The Theological Contexts of Nicholas Adams’ Habermas and Theology

Elizabeth Newman
Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (VA)

In Habermas and Theology, Nicholas Adams displays his deep appreciation for the secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas, most especially Habermas’ quest for a rationale for public argumentation among competing traditions. While appreciating Habermas’ project, Adams offers a corrective to Habermas’ understanding of public speech in a way that includes theological commitments. In building his insightful argument, Adams engages three theological contexts that are, in my view, crucial to his analysis: 1) his description of his own argument as an alternative to post-liberal theology, 2) his understanding of “public,” and 3) his description of the practice of hospitality. Each of these is important for Adams in his goal to enrich Habermas’ account of reasoning across traditions. In what follows, I provide some summary of Adams’ argument with an eye to engaging each of these theological contexts.

According to Adams, Habermas neither accepts the claim that reason is only a mask for power, nor that a plurality of worldviews simply produces “a lovely rainbow of difference.” Rather, Habermas seeks to coordinate diverse traditions in the public sphere through “symmetrical relations” between participants in dialogue. “Symmetrical relations” refers to a cooperative procedure whereby different parties engage one another in the public sphere without claiming their particular commitments as normative for all. “For Habermas, symmetry is itself an expression of peaceability, and is emblematic of commitment to rational debate.” [1] Adams thus considers Habermas’ project a therapeutic one in that he seeks to make genuine public debate possible.

At the same time, Adams observes that Habermas’ public sphere cannot be “religious” or “traditioned” because its task is to host all religions. For Habermas, religion is “mythic” and “metaphysical” rather than “rational” and “post-metaphysical.” The significance of this description for Habermas is that religion cannot host public debate. While Habermas acknowledges the motivating power of religion, he believes that public speech is made possible by agreeing on procedure. Adams summarizes: “Habermas’ conception of a public sphere is a forum where all participants agree on how argumentation is to take place….” [2]

Adams’ argument, at this point, focuses on how Habermas comes remarkably close to certain themes in Christian theology. In fact, “his theory often simply secularises theological topics.” [3] Adams notes, for example, that Habermas would have more in common with theologians such as Rowan Williams (both guard against seeking to capture a god’s-eye view) and John Milbank (both share an insistence on the priority of peace) than with secular philosophers such as Richard Rorty or Jean-Francois Lyotard. Adams describes this “effort to secularise theology [as] vast, and in a world where religious traditions need to encounter each other as religious it seems a needless expenditure of precious energy.” [4]

Adams’ corrective to Habermas is to theorize public debate in an explicitly theological key. In doing so, he wishes to offer an alternative both to post-liberal theologies (as exemplified by Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank) as well as to the debate surrounding the possibility for a “public theology.” Post-liberal theologies, according to Adams, seem more devoted to showing Christians how to think about doctrine and ethics rather than how to engage and debate others in the public sphere. On the other hand, “public theologians,” who find post-liberal theology “dangerously insular,” advocate a “public theology” that is often poor theology. [5] Adams believes that Habermas challenges both of these “polar opposites” by making possible a better account of the public sphere than post-liberals give and a more robust theology than “public theologians” typically muster.

Instead of Habermas’ secularized account of symmetrical relations that rely on an ontology of peace to make public discourse possible, Adams turns to the practice of scriptural reasoning. Such a practice, he argues, offers the kind of repair that Habermas desires without relegating religion to the realm of the metaphysical, the mythical or the unreflective. Scriptural reasoning does this by asking participants not to abandon their particular religious commitments but rather to rely on their own commitments as a means to engage the other.

Adams provides an alternative to Habermas at this point by not secularizing theology (as Habermas does with Augustine’s “ontology of peace”), but by turning to scriptural texts. Different traditions, of course, “take different texts to be ‘scripture’ and interpret [these] in ways that are sometimes in concord and sometimes in conflict….” [6] Taking different readings of scripture seriously, however, can be a condition for a good public argument rather than an obstacle to it.

In his concluding chapter, therefore, Adams suggests that the practice of scriptural reasoning complements Habermas’ project. What makes scriptural reasoning possible is the shared desire across religious traditions to examine scriptural texts. Scriptural reasoning sees “deep reasoning” not as an obstacle to further debate but as a condition for “conversation, friendship and mutual understanding.” [7] Scriptural reasoning doesn’t call for a neutral “cosmopolitan” communication but rather asks participants to hear and learn each other’s “histories of wisdom” and languages as a means of engaging others. Adams summarizes,

Somehow, the recognition that each worships the one true God moves scriptural reasoning beyond an interaction determined by conventions for showing strangers hospitality. Showing strangers hospitality is a significant enough miracle. Yet scriptural reasoning does not quite reproduce this context: when members of three traditions meet together to study shared scripture, who is the guest and who is the host? In a way that is difficult to be clear about, the participants in scriptural reasoning all find themselves invited, not by each other, but by an agency that is not theirs to command or shape. There is an ‘other’ to the three traditions, and that seems in an obscure way to make friendships possible. [8]

As Adams describes it, participants acknowledge no authority outside of their own tradition other than the authority of God. In summary, the practice of scriptural reasoning displays the fact that theological commitment can make genuine public argumentation possible; one does not need to leave behind religious conviction in order to debate in the pubic sphere.

Adams’ project is an insightful contribution to public speaking and listening in a way that calls for, rather than erases, particular commitments. I find Adams’ theological account of the practice of reading Scripture with other traditions an intriguing way to imagine what conversation and friendship across religious traditions might look like. He rightly seeks to avoid developing some third language by which to communicate across traditions and instead offers a powerful rationale and invitation to Christians, Jews, Muslims and others to engage one another in conversation and debate around common texts.

In making his case, however, Adams worries that post-liberal theologians are so devoted to how Christians are to think about doctrine and ethics that they pay scant attention to engaging and debating others in the public sphere. Yet, is this a legitimate either/or contrast (doctrine versus public debate) within post-liberal theology itself, or within any theology for that matter? Questions surrounding engagement with others are always necessarily doctrinal matters as they involve questions of vision—of how to see others—which inevitably draw from storied commitments. Stanley Hauerwas describes the kind of worry that Adams appears to have about post-liberal theology:

To do theology with no other foundation than Jesus Christ strikes many as dangerous if not irresponsible. Such a theology, it is claimed, surely must be relativistic and fideistic, since it lacks any ‘rational’ basis. Moreover, it has no means to speak to the wider world, thus robbing Christians of any way to serve their non-Christian neighbor. Even worse such a theology invites a triumphalistic attitude incompatible with Christian humility. [9]

Hauerwas’ broader point is that a focus on particularity, i.e., no other foundation than Jesus Christ, is not in and of itself insular. Any practice of engagement with others is always going to be “storied,” that is, informed by specific doctrines, ethics, convictions and so forth. Adams shows in a persuasive way how this is true of Habermas’ secularized theology. With the turn away from the tradition-neutral assumptions and criteria, Adams extends this aspect of post-liberal theology. At the same time, it is unclear, in my view, why Adams considers post-liberal theology (or a position such as Hauerwas’) less able to engage and debate others of different convictions.

Secondly, in seeking to describe the possibility of public debate, Adams seems to suggest an open space where various religious traditions come together and make their reasoning “public.” Adams also acknowledges “that there are no tradition-neutral terms…,” and “…the public sphere is itself a tradition-specific concept….” [10] He helpfully traces the development of “public” in the West to Christian European culture, noting that this development includes a secularization as well. He concludes, “the point is that even the term ‘public sphere’ is a problem: it refers to an arena that is Christian through and through. This study will continue to use the term to describe the public arena in which different traditions might meet and debate, but only in default of a better term.” [11] Adams summarizes difficulties with using the word “public,” and importantly qualifies his use of the phrase “public sphere” as a default term.

This is a helpful qualification that I suggest can be strengthened in the following way. D. Stephen Long notes that the question “What role does theology have in the public realm?” assumes that “some discourse exists located in a social reality greater than that which, for Christians, is the only truly catholic reality, the church. Whether the assumed broader social reality is called ‘the public,’ ‘society,’ ‘civilization,’ or ‘the political,’ to ask the question of theology’s relevance to such a grand social reality inevitably subordinates the church to it….” [12] As Long indicates, the church is itself already a particular public, one that is determined most fully by the worship of God, a worship not limited to our time but including the communion of saints. From this perspective, the church is wider than any public we can possibly conceive in our own time and place. In my view, it would be more accurate to describe a seemingly rich and compelling practice like scriptural reasoning as different publics engaging one another, rather than religions entering a “public sphere” (with the private/public baggage that tends to accompany this usage). Adams rightly registers the fact that the church has at times lost sight of itself as a public; scriptural reasoning, as Adams describes it, appears to be a rich way of extending the particular public that is the body of Christ to our non-Christian neighbors. This is not a hegemonic extension, but one, as Adams describes it, which is a genuine exchange.

Finally, Adams insightfully relates scriptural reasoning to the practice of hospitality. He observes that hospitality is a practice that the three majority religious traditions embrace, though each will do so in different ways and with different theologies. By asking, “Who is guest and who is host?” Adams rightly emphasizes that hospitality is fluid, with giving and receiving going in both directions such that the roles of guests and hosts are continually reversed. Such an understanding is rooted in the acknowledgement that God is the Supreme Host; we are all (Christian and non-Christian alike) guests in God’s good creation. In worship, we could add, Christians are gathered by God through the power of the Spirit to receive the Word and Sacrament. Worship itself is hospitality, yet those gathered are not simply recipients; we return our praise and thanksgiving, even as we seek in the “liturgy after the liturgy” (which would include the practice of Scriptural Reasoning) to extend God’s love to the world.

For those less familiar with the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, Adams provides a helpful description of this practice as an extension of hospitality. Christians practice hospitality toward stranger, enemy, and friend because of the conviction that this is what God is like: that we are strangers and even enemies to God does not negate God’s love and care for us. Even more, Christians practice hospitality because we believe God is present in and with the stranger, most fully that Stranger we have learned to call Jesus Christ. Other religious traditions also practice hospitality. Though the reasons vary, there is, as Adams notes about Scriptural Reasoning, a shared conviction that “God is not circumscribed by their tradition.” [13] For Christians, this means more specifically that our story is not closed off; the Word of God is characterized by surplus and repletion. Since the Word is overly rich, we are free to welcome other readings and other challenges, even as we seek to welcome this Word in our life, an embodiment rightly called hospitality. In his erudite analysis, Adams gives his readers a powerful way to think about relying upon theological convictions even as one engages those of differing traditions.


[1] Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology,  (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006), p. 27.
[2] Ibid., p. 4.
[3] Ibid., p. 235.
[4] Ibid., p. 236.
[5] Ibid., p. 11.
[6] Ibid., p. 238.
[7] Ibid., p. 242.
[8] Ibid., p. 243.
[9] Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company: The Church as Polis,  (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame), p. 33.
[10] Adams, pp. 6 and 250.
[11] Ibid., p. 4.
[12] D. Stephen Long, John Wesley’s Moral Theology, The Quest for God and Goodness,  (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 2005), 210; emphasis added. In a similar vein, Frederick Bauerschmidt notes the difficulty of reading Julian of Norwich as “political” in the face of modern Western political orders that presume “theology and politics are or should be something distinct. Theology is concerned with either private realms of religious inwardness or the semiprivate realm of the church as a voluntary association, whereas politics is concerned with the state and the exercise of public authority. To mix the two is to put modern pluralistic society at risk,” in Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politics of Christ,  (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1999), 3.
[13] Ibid., p. 244.