Democratic public life at its best—and also sometimes its worst—tends to take form “in the streets.” The American colonists paraded and protested in Boston and elsewhere, as did the French in Paris. Our republic’s “second founding,” which came via the civil rights movement, and by the efforts of King, Abernathy, and Davis, among others, was forged in the streets through marches and collective singing, actions that were often met with beatings and hosings by those in power. Mandela and so many witnessed “necklacing” and other atrocities but insisted on their human dignity. The people of Hong Kong are once again taking to the streets by the thousands to protest extradition laws. Consider also the recent trial of Rev. William J. Barber II, an ardent defender of equality and freedom, on charges of trespassing in the North Carolina State Legislative Building. (See last Thursday’s Sightings, “A Voice on Trial,” by Braxton D. Shelley.) Around the world, democratic movements have galvanized people to take to the streets against authoritarian powers.
Authoritarian powers, it seems, violate people at the core of their being and thus provoke supercharged reactions, but sometimes, tragically, they create complacent and all-too-compliant citizens. Such tyranny can take many forms. And yet, the human spirit is resilient, often rising to fight against its suffocation. Protest movements are gasps for air among people throwing off the shackles of oppression. Public life is messy, agonistic, protracted, and, sadly, often too weak to sustain some modicum of freedom when it lacks enduring institutions and defenders of the ideals of freedom.
Today I wish to “sight” two defenders of freedom whose activism did not take place in the streets but in the realm of thought. And this is important, even if often overlooked, precisely because the most pernicious-yet-powerful shackles used by autocrats throughout the ages have been those that enslave the human mind. An ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated. So, let’s work back in time, starting with a contemporary defender of the ideals of freedom, Jürgen Habermas, and then turn to the other, Erasmus, who died almost 500 years ago. Surprisingly, they share a similar—if not identical—vision of our humanity as creatures who learn and so seek emancipation from whatever constrains meaningful public life.
Jürgen Habermas, who happens to be turning a spry ninety years old this month, is a world-renowned philosopher and social theorist. Developing what he calls a discourse or communication ethics and a highly differentiated account of modern liberal democratic states, Habermas has defended (but also criticized) the emancipatory aims of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and universalistic claims to human dignity and rights. Most important for this “sighting” of religion in public places, Habermas, over the course of the last decade or so, has shifted from an utter neglect of religion in public life to wrestling with its importance in our “life-world.”
The outlines and nuances of Habermas’s philosophy are beyond the scope of this column, but three issues stand out. First, he now acknowledges that the religions—by which he mainly means Judaism and Christianity—have resources for sustaining commitments to some basic ideals, such as the dignity of persons. He also holds, and this is a matter of contention, that those resources have to be translated into a secular medium given the diversity of worldviews in liberal societies. This places a special burden on believers that is not required of their fellow secular citizens, a burden many have noted as unfair. Why should religious people have to translate their convictions when others do not have to do so?
Second, Habermas has developed a procedural ideal of valid and undistorted communication: “the ideal speech situation.” The root idea is that such a condition would be characterized by the conviction of the triumph of the better argument, that is, a person’s unforced consent to validated truth claims. This is an ideal situation that can be used to criticize non-ideal and actual lived communication that too often is coerced or bound by the shackles of ideology or complacency. (Recall Rev. Barber.) Of course, this claim too has its critics. Noting that political debate on the ground, like Brexit in Raymond Geuss’s example, is gritty and contentious, one is bound to ask about the relevance of Habermas’s ideal speech situation. But ideals are just that, ideals. We struggle to realize them in actual life but most of the time we fall short and our ideals clarify that painful fact. The point is not endless debate, the bane of many liberal thinkers. So why does this matter? It matters precisely because without some constitutive ideals (e.g., peace, human dignity, fair and truthful communication, to name a few) we are left with little way to identify and to unlock the shackles placed on the mind.
Finally, Habermas holds steadily to an abiding conviction that human beings are learning creatures. Against the self-understanding of this age, he believes that moral learning has indeed taken place. A relatively free, open, democratic, and pluralistic society is on the main better for everyone—and especially for those suffering under legacies of oppression—than are authoritarian and non-liberal societies. That is why, for instance, the voices of Rev. Barber or #MeToo, which champion our ideals and turn them against our actual condition, are so critically important at this moment. This places education—a lifelong endeavor in Habermas's understanding—at the core of what we mean by freedom. And ideals, like non-coerced communication, are tools to serve that purpose.
Four centuries before Habermas, a rather humble but extraordinarily erudite man made his way around Europe, the Dutchman Erasmus. Little read nowadays, he was the leading intellectual of his day and the first to make his living from his writings. Yet he fell from the scene with what Michael Massing has called the Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (Harper, 2018). In this massive (987 pages) book, Massing shows how the relations and conflicts between Luther and Erasmus have shaped, knowingly or not, subsequent history. He sees these men representing two “colliding” traditions of thought. Whereas Luther was strident in proclaiming the majesty of God and salvation through Christ as “incontestable” truths, Erasmus the Christian humanist “embraced the common bonds of humanity and the diversity of cultures and viewpoints with it” (xiii). These differences, Massing claims, work themselves out in different views on authority, the bible, human sinfulness, and religious exclusivity, and which continue to plague us today, pitting religious conservatives and progressives against each other.
Erasmus did not recommend an “ideal speech situation” to adjudicate the norms of religious controversy! And as an adviser to princes, popes, and kings, he was hardly a liberal democrat. Insofar as religious debate is often about the standard of judgment itself, say, Luther and Erasmus on the right reading of Paul or the freedom of the will, supposedly neutral ideal norms do not pertain. What then to do? Erasmus marshaled his amazing rhetorical powers to argue for humility and civility in social relations with a firm belief that peace is the human good. Habermas seeks an ideal method for taming the rancor of our public discourse. Erasmus, for his part, gave us, as Terence Martin has shown, an ethics of discourse aimed at the good of peace. The eclipse of Erasmus’s irenic and humane outlook by sharper voices in the Reformation remains with us, Massing writes, and that may well be fateful for liberal democracies. In fact, Massing thinks the matter has gone transnational with Europe leaning towards Erasmus and the US shaped by voices inspired, for good and ill, by Luther.
As we approach the 2020 presidential election, non-ideal public life will take center stage in the nation’s consciousness. As it does, one can only hope that ideals like undistorted communication, humility, civility, and peace might guide and judge our deliberations, whether rooted in the religions or elsewhere. “Guide” and “judge,” at best, because, as ideals, they are human aspirations too easily suffocated by authoritarian and distorted forces. But we should also never underestimate the power of these ideals of freedom or our capacity as a people to develop and to learn.
|Author, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.|