The Public Promise of Scriptural Reasoning: An Evaluation of Nicholas Adams’ Habermas and Theology

Tommy Givens
Fuller Theological Seminary

Modern public discourse often seems chaotic and frustrating due to the incommensurable warrants that characterize the reasoning of its constituent, always shifting factions. Because of its inability to process disputes reliably, such discourse fails to promise a viable alternative to the more overt forms of violence to which modern society turns in dealing with conflict. Religion is an especially salient source of untranslatable warrants that can promote just such violence. Jürgen Habermas’ well-known theory of communicative action attempts to address this overwhelming problem, in part by limiting the role religion can play in pluralistic modern discourse. Though not finally satisfied with Habermas’ theoretical proposal, Nicholas Adams is sympathetic with Habermas’ assessment of the problem as well as Habermas’ abiding concern that it be addressed with nonviolent, rational argumentation. He agrees with Habermas’ critique of the way religious warrants have often preempted rather than facilitated rational exchange. He also joins Habermas in calling for rigorous argument rather than settling for an exchange of competing narratives. He thus supports Habermas’ claim that reasoning can indeed be public and that such reasoning is not conventionally foundationalist, yet builds on a unity of reason—a basis of intelligibility—that is always already there. But Adams questions Habermas’ attempt to ground the unity of reason with a theory. He also takes issue with Habermas’ contention that, because they cannot be “post-metaphysical,” the claims of religion or theology cannot determine the warrants of reasoning that is genuinely public. Drawing on Habermas’ insights and criticizing his constructive theory, Adams points to Scriptural Reasoning as a promising alternative model for modern public discourse.

Habermas’ writings are numerous and complex, and Adams is clear that he deals with Habermas’ corpus representatively rather than comprehensively. Some will nevertheless complain that Adams misrepresents Habermas when he says that “religion and theology are casual victims of Habermas’ account of tradition in modern society” (49). Religion may in fact be more significant in the public sphere for Habermas than Adams suggests. Habermas’ concern that religious language be reduced to rational discourse, for example, may ascribe more to religions than merely “their ability to furnish ethical norms and motivate their members” (14). Yet, Habermas does insist on a clear distinction between faith and reason. Moreover, Adams is not concerned primarily with Habermas’ understanding of the place of religion in the public sphere in general. He is concerned mainly with Habermas’ understanding of the specific place of religion or theology in public argumentation. Regarding Adams’ claim to deal with Habermas representatively, I will not say much more than this. Instead, I will focus my review on the particular arguments Adams marshals against Habermas in relation to public argumentation, the insights he draws from him, and how these together inform Adams’ description of Scriptural Reasoning.

Adams begins his close engagement with Habermas in the second chapter of his book by critically tracking Habermas’ movement away from his early development of the “ideal speech situation” toward his later emphasis on “discourse ethics.” Habermas’ concern with communication emerges from “the eighteenth-century question of how different cultural traditions relate to each other” (25). Along with many 20th century philosophers, Habermas recognizes that when the most powerful participant in a dispute claims to have averted violence by argument, it is typically a ruse. But he refuses to apply this judgment despairingly to all public arguments. Rational argument can and sometimes does win the day, not as a pretense for arbitrary self-imposition, but through an “ideal speech situation,” which “is an expression of the symmetry between partners in dialogue” (26-27). The only goal in such a situation can be free agreement, not a certain outcome, as the only force by which rational agreement takes place is that of persuasion by argument. The real possibility of free agreement is the basic fact that undergirds every actual agreement, even if no instance of truly free agreement exists.

While Habermas accepts Hegel’s argument against Kant that rules of rationality cannot be cleanly abstracted from the diverse, traditioned contexts in which they operate, he insists that there must be something rational unifying those diverse contexts given that translation actually does take place between them. This underlying rational unity that emerges in cases of translation can inform universal rules of argument that govern genuinely free communication. Initially, Habermas claimed that inter-traditional translation “anticipates” an ideal, universal form of life, which, in turn, constitutes (rather than merely regulating in Kantian fashion) rational argument across traditional differences (32). Thus, abstractions from successful cases of translation explicate that ideal form of life and can therefore serve to ground and guide rational argument. But later, Habermas denied translation’s anticipation of such an ideal form of life and thus the ability to abstract universally applicable rules of rational exchange from successful cases of translation. Instead, he has since contended that the abstractions with which rational argument between different traditions can be theorized and adjudicated explicate only particular, non-ideal forms of life (38-40). The particularity of different traditions that contribute in cases of translation, nevertheless, does not preclude, but somehow conveys in language a unified reason that holds universal promise. Particular traditions, Habermas claims, reliably provide the content without which the universal reason of his own account could not be intelligible or effective in governing rational communication.

Adams responds to Habermas’ claim that traditioned language conveys abstractable universal reason by echoing the Hegelian objection (against Kant): abstractions can never in fact be universal because they remain tied to the particular context from which they are abstracted. Adams argues that the limits of this particularity of rationality are not surpassed even in cases of translation across distinct traditions. Adams also invokes Schelling’s argument (against Hegel) that the basis of universal reason cannot itself be theorized even though it is real, that is, that no theory can circumscribe its own basis. “Habermas is right to ground his theory of communicative action in a reconstruction of already-existing practices, but he is wrong to think that his theory can establish that there are, or should be, such practices” (97, emphasis Adams’). Adams agrees that rules of communication must indeed be abstracted from traditioned practices of argumentation but insists that these cannot inform a theory of universal reason. As to the knowledge of the universal, Adams proposes the alternative of “eschatological reserve.” This discourages the imposition of closure upon argument without undermining the relative integrity of rules abstracted from cases of translation and mutual understanding. Articulating the rules that have seemed to operate in such cases serves to chasten tradition and guide public reasoning. But actual practices of patient translation and mutual understanding across substantive differences are what sustain this kind of theoretical reflection and thus promise some repair of fragmented public discourse. Scriptural Reasoning is just such a practice.

Adams’ critique of Habermas might be enhanced by situating both Habermas’ articulation of the challenges of modern discourse and his constructive proposal in their modern colonial context. Recall that, according to Adams, “Habermas is interested in the eighteenth-century question of how different cultural traditions relate to each other” (25). The eighteenth century was not the first time that humanity confronted the challenge of relating different cultural traditions to one another. It was perhaps the first time that members of one tradition thought of themselves as “biologically” superior to a “savage” other (“biologically” in the modern, scientific sense) and thus qualified to determine, intellectually, the universal terms of intercultural communication without any accountable appeal to revelation. [1] Given Habermas’ concern with a question of “the eighteenth century,” this violently asymmetrical situation seems ironically to inform his reach for a universal theory, however laudable his insistence that intercultural communication be nonviolent and rationally accountable. Moreover, perhaps Adams should not follow Habermas (or so much of the Christian tradition on the import of revelation) in expressing “the problem” of human discourse in terms of the accessibility or inaccessibility of the universal. Surely Habermas and Adams are right to insist on the indispensability of rational argumentation, but are there not ways other than the (in)accessibility of the universal to claim that a certain discourse or event of communication is rational (e.g., the virtue of the participants, its promotion of the love of neighbors)?

Adams must dispose of Habermas’ proscription of religious or “metaphysical” ways of authorizing what counts as rational in order 1) to claim that theological discourse can pass as public, rational argumentation in a pluralist society and 2) to propose Scriptural Reasoning as a promising model for such argumentation. One way that Adams does this is simply to note Habermas’ apparent ignorance of postliberal theology because, unlike the theology that Habermas criticizes, postliberal theology is responsive to the modern critique of theological warrants for human knowledge (199). According to Adams, Habermas assumes incorrectly that theological argument can know no distance between the tradition in which it operates and the truth that is its subject matter. But religiously traditioned reason can and sometimes does in fact engage in what Habermas calls “reflection,” that is, a radical self-questioning that he identifies with the rational and “post-metaphysical.” For example, postliberal theology engages in such reflection by attending to the situated perspective of theological discourse (51, 105). [2] Nevertheless, Adams agrees with Habermas that an inadequate observance of the distance between tradition and truth renders theological claims upon the modern public irrelevant at best.

A second way in which Adams seeks to dispose of Habermas’ proscription of religious warrants from public discourse (with a view to claiming that religious discourse can be public) is to show that Habermas’ narrative of the modern decline of religion is tendentious and thus insufficient to justify that proscription. One strand of this narrative is the dwindling of the sacred (see chapter four), which Habermas describes as non-rational. But is the purpose of Habermas’ declension narrative to justify confining religion to only what can motivate rational discourse (rather than informing it), as Adams seems to imply? Or is it to describe how it has come about that religious discourse no longer meaningfully addresses the public but only constitutes a voice that is part of it? The latter purpose is not to justify the current pluralistic scenario but to give an account of why theology cannot claim to be “public,” that is, why theology cannot provide warrants that are universal and rational. Unless theologians think they can specify, a priori, a universally acceptable starting point, one based not on one tradition but on the “reflective” scrutiny of all traditions, they cannot be “public” in Habermas’ sense.

Habermas thinks, controversially, that such a universal starting point can be specified. That point is, on Adams’ account of Habermas, the possibility of mutual understanding that comes through radical self-criticism. Because of this possibility, according to Habermas, “concepts like truth, rationality, or justification play the same grammatical role in every linguistic community.” [3] Habermas contends that there is a resistant reality—to some extent external to human reason but operative in language—which human reason finds itself grappling with and, at times, understanding better. He calls this resistant reality “the world.” Human beings engage in “reflection” to the extent that they perceive the difference between the most basic framework of their knowledge, that is, their “lifeworld,” and the world. Reflection is thus a kind of active consciousness of subjectivity. In Habermas’ words, it is “the self-reference of a spirit that works its way up out of its substantiality to self-consciousness and which bears within itself the unity as well as the difference of the finite and the infinite.” [4] The universal starting point for rational communication is therefore the knowledge of the world in sufficient abstraction so as to be “freed of all specific content.” [5] Herein lies the “possibility of passing from one language to another,” which is “guaranteed only procedurally,” “realised only transitorily,” and “forms the background of the existing diversity of those who encounter one another” (quoted from Habermas on 96). This procedural, universal footing is more hospitable than a typically foundationalist (i.e., non-procedural) one, and it produces rational argument only with what traditioned ways of reasoning build upon it (which other procedural accounts of the Kantian idealist type seek to inhibit). When functioning as a procedural norm, it can sustain and inform the exchange of conflicting traditions until rational argument has indeed proven the decisive factor in moving from conflict to concord. This seems to be the heart of Habermas’ theory of communicative action and is the basis of his “discourse ethics.”

Adams agrees with Habermas that the existence of some underlying, pre-interpreted reality can indeed be affirmed. But he disagrees, following Schelling’s critique of Hegel, that it can be circumscriptively theorized without ceasing to be pre-interpreted and universal. Adams argues that Habermas has conflated the absolute and the knowledge of the absolute, that is, the basis of all knowing and knowing itself. No one can know even formally what the world consists in or precisely what the difference is between the world and lifeworlds. Neither human communities nor their members can comprehend the unified reality that makes their differences, communication, and concord—be these internal or across their borders—both intelligible and actual. Habermas may be right to note the “secret complicity” of the postmodern priority of diversity and the modern priority of unity; an account of the absolute must attend to the way in which these are related (96). Habermas may also be right to ground his theory in reconstructions of already existing practices rather than an ideal form. But the problem with his theory of communicative action is that it does not allow the fact of intertraditional communication to imply an ungroundable presupposition but attempts to explain theoretically the basis of such communication. This seems to entangle Habermas in self-referential incoherence, as his theory cannot circumscribe its own basis (97, citing Bowie).

Adams’ alternative to Habermas’ theory is practices of continual testing (of which Scriptural Reasoning is a promising example), which no theory can ground but which admit of theoretical description. Such theoretical description can in turn guide ongoing reform, mutual understanding, and growth in knowledge, but it cannot explain what happens in the practice itself. Adams’ alternative is therefore opposed to Habermas’ attempts at theoretical circumscription but consonant with his insistence that communication across wide traditional differences is possible because of something already at work in the language of each tradition. It is also opposed to reducing the secular public reason of modernity to so many failed attempts at or corruptions of Christian reasoning (Adams identifies this reductive tendency with John Milbank, (221)). Instead, it recognizes with Habermas that premodern theological coordination of public reason is fictitious in the pluralist social conditions of modernity. Radical orthodox attempts like Milbank’s at the rehabilitation of Christendom (i.e., by insisting on the premodern theological coordination of public reason) may also be hostile to a sphere of public argument much as Carl Schmitt was. Accordingly, Christian narratives of peaceability that minimize the importance of rational argument may ironically encourage the violence of Hobbesian peace-keeping. Adams thus accepts Habermas’ critique of theology that claims to arbitrate or trump public argument. But he suggests that Habermas has unjustifiably dismissed the possibility that intertraditional argument can be coordinated theologically and practically in a non-unified way, that is, in a non-premodern way (without thereby assuming an ontology of violence). Habermas has wrongly assumed that in the pluralist conditions of modernity, a non-theological, theoretical account of rational communication must ground and coordinate intertraditional argument (115-122).

Habermas has apparently ignored the potential of something like postliberal (testing-oriented) theological coordination of public discourse because of the way he understands the historical shift from premodern, mythic social arrangements to modern, rational ones. Mythic, relatively uniform social arrangements, Habermas claims, simply forestalled critical reflection. Modern, more diverse societies, which began to see themselves more consciously from outside perspectives and without a mythic center, have come to understand themselves as fallible interpreters of the world rather than assuming that their lifeworld is the world itself. It is here, according to Habermas, that the world, “freed of all specific content” emerges. In Adams’ words, it emerges in “the presupposition that there is a world being interpreted that is the same regardless of interpretation ” such that “members of different cultures…share a ‘world’ even if they do not share a ‘lifeworld'” (136, emphasis Adams’). Once people recognize reflectively that they cannot count on a shared lifeworld to settle their disagreements, free agreement can be achieved only by labor-intensive, rational communication. Habermas cannot see how theology, with its commitment to revelation, can avoid minimizing the self-criticism on which rational reflection and communication depend.

In response to these claims, Adams offers astute criticism of Habermas’ tendency to imagine the move from mythic to rational society as constant and irreversible rather than occasional and abidingly contingent (68, 150, 179). He claims that postliberal theology has found ways to remain committed to revelation without minimizing radical self-criticism. It has factored in the cultural and linguistic situation of theological reasoning such that it must be subject to continual testing. It has also shown how various ecclesial practices can both test and develop truth claims so as to intensify rather than avert self-criticism.

In responding to Habermas’ account of the shift from premodern to modern social arrangements and public reason, Adams makes a series of crucial moves that anticipate his description of Scriptural Reasoning. He does not question Habermas’ Kantian framework of positing an infinite qualitative distinction between reality and human interpretation of reality. Accordingly, he does not consider Wittgensteinian postliberal voices [6] that both problematize the Kantian mind-world distinction and propose various ways of understanding human subjects as participants in, rather than mere observers of, the world they seek to understand (thereby rendering the concept of interpretation problematic). Instead, Adams adopts Habermas’ framework of the rational reflection of modern societies and attempts to provide better content for Habermas’ categories. In other words, Adams assumes Habermas’ understanding of the distance between tradition and truth, even if he contends that it can be navigated theologically and thus by traditioned reason. He suggests that Habermas’ “world” functions like scripture, and “lifeworld” functions like scriptural interpretation that has yet to recognize that it is interpretation. Finally, Habermas’ communicative understanding functions like scriptural interpretation that has recognized that it is interpretation (137, 180). [7]

In positing the above associations, Adams apparently sets aside Habermas’ concern that rational argumentation be public in Habermas’ sense, as scripture can scarcely pass as the reality presupposed by all “reflective” people (i.e., Habermas’ criterion (62-63, 155)). [8] Any scripture itself can be no more than an interpretation of reality on Habermas’ account; scriptural interpretation, then, is just an interpretation of an interpretation (at best a reflective interpretation of an unreflective interpretation). Adams can make the claim that “people of the book” can do a better job at being “public” among themselves. Their functionally absolute court of appeal is, as Adams says, more substantive and transparently complex than Habermas’ language-independent world (180), [9] which is abstract form freed of all specific content and therefore misleadingly pure and simple. But allowing scripture to function as an absolute court of appeal is precisely the problem for Habermas. For him appeals to scripture are not appeals to an absolute and truly public authority because they fail to ask on what basis scripture itself is true. Accordingly, they cannot reason effectively with people who do not ascribe absolute authority to scripture, which no one should do anyway. For Habermas, truly public reasoning refuses to allow anything to mediate absolutely between individual subjects and the unmediated reality they seek to apprehend through rational argumentation. People reason publicly only to the extent that they conform to Habermas’ abstract, neutered subject who is insulated from reality by generic subjectivity, condemned forever to the mythical role of “interpreter.” That is the price of being reflective.

Perhaps there is some analogy between Habermas’ reflective mind-world relation and the relation between some readers of scripture and their scriptures. But adopting Habermas’ “post-metaphysical” framework seems to have committed Adams to theoretically grounding the ability of a theological tradition to coordinate rational, inter-traditional communication just as Habermas grounds public reason—namely, upon the knowable difference between interpretation and that which is interpreted. Like Habermas, Adams presents this difference as universal, giving no indication that there might be anything about this understanding that belongs to any particular theological or intellectual tradition. [10] But what does revelation consist in if it does nothing to change a universal boundary between the interpreter and the interpreted? Christian accounts of revelation, whether pre- or postliberal, typically refuse such isolation of the subject and suggest that God opens the eyes of the covenant people to see what they otherwise could not and what others do not. Not incidentally, this is to intensify rather than diminish their capacity for self-criticism. The self in question, whether individual or collective, is not insulated from the revelation of God or the reality of the world by the buffer of interpretive subjectivity, however. It cannot gaze at the world or revelation as if clearly from outside of either; it cannot neatly abstract itself from the world or revelation. It simply does not posit such alienation of the subject or pure subjectivity. Instead, the person or community is considered an imperfect participant in both revelation and the world, and this twofold participation is the basis of its peculiar self-criticism. [11] That is to say, by participating both in the world and the revelation of God, the community is empowered to learn from God about the inadequacy of the world as it learns from God about the inadequacy of its self. There is no revealed world-criticism that is not self-criticism. But neither is there revelation if the subjectivity of those who receive it is identical with that of those who do not. Revelation does not simply add to people but tranforms them. To the extent that “post-metaphysical” theology simply adopts Habermas-type understandings of subjectivity as Adams does, Habermas may be justified in suspecting that “post-metaphysical” theology is not recognizably theological. [12]

In his eighth chapter, “Modernity’s Triumph over Theology,” Adams extends his deconstruction of Habermas’ narrative of the rise of modernity by criticizing Habermas’ appropriation of Hegel for ruling theology out of public argumentation. Habermas understands Hegel to have reduced the divine to something posited by humanity. But Adams insists that, for Hegel, the formation of human concepts does not circumscribe the divine but recognizes that it is being caught up in the Triune God. Habermas’ reading of Hegel allows him to deem metaphysics obsolete, as all the rational warrants for ordering social existence can now be located within human subjectivity. Habermas then dissociates human subjectivity from national spirit, throws off the revelatory claims with which Hegel dressed his philosophy, and offers his own account of spirit in his theory of communicative action. The universal is no longer a revelatory ethical totality but certain inherent properties of human communication. The human person receives all the heteronomy she needs for rationality from human society, while human society itself is rationally autonomous (here one glimpses Habermas’ “‘detranscendentalised’ Kantianism,” (26)). This is how Habermas sets aside “metaphysical” accounts of public reason (whether premodern or modern) in favor of his procedural one.

Against Habermas, Adams contends that Hegel’s absolute subjectivity cannot be wrested from its trinitarian context. Others, however—the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig among them [13] —agree with Habermas on this score and argue that leaving God out of things is precisely what Hegel’s philosophy instigates. In any case, Habermas’ narrative has lumped all of theology in with certain premodern, metaphysical claims that assume the God’s-eye view of certain human subjects. He has rushed to the conclusion that the rise of human subjectivity over against certain dogmatic claims in the Protestant Reformation, as this culminates in Kant’s autonomous human being and Hegel’s immanent world spirit, has emptied theological metaphysics of public authority. This is not simply a descriptive claim of Habermas’. It is a normative one insofar as he is committed to the Kantian project of rationally justifying “a moral point of view from which [received] norms can themselves be judged in an impartial fashion” (quoted from Habermas, 166). Habermas acknowledges the religious sources of contemporary political and ethical discourse, and he recognizes the impotence of public reason without the concerns engendered by these sources. But he insists that today’s moral consciousness must be subject to rational scrutiny, which must in turn be genuinely public (i.e., universal and reflective). Adams asks whether that can be done without appealing to the scriptural sources of modern subjectivity, even at its most secularized. Habermas contends that public argumentation cannot use new, better doctrines, that is, yet more “metaphysical” declarations (i.e., based on scripture). Instead, it needs the patient analysis of the formal conditions in which secularized reasons and interpretations provide sufficient rational force to achieve free agreement through argument. According to Habermas, scriptural interpretation is only meaningful for part of the public today. While scriptural interpretation of the past has contributed to the making of today’s public discourse, today’s public discourse is simply not a discourse of confessional communities of a book but that of a pluralistic society.

Habermas assumes that because basic theological doctrines such as creation and salvation once commanded general assent, they informed public argument, albeit unreflectively. Since this is no longer the case, they cannot provide the grounding for any discourse that is genuinely public. Adams questions whether doctrines can be dismissed in this way. Can’t creation be appealed to without claiming the God’s-eye view that Habermas rightly precludes from public reason? Adams might press this question even further. Why assume that theological claims function only at the level of explicit metaphysical warrants? How much does common assent to propositions such as “God created the world,” or “God saved the world in Christ” actually achieve in terms of the intelligibility and stability of argument? Theological discourse can be incoherent like other discourses. Moreover, theological metaphysics can inform public discourse in ways more subtle than making explicitly “religious” assertions, without an agreed starting point and without ceasing to be theological or metaphysical. [14] There are many ways to say that the God of Israel created the world (e.g., “Nothing in the world is superfluous.”), and some of them might well be intelligible and even rationally compelling to atheists. [15]

Habermas proscribes religion from public argumentation not because it has nothing to contribute to the public sphere but because it can no longer be publicly and rationally effective in argument. Adams argues that it can be effective, perhaps even more so than Habermas’ theory. He points to Scriptural Reasoning as a model of the theological coordination of reason in a pluralist context, albeit a less pluralist one than Habermas’ “public.” According to Adams, Habermas also underestimates the extent to which scripture has provided not simply a source for metaphysical propositions but the lifeworld basic to its readers’ existence (178). Habermas overlooks the way that theology has long coordinated appeals to different scriptures, whether those of distinct religious traditions or those of sacred text and nature. Nevertheless, Habermas is right, Adams says, to seek a philosophical way of promoting rationality in public discourse. Adams therefore encourages the development of philosophical-theological alternatives to Habermas’s approach. He observes that this will be difficult so long as academic theology maintains the modern divide between dogmatics and biblical studies.

Habermas is concerned with a much wider intellectual field than that of theology. Yet, he has engaged theology with some patience. Adams devotes chapter nine to considering Habermas’ engagement with theology, where theologians do not seem to have fared very well (and postliberals are not represented). Habermas regards theology that follows him in seeking to theorize the universal as uninteresting because it is not clearly theological, while theology that happily works from and within a tradition he dismisses as sectarian and anti-public. Habermas contends that trying to accommodate theology to secular reason (especially that of social science), confining science to a compartment of human knowledge, or adopting methodological atheism only moves theology toward dissolution. Adams urges theologians to avoid these three facile routes that Habermas rightly criticizes. He encourages them, alternatively, to challenge Habermas’ accounts of reason, science, and method, and to work at repairing them. As he has done several times, Adams gestures toward the way postliberal theologians have avoided these routes. He also advises empirical scrutiny of Habermas’ various accounts of religion or the sacred (199-202). But he thinks that theologians are right to perceive that Habermas’ concerns are legitimate and important. The reality of pluralism and rival traditions must be engaged with rational argument rather than denied or simply attacked. The problem with theological attempts at such engagement in the recent past is their quest for theory. Instead of undertaking the task of theoretically securing the universal or some other basis for rationality—which Adams insists cannot be done—theologians must instead develop better accounts of argumentation and better models of its practice amidst a pluralist public. I would add that theologians should follow Adams in attending to attempts like Habermas’ at grounding rationality theoretically, taking them seriously and testing their theoretical adequacy rather than adopting a dismissive stance.

Before turning explicitly to an account of Scriptural Reasoning as a model of public argumentation, Adams situates the challenge of modern public discourse in the complex theological relation between narrative and argument (see chapter 10). He begins with the debate between Gadamer and Habermas. Habermas insists that there is a reflective distance between tradition and its participants. He attempts to construct his procedural ethics on the basis of that distance and with a view to navigating it. Gadamer, however, maintains that tradition inevitably shapes the reflective ways in which participants question its authorities or elements. Adams agrees with Gadamer but, sympathizing with Habermas’ concern for reflective self-criticism, suggests that internal to the Christian tradition is an eschatological reserve that enables radical criticism of tradition in the sense Habermas advocates. Adams perceptively notes that Habermas has underestimated the importance of tradition’s internal crises for engaging what lies beyond it. Habermas obviously does not think that eschatological reserve is radical enough, but Adams contends that Habermas’ concepts of reflectivity and radicality are themselves rooted in a particular intellectual tradition (209). His inadequate attention to the situatedness of reason ironically keeps him from recognizing the radical contingency of rational argument and promotes an overly rigid distinction between narrative and argument. Adams opposes John Milbank’s tendency to dissolve argument into narrative, [16] however, and suggests that theology must develop better ways of struggling with problems instead of trying to solve them with a theory as Habermas does. This involves the close study of practical cases of argumentation and accounts of agreement that have proven sufficiently rational for continued social collaboration even when final solutions have been obviously lacking.

Adams insightfully notes a social contingency for which Habermas’ project does not seem to account: Habermas is overconfident in the ease with which something like his procedural ethics could be socially disseminated (232). Adams calls for the cultivation of studied practices of communication instead of a regime of theory. Adams might also press the important question of authority with Habermas. Habermas seems to envision a rational authority that obtains at the level of subjective agreement in instances of communication in crises of lifeworlds. But that communication always depends on certain authoritative canons that cannot be freed from living human institutions and figures. The fact is that social transformation depends a great deal upon the institutions and figures to whom members of society look to regulate their reasoning and disputes. Adams might also press Habermas a bit harder on the normative ultimacy of “reflection.” There are certain questions, certain possible human activities, about which nonreflective attitudes should not be deemed irrational. For example, that certain kinds of violence never occur to some people as even possibly justifiable—that they never even elicit any reflection—is not a failure to be rational.

Adams admits that he cannot avoid the disappointment of readers in his final chapter on Scriptural Reasoning. He says that this is a good disappointment because the appetite for a purely theoretical solution is a poorly formed one. But the build-up has been rather long and optimistic for Adams to simply say that his account of Scriptural Reasoning is “inadequate” and “defective” (240). Why does Adams settle for such an account? Has his way of framing the promise of Scriptural Reasoning made his treatment of it perhaps more deflating than it has to be? Can’t Adams have given more description of Scriptural Reasoning than he does in this chapter?

In the preceding chapters, Adams explicates the threat that Habermas’ theory of communicative action poses to the claims of theology and the significance of Scriptural Reasoning. Now that he has argued for the inadequacy of Habermas’ theory but endorsed Habermasian concerns about public reason, Adams proceeds to articulate the practice and promise of Scriptural Reasoning. Adams reflects on Scriptural Reasoning in light of four criteria necessary for an “alternative” to Habermas’ approach. Such an alternative must (1) “promote genuine argumentation in the public sphere,” (2) “accept that theory does not ground or transcend ethical life,” (3) “acknowledge that the bases that give rise to argumentation cannot themselves be theorized,” and (4) “do justice to the complex interrelationship between narrative and argument” (239). He begins with the curious claim that Scriptural Reasoning “means, for its participants, acknowledging that their particular traditions do not encourage…joint reading of scripture, but [then] doing it anyway” (240). This is curious because it seems to ignore the ways in which the Christian tradition (and presumably other Abrahamic traditions) is constituted in part by Judaeo-Christian practices of scriptural debate, sometimes at the same table of study (e.g., Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Acts 15, Justin Martyr, Origen). We owe the existence of the New Testament in part to debates over how to read the Tanakh within early Judaeo-Christianity. [17]

Adams’ description of Scriptural Reasoning is accessible to readers who have never taken part in the practice. He notes that Scriptural Reasoning does not justify the study of scripture itself with any argument but simply assumes the fact that scriptural study is what the three participating traditions do to one extent or another. Each tradition is characterized by historical chains of reasoning, argumentation, and conclusions—the articulation of which is an expression of identity. These are the “deep reasonings” that can display the process that each tradition is in relation to scriptural texts. When participants of the distinct traditions come together, this process is exposed in actual readings of scripture and involves participants of now other traditions. Thus, “[s]criptural reasoning makes deep reasonings public” (242). It engages in both narrative (i.e., “world-disclosure”) and argumentation (i.e., “problem solving”) at once. Scriptural Reasoning is therefore not only risky insofar as participants expose what they love but time-consuming, requiring patience amidst often frenetic societies. What makes it possible is not any overlap in hermeneutics but “a shared desire to study scriptural texts” (243). What strikes those who do Scriptural Reasoning is not the emergence of consensus but the development of friendships. Friendship, Adams says, is the ground of Scriptural Reasoning. Yet, he also claims that the recognition that all participants “worship the one true God” (243) moves Scriptural Reasoning beyond conventional demands for hospitality, in part because it is not clear which are the hosts and which are the guests. Some mysterious agent or agency invites participants in Scriptural Reasoning to study together, and naming this agent/agency as the one true God is also to name the one who renders each tradition inadequate in itself—as opposed to any tradition’s rendering the other traditions inadequate (see 249).

With respect to Habermas’ concern that reasoning be “public,” Adams notes that Scriptural Reasoning is tradition-bound in one sense and not tradition-bound in another. Each participant speaks from the authority of her own tradition (tradition-bound) but acknowledges the authority of the other traditions for other participants (not tradition-bound). Habermas would no doubt ask why participants should not be regarded as operating within a single, monotheistic, scripture-based, non-public tradition.

Adams suggests that Scriptural Reasoning proves capable of coordinating rational exchange without appealing to any universal above the participating traditions. But if participants indeed recognize that they all “worship the one true God,” why does this not count as a metaphysical universal that stands above each tradition, however each might articulate its epistemic “reserve”? [18] This is one of many places where it would be useful for Adams (and Habermas) to distinguish between metaphysical and epistemic universals, for it is the latter that Habermas claims to have secured theoretically and Scriptural Reasoning refuses to presume (in part, perhaps, because of what developers of the practice confess about the former, i.e., confessing God to be one rather than many has come to militate against epistemic universals). Instead of articulating a theoretical basis, Scriptural Reasoning responds to the fact that each tradition’s worship of the God each names as the one true God attracts some of its participants to study one another’s scriptures together. No theory can replace this attraction, and it must be recognized that Scriptural Reasoning offers not simply a theoretical possibility but an actual practice of coordinating different traditions in argumentation.

Adams is reluctant to claim much in the way of Scriptural Reasoning’s promotion of public argumentation. He acknowledges that some of the positive rational developments of Scriptural Reasoning are as attributable to the university training of most participants as to their traditions, though surely we should not understand such training as utterly strange to the development of the three traditions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have played important roles in the evolution of the university). Nevertheless, Adams mentions the public promise of the quite rigorous argumentation that arises during Scriptural Reasoning from participants’ questioning, clarifying, and defending readings that are offered. Adams should make more of this. It is important to remember that Scriptural Reasoning is possible only because of certain ways in which parts of the world have come to be ordered. For example, a given language unites members of different traditions (English, in my experience). Members of each tradition typically understand their scriptures as in some sense normative for their reasoning, which they do in that common language (as well as other languages in many cases). They then expose the way that scripture norms their reasoning in that language to criticism by speakers of the same language from other traditions. One articulates how she has moved from the text to her reading and, in response to the probes of others around the table, often finds herself adjusting her understanding of the text and the way she moves toward or from it. This allows the three traditions some power to amend one another’s functional rational authority. I have witnessed moments of profound self-questioning and rational reform that have emerged, for example, from Christians’ exposure to gentle pressure by Jews to make better sense of their Christian readings of the English text of the New Testament. To participate in Scriptural Reasoning is thus to invite members of other Abrahamic traditions, though members of the three traditions are killing one another elsewhere in the world, to help reform one’s traditional reasoning in the court of scripture. Whether or not it counts as public, this kind of rational reform is indeed promising.

The histories that have produced the three Abrahamic traditions and the content of their scriptures are not incidental to the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. This seems more significant than a claim like Adams’ that the three traditions worship the one true God. Each tradition calls the God it worships “the God of Abraham,” and they share—to one extent or another—a common history that hails from an Abrahamic past. Scriptural Reasoning among Jews, Christians, and Muslims is not, then, simply shared reading of authoritative literature but is also the fruit of a common history that exceeds canonical literature. I have found that the relation (however complex) between the appearance of, say, Jonah or Moses in the scriptural texts of each of the three traditions, on the one hand, and the historical persons or realities to which these literary appearances bear witness, on the other, to be a crucial point of intertraditional communication. Readers acknowledge some kind of common material past that the traditions have remembered in different, sometimes competitive but often mutually illuminating ways. [19] This is one way to respond to Habermas’ firm genre distinction between literature and philosophy, which maps onto the distinction between narrative and argument. In Scriptural Reasoning, we see that the historical situatedness of reason is not only a liability but also a gift. It points to the way that the historical contingency of Scriptural Reasoning is not simply that of all reasoning but of a particular, albeit complex, shared history that has stubbornly refused to allow any of the three traditions to make satisfying sense of itself without the others. Scriptural Reasoning, in my view, is about exposing our distinct memories in the present to the fact of a shared history and to the hope of a peaceful future.

But describing Scriptural Reasoning as I just have only further disqualifies it from meeting Habermas’ criteria for public reason. By placing Scriptural Reasoning in the context of the “problem” of public reason, Adams invites a series of quick dismissals and hazardous pressures. Scriptural Reasoning simply cannot claim to be public in the sort of sense that Habermas is interested in. Presenting it as an alternative to Habermas’ theory therefore sounds like special pleading. Instead of trying to be “post-metaphysical,” perhaps theologians ought to show how Habermas’ conviction that nonviolent rational communication is more basic or real than mutual destruction or his claim that any language witnesses to the unity of reason cannot escape making metaphysical claims. Adams is certainly right to highlight an “eschatological reserve,” which cultivates epistemic humility rather than unreflectiveness in theological metaphysics. But his description of Scriptural Reasoning responds to the wrong kind of pressures when it is situated in relation to the problem of establishing universally shared standards of rationality or formal criteria of mutual intelligibility. Doing so tends to exaggerate the contested borders between “traditions” in order to extol the achievement of communicating across them. It trades in generalizations of “religion” and “tradition” that do not adequately describe the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who argue with each other around the table of scriptural study. It can overly reify “the practice” by attributing to it what in fact owes a great deal to the persons and traditions that participate in it. And it overestimates the challenges that Scriptural Reasoning has so far confronted. Perhaps it is enough to say that the members of the Abrahamic traditions make up a great number of people, many of whom are deeply hostile to one another in the name of God as revealed in scripture. Scriptural Reasoning has opened a new vista, not only of stimulating scriptural study, but of a path toward some reconciling repair of our traditions and ourselves. We hope that others, within and without the Abrahamic family, will join us or find similar ways of exposing their reasoning and their authorities to the gifts of others. But we cannot claim to be “public” in Habermas’ sense.

More compelling is Adams’ insight that the outward movement of each tradition seems to be driven in part by its internal inadequacy. Each tradition will no doubt make this claim differently. In the case of Christianity, we can say that the church is a broken community so long as violence and death persist in the world. We are in solidarity with the world and cannot write anyone off, for the God of Israel works for the healing of all and is still working on us. Instead of trying to secure nonviolence with a theoretical universal that we can possess, the Christian story invites us simply to commit ourselves to the revealed nonviolence that has seized us and exceeds us. We should do this knowing that we are still violent and thus invite our neighbors to help us see how and when we are violent so that we can confess it as sin and seek forgiveness. This is an adumbration of the grammar of Christian “universalism,” which offers no guarantees but seems more responsive to the world than Habermas’ claim to have theorized what everyone has to learn to become peaceful. Scriptural Reasoning gives Christians an excellent opportunity to expose the ways we use the Bible and the Qur’an to reason violently towards our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers as well as toward others. As Adams rightly says, it enables us to nourish old friendships and start new ones. If Jewish and Muslim participants find that studying with us sometimes helps them do something similar, all the better. [20]


[1] Adams notes Habermas’ recognition that the modern turn to the subject emerges in relation to the colonized ‘other’ (122).
[2] It is not clear why, for both Habermas and Adams, theological discourse is problematic in modernity because of its metaphysical claims rather than its epistemic ones. Most of Adams’ argument seems to be addressing not questions of what the real is but how human communities and persons can claim rationally to engage it. It is true that theological epistemology itself is a metaphysical discourse. But metaphysics and epistemology are still usefully distinguished, and the concern of both Habermas and Adams seems to be primarily with the latter.
[3] Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans. W. M. Hohengarten (Cambridge: Polity, 1992), 138, emphasis Habermas. Quoted in Adams, 102.
[4] Habermas, Postmetaphysical, 129. Quoted in Adams, 100. One wonders exactly how this sort of account of reflection passes for both Habermas and Adams as “post-metaphysical.” It seems to be simply differently (i.e., non-religiously) metaphysical.
[5] Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action I: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. T. McCarthy (Cambridge, Polity, 1984), 50. Quoted in Adams, 136.
[6] E.g., David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas. Adams’ treatment of Rowan Williams could also be developed in this direction (e.g., 85).
[7] Adams also proposes that Habermas’ account of the relation between capacity and willingness for self-criticism functions like prayer (137).
[8] Adams can certainly claim that scriptural interpretation addresses some of Habermas’ concerns about the rationality of “public” speech. My concern is that in trying to compare scripture with what Habermas calls “the world,” Adams has given up the sense of “public” that Habermas cares about. So perhaps his critique should concentrate on Habermas’ “public” rather than his “world.”
[9] It is a functionally absolute court of appeal, on Adams’s account, insofar as it takes the place of Habermas’ “world.”
[10] Later Adams does make the general remark that Habermas operates within a particular intellectual tradition (209), but he does not seem to realize how he is making use of what he criticizes in Habermas.
[11] See, e.g., Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s exposition of two of the Cappadocians in this connection in Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[12] But note Habermas’ claim that Kierkegaard answered the question of the right way to live in a manner at once post-metaphysical and theological in The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 5.
[13] In The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
[14] Adams helpfully points out that the long and deep tradition of negative theology is probably not “metaphysical” in the sense that Habermas finds problematic (175).
[15] With respect to genetic engineering, Habermas himself offers a reading of Gen. 1:27 and highlights the significance of the Creator-creature distinction. He notes the loss of human freedom that ensues if the concept of creation disappears and God is replaced by a human peer. Thus, he commends “the reasonable attitude of keeping one’s distance from religion without closing one’s mind to the perspective it offers” (Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, 113-115). Thanks to Jacob Goodson for pointing me to this piece of biblical commentary by Habermas.
[16] See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing), 331-333.
[17] See, for example, Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Richard Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005); John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, eds. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003); William R. Farmer (ed.), Anti-Judaism and the Gospels (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1999). For similar activity in the premodern development of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, see Natalie B. Dohrmann and David Stern (eds.), Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Cultural Exchange: Comparative Exegesis in Context (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
[18] Adams seems to acknowledge this on p. 249.
[19] The connection seems somewhat more immediate for Jews and Christians as each community reads the Tanakh as its scriptures.
[20] Thanks to Sameer Yadav for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this review.