Making Religious Practices Intelligible in the Public Sphere: A Pragmatist Evaluation of Scriptural Reasoning

Brad Elliott Stone
Loyola Marymount University

In this essay, I will determine what I consider to be the requirements for the use of religion in the public sphere. For the sake of my argument, I will treat “religion” and “the public sphere” as primitive terms without feeling the need to define them in any technical way. I shall assume that anyone interested in this issue already holds certain views of what religion is and whether or not it has any value—moral, spiritual, social, etc. Similarly, I will not present a taxonomy of the myriad of positions concerning what constitutes a “public sphere” nor try to offer a topology of where such spheres exist. I am only interested in how religion, however one conceives of it, should interact with whatever one conceives of as “the public sphere.”

I hold, in accordance to my commitments to prophetic pragmatism, that religion indeed is permissible for use in the public sphere. I also hold, in accordance to my commitments to liberal irony, that religion in the public sphere must never trump anything else contained in the public sphere. Scriptural reasoning, one of the newest strands of post-liberal theology, presents itself as a model for how religion can be used in the public sphere. Although I am sympathetic with the notion of friendship and dialogue that it encourages, I wonder whether it can withstand the demands of the liberal ironist that it hold its religious views with sufficient contingency.

This essay proceeds in four sections. In the first section, I address Richard Rorty’s criticism of religion in the public sphere and Roger Trigg’s response to Rorty’s criticism. I will argue that the public sphere should be free of conversation-stoppers, but that religion need not be a conversation-stopper. Section two addresses Jürgen Habermas’ most recent proposal for how to incorporate religion into the public sphere. In section three, I will explicate Nicholas Adams’ critique of Habermas and his suggestion that scriptural reasoning provides a model for public religious reasoning. In Section four, I will argue that a commitment to prophetic pragmatism bolsters the case for scriptural reasoning in light of the use of scriptural intelligence in African-American communities. However, I will also express reservations with scriptural reasoning in light of my additional commitment to liberal irony. I will point out how scriptural reasoning is permissible if it is willing to accept such commitment but fails if it does not.

Religion: Public or Private?

Is religion a public or private affair? In this section, I will discuss Richard Rorty’s claim that religion is a “conversation-stopper” and should be a matter of private self-perfection. Against Rorty, I present Roger Trigg’s claim that those who seek to privatize religion do so only on account of their own private—and often atheist—reasons. Agreeing with Trigg, I will argue that, although religion has often been a conversation-stopper, it is not necessary that religion be a conversation-stopper. Agreeing with Rorty, I will also argue that religion must be respectful of the rules of public discourse if it wants to have a role in the public sphere.

Rorty considers religion to be a “conversation-stopper.” In his essay “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper,” written in response to Stephen L. Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief, Rorty argues for a clear separation of religion and public discourse. Contra Carter, Rorty claims that religion is far from being suppressed and trivialized; in fact, there is still too much religious presumption in American liberal society. In fact, if anything is suppressed in the public sphere, it is atheist discourse, not religious discourse. Rorty’s words here are very telling:

We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson’s compromise [the separation of church and state], think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience—a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive. [1]

Rorty’s claim is that religious argument is far from absent in the public sphere. What is truly absent is the atheist voice, which always has to pretend to be religious (or, at least, spiritual) in order to be seen as significant. The truly “religiously oppressed” in American politics are those who are not religious at all; the alleged “religious oppression” is simply a move of the will to power. The problem is not that religious voices are not at the table, but that the religious voices at the table prohibit other voices; in short, religion is a conversation-stopper because it prevents nonreligious voices from having any significance.

It is important to note that Rorty does not believe that religious belief lacks significance. To use the title of Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary, religion for Rorty is not “religulous.” [2] Religion has a value for those who are religious. Rorty claims only to make a distinction about what is private and what is public, and that this distinction is not a distinction about what is important and what is trivial. Rorty writes that “the premise that the nonpolitical is always trivial…seems false. Our family or love lives are private, nonpolitical and nontrivial. The poems we atheists write, like the prayers our religious friends raise, are private, nonpolitical, and nontrivial.” [3] Poems and prayers, relatives and lovers—these are private and therefore nonpolitical; however, it would be erroneous to consider them as trivial. That something is important to someone does not mean that it is therefore politically relevant. Once again, Rorty accuses religious people of presupposing that the theist’s private life has a relevance that the atheist’s private life does not: “Carter seems to think that religious believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs…Carter would still need to tell us why a speaker’s depth of spirituality is more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair colour.” [4] Why do religious people want their religious beliefs to somehow “count more” than nonreligious beliefs? If religious people continue with this desire to have their beliefs count more, it is easy to see how religion becomes a conversation-stopper: the religious trumps the nonreligious, so why speak at all?

Rorty cuts to the heart of the matter by writing that Carter “wants us atheists to stop screaming ‘keep religion out of politics!’ when clergy say that abortion is against God’s will while nodding approvingly when they say that gaybashing is.” [5] It seems that sometimes atheists agree with the theists’ use of religion if it is in accordance with atheist views (e.g. gaybashing is wrong) yet often criticize the exact same religious sensibility when the religious hold a view different than those of an atheist (e.g. abortion is wrong). It perhaps seems as if religion is only tolerable when it accords with beliefs that even a secularist would hold and forbidden any other time. Rorty is aware that this might disturb religious people, who sometimes feel as if their religiosity must “fit” the secular agenda in order to be heard. Rorty is sensitive to the fact that people can agree on a claim without sharing the same motives. Rorty writes that for a given “religious” argument,

I may accept those same premises for purely secular reasons—for example, reasons having to do with maximizing human happiness. Does that make my argument a non-religious one? Even if it is exactly the argument made by my religious fellow citizen? Surely the fact that one of us gets his premises in church and the other in the library is, and should be, of no interest to our audience in the public square. The arguments that take place there, political arguments, are best thought of as neither religious nor nonreligious. [6]

In the public sphere, Rorty claims, arguments should be made without reference to one’s private motives for holding a given belief. Rorty grants that religion will influence religious people’s beliefs and opinions; what he does not grant is that religion therefore gives religious people’s beliefs and opinions more credence. Likewise, nonreligious arguments are not to gain power simply by virtue of not being religious arguments: “The claim that in doing so [using secular arguments] we are appealing to reason, whereas the religious are being irrational, is hokum.” [7] This leaves the question: is there ever a situation in which one’s religious rationale is publicly relevant?

Roger Trigg would agree with Rorty that it is wrong to immediately assume that secular arguments are somehow equal to “reason” while religion is “irrational.” In his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?, Trigg discusses what he perceives to be a preference for science in the public sphere over religion. He asks: “What is it about science which makes it acceptable in the public sphere, and about religion which does not?” [8] He explores several possible answers to this question. First, it is often claimed that science has a methodological way of resolving disputes while different religious factions are doomed to always talk past each other. In light of this claim, religion “can be made to appear…as a menace to the establishment of a shared rationality.” [9] But is there such a shared rationality in science? Trigg points out that science is full of disagreeing factions, and scientific method does not resolve some scientific disagreements:

Scientific knowledge is at best partial, and must be open to challenge and revision. This normally takes place within an agreed framework of observation and experiment, but at the frontiers of science, such as in cosmology, the framework begins to break down…Science itself breeds radical disagreements, which threaten to transcend the settled procedures of established science. [10]

Another possible answer is that science deals with facts while religion is about values. Scientific method can allegedly resolve questions of fact but there is no way for it to resolve questions of value. The fact/value dichotomy, Trigg contends, is what is really at the heart of the public/private distinction. Trigg implicates Rorty here, showing that Rorty holds the public/private distinction in spite of Rorty’s own criticisms of the fact/value dichotomy. Rorty, Trigg claims, still views scientific method—now under the guise of “democratic agreement”—as the arbiter of what constitutes the public sphere; in so doing, “[w]e are thus back with the idea that science has an agreed framework for discussion and settling disputes, while religion does not.” [11] Trigg correctly points out that the fact/value dichotomy hinges on a value, not a fact: the fact/value dichotomy only works if one gives empirical, “objective” facts a higher value than non-empirical, “subjective” beliefs. This is a presupposition that does not have to be true. But how can one challenge it if discussion of values is off limits?

Another possibility has to do with cultural pluralism. In the worry not to offend or force beliefs onto people, society finds religious beliefs more dangerous than scientific ones. This fear of religion is not unfounded; history presents case after case of religion-caused oppression. To prevent the possibility of a theocracy taking over our democracy, the “founding fathers” stated that the United States would not be tied to any particular religion. Trigg agrees with this insight, but reminds readers that science can be equally oppressive if it gets the final say on things. Trigg writes that “[t]he mindless imposition of religious orthodoxy may well be self-defeating, just as an imposition of scientific views goes against the very spirit of critical inquiry which should form the basis of science.” [12] By not wanting to offend, we often cover up differences of opinion, forcing anything that would challenge anyone’s view to be off limits. This false sense of universalism and “common ground” has negative consequences: “Insisting that disagreements are kept private, out of the public sphere, is to invite dishonesty. It encourages people to advocate policies for reasons that may not be their real reasons…We all have different understandings and commitments, but that does not mean that public reasoning cannot take account of them.” [13] Pluralism, not religion, seems here to be the conversation-stopper. To reopen conversation, we must get use to the fact that there will be agreements and disagreements. This does not mean that we will “agree to disagree,” which simply invites relativism, but rather that we will agree that we will agree and also disagree.

This is how religion can be used in the public sphere according to Trigg. Given the disagreements about religion and whether religion has a role in the public sphere, there is a real need for a discussion—in the public sphere—of the role of religion in the public sphere. Any opposition to such a discussion reveals a presupposition that cannot be automatically be placed onto the public sphere. Trigg writes that “[o]nly if religious views are not regarded as being rationally held in the first place, could discussion be inappropriate. This is a convenient position for those who wish to marginalize religion.” [14] To forbid religious views without having a public discussion about such views would be a violation of the very public sphere those who are against the use of religion in the public sphere are trying to defend. Trigg warns that such an attitude “prejudges democratic debate before it has even begun…The enemy of rational discussion is a misplaced certainty, and the arrogance which can arise from it. That is not the sole province of fundamentalist religion.” [15] Secularism, scientism, and relativism can equally be conversation-stoppers. In order to have a conversation, everyone has to be invited to the table, especially when the topic of discussion is who should be invited to the table.

So, in conclusion of this section, it must be said that the ideal situation involves everyone being at the table. Both Rorty and Trigg argue that there should be no conversation-stoppers, but Rorty seems limited in his view of what could be a conversation-stopper. As I will show in a later section, there is nothing in Rorty’s position that requires such limitation. However, as Trigg points out, Rorty has a private motive for limiting the role of religion in the public sphere: his atheism and his feeling excluded from the conversation due to being an atheist. Rorty’s private motive is not trivial; religion has often been a conversation-stopper. However, there is nothing in religion that requires that it be a conversation-stopper. The ideal public sphere is one in which no particular discourse—be it religion, science, or anything else—trumps other discourses. This is done not in order for relativism to reign, but in order to provide a space where everyone can agree and disagree in accordance to everyone’s own convictions. It is the fear of disagreement that keeps people from wanting multiple voices at the table.

Habermas’ Blueprint for Religion in the Public Sphere

Perhaps no other philosopher has devoted so many pages to how to keep everyone at the table than Jürgen Habermas. Habermas’ rules for a discourse ethics lays down the ground rules that, when followed, should allow everyone to be heard. Habermas presents three levels of rules: the logical level, the dialectical level, and the rhetorical level. At the logical level,

  • (1.1) No speaker may contradict himself.
  • (1.2) Every speaker who applies predicate F to object A must be prepared to apply F to all other objects resembling A in all relevant aspects.
  • (1.3) Different speakers may not use the same expression with different meanings. [16]

In other words, no speaker is allowed to logically prevent true argumentation from taking place. One must take a position (avoid contradiction and “waffling”) and be consistent in the use of language. Rule 1.3 is important, since many disagreements are actually not disagreements but “talking past each other.” If different speakers use the same expression with different meanings, those different meanings have to be presented as such so as not to mislead anyone.

At the dialectical level, one must understand that the point of argument is to (hopefully) arrive at truth. Therefore, one must be honest about their positions and disagreements:

  • (2.1) Every speaker may assert only what he really believes.
  • (2.2) A person who disputes a proposition or norm not under discussion must provide a reason for wanting to do so. [17]

One must not be arguing simply “for the sake of argument.” Note also that there is no room for one to play advocatus diaboli. The goal is truth, not entertainment. By expressing only what one believes and by giving reasons for changes of topic, the interlocutor is forced into honest inquiry, the goals of which is often independent of the political or personal goals of the conversant.

Finally, at the rhetorical level,

  • (3.1) Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
  • (3.2) a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.
    • b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.
    • c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.
  • (3.3) No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (3.1) and (3.2). [18]

No one is to be prevented from the conversation if the interlocutor is “competent to speak and act.” If the interlocutor is deemed competent, she is allowed to participate fully by questioning, asserting, and expressing herself (of course, she must also allow everyone else deemed competent to do the same things).

Habermas calls these rules the rules of an ideal speech situation. If full and honest participation by everyone is the goal of public discourse, Habermas argues, then “these rules of discourse are not mere conventions ; rather, they are inescapable presuppositions.” [19] These presuppositions must be already held in order for true dialogue to take place. So what keeps true dialogue from taking place between religious and nonreligious discussants? I suspect that many nonreligious people question whether religious people have good reasons (Rule 2.2) for introducing their perspective into the conversation. Equally problematic is the fact that religious people might not be deemed competent to speak in the public sphere (Rule 3.1). Rorty claims that atheists are excluded from the table, violating Rule 3.3. Trigg argues that religious arguments are often deemed irrational, which keeps religious arguments from being good reasons (violating Rule 2.2). Also at issue is the language issue expressed in Rule 1.3. How does one translate religious language into public language (and vice-versa)?

In Between Naturalism and Religion, Habermas specifically addresses what would have to take place for religion to be allowed its rightful place in public discourse. For Habermas, religious arguments can be presented in the public sphere if and only if they do not expect special treatment qua religious. Against Rawls and Audi, Habermas does not claim that religious people must be able to come up with secular formulations for their religiously-held beliefs. That would require the religious person at the table to be dishonest about their own beliefs, violating Rule 2.1. Since the state does not deem religion as irrational, the public sphere cannot therefore be closed off for some “secular” goal; in other words, religious people “should therefore also be allowed to express and justify their convictions in a religious language even when they cannot find secular ‘translations’ for them.” [20] For Habermas, religious people can express their attitudes, desires, and needs in religious language without being immediately judged as incompetent for not being able to provide a secular reason.

Although this satisfies Trigg’s hope that religion can continue to be present in the public sphere, Habermas puts in one small proviso: once the religious person has expressed themselves in religious terms, someone else will have to “translate” the argument into nonreligious terms. So, although the speaker does not have to “translate” and be untrue to herself, the public sphere would still need a “translation” into secular language. Habermas believes that such a translation is possible, and that, in an ideal speech situation, secular interlocutors will make an honest effort to do such a translation instead of instantly dismissing the claim due to its religious semantics. Habermas writes that

this requirement of translation must be conceived as a cooperative task in which the nonreligious citizens must likewise participate if their religious fellow-citizens, who are ready and willing to participate, are not to be burdened in an asymmetrical way…secular citizens must open their minds to the possible truth content of those presentations and enter into dialogues from which religious reasons might well emerge in the transformed guise of generally accessible arguments. [21]

It would be unfair to demand that religious citizens divorce their public rhetoric from their private convictions when such a demand is not placed on nonreligious citizens; in this regard, Habermas agrees with Trigg that such a demand favors the secularist, whose private convictions are closer to the public rhetoric. Like Rorty, however, Habermas holds that religious arguments in the public sphere require translation, and that a secular argument that captures a religious one adequately is preferable to one that makes religious claims as part of a recommendation of action. If a religious claim is made, and no translation is available, it becomes a conversation-stopper insofar as it keeps those outside of that given religion from questioning, asserting, or expressing. The threat is that conversation will cease and “talking past each other” will begin.

So what should religious people do? Befriend secular interpreters? Habermas asks religious people to “develop an epistemic stance” that will allow religious arguments to be better-suited for the public sphere. What is odd for Habermas is that religious people seem to not understand why an exclusively religious view would not be ideal in a public discussion. Therefore, if religious people thought about what is required for the public sphere more, there would be a better way of presenting one’s religious arguments. Habermas writes:

Religious citizens must develop an epistemic stance toward other religions and worldviews that they encounter within a universe of discourse hitherto occupied only by their own religion…Furthermore, religious citizens must develop an epistemic stance toward the internal logic of secular knowledge and toward the institutionalized monopoly on knowledge on modern scientific experts…Finally, religious citizens must develop an epistemic stance toward the priority that secular reasons also enjoy in the political arena. [22]

Religious people must first of all deal with the plurality of religions and worldviews. For example, in the United States, it used to be that Christian arguments would be the only religious arguments made, but that is no longer the case. If two people give religious reasons against each other, and no secular translation is available, the conversation is stopped. Allowing religious arguments includes allowing all religious arguments, even when those arguments disagree with mainstream Christianity, for example. Second, religious people cannot be naïve about the role of science and secularization in the modern world. As long as religion is aloof from modernity, it will be no surprise that nonreligious people will consider religions “archaic relics of pre-modern societies persisting into the present.” [23] Religion has to become something “contemporary” with other worldviews if it wants to be “up to speed” with the public conversation.

The nonreligious people also have an epistemic task. Habermas proposes that the secular world avoid the trap of naturalistic reductionism that causes one to exclude religious arguments outright:

The secular counterpoint to reflexive religious consciousness is an agnostic, but nonreductionist form of postmetaphysical thinking. It refrains, on the one hand, from passing judgment on religious truths, while insisting (in a nonpolemical fashion) on making a strict demarcation between faith and knowledge. On the other hand, it rejects a scientistically truncated conception of reason and the exclusion of religious doctrines from the genealogy of reason. [24]

The nonreligious discussant must make sure that they are not so epistemically limited that they will immediately judge religious arguments as irrational and as signs of epistemic incompetence. Instead, Habermas proposes post-metaphysical thinking, a thinking that eliminates reductive forms of certainty about “reality” (if there is such a thing). Metaphysical thinking is the true conversation-stopper. Religious metaphysicians assert that their religion’s explanation of the universe is the certain truth, and secular physicalists argue that the empirico-logico-scientific explanations of the university are certain truths. Habermas seeks to avoid both, calling on everyone more fully to embrace the promises made by the Enlightenment that religion would no longer force itself onto human freedom, but also that science would never fully determine the abilities of human beings. There are several similarities between post-metaphysical thinking and what Rorty calls liberal irony. I will return to this in the final section.

Adams’ Critique of Habermas

Habermas is willing to have religion in the public sphere with the proviso that it be “translated” (though not necessarily by the religious person) into secular discourse. This proviso is stated in light of Habermas’ post-metaphysical commitments. In this section, I explicate Nicholas Adams’ critique of those commitments, found in his book Habermas and Theology. In this book, Adams refutes the assumption that religious thinking is per se metaphysical thinking. Further, Adams proposes an alternative to Habermas’ theory of communicative action: the practice of scriptural reasoning.

According to Adams, Habermas “associates religious thinking with ‘metaphysical thinking’…the kind of philosophy that strives to acquire a God’s-eye view.” [25] Rejecting such thinking, Habermas limits religion’s ability to enter into his post-metaphysical model. Adams disagrees with Habermas’ assessment of religion: “The identification of ‘metaphysical’ with ‘religious’ thought is false.” [26] Like several contemporary figures, Habermas has thrown the religious baby out with the metaphysical bathwater. But what if there were a way to understand religion without demanding that religion be from a God’s-eye view? To explore this, Adams gives an account of post-metaphysical thinking that is fair to Habermas’ account yet open to religious application.

Adams writes that Habermas’ account of post-metaphysical thinking “acknowledges the situatedness of all human thinking, and has no access to an absolute perspective that can judge whether one’s thoughts correspond to reality.” [27] In other words, no one can claim that their views entail one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and the world. History is our greatest teacher in this regard; every age has been “objective” although time and time again each age’s worldview crumbles as humanity encounters different dimensions of the world due to innovations and change of social goals. To suggest that one’s way of thinking is the final word on any particular topic, history shows us, is to ask for eventual refutation. Adams agrees with Habermas on this point.

The question boils down to whether a post-metaphysical theology is possible. Adams says “yes,” but Habermas says “no.” Adams accuses Habermas of presupposing that “the implication [of] overcoming the God’s-eye view in post-metaphysical thinking will be inherently non-theological.” [28] Granted, theology and metaphysics have worked together in the past as an onto-theo-logical alliance; however, this alliance is not itself the sole determination of what it means to do theology. Adams refutes such an essentialist pairing of theology and metaphysics. Although “the metaphysicality of religion happens to be the case in certain common circumstances,” Adams reminds the reader that “[t]here is no reason to assert an intrinsic relation and to think that religion is by definition metaphysical.” [29] A post-metaphysical theology or a religious post-metaphysical thinking is not to be ruled out simply due to the former liaisons between religion and metaphysics.

Ironically, Habermas offers a God’s-eye definition of theology such that any potentially post-metaphysical theologians would become living contradictions. For Habermas, theology has an exact meaning: “tradition-bound interpretations of scripture and ritual.” [30] Adams argues not only that such a definition is far too limited but also that such a forced definition is simply assumed in Habermas’ arguments. Adams writes that although Habermas deems post-metaphysical religious thinkers non-theological, “[t]here is nothing in Habermas’ account which renders ‘post-metaphysical theology’ unintelligible.” [31] As a result, Habermas’ worries about religion being incapable of having post-metaphysical value are simply the result of an ungrounded bias, especially since Habermas fails to produce any argument or explanation for such worries.

Since the post-metaphysical age does not automatically exclude religion and theology from the public sphere, the absence of theology’s voice from the ideal speech situation is itself a critique of Habermas’ discourse ethics. Habermas has violated his own rules about who can speak at the table. Rule 3.1 states that those who are competent to speak may, can, and must be allowed in the public sphere. Disqualifying religion due to its past association to metaphysics is a very flimsy dismissal. Adams is aware that “social relations have changed, and no theology from a single tradition can by itself provide the resources for coordinating argument and disagreement in the public sphere”; [32] therefore, Adams is not proposing that theology be allowed into the public sphere as a kind of objective arbitrator that will correctly give a God’s-eye-view answer to secular political questions. In today’s world, that would not be possible even if theology was still to be understood as metaphysics. The modern theological world is not the property of any one given religious group. Furthermore, there are conflicts within theology itself, conflicts that also need a “sphere” in which to be resolved. If there were a way for different theological positions from different theological traditions to publicly engage each other, that model might also serve to help theological positions and secular positions publicly engage each other.

The route to this model cannot be done in theory. Adams points out that “Habermas has the best available theory of argumentation in the public sphere, and [it is] equally true that his theory is unusable.” [33] By trying to set out the rules of public discourse ahead of actual interaction of people and cultures, Habermas arbitrarily decides who should speak as well as what should be discussed, decisions that would have to have already been discussed in the public sphere. Habermas’ project seems to “certainly suffer from an impoverished imagination…he does not consider the possibility that members of different traditions might bring their theologies together in a coordinated but non-unified way.” [34] In this sense, Habermas is also guilty of Trigg’s objection, viz. the worry that ultimate consensus might not be reached becoming an excuse to disqualify religion from the public sphere. Insofar as Habermas’ only goal is something like “ultimate consensus” (although not in a God’s-eye-view way), Habermas eliminates that which might get in the way of such a goal: religion.

Although theory might fail, Adams reminds the reader that there is a practice—scriptural reasoning—that indeed brings different theological positions and traditions to the table, even if no communicative theory can account for what happens there. Similarly, its goal will not be consensus but friendship and understanding. Adams presents scriptural reasoning as a better alternative to Habermas’ communicative ethics insofar as it allows more voices to the table, especially religious ones.

Scriptural reasoning affords religion a public sphere. Adams writes that scriptural reasoning is not only capable of adding religion to the public sphere but it is also able to force the community to actually deal with the issues that the elimination of religion from the public sphere causes us to avoid in the name of expediency:

Scriptural reasoning is a practice of ‘publicising’ deep reasonings, so that others may learn to understand them and discover why particular trains of reasoning, and not just particular assumptions, are attractive or problematic. Scriptural reasoning makes deep reasonings public …Scriptural reasoning models the discovery that making deep reasoning public is not only risky…but time-consuming. It is a non-hasty practice, and is thus a kind of beacon in our ‘time-poor’ world. [35]

Participants in scriptural reasoning read scripture together, not with the intention of reaching consensus, but with the hope of actually understanding why each participant interprets a given passage the way they do. In its current configuration, Christians, Jews, and Muslims gather together and agree to read a given scripture passage aloud and offer an interpretation of the passage from their tradition’s point of view. This leads to interesting dialogue. For example, in a discussion of a passage from the New Testament, a Muslim might be asked to give an Islamic interpretation of Jesus’s Godhood. Notice that this is not “comparative religion”; the Muslim has to appropriate a very Christian passage into Muslim language, although the Muslim does not believe in Jesus’ Godhood. The Christian would also give the Christian interpretation of Jesus’ Godhood, but the Christian would not have an “advantage” over the Muslim: Christianity would just be one more interpretation on the table. Perhaps the Jew actually presents the best interpretation of a New Testament passage. This helps everyone understand each other’s viewpoint. Additionally, disagreements must be spelled out across traditions instead of dogmatic resistance. Participants in scriptural reasoning sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but they must be able to articulate those points of agreement and disagreement.

Adams prefers scriptural reasoning to Habermas’ communicative theory because scriptural reasoning “does not require participants to bracket or suspend or conceal their traditional identities for the purpose of conversation and argumentation. Instead, it provides a context in which participants learn each other’s languages.” [36] This addresses Habermas’ suggestion in the previous section that religious arguments be allowed in public if and only if they are translatable into secular language. The problem with Habermas’ suggestion is that there is no requirement for secular citizens to learn religious language. Secular citizens are to tolerate the speaking in religious terms only in the hope that a translation will be provided—there is no requirement that they themselves become translators. For Adams, religious citizens would have to learn secular languages, and the secular world would have to learn religious languages. The goal would not be consensus but rather an understanding of the citizens themselves with nothing in the way of full self-expression.

Allowing people to authentically express themselves from within their own tradition in the shared spirit of understanding is the underlying hope of scriptural reasoning. It is this hope that Adams believes would serve a democratic public sphere well. Adams writes that

scriptural reasoning encourages the learning of the other’s language, and without more practices like these, the public sphere will be forced to host argumentation either in imperially dominant languages or in ‘third languages’ that are not common to any two participants. Scriptural reasoning is exercised in multiple languages. [37]

In other words, participants in the public sphere should not be forced into speaking one group’s language (especially since that language is arbitrarily decided independently of the public sphere itself), nor should there be some kind of inauthentic language into which everyone has to squeeze themselves. By allowing everyone to bring precisely who they are to the table, true public discussion becomes possible, perhaps for the very first time. Indeed, this will take longer than the 30-second “put it into secular language” sound bites prevalent in our culture, but in the end everyone will have truly expressed themselves.

Although scriptural reasoning has been deemed a practice more than a theory, there have been efforts to codify the practice and make the practice intelligible. David F. Ford presents the following eight maxims for the practice of scriptural reasoning: (1) one must grant that the scriptural passage is held as sacred to the tradition that refers to it; (2) no one tradition has exclusive ownership to its scriptures, so no one is the default “expert” simply because one comes from that tradition; (3) the goal of the process is not consensus; (4) arguments are to be encouraged instead of avoided; (5) participants can draw on shared “academic” knowledge; (6) participants must fight expediency and truly grapple patiently with the texts; (7) the shared hope of the exercise is one of peace; and (8) one possible result of such practice is that friendship between traditions becomes possible. [38]

A scriptural reasoning meeting involves people from different faith traditions coming together to read a pre-selected passage from one of the traditions represented in the group. Each member is expected to read the passage and explicate its meaning from the point of view of their own tradition. Discussion ensues, but not in order to “win” people over to one’s own interpretation. In this discussion, the “host” tradition does not have any extra advantage over the other traditions present in the room. Questions are raised about positions, but no one is “shot down.” The meeting hopefully ends with everyone clear about why every member of the group interpreted the passage the way they did. Needless to say, all of this requires a spirit of friendship, lest it turn into an academic holy war. Also, there has to be a true desire for argument so that no one leaves with the way too comfortable “we all basically believe the same things” escape line. There also has to be a sufficient amount of time so that people are not rushed into agreement and disagreement based on limited time. In his essay “Making Deep Reasonings Public,” Adams writes that for example

[d]ebates on the radio or television over religious attitudes to reproductive technology tend to be insufficiently informative about both religious attitudes and the technological details, and it is sometimes a wonder that such debates are considered at all worthwhile … Because of the severe time constraints upon discussions made available through broadcast mass media such as television, other models are needed. Mass media tend not to make deep reasonings public; they tend to over-dramatise rival claims. [39]

Understanding each other and building friendships take time. They are not accomplished by imposing theoretical rules about how to talk to each other. If there were a way to extend scriptural reasoning into the public sphere, it would be a viable alternative to Habermas’ communicative ethics. The question is whether scriptural reasoning is actually plausible as a public practice once it is removed from certain religious presuppositions. That is what I will seek to determine.

Scriptural Reasoning, Prophetic Pragmatism, and Liberal Irony

How do I respond to scriptural reasoning as a pragmatist? I believe that Adams and fellow writers on scriptural reasoning are correct in showing how a practice is itself intelligible without the need for theory. This immediately places scriptural reasoning into the pragmatist’s survey. However, there are better and worse pragmatist practices, so a brief moment of scrutiny is required.

My own pragmatist lens is a bi-focal one which attempts to reconcile two very different yet non-contradictory pragmatist positions: Cornel West’s prophetic pragmatism and Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism, also known as “liberal irony.” [40] Scriptural reasoning seems to fit somewhere in between the two. In this section, I will discuss why a prophetic pragmatist would welcome scriptural reasoning and why a liberal ironist would need more persuasion before signing on.

Scriptural Reasoning and Prophetic Pragmatism

Prophetic pragmatism, West writes, is “an Afro-American philosophy that is essentially a specific expression of contemporary American philosophy which takes seriously the Afro-American experience.” [41] This experience is grounded in prophetic practices, a collection of actions performed by Blacks in America to neutralize and overcome oppression. Most of these practices are religious. West writes that the Black church experience is one in which one finds “the black encounter with the absurd; that is, an attempt to make sense out of a meaningless and senseless predicament.” [42] Christianity was a practice—not a theological theory —that helped African Americans “make sense” of their life. Through life in the church, Black people became members of a greater community, the Kingdom of God, a community that would overcome the oppression of White Americans.

At the heart of the Black church experience is often a particular, Baptist, practice. James William McClendon, Jr., writes in the first volume of his Baptist systematic theology trilogy ( Ethics ) that Baptist theology is hard to formulate because it is primarily a practice. Concerning the paucity of Baptist theological literature, McClendon writes that “the Baptists in all their variety and disunity failed to see in their own heritage, their own way of using Scripture, their own communal practices, their own guiding vision, a resource for theology unlike the prevailing tendencies round about them.” [43] In other words, there was actually no paucity in Baptist theology, just a lack of writing it down. Being Baptist, McClendon argues, is more about a way of life than a documented set of dogmas and procedures.

The primary Baptist practice that serves as the foundation for the Baptist vision is biblicalism. The main focus of Baptist biblicalism is not so much about seeing the Word of God as literal or the direct dictation of God onto paper; rather, the biblicalism consists in an ecclesiological and eschatological reading of the Bible. As McClendon points out, “the church now is the primitive church and the church on judgment day.” [44] Without adding additional traditions or dogmas, Baptists see the Bible as sufficient for the early church and, a fortiori, sufficient for the present time insofar as the current church is merely the continuation of that early community. Baptists, in short, always read the Bible in present tense, not as a document written a long time ago that can only be interpreted through a biblical hermeneutic. Let us call the use of Scripture in the Baptist biblicalist sense scriptural intelligence.

African Americans mastered scriptural intelligence. Citing Donald G. Matthews, McClendon comments that “most whites never achieved the religious maturity of their black fellow Christians.” [45] What Matthews might mean is that White Americans have not sufficiently grasped scriptural intelligence. It is important here to note that scriptural intelligence was not a luxury item for African Americans—it was a tool for survival. Blacks were not biblicalists due to theological preferences; they lived their lives through the Bible in order, frankly, to preserve their sanity in a barbaric and dehumanizing racist America. African-American life—not on a theoretical level, but on an absolutely day-to-day survival level—plugged into the Biblical story, namely the story of the Israelites overcoming Egyptian bondage yet later enslaved under Babylonian rule. The prophetic characteristics of the Old Testament prophets—the critique of the present historical conditions, the call for repentance, and the hope of being delivered by God from the evil oppressors—grounded Black self-identity. The Good News of the New Testament Gospels presents the story of the suffering Jesus who overcame hatred with compassion. As a result, McClendon writes, African American religion

is uniquely open to the depth of human suffering…’Were you there,’ asks the spiritual, ‘when they crucified my Lord?’ And the implicit answer of the singers is, Yes, we were there…According to [the African-American appropriation of the] gospel, Jesus’ story is the story of each and every black slave who ever lived. And thus there sings out the message of the spiritual: Nobody knows [the] trouble I see, Nobody knows but Jesus.

Adapting the biblical story of Jesus as the one despised, beaten, rejected, and yet also the revelation of God’s love for the world and the resurrected Christ gives Blacks a sense of hope and what West calls “subversive joy” and “revolutionary patience” that allows one to endure the absolute absurdity of one’s historical situation.

It would seem absurd to deny Blacks a place in the public sphere given that most of their reasons for arguing against the oppression of people would be expressed in religious terms. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the nation in religious language, expressing a dream of nothing less than the Kingdom of God established on Earth “as it is in Heaven.” The entire rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement was religious. For African Americans, the religious sphere was the public sphere; they had few rights and points of individuality outside of it. Is it expected that Blacks leave their sense of “public sphere” in order to fully participate in a secular notion of the public sphere? A prophetic pragmatist would see such a move from the religious to the secular to be the abandonment of Black heritage, a heritage that was religious but hardly “metaphysical” (to use Habermas’ assumption). [47] It could perhaps be argued that religion in the public sphere actually brought about racial equality in the United States, a fact that should not be ignored when considering the possibilities of religion in the public sphere.

It light of the aforementioned account of prophetic pragmatism, scriptural reasoning is indeed promising. Religion indeed has a role in the public sphere. The difficulty arises insofar as scriptural intelligence is often “in house” and not interested in dialogue with other religious traditions. For example, when King accused White America of being un-Christian in its discriminatory practices, he indeed spoke with a religious-moral authority. Christian Blacks are often intolerant of people who they deem as “sinners” or, worse, “heathens.” Scriptural reasoning improves on scriptural intelligence by participating in a practice in which different religious groups can come to the table and truly agree and disagree on issues of interest. I do not see the prophetic pragmatist having any real problems with scriptural reasoning.

Scriptural Reasoning and Liberal Irony

Rorty’s notion of liberal irony is explicated in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. A liberal ironist is liberal insofar as she “think[s] that cruelty is the worst thing we do,” and is an ironist insofar as one “faces up to the contingency of [one’s] own most central beliefs and desires.” [48] Rorty prefers the liberal ironist over the cruel ironist (the selfish self-creator who humiliates others), the liberal metaphysician (claims that we ought not humiliate other human beings because there is some God’s-eye-view fact about human beings), and the cruel metaphysician (the self-righteous “my way of seeing the world is the right one” factualist who humiliates others). The liberal ironist will believe that human suffering should be eliminated, but acknowledges that one cannot give an argument on some universal level that everyone will understand. This aligns Rorty somewhat with Habermas’ notion of post-metaphysical thinking, although Rorty has real disagreements with Habermas’ universalism. [49]

Rorty’s objection to religion as a conversation-stopper, as described above, is that it is cruel. Religious arguments often devalue moral positions held by non-religious citizens. By asserting religious language as being more correct than secular language, atheists like Rorty feel humiliated that their positions are trivialized or, worse, demonized. Religion has also tended to be metaphysical, which Rorty describes in a way similar to Habermas. The ironist, in contrast, has recognized that her language is always insufficient and contingent to historical events. The ironist is aware of the fact that her language is hers, and that the “world” (whatever that is) does not speak a language: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not…The world does not speak. Only we do.” [50]

The liberal ironist is committed to the dignity and autonomy of every human being, although there is no rational argument, no objective standard or pronouncement from on high, in support of doing so. Everyone will be able to create themselves in accordance to their private vocabularies, but there will also be the hope that those private vocabularies will not get in the way when it is time to push for the goals of a liberal democracy. The liberal ironist, Rorty claims, will seek solidarity with others, not because of metaphysical claims about universal humanity, but rather because of common interests. The liberal ironist wants to make sure that her vocabulary is respected in public at the same time as allowing other vocabularies to impact her. This is because, Rorty states, “[t]he [liberal] ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game.” [51] To overcome this worry, the ironist spends time reading lots of different books and meeting different people. [52] This confirms the ironist’s worry that there are other ways of describing the world, putting into question the authority of one’s own language, especially when in argument with someone else.

Can a liberal ironist participate in scriptural reasoning? It seems that scriptural reasoning is liberal. Scriptural reasoning’s commitment to peace is well-expressed by Steven Kepnes: “[Scriptural reasoning] is motivated by a global awareness of the predominance of human suffering.” [53] Elsewhere Kepnes writes that participants in scriptural reasoning “read scriptures together in order to repair.” [54] Scriptural reasoning’s insistence on friendship as a fundamental element of the practice implies a desire not to humiliate those of other religious traditions. In this sense, scriptural reasoning does not promote cruelty. In this sense, the liberal ironist would have to praise the effort made by practitioners of scriptural reasoning.

I believe that the liberal ironist would have a harder time with scriptural reasoning’s continual use of religious language to explain its motives. On the one hand this worry can be quickly dismissed by appealing to the fact that scriptural reasoning is currently only involved in interfaith dialogue and therefore uses religious language when it brings different faith traditions together. However, it would still remain to be asked whether that religious language can be jettisoned when scriptural reasoning actually brings religion into contact with secular citizens. For example, it is indeed true that God requires friendship from all of those religious traditions that meet together to do scriptural reasoning, but what argument would be made by practitioners of scriptural reasoning for friendship with nonreligious people? Kepnes addresses the fact that scriptural reasoning currently is limited to the “religions of the book” or the Abrahamic monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). He writes that “[scriptural reasoning] does not claim that the non-monotheistic religions are false or incapable of serving the goals that they have set…Since [scriptural reasoning] is intrinsically scriptural, it necessarily is less appreciative of non-literate religious forms.” [55] What would scriptural reasoning advocates suggest as a way to gain more appreciation for ‘non-literate’ religious forms? What about non-religious forms? The liberal ironist would worry that the seeds of cruelty remain here. Practitioners have not given a suggestion for how to do this practice outside of religious contexts or how non-religious voices would enter into the conversation.

In this regard, scriptural reasoning still has some work to do if it is to become a model for the use of religion in the public sphere. It is indeed a great way to bring different religious groups to the table, but it still seems to favor religious arguments over non-religious ones, and even states a preference for scriptural religious arguments over non-literate ones. These preferences return us to the original problem concerning religion in the public sphere. How does one have a public sphere in which everyone is taken seriously, with no private preferences contaminating the public process? Perhaps this goal for the public sphere should be reevaluated. The liberal ironist, for example, is aware that her private preferences contaminate the public process, mostly due to the fact that the public process is itself like a private preference. We want a public sphere in which our voices are heard. The Rortyan question is this: to what private ends? If scriptural reasoning can become clearer about its private goals and then work past them in the hope for solidarity with the non-religious, it might become a strong post-metaphysical possibility for religion in the public sphere. If it cannot, then we will remain perplexed about how to introduce a non-cruel, sufficiently contingent way of “making deep reasonings public.”


[1] Richard Rorty, “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper.” Philosophy and Social Hope,  (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 169; emphasis his.
[2] Maher mixes together the words “religion” and “ridiculous” to form “religulous.” Cf. Bill Maher (Producer and Star) and Larry Charles (Director), Religulous [motion picture] (United States: Thousand Words, 2008).
[3] Ibid., p. 170.
[4] Ibid., pp. 173-174.
[5] Ibid., pp. 171-172.
[6] Ibid., p. 172.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Roger Trigg, Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?,  (Oxford: Oxford, 2007), p. 197.
[9] Ibid., p. 191.
[10] Ibid., p. 192.
[11] Ibid., p. 197.
[12] Ibid., p. 203.
[13] Ibid., pp. 203-204.
[14] Ibid., p. 206.
[15] Ibid., p. 207.
[16] Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. 87.
[17] Ibid., p. 88.
[18] Ibid., p. 89.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), p. 130.
[21] Ibid., p. 131-132.
[22] Ibid., p. 137.
[23] Ibid., p. 138.
[24] Ibid., p. 140.
[25] Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology,  (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2006), p. 19.
[26] Ibid., p. 177.
[27] Ibid., p. 9.
[28] Ibid., p. 107.
[29] Ibid., p. 238.
[30] Ibid., p. 154.
[31] Ibid., p. 177.
[32] Ibid., p. 115.
[33] Ibid., p. 201.
[34] Ibid., p. 115.
[35] Ibid., p. 242.
[36] Ibid., p. 252.
[37] Ibid., p. 253.
[38] Cf. David F. Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning Between Jews, Christians and Muslims,” The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, eds. David F. Ford and C. C. Pecknold (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 5-6.
[39] Nicholas Adams, “Making Deep Reasonings Public,” The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning,  (op. cit.), p. 55.
[40] On the difficulties of holding both a prophetic pragmatist and a liberal ironist position, see my essay “Can There Be Hope Without Prophecy?” in Richard Rorty and the Religious, ed. Jacob L. Goodson & Brad Stone, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012). I explore Rorty’s critique of prophecy in expressions of social hope in light of West’s more precise emphasis on the prophetic. For the sake of the present essay, I will not provide this reconciliation; however, I remain aware of the strange mixture.
[41] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity,  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), p. 21.
[42] Cornel West, Prophetic Fragments,  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 42-43.
[43] James William McClendon, Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 26. Emphasis his.
[44] Ibid., p. 30.
[45] Ibid., p. 86.
[46] Ibid., p. 90. Emphasis his.
[47] In recent history this clash of Black religiosity and secular liberalism involved the number of African Americans who came out to vote in California for Barack Obama. As a result of the increased number of voters, Proposition 8, a proposition to overturn a California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry, passed. Some GLBTQ advocates claimed that Blacks were hypocrites for voting for an African American candidate while denying rights to other oppressed groups. Unfortunately, such critics failed to recognize that Blacks did not vote for Barack Obama due to liberal convictions; Blacks voted for Barack Obama primarily for the historical significance of electing the first African American President of the United States.
[48] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,  (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1989), p. xv.
[49] Cf. Ibid., Chs. 3-4 for Rorty’s critiques of Habermas.
[50] Ibid., pp. 5-6.
[51] Ibid., p. 75.
[52] Some people claim that Rorty suggests that books are as good as interactions with other people. I think this is too strong of a position to infer from Rorty’s claim in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that “our doubts about our own characters or our own culture can be resolved or assuaged only by enlarging our acquaintance. The easiest way of doing that is to read books, and so ironists spend more of their time placing books than in placing real live people” (p. 80). I take the passage to imply that books matter, especially since we are less likely to be able to travel and interact with as many people.
[53] Steven Kepnes, “A Handbook for Scriptural Reasoning,” The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning,  (op. cit.), p. 28.
[54] Ibid., p. 33.
[55] Ibid., p. 34.