Religion in the public sphere:

Translation and transformation

posted by Craig Calhoun

In my last post, I closed with two questions relating to Jurgen Habermas’s recent work on religion and the public sphere: First, is a genealogical or language-theoretical reconstruction of reason adequate without an existential connection between social and cultural history on the one hand and individual biography on the other? Second, is “translation” an adequate conceptualization of what is involved in making religious insights accessible to nonreligious participants in public discourse (and vice-versa)?

The two questions are closely related, for the issue is how communication is achieved across lines of deep difference. Helpful as translation may be, it is not the whole story. Rawls uses the notion of translation to describe the ways in which the rational arguments of religious people are rendered accessible to secular interlocutors. This would appear to involve a kind of expurgation as well, the removal of ostensibly untranslatable (because irrational) elements of faith. But translation is also a common metaphor for describing communication across lines of cultural difference; indeed many anthropologists speak of their work as the “translation of culture.” Translation implies that differences between languages can be overcome without interference from deeper differences between cultures, or indeed from incommensurabilities of languages themselves. It implies a highly cognitive model of understanding, independent of inarticulate connections among meanings or the production of meaning in action rather than passive contemplation. But the idea of translating religious arguments into terms accessible to secular fellow-citizens is more complicated. To be sure, restricting attention to argumentative speech reduces the extent of problems because arguments are already understood to be a restricted set of speech acts and are more likely to be commensurable than some others. But the meaning of arguments may be more or less embedded in broader cultural understandings, personal experiences and practices of argumentation that themselves have somewhat different standing in different domains. (To “translate” a classic religious argument for the existence of God—e.g., one of Aquinas’s attempts to transform faith into knowledge—into secular terms as a demonstration of God’s existence for unbelievers might be informative, but it could not reproduce the meaning of the original argumentative project.)

Bridging the kinds of hermeneutic distance suggested by the notion of having deeply religious and nonreligious arguments commingle in the public sphere cannot be accomplished by translation alone. Perhaps translation is not meant literally, but only as a metaphor for the activity of becoming able to understand the arguments of another—but that is already an important distinction. We are indeed more able to understand the arguments of others when we understand more of their intellectual and personal commitments and cultural frames (“where they are coming from” in popular parlance). In this regard Habermas sometimes signals a “mutual interrogation” or “complementary learning process” that is more than simply translation. This is important and true to his earlier emphasis on intersubjectivity. But this is still a very cognitive conception, and one that implies parties to a discussion—perhaps a Platonic symposium—who arrive at new understandings without themselves being changed.

Where really basic issues are at stake, it is often the case that mutual understanding cannot be achieved without change in one or both of the parties. By participating in relationships with each other, including by pursuing rational mutual understanding, we open ourselves to becoming somewhat different people. The same goes at collective levels: mutual engagement across national or cultural or religious frontiers changes the pre-existing nations, cultures, and religions, and future improvements in mutual understanding stem from this change as well as from “translation.” Sectarian differences among Protestants or between Protestants and Catholics are thus not merely resolved in rational argumentation. Sometimes they fade without resolution because they simply don’t seem as important to either side. A shifting context and changed projects of active engagement in understanding and forming intellectual and normative commitments changes the significance of such arguments (as for example when committed Christians feel themselves more engaged in arguments with nonChristians and the irreligious—including arguments with those who believe secular understandings are altogether sufficient—than they are in arguments with each other). But a process of transformation in culture, belief, and self is also often involved. We become people able to understand each other. This may improve our capacity to reason together, but the process of transformation is not itself necessarily entirely rational.

Habermas is right when he follows Weithman and Wolterstorff in insisting that the acts of translation necessary to the full incorporation of religious citizens and arguments into the public sphere are not the sole responsibility of the religious, but must be cooperative. But we also need to recognize that histories of mutual engagement that produce both common understandings and citizens able to understand each other are not simply matters of translation or advances of reason. They are also particular histories that forge particular cultural connections and commonalities.

Such cultures of integration are historically produced bases for the solidarity of citizens. Whether they can be construed in evolutionary terms as “advances” in truth or along some other dimension is uncertain. As Mendieta suggests, questions of religion crystallize the tension “between reason as a universal standard and the inescapable fact that reason is embodied only historically and in contingent social practices.”  This bears on the nature of collective commitments to processes of public reason and the decisions they produce. The Rawlsian liberal model depends on a “reasonable background consensus” that can establish the terms and conditions of the properly political discourse. Wolterstorff doubts whether this exists. Habermas is more hopeful—and reason for hope seems strongest if what is required is only what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus,” not a more universal agreement. Hope may be still greater if the overlapping consensus may be forged in multiple vernaculars, and out of cultural mixing, not simply linguistic neutrality.  This suggests, however, that what is required is a practical orientation rather than an agreement as to the truth. This is precisely Wolterstorff’s (and Habermas’s) concern: “that majority resolutions in an ideologically divided society can at best yield reluctant adaptations to a kind of modus vivendi”. A utilitarian compromise—based on the expectation of doing better in the next majority vote—is an inadequate basis for continuing solidarity where there is not merely a disagreement over shares of commonly recognized goods, but over the very idea of the good. “Conflict on existential values between communities of faith cannot be solved by compromise.”

This is of course a crucial reason why Habermas has held that we must separate substantive questions about the good life from procedural questions about just ways of ordering common life. I believe he retains the conviction that this separation is important and possible. It is intrinsic to his support for a “constitutional patriotism.” But it is challenged by recognition that for religious citizens to give reasons in terms “accessible” to secular citizens may be unjustly difficult or even impossible. And it is challenged further if one agrees that religious faith, but also specificities of cultural traditions, may make it difficult for citizens to render all that is publicly important to them in the form of criticizable validity claims.

Conflicts between world views and religious doctrines that lay claim to explaining man’s position in the world as a whole cannot be laid to rest at the cognitive level. As soon as these cognitive dissonances penetrate as far as the foundations for a normative integration of citizens, the political community disintegrates into irreconcilable segments so that it can only survive on the basis of an unsteady modus vivendi. In the absence of the uniting bond of a civic solidarity, which cannot be legally enforced, citizens do not perceive themselves as free and equal participants in the shared practices of democratic opinion and will formation wherein they owe one another reasons for their political statements and attitudes. This reciprocity of expectations among citizens is what distinguishes a community integrated by constitutional values from a community segmented along the dividing lines of competing world views.

The basic question is whether or how much commonalities of belief are crucial to the integration of political communities. How important is it for citizens to believe in the truth of similar propositions “explaining man’s position in the world”?

As Durkheim suggested by distinguishing mechanical from organic solidarity, communities are integrated in ways other than by shared values (constitutional or otherwise) and worldviews. But the Durkheimian binary is too simple. Habermas takes it over, to some extent, in the distinction of lifeworld from system. In general (and rightly), he sees a mismatch between the scale of integration accomplished on the basis of systems of money and power without the communicative understanding of participants, and the capacities of the lifeworld to generate such integrative understandings. Insofar as communicative action in lifeworlds yields diverse substantive understandings (and projects) of the good life, it cannot yield the necessary integration on a large scale. But to the extent that communicative action may underwrite agreement on procedures, it may generate a “mechanical” solidarity based on a common view of at least one aspect of the world. This is embodied in the project of constitutionalism, where constitutions are limited to procedural rather than substantive norms. As the phrase “constitutional patriotism” suggests, Habermas also hopes this will help to solve problems of motivation and commitment which are otherwise secured only in commitments to diverse ways of life and solidarities that are incommensurable (such as ethnicities). This invests a great deal of hope in the relatively thin commonality of similarities of propositional belief and acceptance of procedures (however valuable). Communities are also products of a variety of social relationships, recognized in varying degree by their members. Bonds of civic solidarity are produced in networks of practice and functional interdependence that are linguistically recognized as well as on the basis of values and propositions “explaining man’s position in the world as a whole.” Indeed, participation in the public sphere may contribute to this solidarity. Solidarity is not just a condition for reciprocal exchange of reasons in public discourse; it can be a product.

This is not the place to try to defend a different view of the production of social solidarity in which culture is not reduced to common propositional beliefs and the binary oppositions of mechanical and organic or lifeworld and system are complemented by attention to webs of social relations and processes of historical creativity and transformation in culture. My point here is the more limited suggestion that religion figures in these processes in ways that transcend “beliefs.”

Habermas seems to be considering this possibility in his most recent writings. In a post to The Immanent Frame, Charles Taylor notes that Habermas’s “position on religious discourse has considerably evolved; to the point of recognizing that its ‘potential makes religious discourse a serious candidate for possible truth content with respect to relevant political issues.'” (Translation of Habermas quote from Alex Skinner.)

I look forward to exploring this interesting development in Habermas’s thinking at another time.

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One Response to “Translation and transformation”

  1. This is a perspective that focuses on the formation of the common ground or the overlapping consensus, and the role of religious discourse or intervention that must constitute an element therein. What I think needs to be done, in parallel fashion, is in the nature of religious discourse itself. When would a religious discourse be willing to engage in this democratic project, and under what conditions? As Asad has argued, correctly I think, the secular and religious in modern society have been formed in mutuality. Does this modern condition not complicate the way in which a secular discourse may or should include religious justification?

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