of self-creation is too contrary to self-abnegation, and it is hard to conceive of Christian bliss that sets aside a fundamental humility. In a 1998 interview Rorty describes the distance between older assumptions and what he considers appropriate for the present: “The difference be-tween the ancients and us consists in the fact that we—except for those attracted by Zen Buddhism—no longer aspire to tranquility, or ataraxia. What is important for us is to be able to recreate ourselves.” The Christian philosopher needs to pull tradition forward from its roots; Rorty says it suffices to begin with the French Revolution. And to believe that we have all we need from the Enlightenment forward is to make specifically Christian commitment impossible.
The 11 interviews in Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself provide an accessible overview of Rorty’s ideas. The Future of Religion and the essay on William James in Philosophy and Social Hope flesh out a more specifically religious critique. In all these texts there is grandeur—romance—tethered by a pessimism that never quite concedes despair. For the tone is optimistic, even if the message is grim: “People change their beliefs in such a way as to achieve coherence with their own beliefs, to bring their beliefs and desires into some sort of equilibrium—and that is about all there is to be said about the quest for knowledge.”
Todd Shy’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ontario Review, The Southern Review, the Saul Bellow Journal, and The Raleigh News and Observer. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.