Letting Go of the Truth

Gianni Vattimo is a member of the European Parliament and a teacher of hermeneutic philosophy at the University of Turin. In After Christianity,[1] Vattimo’s objective, simply put, is to bring philosophy and religion back together again. Vattimo’s perspective is a Christian one, but methodologically he is a philosopher rather than a theologian. For Vattimo, postmodern thought paves the way to a new interpretation of the Christian message. The act of interpretation itself, as we shall see, is a fundamental postmodern precept. Secularization is an obvious trend in the West and is generally understood as the deviation from religion, but Vattimo digs deeper to find within Western secularization a concealed Christian identity. The purpose of this essay is to work through the author’s main arguments, beginning with the problems surrounding philosophical atheism, and to analyze some of the methodological implications of his findings on the academic study of religion.

The modern emphasis on rationality and objectivity formed the intellectual basis for philosophical atheism, that is to say the denial of the existence of god from the standpoint of metaphysics. The modern rational mindset favored the advancement of science and technology while it shunned any claim to truth that could not be empirically proven. The implication of this modern rational mindset for religion was necessarily unfavorable since religion encompasses, almost by definition, claims that cannot be empirically or objectively proven. The religious idea of “god” as a first principle or a metaphysical explanation of the nature of the universe was unpalatable to modern philosophy since it could not be proven using strictly rational and objective intellectual faculties. Furthermore, philosophical atheism was suitable to a modern science of metaphysics that preferred absolute theories over historical interpretations. Hence, within this modern intellectual context, atheism could be philosophically “proven by default” given the absence of concrete evidence regarding the existence of god.

Ironically though, religion contributed to the development of modern science in the first place. According to Vattimo, Max Weber was instrumental in demonstrating this: “we can easily recall along Weberian lines the significance of monotheism for the development of the scientific vision of the world as well as the conception of the human task of mastering the earth, which God, according the Scripture, assigned to humanity” (Vattimo, 66). The installation of monotheism within humankind’s intellectual makeup therefore constituted the first attempt by humans to explain, in absolute terms, the world in which they live. Monotheism introduced the very possibility of such an explanation and propelled humankind’s desire to pursue it further: “The belief in God was a powerful instrument of rationalization and discipline, which enabled man to leave the primitive state of the bellum omnium contra omnes, favoring the constitution of the ‘scientific’ world view and paving the way for technology, with its reassuring effects that facilitate existence” (Vattimo, 12). In other words, monotheism created the human appetite for metaphysical explanation, which ultimately led to the advent of modern science and technology. Indeed, monotheism provided humanity with the tools and the ambition to dominate nature: “Monotheism (to speak in very rough approximations) is the condition in which nature can be conceived of from the unitary perspective of a physical science, which is the indispensable basis of the technological domination over nature” (Vattimo, 75). But the mixture of metaphysics and monotheism also proved to be lethal, providing the basis for violence in the name of religion: “violence found its way into Christianity when Christianity made an alliance with metaphysics as the ‘science of Being as being,’ that is, as the knowledge of first principles” (Vattimo, 117).

The modern propensity to derive absolute truth from reason, rooted in biblical monotheism, is the specific target of postmodern criticism. In After Christianity, Vattimo engages in a philosophical analysis of religion from such a postmodern perspective. According to Vattimo, “The pluralistic world in which we live cannot be interpreted by an ideology that wants to unify it at all costs in the name of a sole truth, which some academic disciplines would have the task and capacity of knowing” (Vattimo, 5). According to postmodern thinking, the universal laws of modernity are not compatible with the pluralistic character of the world, a character that scientific and technological progress themselves inadvertently revealed. Furthermore, the postmodern thinker problematizes the entire modern intellectual structure in which distinct academic disciplines have been specifically created to encourage the discovery of absolute laws through the means of rational and scientific investigation. While the benefits of modern scientific and technological progress are everywhere evident, the modern search for absolute laws to explain the nature of the universe has, in the opinion of postmodernists, now reached the limit of its usefulness. The foundation and validity of modern metaphysics are therefore now being called into question by Vattimo and postmodernists generally.

Nietzsche’s death of god theory provides the cornerstone for Vattimo’s postmodern argument in After Christianity. According to Nietzsche, modern scientific and technological progress has explained so much about the nature of the world in non-religious, scientific terms that god has become rather irrelevant. In this way, Nietzsche claims that believers have “killed” god through their own rational search for universal scientific truths. For Vattimo, rationalization and the associated “lightening” of existence “has made useless and obsolete the radical hypothesis concerning the existence of a supreme Being as the ground and ultimate telos of the world” (Vattimo, 13). Furthermore, Vattimo associates Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of god with the decline of metaphysics. On the basis of Heidegger’s theory of existentialism, Vattimo  explains that “Metaphysics has unmasked itself as an untenable and inefficacious belief insofar as the ideal order, to which it always in principle related itself, has become the de facto order of the rationalized world of modern technological society” (Vattimo, 14). Our attempt to explain the world has gotten us to the point where everything fits neatly together according to the rational principles which underlie our approach, yet the idea that we have “solved the puzzle” of existence still strikes postmodernists as inconceivable. The total organization of society removes the element of freedom from existence, something that for Heidegger is theoretically unthinkable. The human imagination thrives on the basis of openness and possibility, two concepts that seem to be contradicted by the purely objective structure of being associated with the findings of modern science. Metaphysics is ultimately discredited for assuming a neutral, objective position in relation to the reality it pretends to observe. Such an objective stance is, according to postmodern thought, theoretically problematic, since modern scientific observers and experimenters are themselves inextricably involved with their own object of study. Metaphysics, then, can be reduced to the belief in an objective world order, a belief that “evaporates when it is revealed to be untenable” (Vattimo, 13). After the death of god, truth is weakened by the loss of its stable, objective quality, and is left fluctuating according to the rise and fall of the variable relationships that are now understood to constitute its essence: “The death of the moral God marks the impossibility of preferring truth to friendship, because the meaning of that death is that there is no ‘objective,’ ontological truth that might be upheld as anything other than friendship, will to power, or subjective bond” (Vattimo, 105).  

These inherent problems with metaphysics prompt postmodernists to shift their focus from distant observation to engaged interpretation. As Vattimo explains, the end of metaphysics “is above all associated with a series of events that have transformed our existence, of which post-metaphysical philosophy gives an interpretation rather than an objective description” (Vattimo, 15). Vattimo conceives of Being post-metaphysically as “event” rather than objective structure: “Since it is not an object, Being does not possess the stability assigned to it by the metaphysical tradition” (Vattimo, 21). Interestingly, this post-metaphysical shift from objective description to subjective interpretation undermines philosophical atheism: “The end of metaphysics and the death of the moral God have liquidated the philosophical basis of atheism” (Vattimo, 17). Philosophical atheism, insofar as it absolutely denies the existence of god, is a positivism that is no longer admissible in the post-metaphysical world: “The decline of metaphysics as a systematic philosophy, which conferred a consistent, unified, and rigorously grounded representation of the stable structures of Being, has made the philosophical denial of God’s existence impossible” (Vattimo, 15). In other words, we can no longer say for sure that god does not exist simply on the basis of a lack of empirical evidence. Atheism’s inherent metaphysical assumption that god’s inexistence can be objectively proven is nonsensical to the postmodern mindset which always situates truth within a particular historical context. As Vattimo explains, “increasingly, the outcomes of science are irreducible to the unity of a ground, making metaphysics impossible” (Vattimo, 90). To the postmodern thinker, the modern scientific method produces only one of many historical instances of truth, an instance that is inherently limited by the rational and scientific methods used to produce it. Therefore, while the lack of empirical evidence supporting the existence of god may be compelling to a modern, rational atheist, there is no basis for extending the “truth” of atheism to all places and historical contexts, as if the modern methods of deriving truth were in some sense superior to those used in other periods or epochs. Thus, “If the metanarrative of positivism no longer holds, one can no longer think that God does not exist because his existence cannot be established scientifically” (Vattimo, 86).

Vattimo refers to post-metaphysical loosening of metaphysics’ ontological structures as “weak thought,” that is to say the weakening of Being understood as event rather than objective structure. Thinking and being have weakened since they are no longer rooted in the strong, stable structures of objectivity: “Being is neither objective nor stable” (Vattimo, 22). Furthermore, for Vattimo, there is deep family resemblance between the Western religious tradition and the idea of “Being as event with the destiny of weakening” (Vattimo, 23). This family resemblance has to do with the secularization of the sacred in the Western tradition. According to Vattimo, secularization, understood as the progressive “weakening” of religion in society, is the manner in which Christianity’s own destiny of weakening manifests itself in the world: “philosophy can call the weakening that it discovers as the characteristic feature of the history of Being secularization in its broadest sense, which comprises all the forms of dissolution of the sacred characteristic of the modern process of civilization” (Vattimo, 24). Secularization, understood as the loosening of religion’s tight hold on humankind, “embraces the meaning of the end of metaphysics and the ‘discovery’ of Being as event and destiny of weakening” (Vattimo, 35). Secularization can therefore be understood as a prime instance of the weakening of Being associated with the end of metaphysics.

For Vattimo, the weakening of Being associated with secularization motions towards a spiritualization of the meaning of scripture. To support this claim, Vattimo refers to the teachings of Joachim of Fiore concerning the spiritual interpretation of scripture and concludes, based on these teachings, that “the promised salvation is above all an increasingly ‘fuller’ and more perfect – rather than more literal or objective – understanding of the message. Salvation history is not just about those who receive the announcement. Rather, it is above all the history of an announcement whose reception is its constitutive, rather than accidental, moment” (Vattimo, 27). The message of salvation, then, once literally understood as a discrete historical event involving a small number of privileged, sacred individuals, has been spiritualized, such that it is now understood to occur continuously throughout history amongst believers. Hence, for Vattimo, “historicity is constitutive of revelation” (Vattimo, 31) and “salvation is still in progress” (Vattimo, 29). The secularization of the sacred therefore does not imply a lessening of the significance of religious salvation. Rather, it motions towards a change in the very nature of salvation, a positive and enriching change whereby the reception of its message is broadened to each instance of history. Viewed in this way, all history becomes sacred: “sacred and secular history are no longer distinguishable” (Vattimo, 49). Vattimo here speaks not only of the spiritualization of scripture, but also of the spiritualization of reality itself: “Just as the spiritualization of the biblical text’s meaning imposed itself upon the churches through the problem of meeting other religions, so the spiritualization of the sense of reality itself is brought about by the general effects of cultural, political, and social pluralism characteristic of our postmodern world” (Vattimo, 49). The spiritualization of the reality itself refers to the weakening of Being’s strong structures brought about by the modern triumph of technology and the reduction of ontological reality to a play of interpretations.

There is indeed much emphasis on interpretation in Vattimo’s thought. On the basis of Heidegger, Vattimo explains that modern science and technology, with their emphasis on experimentation and manipulation, are methods that work on the basis of representation rather than simple presence. This evolution from simple presence to representation, which Heidegger refers to as the end of metaphysics, that is to say “the unfolding of the ontological difference between Being and particular beings” (Vattimo, 66), is intimately related to the idea that interpretation is “productive,” meaning that it constantly produces new and evolving ways of understanding reality. For Vattimo, the idea of history as interpretation applies to salvation history as well. The history of salvation is therefore the history of the interpretation of the Christian message within Western civilization. Vattimo therefore concludes that the nature of salvation is that it is not given once and for all, but that it is subject to continuous interpretation: “Being gives itself not once and for all as a simple presence; rather, it occurs as announcement and grows into the interpretations that listen and correspond (to Being)” (Vattimo, 68).

Vattimo’s point is that the end of metaphysics and the understanding of history as interpretation are fundamentally Christian outcomes: “What I intend to argue is that the West is essentially Christian to the extent that the meaning of its own history appears as the “twilight of Being,” that is, the diminishment of reality’s solidity through all the procedures of dissolution of objectivity brought about by modernity” (Vattimo, 77). The realization in the West of the loosening of metaphysics’ ontological structures, secularization, and the reduction of Being to a sequence of historical interpretations are, for Vattimo, all inherently Christian developments, and by examining them we can recover the meaning of Christian history. Furthermore, the modern secularization of the Judeo-Christian message is, for Vattimo, the West’s sole identifying element: “According to this thesis, not only is the West today only definable as a unified entity as secularized Christianity, but also, Christianity today rediscovers itself authentically only if it identifies itself as Western” (Vattimo, 80). Here, Vattimo in my view puts forth an intriguing theory. We tend to think of secularization as merely the general lessening of the religious impulse within society. But for Vattimo, secularization in the West is not just the elimination of religion within society; instead, it refers to the secularization of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Secularization in the West therefore refers to a specific historical development within the Judeo-Christian tradition, that is to say its temporal loss of structural solidity and its spiritualization. As a result, the Judeo-Christian tradition continues to be a fundamental Western trait, albeit in a modified, secularized form. Secularized Christianity, rather than traditional dogmatic Christianity, has become the West’s “sole identifying element.” In Vattimo’s thinking, therefore, there is a big difference between the secular West and other secular civilizations with non-Christian foundations. While the spirit and intent of secularization is to move away from religion, according to Vattimo the West ultimately cannot distance itself from its Judeo-Christian roots; due to their depth and pervasiveness they remain subtly yet still powerfully engrained within the civilization even as society pretends to distance itself from them: “To embrace the destiny of modernity and of the West means mainly to recognize the profoundly Christian meaning of secularization” (Vattimo, 98).

From a methodological perspective, After Christianity can be understood as a philosophical appeal to religion. The postmodern mindset, with its negation of objective truth and its emphasis on interpretation, returns intellectual legitimacy to religious ideas and brings religion back into the purview of philosophical analysis. In the postmodern context, the philosophical argument for atheism is no more reasonable than any traditional religious claim to absolute truth ever was. Postmodern thinking provides an avenue for Vattimo and likeminded others to reconsider the meaning of religious scripture within different historical settings. The point stressed by Vattimo is that Christianity was so fundamental to the formation and development of Western civilization that Christianity cannot simply be negated by modern secularism through the strict application of specifically modern, scientific criteria for truth. It is no more reasonable for the West to think it can be purely secular than it is for a fully grown human being to think that the events of his/her childhood have no residual effect on his/her adult personality. To the extent that it is so deeply intertwined in this way with Western civilization, Christianity cannot simply be dismissed by philosophy in its search for truth. If philosophy does so, it is likely to arrive at grossly inadequate conclusions. Arguably, for far too long it has fallen into precisely this methodological pitfall. But it is not only philosophical atheism that justifies mistaken beliefs under the guise of modern objectivity: modern society at large is itself mistakenly under the impression that secularization has nearly freed it of the heavy weight of traditional religious doctrine. In this regard, Vattimo’s point regarding the distinctly Christian character of Western secularism is instructive. How little do we realize that so much of what we consider to be “secular” is, in reality, heavily tainted with Christian influence. As Vattimo tries to demonstrate, monotheism triggered humankind’s desire to understand the world, resulting eventually in the first principles of metaphysics and later, in modern science and technology. If one acknowledges the fact that a religious concept was at the root of the entire process of modernization, the rejection of religion implicit in modern secularization seems like an unreasonable form of self-denial. That is not to say that a literal return to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity is warranted. Rather, the point is to acknowledge that, for members of society who are subject to certain moral rules, some written and some unwritten, religion is always lurking somewhere underneath the surface, still providing the moral ground for right action and behavior, and even thought. The scholar of religion, for his/her part, is unqualifiedly committed to the investigation of any such intrinsic religious presence within society. Thinkers such as Vattimo who remain faithful but are painfully aware of the inherent contradictions their faith presents to the modern rational mind (without even speaking of all the negativity and violence that can be associated with religion), are instrumental actors in the necessary endeavor to reconcile the sacred with the profane in a world that has gone too far in trying to separate the two, as if reality was actually made up of two separate realms of existence. By listening and paying attention to the thoughtful voices of the faithful, the scholar joins the thought process that aims to rediscover the true essence of religion.

[1] Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

In-Between Places

In “Snakes Alive: Religious Studies between Heaven and Earth,” [1] Robert Orsi describes the “moralizing imperative” of religious studies. For Orsi, “it seems to be virtually impossible to study religion without attempting to distinguish between its good and bad expressions, without working to establish a normative hierarchy of religious idioms (ascending from negative to positive, ‘primitive’ to high, local to universal, infantile to mature … and a methodological justification for it” (Orsi, 183). For Orsi, this moralizing imperative inherent to religious studies is attributable to “the charged political and intellectual circumstances within which the modern study of religion came to be” and “our hidden moral and political history” (Orsi, 180). For Orsi, methodology in religious studies is riddled with unacknowledged assumptions that serve to perpetuate specific historical biases and the implicit power relations that underlie those biases, under the guise of a “scientific” academic enterprise. As part of the historical development and consolidation of these biases within the methodological structure of the study of religion, “Normative terms were presented as analytical categories, and their implicit moral and cultural assumptions went unchallenged” (Orsi, 187). From a strictly academic perspective, the moralizing imperative of religious studies is especially damaging insofar as it limits “the range of human practices, needs, and responses that count as ‘religion’” (Orsi, 179). Hence, the moralizing imperative blinds religious scholars to much of the phenomena that, in Orsi’s view, these scholars should be concerned with. Certain human behaviours and practices are being excluded from the scope of legitimate religious phenomena on a basis that has more to do with power relations between cultural groups and less to do with genuine advancement in the intellectual understanding of the human religious imagination. Scholars of religion, it would seem, do too much judging and not enough observing.

Orsi complains that the modern study of religion is too analytical and objective, and tends to ignore certain qualitative aspects of individual religious experiences. From the moralizing imperative and the associated preoccupation of religious scholars with “true” or “good” religion, “all the complex dynamism of religion is stripped away” (Orsi, 188). For Orsi, there is a wealth of important knowledge pertaining to the human religious imagination that is accessible to scholars exclusively through the means of subjection, engagement, and participation, as opposed to traditional observation and analysis. To address this perceived gap in the study of religion, Orsi recommends that scholars assume “an in-between orientation, located at the intersection of self and other, at the boundary between one’s own moral universe and the moral world of the other” (Orsi, 198). But Orsi warns that this in-between stance, commensurate with the rewards it can generate, may also constitute an occupational risk for the religious scholar, who must delve so deeply into the religious experiences of others that s/he becomes vulnerable to the spiritual power of attraction of those observed: “The space is a dangerous one because one cannot, after all, simply abandon one’s deepest values or tolerate the intolerable, even though something awful and intolerable might make sense in someone else’s world” (Orsi, 202).

In “Belief Unbracketed,”[2] Stephen Prothero also calls for deeper engagement on behalf of scholars of religion with their religious subjects, albeit in a different form than Orsi’s in-between stance. The moralizing imperative that Orsi shuns is precisely the avenue that Prothero thinks religious studies should pursue. For Prothero, we need to “resuscitate religion as a moral enterprise” by tearing down “the barrier against our own judgements” and tackle the moral issues “head-on.” Prothero’s intention might be to critique Orsi’s direction in “Snakes Alive,” yet, as it might not have occurred to Prothero, the true nature of the moral engagements of religious subjects might best be understood, and confronted, precisely within Orsi’s dangerous, in-between place, since it is here that one’s deepest values face potential abandonment. 

[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[2] Prothero, Stephen, “Belief Unbracketed,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (November 6, 2007).