Reasons Without Truth by William Wood

September 24, 2018

Towards the end of his bold attempt to write a history of reason itself in just a little over 150 pages, Martin Jay describes a paradigm shift in “our” concept of reason:

“It might be said, or at least plausibly hoped, that both the Enlightenment Age of Reason and the Counter-Enlightenment Age of Reason’s Other have been left behind, and in their place is dawning a new Age of Reasons. Here [“the space of reasons”] is becoming more than just a metaphor, but being given increasing institutional embodiment in the political, cultural, legal, scientific, and other public spheres of modern life.”

I find it impossible to read this passage as anything other than a dispatch from a vanished world. Perhaps in 2012, when Jay first delivered these words, we could plausibly hope that what philosophers call “the space of reasons” might become coextensive with the institutions of the public sphere. That hope now seems quaint at best, delusional at worst.

In Reason After Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory, Jay critiques some ancient, modern, and post-modern accounts of reason and defends Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality as a better alternative. To say that rationality is “communicative” is to say that the norms of rationality emerge from the norms of human discourse. We cannot communicate with one another at all unless we accept, at least implicitly, certain rational norms. For example, when we assert a claim—any claim whatsoever—we imply that the claim is based on reasons and evidence. We also commit to sharing our reasons and evidence when others call these claims into question. Rationality is formal, pragmatic, and linguistic.

When we communicate with one another we enter the space of “reasons,” in the plural, and not “reason,” in the singular, because the history of philosophy shows that we must give up the quest for any overarching, substantive notion of Reason, whether handed down by God or deduced by Kant. There is no Reason itself, only individual reasons, shared by individual people who reason together while they communicate.

Habermas offers the best non-theistic account of rationality available, and, although I do not endorse it, I find it sufficiently plausible to worry that it is correct, and that there really is nothing more to say about the nature of reason. For what would it mean, in 2018, to endorse the idea that the norms of rationality emerge from human discourse? Our culture no longer seems to value reasoned discourse very much at all. This seems obvious when it comes to our politics, but it is becoming increasingly true in other spheres too, including the contemporary consumerist university.

Suppose that the norms of reasoning do emerge from the broader patterns of communication that prevail in a culture at large. So what happens when the culture at large treats reason-giving as unimportant, and is content even to efface the distinction between truth and falsehood? Unless we have some further story to tell about what gives reason its normative force, then we might find ourselves with no way to critique those who insist that might makes right. If that were to happen, the light of reason would not just be in eclipse, it would be extinguished altogether.

William Wood is a Fellow and Tutor in Theology at Oriel College, Oxford.

A Catholic House of Cards by Jane Little

Jane Little was the founding Religious Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service and is currently the Associate Director of Religion and Its Publics 

September 18, 2018

The Pennsylvania Report in mid-August managed to shock even us journalists who had covered the Roman Catholic Church scandal of child sexual abuse and its cover-up since 2002.

The hideous details, the staggering scale, the neat and accurate description of the hierarchy’s “playbook for concealing the truth” were there for all to see. And they served to usher in a spate of further revelations, the latest, as of this writing, being that over half of the bishops in the Netherlands were involved in a cover up or of abuse themselves.

The scandal of child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church and the heinous cover up by its leaders has shaken the church to its foundations.

I feel as though I’ve said those words before, indeed on multiple occasions since 2002, when the scandal first erupted in the Boston Archdiocese. And now other phrases I used on air, such as “worst crisis for the church since the Reformation,” sound almost quaint.

It’s hard to find the words to capture the catastrophic situation facing the church leadership whose authority has been all but destroyed at its own hands. There may be many safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable these days, but the leadership hasn’t scratched the surface of the cover-up. And for many survivors I interviewed over the years, it was the cover-up – the second crime – that was almost worse than the original one.

The trampling of trust and squandering of moral authority is now almost complete. And how can the church recover when the very men who refused to see and take action are now tasked with cleaning up their own acts? Or failures to act?

Pope Francis may have done a better job than his predecessors of facing and articulating the enormity of the sins and crimes against vulnerable children. But yet again he’s undermined his own efforts (as he did with his initial response to the Chilean Church crisis when he appeared to side with bishops accused of cover up) with a homily that makes the secular world wince.

In it, Pope Francis blamed the devil, though not for being behind the abuse or its cover ups. Instead, he appeared to blame Satan for exposing the cover ups.  Using the term the Great Accuser, he said “the great accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops.”

There was some ambiguity there. Could he have been referring to Cardinal Carlo Vigano, former papal nuncio to the United States, who had accused the Pope himself of knowing about the allegations against disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for five years and ignoring them? Whatever he meant, he explicitly claimed that Satan “tries to uncover the sins so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”

Even if the pope meant something deep and subtle and spiritual (he called on the bishops to pray), it is surely not the time to suggest that it is a dark power at work targeting the poor bishops who are the victims. Yet again such an implication reveals a tone deafness at the top, particularly when so many inside and outside the Church see the exposures as a good thing – a sign that the light is getting in and exposing the darkness, not the other way around.

All of this takes me back to my first foreign trip as Religious Affairs Reporter for the BBC World Service. In the spring of 1998, I went to Rome and interviewed a group of Catholic nuns. In my naivete I thought they would be humble, self-effacing types, deferring to the authority of the male clerics. I was wrong.

Instead I met revolutionaries. When I asked what the church leadership needed to reform itself and meet the challenges of the time (and this was four years before the sexual abuse crisis hit) one sister from Australia said, “Oh that’s not possible. We need to demolish the current leadership.”

“Yes,” said a sister from South Africa, “we need a committee of women to run the church.”

They all laughed.  But they meant it. And now, in the #MeToo era it seems so prescient. And perhaps not so unrealistic.

Women and, as the Pennsylvania report suggested, lay people may need to take the lead and carry out a root and branch reform. And perhaps an end to an all-male hierarchy – which Pope John Paul II suggested is infallible doctrine and Pope Francis appeared to confirm – may finally be on the horizon?

Review of David Tonghou Ngong’s Expansive New History of African Christian Thought by Tim Hartman

September 14, 2018

In A New History of African Christian Thought: From Cape to Cairo (Routledge, 2017), David Tonghou Ngong has curated and offered insightful contributions to a much-needed new history of African Christian thought. The defining and unifying claim of the volume is that African Christian thought is geographical. As Ngong writes: “This book sees African Christian thought as Christian thought that has been generated through African engagement with the Christian faith from antiquity to the present. The purpose of doing this is to maintain clear geographic unity of the continent.”

To this end, Ngong challenges alternative definitions that suggest that African Christian thought can only be written by black Africans living south of the Sahara Desert and north of the Limpopo River. He expands the geography to include the region of North Africa and the country of South Africa (hence the subtitle of From Cape to Cairo), and he also enlarges the historical period to cover the patristic era, thereby including Augustine, Tertullian, and Origen among the early pioneers of African Christian thought.

Ngong began this project because he could not find an appropriate text for his introductory course in African Christianity. This volume fills that gap and I highly recommend it for anyone seeking an introduction to Christianity in Africa from theological and historical perspectives. With chapters on early Alexandrian theology, St. Augustine, inculturation theology, liberation theology, evangelical theology, and homosexuality, Ngong’s work is useful for readers with a variety of interests.

Overall, Ngong’s book is a careful work of scholarship with readable prose and carefully constructed footnotes that allow for further exploration.  Among chapters of varying quality, Ngong’s own contributions are particularly significant. The introduction, the first chapter on the theological significance of Africa and Africans in the Bible, and the fifth chapter on Africa and the Christian Doctrine of God, all written by Ngong, offer a useful assessment of the historical and theological developments within Christian thought on the African continent. Other important chapters by Laurenti Magesa, Gerald West, and Rothney Tshaka demonstrate the diversity of the contributors: historians, theologians, and biblical scholars, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, from southern Africa, East Africa and the diaspora.

The main shortcoming of the book is an omission that Ngong notes in the introduction: the lack of any essays on African Women’s theology or African Pentecostalism. Fortunately, there are many authors within the Circle of Concerned African Women who have written on the numerous contributions of women to African theology. Esther Mombo’s “Women in African Christianities” in Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa provides a good recent overview of some of these contributions. For those looking to supplement their understanding of Pentecostalism, the fastest growing segment of Christianity in Africa, Kwebena Asamoah-Gyadu’s books are highly recommended, especially Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations From an African Context, which builds on Ogbu Kalu’s important book African Pentecostalism.

Ngong is to be commended for the foresight of this book and his significant contributions to it. Anyone with a specific interest in the development and growth of Christianity in Africa or anyone with a general interest in Christian thought would deeply benefit from this informative and perceptive book.

Tim Hartman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary