Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Secular Reasons...

by Kurt Nelson

For those who missed it, you should read Stanley Fish's recent column called Are There Secular Reasons?

Though occasionally sloppy in its language and its conflation of several large issues, Fish's column, drawing from law Professor Steven Smith, describes intelligently the perils and difficulties of leaning on "the secular" as a source of reason.  His concluding line, "Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on," pretty well sums it up.

Many would rightly object, of course, that "prior metaphysical commitments" don't always lead to good results, and have occasionally stifled thoughtful progress. And there may be just a little hint of an attempt to lament the fact that Christianity is victimized by the big, mean secular world in Smith's writing.

That said, there's much of value here.  I consistently argue that the "secular" is something we ought all - religious and non-religious - strive for in our public life and our non-religious institutions.  Most positively, the "secular" is a framework wherein no specific worldview is assumed to be dominant.

The issue, I would argue, is when that "secular" frame becomes a reference for its own meaning-making.  Thus, we push aside our varied frameworks and commitments (theological or not) and assume a shared understanding of reason, rationality, freedom, knowledge, etc.  These either "smuggle in" metaphysical assumptions, as Fish says, or simply refer to a hollow shell of ideas that once were.  Opting for "detached" or "objective" understanding leaves us either, I think, with our perspectives hidden and unacknowledged, or with a shallow understanding of anything at all.  Thus, we've taken our pre-modern vision of a universal divine, and replaced it with a hyper-modern version of a quasi-divine "rationality" or "reason."  I suggest that first, no such thing exists, and second, this doesn't help us make the world any better.

I would argue, contra Smith perhaps, that there can be humanistic grounds of knowledge or understanding.  But I would argue that they take a good deal of work, and are far-from-universal.  (We can talk another time about the moniker "meta-physical.")

Rather, I suggest we need to develop a pluralist vision of social consensus on what important categories - like freedom, ethics, and goodness - mean to us collectively.  This means for religious folk, coming to honor our values, commitments and theologies alongside other religious commitments, values and theologies and alongside humanistic understanding which is considered and grounded.  It means, for non-religious folks, giving up a notion of universal reason, and instead probing our individual foundations for understanding 'the good' on our own terms.  And it means collectively drawing these all into conversation about how we use these disparate values in conversation to make our world (or institutions) a better place.  These are hard steps no doubt.  But it leaves us with a source of collective understanding which is not hollow, but multivalent.

Those who enjoy contemporary philosophy will note that this is a different vision than those set forth by anti-foundationalists.  I would argue that foundations do matter, and are worthy grounds for conversation and debate.  But I think we can no longer assume a uniform foundation, and begin seeking collective consensus on what matters to us (and why).

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