Columbia University Press
Church Times Bookshop £14.40
Where the death of God leaves faith: Two heavyweights argue this
question without convincing Hugh Rayment-Pickard
This book contains a friendly debate between two of the biggest guns in
modern philosophy: Richard Rorty, the grand old man of American Pragmatism, and
Gianni Vattimo, a post-modern philosopher much influenced by Heidegger and
The topic under discussion is the future of religion after the demise of
realist theology. The authors take it for granted that God has no objective
existence, and that what is being discussed is religion in the shadow of
Nietzsche's death of God. So what future does "Christianity" have without a
Rorty argues that religion cannot make claims to universal truth because
there is no god available to validate any universal truths. There are only the
truths we can agree upon; so the imperative for any modern society is to have
robust democratic structures that will allow mature debate about our values and
Rorty dislikes ecclesiastical organisations, seeing them as "dangerous to
the health of democratic societies". This is because, in his view, the illusion
of absolute truth legitimises authoritarian religious institutions that tend to
block enlightened progress. We don't have to agree with Rorty to see that he
has a point. Churches have, historically, stood in the path of enlightened
reforms on slavery and women. Many "enlightened" medical developments - from
condoms and the pill to heart transplants and gene therapy - have been, and
are, opposed by Christian organisations.
Having said that, Rorty approves of a shift, during the modern period, away
from the idea of God as power towards an ethic of God as love. Thus
Christianity becomes more of a "practice" than a "belief". As Rorty puts it:
the key text is no longer Paul's sermon on faith in Romans, but his poem about
love (1 Corinthians 13).
Vattimo, unlike Rorty, counts himself as a Christian, committed to living
out Jesus's commandment to love one another. He argues that God is essentially
kenotic, or self-emptying, pouring himself into the world so completely that he
no longer exists as a metaphysical reality. We are left with the task of
interpreting and governing life in the light of Jesus's teaching about charity:
"The only truth revealed by scripture . . . is the truth of love."
Interesting as this book is, its main shortcoming (which is also a
shortcoming of Rorty's and Vattimo's outlook, in general) is any satisfactory
theory of human tragedy. Love, surely, is the ultimate theological ideal, but
we are not always capable of living up to our ideals, even when we are totally
committed to them. We still need, in some sense, to be saved from ourselves,
because (going back to Romans) the good we would do, we do not do, and the evil
we would not do, we do. Any meaningful Christianity of the future must take
account of our tragic inability properly to enact the commandment to love.
This is why the locus of the Christian message is not the feel-good
sentiments in 1 Corinthians 13 - beautiful as they are - but the reality of
love crucified upon the cross.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Vicar of St Clement and St James,
Kensington, in London.
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