Tag Archives: Richard Rorty

Appreciations of Richard Rorty

Philosopher Richard Rorty died on June 8.

Jurgen Habermas writes an appreciation of Richard Rorty: Link. Not much of substance, but a nice appreciation by the man who is now arguably the greatest living philosopher.

Daniel Dennett’s appreciation is here — scroll down half way to find it. Dennett said that a difference between Rorty and himself was that he wanted the approbation of scientists, while Rorty wanted the approbation of poets.

“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. Continue reading

Teaching kids how to be religious

The very title of this little essay is an absurdity. You don’t teach kids how to be religious, because they already are religious. At least they’re more or less religious, depending on their personalities:– some of them are already quite advanced religiously by the time they’re seven, while others (as the philosopher Richard Rorty admits of himself) are “religiously tone-deaf.”

Absurdity though it may be, I’m forced to talk about how to teach kids to be religious because my denomination, and much of institutionalized religion generally, believes that that’s what you do. My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a department called “Lifespan Faith Development.” They want to “develop” kids, just like real estate developers “develop” old farms or woodlots or deserts into housing developments and shopping malls, because houses and malls are the “highest and best use” of the land.

“Lifespan Faith Development” has another fatal flaw:– it uses the term “faith development” as an integral part of its name. “Faith development” was conjured up by James Fowler, and still has a following amongst older male psychologists who began their careers when Fowler first published his book and who still try to do research on how faith develops, psychologically speaking. Problem is, Fowler never adequately defined what he meant by “faith.” To make matters worse, his model posits a highest stage of faith development for which his research found only one representative person; hardly an adequate sample size on which to base an adequate theory.

Still worse, Fowler basically reduces “faith development” to cognitive (and maybe affective) development, ignoring such things as the transcendental experiences which burst in on you unannounced changing you forever in a discontinuous fashion that has nothing to do with his orderly linear “faith development”; ignoring such things as certain slow dragging years of no transcendence which can suck all religion out of you if you’re not careful. But if you really want to know about why faith development doesn’t work, you can read Gabriel Moran’s essays on the topic.

Worst of all, I believe the term “lifespan faith development” allows us to delegate teaching kids to someone else in our religious communities. “Lifespan faith development” implies that you have to know some arcane theories about “faith development” in order to teach kids. “Lifespan faith development” means you should rely on the experts to set up scientific programs for teaching kids. That term allows us to abdicate our responsibility to our children.

Yet it is you and I, not some expert, who teach children how to be religious. And we do teach children how to be religious, regardless of the theory we espouse. Or rather, we don’t teach them how to be religious, we teach them how to handle the religion they already have. We do that in a way that flies in the face of typical Western understandings of the psychological underpinnings of religion, and persons, and faith.

To be continued…