Religious Reasons in Public Debate: On Stopping Conversation

The first article in this series argued that religious reasons ought to be included in discussions surrounding issues of public policy. Barth’s rejection of natural theology makes it clear that, while natural premises might be shared by nearly all, they are ill-equipped to communicate religious ideas. With Stout’s second option, to translate theological reasons into reasons based on shared or natural premises, rejected as an unworkable compromise for the religious interlocutor, the second article in this series turns to Stout’s third option, to give religious reasons while engaging in criticism of the opponent’s views. For the Christian, this is the only possible dialogical action that can avoid the dishonest compromise of attempting to communicate knowledge of God through natural premises. This article will close the series by addressing the possible problem of stopping conversation.

        While the first article in this series argued that the Christian has every theological justification for choosing Stout’s third option—to express religious reasons in public debate, rather than staying silent or giving reasons based on shared premises—Rorty’s initial concern that religious reasons will stop conversation still stands. The introduction of religious reasons into a conversation certainly could stop or at least change the direction of conversation. However, this outcome is far from necessary. Rorty’s conception of religion as a completely private practice for self betterment might make him personally uncomfortable confronting someone’s religious assumptions, but when the Christian introduces her religious assumptions into public dialogue she also submits them for criticism. Bettis notes that this is the danger of Barth’s public theology: “Barth demands that the theologian expresses himself in terms of what he understands and that with this he put himself and his thought on the line, open to criticism and attack.”1 With the introduction of new premises into the discussion, an atheist interlocutor then has the option of continuing the conversation by criticizing those premises on various grounds.

        Rorty might respond that this change in the direction of the conversation is not at all better than stopping the conversation because there is still no progress being made toward tangible policy outcomes. Yet, one cannot help but ask when the boundaries of productive conversation were drawn and who it was that excluded the conversation of religion from that field of play? As previously quoted, Rorty states that the Christian does not have any unique compromise asked of her that is not asked of the atheist; only that no premise is held as authoritative over another. But does excluding one set of premises simply because they do not fit the standards of another not then give one set authority over the other? In this case, Rorty’s reluctance to discuss religious premises inherently makes the same claim of authority that Rorty fears from religion.

A Faith in Motion

        Rorty’s fear of claims to religious authority to the exclusion of dissenting voices is not unfounded. Historically, the church has seen religious authoritarianism recreated in and through various governments. However, rejecting religious premises and exalting natural ones has not proven to be any more peaceful—as shown by the many communist projects with the rejection of religion at their foundation. In Barth’s view, theology ought never see itself as a finished product, instead it functions with a demanded humility that constantly thrusts it “back to the beginning” to start over.2 With this process of humility and constant reconsideration in light of Revelation, the atheist’s criticism of Christian premises can serve a critical function in the life of faith, insofar as they participate in the motion of that faith.

        While the content of Revelation is perfect and without flaw, the human interpretation of that Revelation creates more than enough space for flaws in the construction of theology. Barth describes the nature of human participation in theology, “which in itself is no kind of surety for the correctness of the appropriation in question [and] which is by nature fallible and therefore stands in need of criticism, of correction, of critical amendment and repetition.”3 Barth sees theology as “faith seeking understanding.” In his view faith is required for Christian theological engagement, and is by nature always striving to understand that which has been revealed. Therefore, speaking in faith, or giving a religious reason, is never a static reciting of Church doctrine, but a mode of proclaiming that which the Christian is seeking to understand.4 Bettis describes this posture of seeking understanding as one that submits premises to honest criticism, only to respond by listening rather than justifying, because in humble listening the Christian hopes to find a new sense of understanding.5

A Role of Resistance

        Admittedly, the inclusion of religious premises into the discussion for criticism could very well lead to a lapse in conversation. Stout rightly points out that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but only an indication that those are the very things that need be discussed most.6 In his view, two interlocutors who have reached an impasse need only “back up a few paces,” in order to start the conversation again with a broader objective. In these conversations with the biggest divides between the working premises of each participant, the objective might turn to simply learning and trying to understand an opposing perspective. Such conversations will lay critical groundwork for future conversation and allow for progress to occur—with both sides starting from an understanding of the other’s premises.7

        There will also be times when stopping conversation is a necessary function of the church community in fulfilling their role of resistance. Bad premises yield bad policies. When conversation is progressing on the lines of bad premises and there exists a religious critique of those premises, the best thing that a religious interlocutor can hope for is an end to progress (if it means following those premises to their logical ends). Barth argues that when the rights of the individual might overtake the whole, or vice versa, it is the role of the religious community to speak from a position of resistance, pointing all those involved back to their inclusion in the greater community with Christ as its center.8 If conversation is limited to a set of premises that are broken, then there will be no means of questioning the validity of those premises. Questioning a society’s shared premises and speaking from a different starting point is critical if external critiques and alternatives are to be offered.

The Prospects of a Theological Bilinguality

        In a closely related conversation, a sage Jesuit once asked how Barth’s rejection of natural theology, and more specifically the application of his rejection to Rorty’s work, would reconcile Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where Paul describes his self-adaptation for the sake of the gospel, concluding that he has “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”9 In light of this question, I would be remiss if I failed to consider a possible contradiction between Barth and Paul on the issue of “bilingually,”10 or the translation of theological concepts into secular language for the sake of understanding.

        Barth’s rejection of any bilinguality between fields has been discussed in this paper through his rejection of natural theology and is well attested to elsewhere. The Word of God is to serve as the sole source of church proclamation and no other concept or set of premises is suited to accurately communicate theological truth. With this in mind, however, Barth does leave room for a different sort of bilinguality. Martin Laubscher draws on much of Barth’s work following World War II and demonstrates that Barth often advocated for the translation of theological language while keeping theological concepts intact.11 Barth takes into consideration the need to translate the church’s confessional language into the “language of Canaan” or any other venue for the proclamation of Jesus Christ.<12So while Barth would never allow for a change in ideas to accommodate a set of shared premises, he would argue in favor of communicating the unchanged concepts of revelation in the best way possible, and the task of communication will often require the adoption of language that is familiar to the context of the proclamation.


        While the introduction of religious reasons into a seemingly secular conversation will likely change the dynamic of the conversation, it does not then follow that those reasons should be kept out of the conversation. Rorty’s conclusion that religious interlocutors ought to stick to shared premises when conversing about public policy—or any other issue that might affect the public as a whole—is unacceptable for the Christian. Shared, or natural, premises are not suited to accurately convey religious concepts concerning the Word of God. The role of the Christian, who makes up the church, is to proclaim the Word of God. In doing so, religious premises are submitted to criticism and the faith required in such a proclamation is grounded with the necessary humility to listen to those criticisms out of a desire for understanding. While the introduction of religious reasons will not necessarily stop conversation, religious communities will at times have the responsibility of appealing to religious reasons in order to change the trajectory of a conversation’s progress.

        While the makeup of the church has changed greatly, the mission of the church is still the same today. The church ought to continue to boldly proclaim the name of Christ into all corners of the earth and all spheres of our society. If it is the case that Christ is at the center of all things, then the voice of the church ought to grow stronger in its proclamation of that center. In making Christ known, the church will have much to say about ethical issues at both the micro and the macro level. However, the church must be steadfast in correcting any haughtiness or vanity within its voice. Humility is the only appropriate posture for a faith that is seeking understanding and our voice ought to recognize that while the Truth has been revealed to us, we still have to interpret that truth and are very much in a process of coming to know rather than holding a complete picture.

        The church ought to hold fast to a conceptual integrity in its proclamation, while simultaneously searching for ways to translate the language of those concepts into the language of the fields to which we proclaim. Such translation of language will likely prove to create more fertile ground for conversation and mutual understanding between people working from different sets of assumptions. Perhaps Rorty’s biggest flaw in his critique of religious reasons is the way that he defines a successful conversation. Rorty seems to value progress toward action, as the purpose of conversation and has little room for growing in understanding while still maintaining difference. For democratic culture to support the vast pluralism of ideas that our world now sees, a spirit of understanding is vital for both the religious and nonreligious. A world where people of differing ideas are unable to communicate and do not seek to understand one another facilitates suspicion and hate of the other who refuses to cooperate within the “appropriate parameters.” Islamaphobia in the United States and throughout the world serves as an apt illustration of what comes from one group’s lack of understanding and lack of desire to understand another. Such a world is one that Christians have a vested interest in resisting.

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Creighton Coleman

Creighton Coleman

Creighton is a Wichita native currently pursuing an M.A. in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University (SLU). Prior to SLU, Creighton completed a B.A. in Political Science at Wichita State University (2012) as well as an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University (2013), in the Los Angeles area. He enjoys sports, trying new food, and re-watching The West Wing.

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