Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Charles Marsh

Among the Theologians

I have always known Richard Rorty to be a decent man. I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia when he joined the faculty in 1986 as University Professor of Humanities. He arrived in Charlottesville with a MacArthur Grant in hand but taught three courses his first year anyway. He made himself available to students, accepted most invitations for late night gatherings at Court Square Pub, opened up his farmhouse for social events, and sat on dissertation committees (including some in theology). If you had a question you needed to ask him, you could usually find him in his cinder-block office in Cabell Hall. He'd do his best to oblige. The harsh and sometimes mean-spirited criticisms of Rorty's work that have become de rigueur among Christian and non-Christian intellectuals alike never seem to take notice of his generosity and kindness, and his loyalty to friends and associates.

The intellectual scene at University of Virginia in the middle and late 1980's was alive with literary and hermeneutical theory. Postmodernism ruled in "the discourse of the human sciences", above all in the Theory Group, a monthly seminar that promoted the new French thought, and in philosophical theology, where I ended up. Many lunches in the Colonnade Club dragged into the late afternoon with languorous conversations on logo-centrism, differance, and the being of God when God is not being God. (To his credit, Robert Scharlemann, the director of the philosophical theology program, was always quick to say he "preferred his Hegel and Heidegger straight.")

Rorty was right in the middle of it all, of course, having the time of his life. But he was not at all your usual po-mo wannabe with black jeans and gravity-defying haircut. Rorty preferred khakis, a wrinkled dress shirt and striped tie with Windsor knot, and a navy blazer he threw on a chair whenever he entered the classroom. Rorty wanted us to know that reading books and discussing theory must do more than make us interesting; books and theories should make us compassionate citizens. While critics replied that his attempts to edify were disingenuous, considering how the man was so famously under mining the moral foundations of the West, Rorty's words were well aimed at a generation of graduate students living in Reagan's America, concerned more about its psycho-sexual adventures than the staggering numbers of homeless and unemployed. Rorty criticized French philosophers like Michel Foucault for "a dryness produced by a lack of identification with any social context, any communication,"1 a criticism he drolly recast in his 1997 Massey Lectures at Harvard, published recently as Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America: "Disengagement from practice produces theoretical hallucinations."2 Rorty spared no punch in his attack on the contemporary academy, which he accused of siding with the etherealized politics of the cultural Left over the real politics of the reformist, activist Left.3

He also weighed in on the debates about postmodernism and religion currently in vogue. To the darlings of deconstructionist theology, for whom the death of God and the disappearance of the self created brave new possibilities for religious thought, Rorty's "old-fashioned atheism" was like a cold slap to the face. "I believe when you die you rot," he said one fine spring afternoon in the West Pavilion lecture room in response to a paper by Mark C. Taylor, author of such influential books as De-constructing Theology and Erring: A Postmodern A/theology.

For my money, that memorable afternoon in Charlottesville in 1989 marked the end of the deconstructionist theology movement. It was not quite the momentous "black day" in August 1914, when 93 German professors and writers proclaimed their support of the war policy of Wilhelm II; the day Karl Barth realized he could no longer follow the direction of nineteenth-century Protestant theology—"their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history." But it was close. In 15 minutes Rorty did more to dramatize the poverty of liberalism (and its recent incarnation, the theological deconstructionist) than the whole Yale School had done in three decades.

Mark Taylor's paper had begun with a quote from Michael Serres's book, The Parasite, about rats chewing up a Persian rug, and went on from there to talk about "the demonized other of the West." Rorty was accused of thinking improperly about otherness—of exterminating the rats: "Rorty's 'dialogue' actually ends in a monologue spoken/written to colonize the other."4 Rorty, Taylor said, was a "cultural imperialist," wielding his machete of irony against the otherness of the other, the difference of the different, "an other that is forever other," "a difference that is always different."5 Taylor advised Rorty "to travel East—from middle to far—in search of an East that 'is' different … different from a construction through which the West converses with itself while pretending to listen to someone/something other."6

Rorty declined the invitation, not very politely, and he brought down the house in the process. Here are some of the highlights. I refer you to a forlorn University Press of America volume, entitled On the Other: Dialogue and/or Dialectics, for the complete text.

• On the Protestant liberal tradition:

Pascal earned himself a footnote in the theology books by distinguishing between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of the philosophers. Since Pascal's time, the former God has remained about the same. But the latter God has gotten weirder and weirder.7

• On Mark Taylor's "a/theology":

This slash is a trademark of a theologian who, just as a philosopher is congratulating himself on finally having wiggled out from under all those heaps of dirty satin and chiffon, the discarded old clothes of what Heidegger called the "ontotheological tradition," sneaks up behind him and pops an all-enveloping, one-size-fits-all cloak over his head. On the back of this cloak are written, in letters of pale shimmering fire, the cryptic words "Now at your nearby tailor's! For the first time ever! The ultimate Vestment of Godhead! Guaranteed self-deconstructing and self-repairing!"

• On turning East:

Taylor calls me a "cultural imperialist" for saying that "truth and justice lie in the direction marked by the successive stages of European thought." "Imperialist" is a fighting word, in the sense that it suggests images of Conquistadors' horses and of Gatling guns. But I bet that Taylor too thinks that truth lies in the direction that leads away from Aristotle toward Darwin, and that justice lies in the direction that leads away from Marsilius of Padua and toward John Stuart Mill.

"As the old-fashioned kind of atheist," Rorty concluded, "the kind without the slash, I keep wishing that we didn't have any theologians."

Rorty could clearly play Overbeck to anyone's Barth. Theologians should be clear about the fact that their subject matter is an outright scandal, no less so if they cover it over with talk about mazes and disappearing gods and rats chewing the carpet. Hitching their wagon to the latest stars of the Sorbonne won't make them any more respectable. "The theologians read the philosophers in the way in which couturiers in undeveloped portions of the fashion world read the latest reports from Paris. For their activity consists largely in changing the label on the latest philosophical costume. The new label always reads 'God,' no matter what the old label was." Or translated: Religious questions and experiential descriptions of longing or ultimacy, however new or remarkable, are just questions like all other questions, and are answered with greater satisfaction by Freud and Marx than by the onto-theologians. Why call the questions and experiences God? Why not primal longings for your mother, or insidious economic determinants of the sort Marx analyzed. So, I figured, what the heck, why not go ahead and talk about the scandal in all its scandalous detail, "foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

As much as I enjoyed Rorty's performance, I think deconstuctionist theology was too easy a target. Ridiculing the flaws of an ideological franchise doomed from the start by its lunatic management was intellectual overkill pure and simple. I don't mean "too easy an target" in the sense he told me the next day, that he was feeling a little ashamed of himself. I mean that Rorty was unwilling to see that the kind of theologian he had publicly mocked had long been exposed for fraud by a different kind of theologian. Too bad he writes off Barth so cavalierly. "I read Barthes [sic] on Romans long ago and was rather impressed by the purity of it all—though I confess that it made me look over my shoulder for the Spanish Inquisition in some Swiss transfiguration [sic]." 8 Because a half a century earlier, Barth had taken on the philosophers with more passion that even Rorty brought to the task. In fact, there is interesting common ground between the two, especially on the matter of theology's relationship to philosophy. Let me explain.

Karl Barth and Richard Rorty share the belief that great minds are usually unable to make clear exactly what it is they want to do before developing the language in which they are successful in doing it.9 This means that new vocabularies make possible a formulation of their own purposes. The best way to get on with the business of saying something new is, as Rorty says, to assume a "benign neglect" toward the unresolved philosophical problems of the past.10 "It behooves philosophers who think that an issue has gone stale to find something fresh to do, and to leave it to the historians of the future to figure out whether or not they succeeded."11 In other words, the only cure for tired old controversies is "temporary forgetfulness."12 When you want to avoid discussing a controverted issue you should "conscientiously refrain from answering questions formulated in the vocabulary in which that issue was stated." Best to try and create causes for getting rid of old controversies which are not reasons for forgetting them. Like doing theology as if nothing else happened.

Consider Barth's 1928 correspondence with Rudolf Bultmann. After reading Barth's recent Die Lehre vom Wort Gottes: Prolegomena zur christlichen Dogmatik, Bultmann was troubled by Barth's lack of interest in the big philosophical debates of the day: "[You] have failed to enter into (latent but radical) debate with modern philosophy and naively adopted the older ontology from patristic and scholastic dogmatics."13 Not only that, but Barth also showed "a lack of clarity and sobriety" and a "sovereign scorn" of contemporary phenomenology. If dogmatics is a science, Bultmann resolved, then it must address the question of appropriate concepts and models, not to mention the existential conditions of hearing a word from God.

Barth replied in writing four days later. He doubted his response would ease Bultmann's worries. What Bultmann wanted of him was a complete transformation of the "intellectual habitus" in which he dwells—that "the wild and crooked tree that I appear to be in your eyes … should be given a more pleasing shape by an upright pole placed alongside it."14 Bultmann has his Heidegger, but Barth is content with God's revealing Word. Life is too short to stay up nights "acquiring an unambiguous terminology from the phenomenologists." Barth says, "It is also a fact that I have come to abhor profoundly the spectacle of theology constantly trying above all to adjust to the philosophy of its age, thereby neglecting its own theme." He confesses to a "gypsy-like" approach toward philosophy. This might even be a "decisive characteristic" of his thought. Be that as it may, Barth intended to write theology with a sense of freedom and adventure, "without considering the problem of a preestablished harmony between the matter itself and these particular concepts, because my hands were already full in trying to say something very special." Why not just stick to talking about God? In the long haul the poets and philosophers will probably like you better for it.

Like Rorty, Barth also challenges the assumption that philosophers have a privileged standpoint from which to evaluate "truth," "essence," and "reality":

Only when a theological faculty undertakes to say, or at least points out the need for saying, what the others rebus sic stantibus dare not say, or dare not say out loud, only when it keeps reminding them that a chaos, though wonderful, is not therefore a cosmos, only when it is a question mark and an exclamation point on the farthest rim of scientific possibility—or rather, in contradistinction to the philosophical faculty, beyond the farthest rim—only then is there a reason for it.15

Best to stop worrying about getting things straight with the Bultmannians, the Schelerians, the Gundolfians and the rest. For Christian theology at its free-wheeling best is "self-nourished at its own source;"16 it cannot be called anti-rational (or rational for that matter) because it is not interested in, or dependent upon, appraisals of antecedently formulated criteria and universally acceptable norms for scientifically or philosophically rigorous discourse. In a letter to the Swiss poet Carl Zuckmayer, Barth told the story of a Canadian theology student who asked him what role reason played in his work. "I use it!" Barth replied.17

Of course, Rorty shows no interest in hearing how Barth's "wild and crooked tree" might be planted fairly near his own precious orchids. The narrow chasm that separates their intellectual sensibilities is finally an abyss: on one side, the divine Yes, on the other, a shrug of the shoulders. And yet theologians haven't gone away and don't appear likely to anytime soon, though the postmodern slashers have moved on to other things. In fact, lots of theologians have stopped talking of "methods of correlation" and conditions of the possibility of this and that, and have kicked the philosophy habit (with the occasional Wittgensteinian relapse). Some have even started talking about God, Jesus Christ, and the Church.

You might think Rorty would take some comfort in this changing of the guard. At least we're looking like the freaks we are. The new confessionalism in American academic theology might sound like the Inquisition in a Swiss transfiguration, but isn't that a step up from the old regime—from decades of fuss over the "ooh! in ousia, the serpent's hiss in history, the nostalgic sign in Seiendheit, and the Besser-wisser in Gewissenhabenwollen?"18 Rorty thinks not.

In a remarkable essay written in 1994, "Religion As Conversation-stopper," reprinted in his new book, Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty returns to the matter of religion. He is intrigued by Stephen Carter's important book, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religions Devotion, particularly Carter's claim that liberal democracy expects religious people "to be other than themselves," to act publicly, and sometimes privately, as though their faith is of no real consequence. Rorty is perplexed by Carter's complaint. He thinks the Jeffersonian compromise on the Enlightenment's critique of Christian faith is preferable to all the alternatives. The same situation Carter contests, Rorty prefers, namely the legal culture that "seems most comfortable thinking of religion as hobby, something done in privacy, something that mature, public-spirited adults do not use as the basis for politics."19 Attempts to bring religion back into the "public square" should be resisted at every turn. As Rorty says, "[The] claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further."20

Rorty's criticisms of Carter add up to a judgment many have suspected him of holding all along: religion is a universal obsession neurosis. He doesn't come right out and say this. He even allows that religious belief may be tolerable to the extent it gives meaning to individual human lives, fuels "the search for private perfection." But at least Freud refuses to patronize the weak. If you're latching on to religion because you're after private perfection, what you really need is the couch. The search for private perfection is a sure indication of a deluded mind.

I think Rorty would have done better in Philosophy and Social Hope to stick to his old-fashioned atheism, the sort he knocked Mark Taylor over the head with. Instead he offers advice to religious persons that is so fantastically absurd it is difficult to take him seriously. He says, "The main reason religion needs to be privatized, is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant community, it is a conversation-stopper."

Carter brought up the point about religion as conversation-stopper to exemplify the intellectual myopia and aversion to religious talk one often finds among well-educated professions. Rorty, however, equates a comment like "Christian discipleship requires that I oppose abortion" with the ludicrous "Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days," and says that both elicit the same response in the public sphere. "So what? We weren't talking about your private life." Rorty thinks Carter's desire to open up the public sphere to religious argument may simply mean "he wants us atheists to stop screaming 'keep religion out of politics!' when the clergy say that abortion is against God's will while nodding approvingly when they say that gaybashing is."

Rorty explains as follows:

Carter frequently speaks of religion as a "source of moral knowledge" rather than as a "source of moral beliefs." Of course, if we knew that religion were a source of moral knowledge, we should be foolish to shove it to the outskirts of the square. … When it comes to morals rather than science, however, every textbook, Scripture, and teacher is offset by a competing textbook, Scripture or teacher. That is why, in the public square of a pluralistic democracy, justification is always up for grabs, and why the term "source of moral knowledge" will always be out of place.

So when Carter complains that religious citizens are forced "to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented," I should reply that "restructuring the arguments in purely secular terms" just means "dropping reference to the source of the premises of the arguments", and that this omission seems a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty.21

Rorty concedes the point that religion influences moral and political convictions. (His caricature of the clergy approving "gaybashing" is as unfair as Taylor's accusation of Rorty's cultural imperialism.) But the inevitability should not be mistaken as an argument about premises or a justification of the sources of moral conviction. "Surely the fact that one of us gets his premises in church and the other in the library is, and should be, of no interest to our audience in the public square."22

The funny thing about Rorty's view is that his favorite whipping boy, the Christian Coalition, practices just this sort of neglect of premises in the public sphere. The Christian Coalition seeks to translate the particularities of its inconfessional premises into policy-speak, agreed upon by conservatives of all stripes. In other words, the Coalition allows the highly specific content of Christian doctrine to be molded into more general forms of meaning. Theologians sometimes call this "demythologizing," or heresy. When Coalition leaders speak in public debate about "Christian family values," they are often "restructuring their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented." Christian family values is a theologically bankrupt notion, unless you have a different way of interpreting "Who is my mother and who is my brethren?" than the befuddled crowd in Matthew's gospel. Were the Coalition ever to decide to square the costs of discipleship with its conspiratorial notions of public schools, gun control, and the like, it would go out of business before sundown.

I share Rorty's outrage about the way the name of Jesus is promiscuously tossed around in American political campaigns. But he should be told that the solution to this problem is not pushing religion back still further. When George W. Bush tells us his favorite political philosopher is Jesus Christ, the problem is not bringing Jesus into the public sphere. The problem is that the Jesus he brings doesn't seem to count for much. If Bush al lowed "the philosophy of Jesus" to permeate his political views, he might begin to see the contradictions between Christ-centered forgiveness and the Texas death-row massacre he proudly oversees.

So Rorty's recommendations work out just fine for the a/theological Christian Coalition and for politicians, Re publican and Democrat alike, who use religious language with an eye on the polls. At the same, his recommendations put him in opposition to the theologically-saturated Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Rorty might have avoided this embarrassing irony had he simply noted that Christianity is sometimes full of trickery and shame, sometimes full of life and light. But that would have obligated him to the hard work of figuring why this is so, and to how the former might be differentiated from the latter, and to how the story of Jesus might make the difference, and then to the prospects of having to change his life. I'm struck by how seldom Rorty mentions the Civil Rights Movement, except to put it in continuity with the social movements of the reformist, activist Left, like labor. My guess is that he doesn't know what to make of the fact that Dr. King and company can't keep their premises to themselves.

There is no doubt that King could recite liberalism's intellectual repertoire with the best of them. But he could never find a home there. All of liberalism's confident bromides on human nature and its possibilities didn't make sense to anyone living under the rule of Jim Crow. As Duke theologian Richard Lischer wrote in his wonderful book, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America,

[Liberalism's] Enlightenment vision of the harmony of humanity, nature, and God skips a step that is essential to the development of black identity. It has little experience of the evil and suffering borne by enslaved and segregated people in America. Liberalism is ignorant—even innocent—of matters African American children understand before their seventh birthday.23

Not only did King see himself as first and foremost a Baptist preacher; according to Lischer, he also tried to work out "a Christological foundation for civil society from which the love of Jesus had been banished by theological rationalizations." To restrict the cross of Jesus to the private pursuits of perfection is to strip the Incarnation of its power—and ignore Jesus' hard teachings about life in the peaceable Kingdom.

For King, the pursuit of the "beloved community" was not just another way of talking about "a moral obligation to feel a sense of solidarity with all other human beings," as Richard Rorty says in his discussion of George Orwell in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. It was a way of talking about God's crashing into time and history, of a new social reality taking shape as a result, about the one sure premise for all our hopes in that day when all God's children join hands and sing, "Free at last."

A former civil-rights worker recently told me an interesting story about Fannie Lou Hamer, the black woman from the Mississippi Delta who be came one of the Student Non violent Coordinating Committee's finest organizers and most powerful visionaries. In 1967 Mrs. Hamer traveled to New York City to raise money for the Child Development Group of Mississippi. The fundraiser was held in a home on the upper East Side, attended by a group of New York intellectuals, artists, and professionals who supported radical politics and the civil rights of black southerners.

When it came time for her to talk, Mrs. Hamer stood in the middle of the drawing room, this large, beautiful black woman with a drawl as rich as sorghum, and told the New Yorkers she was here with them today because God had called her out of the cotton fields to work for "the New Kingdom in Mississippi." She talked about life in the Delta, the difficulties she'd en countered in her civil-rights life, her forced sterilization, her beating in a Winona, Mississippi, jailhouse, her hopes for an America where all children had food to eat, warm clothes to wear, and a safe home. Through out her remarks, the civil-rights worker told me, she spoke of Jesus "casually, confidently and constantly, as though her movement commitments were part and parcel of her daily walk with Christ."24 When I asked him how the guests at the fundraiser responded to her testimony, he said, "They sat quietly and smiled."

Richard Rorty would no doubt say that Mrs. Hamer "shows Christianity at its best," a compliment he extends to people like the abolitionists and his maternal grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch.25 But in the end, the sad conclusion is inescapable: when Rorty asks Christians to drop public appeals to Jesus as a source of social responsibility, he's asking Mrs. Hamer and Dr. King to leave the table. You'd expect more of a decent man.

Charles Marsh has recently joined the faculty at the University of Virginia, where he is associate professor of Religion and Culture and Director of the Project on Lived Theology. His newest book, The Last Days: Purity and Peril in a Small Southern Town, will be published in 2001 by Basic Books.


1. Richard Rorty, "Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity," in Habermas and Modernity, ed. Richard J. Bernstein (MIT Press, 1985), p. 172.

2. Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), p. 94.

3. In Achieving Our Country, he described the situation in terms of "the difference between the people who read books like Thomas Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?—a brilliant explanation of how unions get busted—and people who read Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The latter is an equally brilliant book, but it operates on a level of abstraction too high to encourage any particular political initiative. After reading Geoghegan, you have views on some of the things which need to be done. After reading Jameson, you have views on practically everything except what needs to be done" (p. 78).

4. Mark C. Taylor, "Paralectics," On the Other: Dialogue and/or Dialectics, (Univ. Press of America, 1991), p. 13.

5. Taylor, p. 32.

6. Taylor, p. 36.

7. Richard Rorty, "Comments on Taylor's 'Paralectics," in On the Other, p. 70.

8. Correspondence with the author, February 10, 1990.

9. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. 13.

10. Richard Rorty, "Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism: Heidegger, Fine, Davidson, and Derrida," in Wo Steht analytische Philosophie Heute, ed. Ludwig Nagl and Richard Heinrich (Vienna, 1986).

11. "Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism," p. 20.

12. "Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism," p. 12.

13. Rudolf Bultmann, in Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 1922-1966, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1981), p. 38.

14. Karl Barth, Barth-Bultmann Letters, p. 40.

15. Karl Barth, "The Word of God and the Task of the Ministry," in The Word of God and the Word of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (Peter Smith, 1978), p. 194.

16. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, in Franklin Sherman, "Act and Being," in The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought (Association Press, 1962), p. 106.

17. Karl Barth, A Late Friendship: The Letters of Karl Barth and Carl Zuckmayer, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1982), p. 49.

18. Rorty, "Comments on Taylor," p. 73.

19. Carter cited in Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 170.

20. Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 169.

21. Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 173.

22. Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 172. Rorty finds offensive the claim that the moral convictions of religious persons are somehow more "deeply interwoven" with their self-identity than those of good self-creating humanists like himself. Why, he wonders, are people's spiritual identities more relevant to their participation in civic debate than their hobbies or the color of their hair?

23. Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), p. 53.

24. Edwin King, Conversation, September, 1999.

25. Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 207.

Most ReadMost Shared