“Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God”

by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007

When the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died a month or so ago, I decided to add some of his writing to my summer reading list. The fourth volume of his selected essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4, contains the essay “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God,” and this essay seemed like a good place for a minister like to me start reading.

If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to the question, “Does God exist?” Rorty will not only disappoint you, he will also tell you (fairly gently) that it’s a bad question. There are better questions to ask, and these better questions have to do with what Rorty calls “cultural politics.”

So what is “cultural politics”? Citing philosopher Robert Brandom, Rorty says that the social world is prior to anything else. There isn’t some larger authority out to which we can appeal to set norms for society. This in turn means that societies, and the people who live in societies, cannot make appeals to God, or Truth, or Reality that trump all other appeals or claims. Your God, or Truth, or Reality can’t be considered an ultimate norm, any more than my God or Truth or Reality. Cultural politics, says Rorty, “is the least norm-governed human activity. It is the site of generational revolt, and thus the growing point of culture.” If you want a good example of how things grow in cultural politics, think about the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Plessy vs. Ferguson on the one hand, and Brown vs. Board of Education on the other hand. Forget appeals to some transcendent Justice — we’re stuck with “the ontological priority of the social” (really a misnomer, since there is no ontology) — i.e., society, the social world, comes before anything else.

This being the case, rather than ask, “Does God exist?”, it would be better to ask, as Rorty phrases the question, “Do we want to weave one or more of the various religious traditions (with their accompanying pantheons) together with our deliberation over moral dilemmas, our deepest hopes, and our need to be rescued from despair?” Another way to make the same point is to say that, instead of having some kind of public religion ( “All U.S. citizens shall believe in the God of the Christian scriptures, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Conference”), it would be better to have only private religion that stays out of the public sphere.

To me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, all this makes good sense. I usually do not choose to play the language game that asks whether God exists or not. And, I am quite firm that the language game of whether or not God exists does not belong in the public sphere. In both instances, I agree with Rorty (at least, as far as I understand Rorty).

And like Rorty, I want to steer between two bad ideas. On the one hand, there’s the bad idea that science is a literal truth against which God’s existence (and everything else) should be measured. Rorty calls this “the bad Kantian idea that discourse about physical objects is the paradigm case about making truth claims.” On the other hand, there’s the bad idea that God represents another kind of truth that is somehow equally valid as truth about physical objects. In rejecting this bad idea, Rorty says he has “no use for what Nancy Frankenberry calls ‘the theology of symbolic forms’ — no use for the attempt (which goes back at least to Schleiermacher) to make room for God by saying that there is something like ‘symbolic truth’….” Take that, scientific positivism. Take that, Schleiermacher.

Admittedly, I often preach about approaching Biblical texts as “symbolic truth” rather than as “literal truth” — but I try to do so in a way that acknowledges that we’re not talking about different truths here, we’re talking about different language games with no neutral logical space in which there can be meaningful discourse. The phrase “metaphorical truth” for me is a signpost telling us (me and the congregation) that it’s time to play a different language game. But I am not making any claims to some “higher” truth beyond cultural politics.

And this reveals the complexities of life for a post-metaphysical minister. If I agree with Richard Rorty that private religion is OK, but public religion is not, then what is my justification for doing social action in my capacity as a religious person? Honestly, I have to say that I don’t see much use in doing social justice work in my capacity as a religious person — religious communities are terribly inefficient providers of social services and of social justice, and furthermore religions have as often as not been on the wrong side of big social questions like abolition, Black Power, and the Holocaust.

Rorty finds some justification for people to do religion privately, if religious language games have some meaning for them. But if Rorty found out that I was someone who had little use for language games about God, and less use for prayer, he would probably ask me why I was involved in religion at all. I don’t think he would be satisfied with my first answer, which is that a church as a voluntary association provides a “space” within mass democracy for me to speak and act in democratic ways. He might ask why another kind of voluntary association — a fraternal organization, say — wouldn’t do just as well. But I don’t want a fraternal organization, in no small part because I’m a feminist. And most voluntary associations, including many churches and religious groups, wouldn’t satisfy me because most voluntary associations exclude certain groups of people.

But certain churches (including, I hope, mine) and certain other religious groups hold as their organizing ideal something about including all persons (at least as an ideal) unified under the power of love. Now talking about the unifying power of love is also a kind of language game, but it is a language game that I think has a role in the public sphere. Language games about God belong in the private sphere — language games about the unifying power of love are worth bringing to the realm of cultural politics, worth making the subject, perhaps, of the next generational revolt, or at least a matter of cultural growth.

3 thoughts on ““Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God”

  1. hafidha sofia

    Ha! Good old pragmatists …. And when you wrote “I don’t think he would be satisfied with my first answer” did you mean first as in “first of several/many” or did you mean first as in “immediate?” I just want to make sure I didn’t miss any additional arguments. Thanks for taking the time to summarize and discuss.

  2. Comrade Kevin

    I consider myself a theist because events have transpired in my life than cannot be explained by any rational means.

    My concept of God is extremely personal and existential. It has evolved over the course of my life and I see it as being in a constant state of flux. I see God as being far too complex to be encapsulated within any sort of concrete precept or teaching. I do not discount my prior conceptions of God as any less or more valid. As I change and evolve, so does God. I take God to be so multi-faceted that it’s not as though I was ever wrong at any one point in my life. It’s not as though I was ever more right at any point, either.

    Periodically I receive signs from God which I interpret to mean that I am on the right path in my life. These signs are subliminal. I see no burning bush. I don’t hear voices. I don’t see the face of the Virgin Mary. I can’t discern it with any of my five senses, yet I do not doubt its veracity.

    It’s impossible to fully explain and if someone asked me to prove it I would be unable to do so. Mere words alone cannot define the feeling of being connected to my higher power.

    Robert Fulgum, in one of his books, talks about a similar experience to mine that he experienced in (of all places) a grocery store in Idaho.

    I conclude this comment the same way he concluded the essay in question: Don’t worry if this has happened to you. Worry if it hasn’t.

  3. Administrator

    hafidha sofia — Rorty said once something to the effect that his definition of religion is whatever his friends let him get away with (a slightly more refined version of the definition that goes, “Religion is what I point to when I say the word ‘religion’.”). In other words, such definitions are subject to ongoing conversation, argument, and discussion — both with friends and with more distant conversation partners. So I meant both first-as-in-immediate, and first-of-several.

    Comrade Kevin — I, too, am a theist due to a number of transcendental experiences. But I’d have to disagree with your closing comment. Like Max Weber, I belief some people are “religiously unmusical” (or as Rorty wittily puts it, “religious tonedeaf”). That’s something to live with, true, but all of us are differently abled to some degree — however, I wouldn’t say it’s something to worry about.

    Additionally, making sense of transcendental experiences has to happen in a social context. As soon as you try to put your experience into words — or into action — you are engaging in a social act. If you don’t put your transcendental experience into words or into action, then for all practical purposes it has little more impact than a fleeting dream that you forget upon awakening. Once you put it into words, however vaguely, then you are using categories from your cultural context. And then you have to start thinking about the extent to which you wish to engage the rest of society with your experiences.

    So here’s how I think about it. Some people have one transcendent experience, and then they want to impose their interpretation of this experience on everyone else around them — this can be somewhat pathological. And then there is another extreme are those who adamantly refuse to believe that there is any possibility of meaningful transcendent experiences, and they want to impose this perception on everyone else around them — this too can be somewhat pathological. Most of us want to engage in more moderate forms of discourse, with some give and take — we don’t give up the authenticity of our direct epxerience, but at the same time we’re going to admit that others have equally valid experiences of their own, including perhaps no experience at all — and that means we’re not going to worry if we don’t have someone else’s experience.

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