The Future of Religion: Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo

02 November 2006


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 Derrida.

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 deity?

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 ideals.

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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