Theology and Public Vocabularies.
Contemporary Philosophical Relativism, and Dimensions of Religious Community and Praxis


The World-picture: small pieces

The most significant result of the current discussions in philosophy is formulation of the notion of relativism. Although the problem of relativism is present in philosophy since its beginning - the controversy between Plato and the Sophists - recent philosophy has stressed the uniqueness and importance of this notion. The idea of relativism as it has developed today concerns questions related to epistemology, philosophy of language, logic as well as to anthropological research, cultural theory and sociology. To think about relativism today is to think about the foundations of human knowledge, the ontological basis of truth, but it is also to deliberate on moral practices, the understanding of the other cultures, our notion of democracy and the liberal state. In other words, contemporary relativism is a collection of arguments which asks questions about every dimension of human life and thus, actually, proposes a world-picture. It is because of its mentioned above features why I think that contemporary relativism is the most important consequence of recent philosophical discussions.To make my starting point more radical still, I would like to claim that relativism is not only the most significant but also the necessary result of the development of contemporary philosophy. Now I must describe this special position of question of relativism. I will start with Richard Rorty's and Richard Bernstein's assertion of the centrality of relativism. Then I will examine the paths of deconstructionist literary criticism and feminist theory, and how these new languages have raised new questions relating to the question of a world-picture.

1. Rortian-Bernsteinian diagnosis

In Beyond Objectivism and Relativism Bernstein tries to widen the context of the "rationality debate" and asserts that contemporary discussions on the foundations of science and human action must consider Feyerabend, Kuhn, Gadamer, Wolin, Habermas and Arendt's works [Bernstein 1983, X]. For Bernstein, Feyerabend's, Kuhn's or Gadamer's texts challenge traditional claims about the existence of "a firm foundation, an ontological grounding, a fixed categorial schemes" [Bernstein 1983, 9]. As a result all kinds of "methodism" in philosophy of science, interpretation of art or in political science become problematic. Traditional attempts to establish some first principles of human knowledge were developed in order to create rigorous, universal, objective knowledge in response to what Bernstein calls "Cartesian Anxiety" [Bernstein 1983, 18-9]. Destroying this structure was the main goal of the recent philosophical work. To go beyond objectivism and the Cartesian Anxiety is to move toward relativism[1]. However, Bernstein while indicating the relativist context refuses to make the move to relativism. He turns instead to an idea of a universal practical rationality - phronesis - by which he attempts to save some of the philosophical principles of human action. This would be questioned by Richard Rorty as Rorty's goal is the discovery of antifoundationalism and criticism of every symptom of the foundationalist tradition in philosophy[2]. Rorty shows how "group of questions", "essence of philosophy", "traditional problems of philosophy" have more and more been called into question. According to him philosophy is no longer entitled to ask and give answers to questions such as "what is truth", "how can we act", "how to define goodness". Philosophical theories of that kind are called by Rorty "Philosophy" (with a capitalized P) which always took the form of two schools: transcendentalism (Platonism) and empiricism (positivism) [Rorty 1989a, XIV-V]. To go beyond debates between these "schools", beyond participating in the illusion of solving problems means for Rorty to reject a traditional philosophical vocabulary, where terms like "objective", "verification", "realism", "intuition" were always central terms of the system and named objects, goals and standards. When we reject this imaginary vocabulary we will recognize that these terms are nothing but parts of our everyday language. This means also that philosophy as special theory is unnecessary. Rorty seeks to talk about a post-philosophical culture [Rorty 1989a, XXXVII-IX] in which this philosophy is absent because it has nothing to propose for  real political and social problems[3]. Rorty finds the possibility for philosophy (with an un-capitalized p), which is a kind of fusion of American pragmatism and postmodernism. He accepts the postmodernist strategy of "playing with many texts and cultures" at the same time which is not directed toward the discovery of a relevant description of the world, of an essence of being, of reality [Rorty 1989a, XLI, 95]. Philosophy becomes a "kind of writing", "literature". In our knowledge and language there is no privileged, steady perspective. We have multiplicity of argumentations and narrations[4]. Rorty wants to describe how this conception raises new, wider perspectives relating to culture through the relativism of deconstructionism and literary, cultural and social criticism. This is the problem which I want to consider in the following step of my paper.

2. Deconstructionist strategies. From difference to the literary criticism of society

            "Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences" Lyotard

According to deconstructionists, philosophical work must be treated "as literature, as a fictive rhetorical construct whose elements and order are determined by various textual exigencies" [Culler 1982, 149-50; quoted in Rorty 1991a II, 85]. Thus the condition of philosophy is evaluated as one which lacks the possibility of seeking truth, discovering, representing and, in fact - building pictures of the world. We cannot distinguish in a given text any "true metaphor" - central, fundamental principle, archai and pattern of the whole universe. If it existed, this central truth would make philosophical vocabulary total and closed. As Derrida shows us, every attempt to describe such a totality and closure is inevitably uncompleted, unfinished, "dis-closed": "there is always a supplement, a margin, a space" [Rorty 1991a II, 92]. Philosophy is more similar to literature: both are left with nothing but the text itself. Both cannot describe and present, both are involved in systems of signs which have no reference to reality.Although philosophical idea of deconstructionism was established within the continental tradition of poststructuralism and post-modernism (Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Michael Foucault), the deepening of the links between literature and philosophy were developed in the Anglo-American "school" of deconstructive literary criticism[5]. I would like to focus only on theory of one (but very influential) representative of this camp, Paul De Man. De man begins with the deconstructionist claim that sign and meaning never coincide. This "lack" he calls "freedom from the fallacy of unmediated expression". It means that there is no expression which would be unmediated which would have a pure meaning. Thus, every possible knowledge is formulated in system of signs/system of mediations   - language. Something has a meaning only if is related to something else. This position is obviously similar to those of Wittgenstein's, Quine's, Dewey's, Davidson's, Derrida's and Rorty's and would be called "antilogocentrism", "antiessentialism", "holism" [Rorty 1991a II, 130]. But according to De Man, the "fallacy of unmediated expression" has also moral, social and political consequences. Discoveries of mediation and relations between signs reflected the assertion that there is "the void", "the nothingness of human thing", that in fact the subject, man as a kind of "central metaphor" must be removed. Instead, we have only the very process of reading, understanding, renaming, redescription. We have only literature. De Man considers the literary text as similar to a mediated expression, to a system of signification [De Man 1986, 9]. Such a notion of texts is dependent only on the act of reading, on focusing the reader's critical and theoretical talents on the text itself. Instead of searching for meaning one must work on "codification of contextual elements", "knowledge of textual codes", "systematic study of metaphrastic dimensions" [De Man 1986, 15]. For De Man our thinking, acting, understanding, our moral sensitivity is dependent on things we read [Rorty 1991a II, 131]. De Man wanted to apply the competence one acquires during the study of philosophy, history of literature and linguistic (all these domains have for De Man literary, textual form) to a political purpose. This is, more particularly, a critique of ideology - the "ideology" of Western liberalism and liberal democracy. Thus reading, studying and developing critical skills becomes the "tool in the unmasking of ideological aberration". How to use this tool? - by showing "subversive readings", "hegemonic discourse", "the breaking down of traditional logocentric hierarchies". The reader becomes "political" by challenging the economic, political and social status quo which is in crisis and requires transformation.

3. Feminist criticism and revisionism

As in the case of deconstructionism it is impossible to present the whole  complexity  and extent of  feminist  theories. I will focus here on only the most recent aspects of  feminist theorizing. Generally, feminist movements have concentrated upon a group of questions concerning the role of women in society. The central theme is the recognition that there are unfair, biased structures in our culture, which provide the basis for the unjust position of women. Feminists thus are describing the fact of women's oppression.Feminists criticize the structure of the family organized around the dominance of the male. Such a "Male-Headed" family has its roots in the economic, social and cultural development of Western modern civilization. Miriam Johnson describes how the subordination of the wife to her husband has continued despite the political and social movements in XIX and in the first half of XX century which tried to give women an equal position in society by stressing emancipation and egalitarianism. According to Johnson, even if they succeeded in gaining political representation and even if notions like New Women, women's college, women professionals appeared, it was a limited success. In the husband-wife relationship egalitarianism and modernization did not work [Johnson 1988, 231-3]. While economic growth gave women the chance to participate in the growing living standards and greater availability of consumer goods, they remained a minority in almost every sphere of political and public life [Bryson 1992, 148]. It was the husband who participated in the real world, who worked in the town city and had career. However between 1965 and 1975 an increasing rate of divorce was observed and more women began to work outside the home and became independent. The traditional notion of the family began to be transformed and possibility of rethinking the position of women in marriage appeared. This rethinking rejected the traditional views of women as "sexual objects" and regarded the family as a patriarchal institution [Johnson 1988, 257-66]. The critique of patriarchy led feminist theorists to widen the area of their analyzes to the encompass the whole culture. In 1963 the Kennedy Commission on the Status of Women prepared document about women's discrimination. In the same year the equal Pay Act was passed. In 1964 the Civil Right Act was enriched by addition about prohibiting discrimination by sex. All those events and political situation enable feminists to concrete actions. In 1966 the National organization of Women (NOW) was established and open criticism of society which could not help women in their real fulfilment began [Bryson 1992, 162]. In NOW actions contemporary feminist radical critique of society has its roots. in 1977 was released "Sexual Politics" by Kate Millett. Millett argued that even in democratic, liberal society, there still exist order of formal, institutional, state, economic power - that of women's dependency [Bryson 1992, 194-8]. According to radical feminists women's oppression is connected with a more general male control over religion, language and knowledge [Bryson 1991, 222]. The very concept of rationality has itself come to be involved in the debates over sexual difference and phallocentrism [Coole 1993, 192-3]. Utilizing Derrida's, Foucault's and Lacan's studies feminists rejected rationality founded on the Cartesian construction of pure ego which involved the total separation of knower from the material, organic world. Such separation was seen to cover over and devalue the women's maternal world, which is closely connected to vitality, naturality, creativity as forms of organic life [Coole 1993, 196]. Deconstructionists's stress on talking about violence, mastery, metanarration in our language gave feminists chance to attack "masculine imagination", "exclusion of femine qualities". Mary Daly argues that men want to rule over logic and science because they have stolen the power of naming from women [Coole 1993, 224]. Such traditional male demands influenced the very idea of language, which is patriarchal and serves to oppress and exploit women. Thus, reclaiming the right to name for women must be realized by a "fundamental challenge to conventional ways of describing reality" [Jaggar 1988, 266-70].

Theological demands: integrality against foundationalism and nihilism

Now, I want to turn to the "theological" part of my paper. I will focus on the formulation of some central ideas of catholic teaching that appear in fundamental theology. The works connected with Vatican II have shaped the results of the research into fundamental elements of Catholic Doctrine. I will focus on these reformulations: first, Rahner's interrogation of the grounds of Christian faith from the first paragraphs of his "Grundkurs des Glaubens"; and second, the polish recent theologian Tomasz Weclawski's recent lectures and contemplations on Revelation and mysteries of faith.

1. The first level of reflection

The starting point of Karl Rahner's reflections is the recognition that in a contemporary, pluralist and relativist world it is no longer possible for Christians and theologians to maintain that their faith is absolutely true and cannot be questioned and challenged. There is no longer room for a "theological system" or "theological method". The believer's and the theologian's positions are now the same: both must face their own incompetence and weakness in relation to questions concerning their faith. This idea of an original incompetence opens the possibility to discover a "honest intellectual apology for Christian faith" [Rahner 1987, 9]. It is only honest if it considers the contemporary world-view.Rahner's apologetics starts with "the first level of reflection" [Rahner 1987, 16]. Rahner shows that a man on this "level" is able to ask questions about her/his existence. It is  open structure where any question can appear. Rahner is particularly interested in asking one such question: the question about transcendence and Revelation. How one can ask about transcendence? Rahner introduces here his idea of "transcendental experience": structures of "Being-in-the-world", structures of coexistence and codependence of world and man, where truth is not a mathematical and logical relation between objects and words but becomes a "primordial phenomenon" of existence, of being together with things and other beings. These structures are structures of unity. In such "united" composition of "Being-in-the-world" there are many references , relationships between man and world. These references are expressed in language, realized in everyday life, developed during many different practices. In a word: they are connected with man's life and activity.For Rahner, the very knowledge of things and other beings always refers to man himself - an object is an object only if it is for subject, only if it is connected to subjectivity. This is a primal human experience. It is on this very ground, that one can seek circumstances for establishing human knowledge about God [Rahner 1987, 21]. Rahner's claim is that God appears always "within the unmovable structures of the knowing subject", God transcends categories of knowledge and epistemological patterns. Thus, God is a Transcendence[6]. God is always "here", he is present, because human activity is present. Human life - living with free will, love and freedom - transmits a kind of mystery, holiness. Life has its context and horizon, and this horizon is God. Man can thus be called homo religiosus [Rahner 1987, 24-5].Transcending foundationalism (because of a pluralistic and antifoundationalist starting point) Rahner simultaneously overcomes nihilism and total relativism. Christian faith is seen as connected to human existence and to its history. It accepts human contingency and imperfection, but at the same time a structure for traditional doctrine is built. Thus, even in the pluralist and relativist universe of contemporary philosophy's world-view, there is room for an authentic, universal, noncontradictory dimension of human life.

2. "Where is God. The Church inside Me"

As in Rahner's case, Weclawski's original question is how faith can be established in the contemporary world. He describes the situation in our culture as one determined by mental struggle between two positions: foundationalism and hyper-criticism. The former refuses rational argumentation and seeks for a basis for man's action on unquestionable principles. The latter asserts a relativism of truth and meaning [Weclawski 1991, 2]. Next, Weclawski transfers this description of the "contemporary situation of spirituality" onto the reasoning about the conception of Revelation. Foundationalists become contemporary religious fundamentalists and hyper-critics are seen as representatives of Bultmannist hermeneutics.Weclawski's questions about the Revelation concentrate upon "in what sense it is worth to sacrifice my own life as the basis of a faith about a particular and concrete person Jesus of Nazareth as the crucified and resurrected God" [Rahner 1987, 18]. Weclawski sees both positions in conflict with Christian doctrine, because they do not accept history as a dimension where Revelation is working. According to Weclawski the historicity of Revelation is the very essence of Christianity - the idea of relations between a transcendental, infinite God and finite man [Weclawski 1991, 22]. This idea has been developed since the times of works on the documents of Vatican II.  This link between humanity and deity is the most powerful reason why people are able to search for their own salvation in (historical) events connected with a (historical) human being - Jesus of Nazareth [Weclawski 1991, 15]. Thanks to Jesus human life makes sense. This "gift of sense" (faith) enables man to confide her/his life to God and thus to find a truth. Weclawski claims that fulfilment of these possibilities is expressed in the Christian idea of the Church. "The Church inside me" means exactly that my faith and the Church have the same roots - in the historicity of Jesus's life, more precisely, in the event of crucification of Christ and in the fact of the great love that Christ gave us from his suffering and dying for us [Weclawski 1992, 123].

3. Summary of theological world-picture

I have presented above the basic concepts and ideas of fundamental theology. It appeared that Christian theology is a kind of knowledge that in order to save its own integrality has to refuse foundationalism (Rahner, Weclawski). Yet, theology is totally odd for the contemporary world, "theological inquiry (has) moved to the margins of public life"[7], rationality models of theological reasoning have assumed a closed, foundationalist, antipluralist form. Theology can either enter everyday life as a common, secular ethics minimizing pure theological interest or move to the hermetic world of debates on God's existence and nature closing itself off from public dimensions [Thiemann 1989, 502-3]. This is a fact only if we seek, as Guarino does, aspects of "theological epistemology", when we try to find a "type of rationality ... proper to theology as disciple" [Guarino 1993, 37][8]. In a word, we have no way out of foundationalism in theology as long as we remain on the methodological level considering various criteria of rationality.

Post-integral agenda?

In my paper I have presented two world-pictures: one proposed by recent philosophy, the second connected with theological research. Philosophy and theology are presenting two different pictures of the world. I would like to ask here about the necessity of this dramatic divergence which theologians experience in their investigations. First, theology should no longer develop ideas that stress how to distinguish theological from philosophical knowledge. Second, theologians should stop trying to construct their domain in as artificial postmodernist, deconstructivist and "supertextual" manner. Instead, I insist that there is a possibility for a post-integral and post-postmodern theology.

1. Theology central to the culture again?

It is not my intention to present a theological program which would serve as answer to the challenges of contemporary philosophical ideas. I wanted rather to reconstruct the premises of the dramatic divergence between these two domains, and more generally, in our culture as such. The question is rather to try to find a solution where theology does not exist on the margins of public life and this calls for a retrieval of the public, social significance of theology.For some years in American theological periodicals, for example in "Theological Studies", the question of the public character of theology has been put forth. On the basis of assumptions connected with the philosophy of language, anthropology, history of science and literary analysis, ideas of "specifying rules for Christian speech and action", "expressions of experiences and attitudes", "communal praxis within the communal enclaves of concern for others" were expressed. The point is that to go into the structure of plurality means not only to go into the multiplicity of rationalities and interpretations. It means first to accept the radical evil of our history - the Holocaust, Gulag, Hiroshima [Sanks 1993, 719-20] and with it, that the most important question is the fact of evil, suffering, poverty and misery.The traditional model of the priority of theory to practise (priority of hermeneutics to democracy) is replaced by the relation of practise-theory-practise, where moral, economic, social and institutional problems have priority [Magill 1993, 681], where every description is involved in the context of praxis. Here the most fundamental concepts of catholic social teaching are grounded: realization of human personality, dignity, community, solidarity, social justice, common good [Magill 1993, 684]. Theological discourse takes place within the community, it participates and is present in the most important dimensions of social relations. Christians are not excluded from this community, because they use communal language opened to the interpretative testing of each of its claims. This openness means that religious language, vocabulary and dialogue is no longer private: it is enabled to be a part of public life and "churches, as religious communities of interpretation, can engage in moral discourse in the public arena"[9].What is the status of this activity of the churches in the public sphere? Are their arguments central or are they lost in the plurality of voices? The only thing which is certain is the significance of religious argumentation once it is opened to interpretation. Where can this lead us? It is evident that even if we cannot determine if theology will be central in public life again, it is no longer odd to attempt to raise claims that there is one essential, not simply formal truth to be discovered among the ruins [MacIntyre 1994, 171-94].


[1] Bernstein would rather go beyond objectivism and relativism and his conception of praxis is directed toward avoiding both foundationalism and nihilism. See very enlightening Bernstein's summary of his work on Gadamer, Habermas, Rorty and Arendt [Bernstein 1983, 223-31].
[2] Richard Shusterman appoints Rorty as the "major prophet of antifoundationalism" [Shusterman 1994a, 127. See also Guarino's remarks to his important text on foundationalism and nihilism [Guarino 1993, 37-8].
[3] It is a subject of famous Rorty's article about replacing philosophy with democracy [Rorty 1991a I, 175-96].
[4] Rorty accepting such relativist consequence at the same time distinguishes his own conception from a form of "cultural relativism" or "moral relativism". The former he considers during discussion with Hilary Putnam's attack on his postmodernism [Rorty 1991b, 2-8], the latter is presented in Rorty's attack on Gilbert Harman's defense of "moral relativism" [Rorty manuscript, 10]. Both questions are developed in Rorty's essay (other version of the second text) on solidarity and objectivity [Rorty 1991a I, 21-34].
[5] We have no room to discuss here complex and difficult problems connected to the contemporary American Cultural Left movement which implements the most ideas of deconstructionist litarary criticism. But at least the basic definition is necessary: "Rainbow Coalition of feminists, deconstructionists, Althusserians, Foucauldians, people working in ethnic or gay studies, etc. The emergence of this left in the course of the last ten years or so is an important event in American academic life. The humanities, and particularly, the departments of literature, are where the action is in the American academy. There are the only places where where something is happening which gets widely discussed among the proffesors, intrigues some of the best students, and upsets the administrators" [Rorty 1990, 227]. I refer to this smart paper, a work on possibility of "reforming". I also recommnend Shusterman's critique of Rorty's remarks [Shusterman 1994b]. Another perspective in debate on cultural left is developed by Sidney Hook's political and philosophical commentaries in American newspapers [Hook 1989; 1990].
[6] I am trying to desribe Rahner's ideas which are presented in his definitions. His conception is the whole involved in German tradition of transcendental idealism, so language he uses is very specific and requires separate studies [Rahner 1987, 23-4].
[7] These words from Jeffrey Stout's Ethics After Babel were noticed in Ronald Thiemann's article [Thiemann 1989, 502].
[8] Very interesting in the context of my claims are the last three pages of Guarino's article.
[9] Magill introduces here some important claims and formulations which were developed in one of the most important books of communitarianism [Bellah 1985; Magill 1993, 692-3].
Wroc³aw, 10.07.2000