Among philosophers of religion, Merold Westphal has been exemplary in leading the way in examining what is really going on in postmodern thinking. As an expert in both Kant and Hegel, he has shown us—in multiple books, over multiple decades—how the modern and the postmodern intertwine, as well as how certain versions of “postmodernity” turn out to be new versions of “modernity.” So his most recent book, In Praise of Heteronomy, is the result of a natural progression of scholarship and thought. What makes it particularly powerful is that Westphal sees himself addressing both moderns and (at least certain) postmoderns alike. Given the title of the book, it is important to understand what “heteronomy” signifies for Westphal: in short, it is “divine revelation.” Heteronomy is “relying on a particular revelation rather than on universal reason” (In Praise of Heteronomy, 211; all future page numbers in parentheses refer to Westphal’s book). Whereas the “reason” of modernity is supposed to be universal (which is to say “objective”), Westphal examines three major modern figures—Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel—and draws two conclusions. The first is simply that each of these “universal” philosophies turns out to be particular rather than universal. They are themselves as contingent as the biblical faiths each wishes to transcend. The second is that, despite claiming to be universal, they fundamentally disagree with each other. A “universal” claim should (by nature) be one that all reasonable persons everywhere at all times should acknowledge as true.
Westphal clearly has a horse in this race: his aim is to argue for the legitimacy of being guided by revelation. Early on, he states: “I do not pretend to be neutral in discussing these matters. I am a Protestant adherent to what I call ‘mere Christianity’” (a phrase borrowed from C. S. Lewis) (xxiii). Yet Westphal is quick to add that his book is not designed to be read as an apologetic for Christianity, any more than it is for the other religions of the book—Judaism and Islam. Instead, one might rather see it as a propaedeutic to any argument for a specific, historical faith. To take those faiths seriously, we must first come to see that their supposed usurpers are faiths themselves. In a nutshell, that is Westphal’s strategy.
As readers can see for themselves, I am generally supportive of Westphal’s project. Indeed, all of the respondents here would agree that Westphal’s basic take on these philosophers is correct. That Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel could ever have passed for giving us “universal” truth would itself require that one be “prejudiced” toward them in advance. The question that I address in my response to Westphal is simply this: given what Westphal amply demonstrates, how useful is it even to speak of “autonomy” at this point? He suggests we attempt to think about freedom and will “without autonomy” (200, Westphal’s italics). But I find it difficult to know what that could possibly mean. Westphal specifically says “there is an autonomy here,” though it is “subsequent [to heteronomy] and derivative” (200). Then he goes on to say that “this is not to deny epistemic/legislative autonomy; but it is to qualify and relativize it to a considerable degree” (205). I agree that what’s at stake here is a question of “degree,” but I find it hard to see how we can keep using the term “autonomy” given this rather serious concession to heteronomy.
But this opens a question from the other side. If what is actually happening is that I “choose” to submit myself to God’s will (whatever exactly that is and leaving aside the question of how exactly it is to be known), am I not doing something like “making” a decision? Is this an autonomous or a heteronomous decision? The problem is that the latter possibility seems simply incoherent and the former possibility seems to have been ruled out by Westphal’s critique of autonomy. Or perhaps Westphal should be read as redefining “autonomy” in the sense of choosing to submit. One does not make a voluntary choice to be heteronomous. If there is no such thing as genuine autonomy, then one is always heteronomous. What does it mean to choose heteronomy?
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Bradley B. Onishi rightly recognizes that the tension motivating Westphal is not “faith and reason” but “faith and faith”—faith in revelation versus faith in reason. But now we have a new problem, since Westphal claims that Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel provide us not with universal reason but rival faiths. Onishi takes Westphal to be giving us a “defensive exercise,” but his own interest is in what he terms “an in-between type of heteronomy, one that recognizes itself as a form of faith, and yet does not make the transition from autonomy to heteronomy as one from the human to the divine.” But that recognition would not necessarily lead to a heteronomous religiosity. Instead, it might be a purely secular heteronomy. On Onishi’s account, the goal here is not for scholars to “surrender to the authority of religion” but to have religion “reshape, enlarge, or deconstruct their secular visions of the human and the world.”
Onishi points us to a statement by Westphal that “‘relational’ and ‘revelational’ theologies” have an “equal vulnerability” (214). Yet precisely this vulnerability leaves Onishi to ask “whose heteronomy is worth praising and why?” Onishi does not mince words here: he points out that Westphal’s use of the phrase “biblical revelation” is “so general and so removed from the actual biblical texts that it demands suspicion.” Even if we simply limit the term “Bible” to either the Hebrew or the Christian Bible, we are still left with myriad texts and interpretations. One difficulty with the phrase “mere Christianity” is that its veneer of “objectivity” allows one to overlook the fact that the people using this terminology are often white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, economically privileged, and usually from the West. In short, the particular threatens to take on the guise of the universal. Of course, one might respond to Onishi by saying that Westphal is primarily trying to show that these rival versions of universal reason turn out to be rival faiths. It may be too much to expect of a text that gives the reader so much that it also must provide a definitive answer to the problem of rival faiths.
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The emphasis in B. Keith Putt’s paper is remarkably different from that of Onishi. On Putt’s read, Westphal is putting forth a truly modest proposal. Putt opens his piece with a poem from Emily Dickinson in which she plays with the idea of God playing with us—expecting us to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence—and then suggests that the poem fits well with Westphal’s text. Westphal is, as we have seen, a theist in a distinctly Christian sense. He admits to believing in “biblical monotheism” and sees this God as personal and an agent. Yet he sees that God is (as Otto puts it) “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” It is this aspect that particularly resonates with Dickinson. Such a God assuredly exists for Westphal, but that is only the beginning and not the end of the matter. The dialectic between the God who is mysterious and beyond our comprehension and the God who reassures us of mercy is one that cannot and should not be resolved.
While we would like to posit some epistemic standpoint outside of the human one in which we find ourselves, we are deeply contextual in our knowing. As Westphal puts it, “We are cognitively conditioned and significantly constituted by what others have said and put into institutional practices” (205). Yet the problem goes much deeper. We are not simply limited in the sense of being finite; we are also fallen. Westphal speaks of “noetic effects of sin” (xxi), the ways in which our sight and reason are affected by the human sinful condition. Westphal’s proposal is modest in that he is simply trying to “make room” for revelation. He does that by close readings of the texts of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel; but he also does that by providing a “testimony” to what he believes. Westphal is clearly trying to avoid, claims Putt, any kind of apologetics. The “truth” of Christianity or religion is held in suspension in this text. Putt terms this Westphal’s “negative apologetics,” in which hermeneutical modesty is embraced.
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J. Aaron Simmons responds to Westphal’s book by saying “this is a book I wish I had written.” Yet he goes on to add the qualifier “I am thankful that I didn’t because it wouldn’t have been as good!” Simmons expressly embraces Westphal’s project. Instead of taking Westphal to task, Simmons proposes reading his book alongside of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority. The context for this dual reading is relatively simple—at least in one sense. To be human—that is, to be heteronomous rather than autonomous by nature—means that we find ourselves, first and foremost, trusting in others. As children, we have almost no choice but to trust that our parents know better than we (which is usually but not always correct). One might like to think that, as adolescents, we outgrow this childlike trust, but instead we continue trusting though more warily. The reality is that the vast majority of what we believe is based on trust—in experts, in our teachers, in the media, in politicians, in pastors, and quite a few other sources. Zagzebski speaks of “two deep modern values,” which come down to egalitarianism and autonomy. Regarding the second of these, we place a high value on epistemic self-reliance/autonomy. Simmons notes that Zagzebski tells a similar story about the origin of the notion of epistemic autonomy, a notion she sees in Kant’s moral philosophy. Westphal makes it clear that Kant thinks that religion (Kant is really speaking about Christianity rather than religion in general) is able to tell us something that we wouldn’t have seen on our own. However, once we see it, we no longer need religion.
What is the value of reading these two texts side by side? Simmons points out that Zagzebski pays attention to questions of epistemology that often are either ignored or dismissed by continental philosophers. Westphal, on the other hand, pays attention to hermeneutical issues that get ignored or dismissed by analytic philosophers. What postmodern philosophy has to offer is the realization that our spatial and temporal location is highly significant in our knowing. Given that reality, strong epistemic realism is simply impossible. Yet Simmons insists that location does not simply annul any kind of universality to our practices and beliefs. Equally, Zagzebski is highly critical of “epistemic egoism,” which has no room for either trust or revelation. Zagzebski speaks of the importance of “first-personal reason,” the kind that we get from one another in networks of trust. She extends this to our belief in God, saying that the ground of faith simply is this trust in God. But even this kind of trust is not simply between one human being and God: it is likewise linked to our communities, which is why we take testimony to be so important. What testimony forces us to do is to take the experience of others seriously.
Simmons closes by pushing both Westphal and Zagzebski further than they each go, with the assumption that they would be glad to be pushed in this way. He turns to the distinction made by Caputo between God “existing” and God “insisting.” Caputo sides with the latter. However, Simmons claims that “insistence” does not result in a strong enough claim upon us and we are left still too self-sufficient. God’s “existing,” in contrast, requires a death to the self out of a humility before God. Simmons claims that the positions of Westphal and Zagzebski—which he terms “postmodern revelational theism”—“might be significantly more hermeneutically open than postmodern rationalistic a-theism or theo-poetics.”
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Noëlle Vahanian provides the sharpest critique of Westphal, one that is rich and subtle. She opens her response to Westphal by saying he “celebrates the failure of the Enlightenment project of autonomy.” It has failed because it turns out to be irrational or, put in a Christian vocabulary, it is sinful. She begins her reading of Westphal by focusing on the story (that Westphal details at length in his book) told by C. S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces about the Queen of Glome, the ugly Orual. Her point in choosing this story is that it provides us with an account of “one of the handful of female voices that don’t quite appear in the larger scope of this endorsement of biblical revelation and ‘mere Christianity.’” On Westphal’s account, what Orual learns is that her autonomous self is selfish and ugly, though she comes to this realization only very reluctantly (“kicking and screaming,” to be exact). Vahanian notes that there are two routes to this recognition—the long and tortured one experienced by Orual and the “joyful, free, and child-like” one. She identifies the latter with mere Christianity, with “basic beliefs” (a reference to Alvin Plantinga), and the testimony of the psalmist that Westphal continually mentions throughout his book.
Yet Vahanian thinks that the course set out by Westphal is itself quite problematic. Ostensibly, it would appear that the postmodern theologians do recognize that the Enlightenment has failed and “they see this failure as an opening for faith, but they won’t make the leap.” Vahanian interprets this failure to make the leap as motivated by the realization that, if there are only competing faiths, then “all perspectives are decentered.” But, if Westphal is correct, then any philosophy purporting to be autonomous must in actuality be atheistic and sinful. She asks: “Would a culturally Christian, but secular theology, be rejected as evidence of sin?” It would seem that Westphal’s account is not as all “mere” as that, for it leaves out any theology that is—at its very basis—non-dogmatic.
At the end, Vahanian thinks Westphal’s reading of these philosophers “plunges us into a relativistic morass,” since the result is that “philosophical and religious discourses have nothing to say to each other.” Each begins with their respective and incompatible faiths. As long as someone is able to claim to have a position that is “universal,” then that person can (logically) expect others to embrace it. But, once that pretense is exposed, then no one is able to claim universality. However, that can’t stop people from trying. Vahanian writes: “In an era when Christian evangelicals will stop at nothing to get a conservative judge on the supreme court, is the revealed truth position really just one more faith alongside all of the others?” Vahanian responds by siding with the ugly Orual. The problem is that testimony creates just as much of a morass as reason and evidence. If we are simply going by testimony, “we would not know the difference between the butcher and the knight of faith.” We may choose to “accept” the testimony of Brett Kavanaugh over the “testimony” of Christine Blasey Ford because “that denial could be just as expedient as innocence in placing on the bench a justice whose primary basic beliefs and noetic structure would no doubt be grounded in that community whose tradition favors revelation over reason in its conservative interpretation of women’s rights and social justice.”
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To all of these questions and challenges, Westphal has ample responses.