Symposium Introduction

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.”

* * *

To all of these questions and challenges, Westphal has ample responses.

Bruce Ellis Benson


Making Room for Heteronomy

On Autonomy and Authority

At the heart of In Praise of Heteronomy is a question: “Do the norms by which we should live derive from our own cognitive powers (autonomy), or do they come to us from a wisdom and authority beyond us (heteronomy)?”[1] To be sure, this question concerns ethics, since to be autonomous for Kant is to give oneself the law. Yet at issue is really the question of ultimate authority. Is the “legitimating norm of the moral law” (8) my own reason or does it come from elsewhere—namely, God? Merold Westphal tells us that “to praise heteronomy is to keep the door open to divine revelation in the face of philosophies that seek effectively to close it” (xv). Moreover, he explicitly defines heteronomy as “relying on a particular revelation rather than on universal reason” (211). Yet he likewise contends that his argument is not sectarian: it is not designed to argue for a particular position but to show that the enlightenment philosophies of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel which purport to be neutral and objective—and thus universal—are as particular as the biblical faiths they are designed to supersede. Westphal claims that “thinkers on both sides of this fence [autonomy and heteronomy] should feel the force of [his] argument” (xxiii).

I find Westphal’s argument thoroughly convincing. His exposition of these thinkers is lucid and compelling. His point that they present “rival faiths” that are incompatible not only with “religions of the book” but also with each other is likewise persuasive. One may choose to believe in any of these faiths, but Westphal reminds us that “the choice between religion within the limits of reason alone and reason within the limits of religion alone is just that, a choice, and the criteria by what the matter is to be decided are themselves part of what is in question” (183). While this might cause one to become a skeptic, Westphal follows Derrida in preferring the decision of the undecidable. Again, I do not disagree with that conclusion.

Yet precisely the force of Westphal’s argument leads me to ask a question that I think is complementary to his project: what exactly is the status of the subtitle of his text? What are we doing in “making room” for heteronomy and thus revelation? Westphal says that “faith in reason gives hegemony to some version of human reason over any appeal to divine revelation, while faith in revelation gives hegemony to some form of divine revelation” (xx, my italics). But what is the status of the word “gives” in this sentence? It sounds like we are actively doing something, even if motivated by faith. Elsewhere, though, Westphal speaks of “a divine revelation that comes to human reason as a gift rather than arising from it as an accomplishment” (49). In this case, we are passive receivers of a gift. So which is it: active or passive? In working toward an answer, I will be drawing on Kant and Gadamer.

Is There Such a Thing as Autonomy?

“Have courage [Mut] to make use of your own understanding [deines eigenen Verstandes]!” So Kant exhorts us in the opening lines of his 1784 essay “Was ist Auklärung?”[2] He uses a quotation from Horace: “sapere aude!” Aude is related to the English word “audacity,” so we could render this as “have the audacity to be wise” or (with a bit more latitude) “think for yourself!” Kant tells us—twice—that our “immaturity” or “minority” (Unmündigkeit) is “self-incurred” (selbstverschuldet). If ought implies can, we are able to choose: continue to be heteronomous or become autonomous.

Westphal distinguishes between executive autonomy—the agency or the ability to act from one’s own reason—from legislative autonomy—knowing what to do. His concern is with the latter. He cites the Groundwork, where Kant says that “the will is not just subject to the law but subject in such a way that it must also be viewed as self-legislating.”[3] Thus, the will can “consider itself the author” of that law. Indeed, it is this legislation that makes one a “sovereign” because one is “not subject to the will of any other.”[4] In the Second Critique, Kant links autonomy with independence, what he terms “freedom in the negative sense.” Yet it is likewise “freedom in the positive sense” since the self is giving itself law that it must follow.[5] Because of this, Jens Timmerman points out that “autonomy cannot be ascribed to either the legislative or the executive will—as the one gives the law to the other—but only to the volitional faculty as a whole.”[6] The self, then, is doubly free: free to give itself law and free to follow it. To follow law that it does not give itself is to be enslaved. Speaking of aesthetic judgments, Kant claims: “to make other people’s judgments the basis determining one’s own would be heteronomy.”[7] In Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, he tells us that “when a human being enters upon his adolescence” he realizes that revealed religion is “bit by bit dispensable.”[8] We may retain the “influence” of “ecclesiastical religion.”[9] But as authors of the moral law—which supplants ecclesiastical religion as the true religion—we become the authority.

What are we to make of Kant’s idea of the self giving itself its own law? One might ask about the status of Kant’s “instruction” to his readers to “think for themselves”: isn’t one already not thinking for oneself by following Kant’s directive? Further, it is odd that Kant quotes from Horace, who almost appears to be set up as something like an authority. Or one can point out that, even though Kant thinks the categorical imperative is based solely on “pure” reason, the content Kant derives from it is certainly indebted to the Christian tradition in which he was raised. This last point invokes the hermeneutical turn, the realization that we never do think for ourselves: for much of what we think and are comes to us from others. We are born into a language game that was going long before we appeared on the scene, one in which participate but do not control. Given that, Westphal makes the apt observation that “autonomy presupposes a prior heteronomy” (190).

If Westphal is right here, the very concept of autonomy is problematic. He suggests that we “try to think this: will and freedom without autonomy.” But here is where my confusion begins to arise. Right after providing this goal of trying to think agency without autonomy, Westphal quotes Derrida as speaking of acting not autonomously but “in the heteronomy” in which “I cannot preempt by my own initiative whatever is commanding me to make decisions” that will “be mine and which I alone will have to answer for.”[10] I find it hard to make sense of acting in heteronomy but still insisting that this action is “mine” and that I bear full responsibility for it. Westphal explicates this quote by saying “there is an autonomy here,” but it is still “subsequent and derivative” and “presupposes a prior heteronomy.” Then, after quoting from Linda Zagzebski, Westphal writes:

If one is motivated by autonomy, one will desire to think for oneself and not simply follow what others say. But if one is also motivated by honesty and humility [which Zagzebski also includes], one’s “understanding of the cognitive situation” will have to take into account the evidence that we are cognitively conditioned and significantly constituted by what others have already said and put into institutional practices. This is not to deny epistemic/legislative autonomy; but it is to qualify and relativize it to a considerable degree. (205)

Autonomy would seem to have died not quite the death of a thousand qualifications but enough so that is hard to see how we can still use this term in anything like its usual (Kantian) meaning.

Further, if Westphal wants to argue for the primacy of “faith” (whether theological or philosophical), then “autonomy” seems even less like the right word. He says that “faith knows that it does not walk by sight”—as opposed to understanding that “insists that it can and must”—and he speaks of a “childlike trust and obedience to a heavenly parent” (24, 11). The opposition here is between childlikeness and the adolescence that Kant describes. To recognize God as the “supreme authority” is to recognize that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa 55:9). “The Psalmist . . . ‘delights’ in a claim on his life that comes from Another (heteronomy)” and so “experiences his heteronomy not as an alienation or enslavement but as the help he needs to become his truest and most fulfilled self. One can dismiss this as a symptom of a childhood that is to be outgrown, but that would be simply to beg the question” (224, 217).

The kind of autonomy Kant envisions, then, would appear impossible to achieve and even to think coherently, at least in any complete sense. Westphal also sees it as quite undesirable. Rather than say more on this point, though, let me turn to what I see as the other “side” of this question.

Is There Such a Thing as Heteronomy?

If I “make room” for God as the supreme authority in “childlike faith and obedience,” what exactly am I doing? Making the hermeneutical turn means that one recognizes that one is deeply affected and defined by traditions and language, much of which I am unaware. Who “I” am is greatly connected to the “thrownness” (to speak with Heidegger) of my being. But I also have a choice as to what I do with that inheritance.

One way of putting this situation is in terms of the child/adolescent/adult transformation. Children are obedient because (among other things) they don’t really have much of a choice, both because they are subject to their parents’ rules and because they really can’t think for themselves in any meaningful sense. Adolescence can well be the rejection of anything like childlike obedience. But true adulthood goes beyond both. When Westphal speaks of the Psalmist as finding “liberty” in the law of the Lord, it is the kind of choice that a child could not make, since that would require being able to entertain the alternatives that would make this a choice. This aspect comes out in what Westphal says: “There is a real difference between ‘religions of the book,’ that try to give hegemony to divine revelation” and those “that do just the reverse” (214, my italics). This sounds like an action that we are attempting to undertake, as does Westphal’s desire “to keep open the space within which Christianity can make its claims without a priori assumptions that beg the question against it” (66, my italics). Children just naturally believe their parents; but, having gone through the questioning of adolescence, adults actively choose to do so.

Toward the end of his text, Westphal asks: “Is there something about biblical heteronomy, the attempt to give hegemony to divine revelation over human reason, that makes it especially problematic?” (215). He answers this negatively by saying that such a move is not “alienating and dehumanizing.” With that I agree. My question concerns the part about “the attempt to give hegemony.” How does one actively give priority to authority? Here it is helpful to turn to Gadamer, who is as aware as anyone that being situated in traditions means that the freedom of “even the freest” person is “limited and qualified,” with the result that “the idea of an absolute reason is not a possibility for historical humanity.”[11] While he agrees that “the Enlightenment’s distinction between faith in authority and using one’s own reason is, in itself, legitimate,”[12] he points out that “the authority of persons is ultimately based not on the subjection and abdication of reason but on an act of acknowledgement and knowledge—the knowledge that the other is superior to oneself in judgment and insight and that for this reason his judgment takes precedence—i.e., it has priority over one’s own.”[13] He goes on to say that “authority has to do not with obedience but rather with knowledge.” In the passages that I have quoted from Westphal, his concern seems to be that of obedience. I share that concern. However, recognizing the priority of an authority is a conscious act. Even to submit to an authority is something that we do. Gadamer points out that “decisions are made wherever actions are performed in freedom.”[14] If Gadamer is correct here, then anything like an absolute heteronomy is no less possible than an absolute autonomy for a normal adult human being. In the sense of having to choose, I can never escape from the active aspect of autonomy.

I think Westphal comes closest to speaking of the true complexity of decision making in a footnote that one could easily overlook. In commenting on “the choice between religion within the limits of reason alone and reason within the limits of religion alone,” he says: “I do not mean to suggest that it is an arbitrary choice, like flipping a coin. Such ‘decisions’ [he puts this term in quotation marks] emerge gradually over time as the self is formed by external forces and forms itself by the choices it makes in response to the circumstances in which it finds itself” (188n52). Here we get the passive aspect (“the self is formed”) that undercuts any strong sense of autonomy and the active aspect (“forms itself”) that undercuts any strong sense of heteronomy. Choosing to recognize and submit to the authority of heteronomy means one voluntarily puts oneself under constraint, which means it is not enslavement. Instead, it is what Kant calls positive freedom. Placing oneself under an authority is an act of executive autonomy. One makes a choice, knowing that one could choose otherwise.

All of this should lead us to ask one last question: namely, is it helpful to retain the terminology of “autonomy” and “heteronomy”? Westphal is rightly critical of Kant for “help[ing] himself generously to the language and imagery of the Bible and Christian tradition” yet using its terminology to mean something quite different (116). To make this move, Kant is forced to make quite significant redefinitions. Yet it would likewise seem that Westphal has so transformed the meaning of these terms that they may no longer be useful. If so, perhaps we need to have the Mut to find a new vocabulary.

[1] Westphal, In Praise of Heteronomy: Making Room for Revelation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), 2 (my italics). Subsequent citations are parenthetical.

[2] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 17 (8:35).

[3] Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. and trans. Mary Gregor and Jens Timmerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 91 (4:431).

[4] Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Mary J. Gregor, in Practical Philosophy, 83 (4:433).

[5] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, in Practical Philosophy, 166 (5:33).

[6] Timmerman, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 115.

[7] Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), §32 (5:282). Even though aesthetic judgments are not cognitive and so differ from moral reasoning, his point regarding autonomy is more or less the same.

[8] Kant, Religion with the Boundaries of Mere Reason, trans. George di Giovanni, in Religion and Rational Theology, ed. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 151 (6:121).

[9] Kant, Religion with the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 152.

[10] Westphal, In Praise of Heteronomy, 200; Derrida, The Gift of Death, 2nd ed., trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 91.

[11] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 276.

[12] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 204.

[13] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 279.

[14] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 204.

  • Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal


    Response to Bruce Ellis Benson

    Bruce asks, appropriately, what are we doing if we “make room” for a theology that appeals to divine revelation rather than human reason as its highest norm? An answer can be put in terms of what we are not doing. We are not assuming that “rational” religion has an a priori privilege over “revealed” religion, that reason is universal, objective, and presuppositionless, while revelation is particular and sectarian. Of course, revelation is particular and sectarian, both in its texts and their interpretation, but my argument is that reason is as well, as can be seen by comparing three powerful versions of the religion-within-the-limits-of-reason-alone project: Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. Each is mutually incompatible with the other two.

    Just as in the law, substantive due process is, well, more substantive than mere procedural due process by virtue of its commitment to certain rights that cannot be compromised by legislation, legal decisions, or executive orders, so in the philosophy of religion reason is not an empty formalism but substantive by virtue of a commitment to principles that are particular, contingent, and anything but self-evident. This is what I mean by calling reason as sectarian as religion. The religion of reason and the religion of revelation enter the public square on a formal par with each other. One is not prejudiced (in the Gadamerian sense) and the other unprejudiced. They are only differently prejudiced, just as different religions and different philosophies differ in this way.

    Bruce asks whether there is such a thing as autonomy. I find useful the distinction, first called to my attention by my colleague John Davemport, between executive and legislative autonomy. The former belongs to action theory, the latter to epistemology. In the executive sense, the question is in what sense must my movements, including utterances and inscriptions, be “mine” in order to count as actions. This is important for questions of legal or moral responsibility, for praise or blame. I don’t address this question. My assumption is that the question is as interesting and intricate as it is important just because our doings involve a mixture of different kinds and different degrees of passivity and activity. Even the most hard-nosed determinist finds the distinction between voluntary and involuntary significant.

    My concern is with legislative autonomy, which might better be called cognitive autonomy, for it concerns the relation of activity and passivity in the formation of our beliefs. It is called “legislative” in the Kantian context because the beliefs are normative beliefs, and the autonomy claims is that we give the moral law to ourselves rather than receiving it from some other. Bruce writes, “If Westphal is right here, the very concept of autonomy is problematic . . . (it) is hard to see how we can still use this term in anything like its usual (Kantian) meaning.”

    That is indeed my point. I have taken the hermeneutic turn, which I take to be the dividing line between modern and postmodern philosophy, and I have tried to show that Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel have taken it without realizing it, that their claim to the universality and presuppositionlessness of “the view from nowhere” deconstructs itself when they are read side by side in all their sectarian splendor. Reason takes the first step beyond empty formalism when it is conditioned, or as I sometimes say, contaminated, by substantive commitments many of which it has absorbed by a kind of cognitive osmosis. My praise of heteronomy is simply the observation that this has always already happened in our thinking by virtue of the language games (Wittgenstein, Derrida), the practices (Foucault, MacIntyre), and the traditions (Gadamer) into which we have been thrown or, in some cases and in some degree, into which we have voluntarily entered. Whatever activity (autonomy) may be involved in some stages of our thinking, it never eliminates the passivity (heteronomy) which has always already been at work in our thinking and which always continues to condition and contaminate it. Theologies of reason and theologies of divine revelation share the same finitude.


Bradley Onishi


On Faiths

In Praise of Which Heteronomy?

Merold Westphal’s In Praise of Heteronomy is a nuanced work that both develops Westphal’s earlier thought trajectories and opens new pathways for discussion and dialogue. The one I’d like to follow here is Westphal’s argument that, in essence, we are all people of faith.

In the preface, he makes clear that his goal is not to force a choice according to the age-old binary of faith and reason. Instead, Westphal says, “I see a choice between two faiths, or perhaps between two generic forms of faith, belief and commitment that are risky because they lack the absolute guarantees promised by modernity” (xx). However, if Westphal doesn’t want to force a choice between faith and reason, he does seem committed to one between faith in revelation and faith in reason. This staged confrontation stems, at least in part, from Westphal’s conception of reason as tied to the hegemonic iterations found in Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. Despite mentioning what he takes to be “atheist” and “secular” approaches in North American counterparts like Caputo, Kearney, and Taylor—an intriguing categorization given the prior two’s ongoing commitments to the Christian tradition in some form or another—for Westphal there seems to be a choice between a hermeneutically formed “mere Christianity,” and a hegemonic form of human reason. Thus, his goal is to demonstrate “that religion within the limits of reason alone, in either its modern or postmodern versions, is a series of rival faiths” (xxiii). In the main, In Praise of Heteronomy seems to be a defensive exercise. Its primary goal seems to be to weaken the claims of moderns (and some postmoderns) to the point that they must admit that the “rational theologies of the Enlightenment” share an “epistemic quality” with “revelational theologies” (213).

My interest is in 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. This type of heteronomy concerns my own vocation. I am a philosopher of religion whose primary location is in religious studies. I was hired to teach religion. My office is next to religion scholars. My degree says religious studies. My research is often at the intersection of philosophy and religious studies, but for reasons of self-preservation and identity formation I’ve thought quite a bit about what philosophy of religion contributes to the academic study of religion. One of my principal answers is that philosophy of religion is a matter of thinking with religion, rather than against it. This methodological premise rests on Westphal’s principal thesis in In Praise of Heteronomy: all philosophy—all pursuit of truth—is a matter of faith.

I develop my approach to philosophy of religion through what Tyler Roberts calls a model of “encounter,” wherein the scholar of religion remakes and recreates his or her account of the human, world, or cosmos through the religious phenomena he or she studies. In his 2013 monograph Encountering Religion, Roberts outlines a humanistic approach to the study of religion wherein “the researcher exposes his or her world, and therefore his or her questions, expectations, ideals, and analytical maps and models, to the world of the religious subject, with the idea that this encounter might transform the perspective of the researcher.”1 For Roberts, the humanities are more than the study of human beings for the sake of knowledge; they constitute a set of scholarly practices aimed at knowledge of life:

This constructive activity is also studied by social scientists, but in the humanities one studies it in terms of what Geoffrey Harpham describes as the “distinctively human capacity to imagine, to interpret, and to represent human experience,” that is, in terms of reflective human grappling, intentionally, with what matters.2

This kind of grappling is needed to arrive at what we might call truth, or truthful ways of living, believing, and acting. In this sense, philosophy’s “turn” to religion is not a return to religion. Philosophy does not surrender to the authority of religion in order to have the meaning of life restored. Rather, in the cases of thinkers such as Roberts religious phenomena reshape, enlarge, or deconstruct their secular visions of the human and the world. As a result of these encounters, philosophers engaged with religions, religious people, or the religious can not only provide compelling interpretations of religious phenomena, but they can also provide enlarged and enriched philosophical accounts of what’s really there. The goal is neither to explain the substance of religion, nor to protect religion by positing an irreducible realm of the sacred. Rather, such encounters enable these thinkers to philosophize with religion, among other resources, as a means for inheriting, creating, and mediating visions of the human, world, and cosmos.3

Some worry that a model of encounter leads to “unwarranted extrapolation, generalization, abstraction, idealization, or formalization” wherein philosophy is infected by, and thus reduced to theology, or in which philosophy extrapolates religious phenomena from their context into a universalist ethic.4 This can lead, according to Hent de Vries, to “a generalization no less than a trivialization” of both religious phenomena and humanistic discourse.5

In response, I employ what Thomas Carlson calls the “apophatic analogy” in his 1999 work Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God. On Carlson’s reading, the symbiotic relationship that has developed between continental thought and religious phenomena is best understood through the relation between two distinct, but related modes of subjectivity. On the philosophical side, the post-death-of-God subject has undergone what he calls a “mortal wound,” since the criticisms of metaphysics leveled by Nietzsche and Heidegger have revealed finitude as the constitutive horizon of the human self. Through a careful reading of Being and Time, Carlson argues that Heidegger envisions the human phenomenologically as ineluctably and definitively oriented toward its death, which confers upon Dasein a radical futurity, since the possibility that constitutes its Being is one that can never be actualized: “Dasein’s possibility depends, precisely, on its essential incompletion—on the finally irreducible gap between that which Dasein actually is and that which it might at every moment yet be. Such a possibility is radical, for as long as Dasein is, its possibility can never be reduced entirely to present actuality or actual presence.”6 Death, the possibility that can never be actualized, that which determines the Being of Dasein, is thus the inaccessible phenomenon around which language, representation, and knowledge circle, but which they can never access. In this sense, death engenders the existence of Dasein through its insurmountable absence.

Carlson argues that an analogous orientation can be detected in the Pseudo-Dionysius’s mystical theology. The endless play between positive and negative theology in Dionysius’s theology constitutes an apophasis that orients the mystical subject toward a God who is never actually available to language, thought, or representation.7 On this reading, Dionysius avoids reducing God to a being among beings through the “hyper-negative path” of unio mystica on which the mystical subject directs itself toward God.

Thus, both the mortal and mystical subjects are oriented toward a constitutive phenomenon that remains always inaccessible to them. Both God and death remain beyond the limits of language, thought, and representation as the “impossible,” which engenders the possibility of all possibilities while remaining beyond their limits. On Carlson’s reading, this sets up an “apophatic analogy” wherein it is impossible to distinguish that which remains beyond knowledge, representation, and language—whether the God whose presence exceeds all signification or the death whose absence conditions the possibility of Dasein’s possibilities: “The being of Dasein in relation to the possibility of its impossible death is analogous to the created soul’s naming of the unnameable God with whom it would be unified in mystical unknowing.”8 For Carlson, even if Heidegger’s approach to Dasein remains in many ways distinct from the Pseudo-Dionysius’s discourse on the nature of God, the analogous logics between their approaches to the constitutive element of language and experience means the secular philosopher trying to understand the contours of human mortality may benefit from examining the mystic’s reflections on the absence of God. This neither infects philosophy with theology, nor attempts to abstract the particularity of certain religious phenomena from their context for intellectual exploitation. It rather encourages a kind of inter-faith dialogue wherein the goal is to recognize resonant components of distinct faiths without reducing or converting one to the other.

Carlson’s apophatic analogy coheres with Roberts’s model of encounter by suggesting that the unknowability constitutive of the mystics’ and philosophers’ respective conceptions of language, experience, and subjectivity are analogously parallel, which means there are resonances between their subjectivities, worlds, and cosmoi. Thus, the apophatic analogy can act as a methodological prism for philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline of religious studies. Through this theoretical matrix methodologically philosophers should see the potential for philosophizing with religion rather than against it without worrying that such an approach will reduce philosophy to religious thought or burden philosophy with the secularist mission of converting its conversation partners away from “irrational” religious beliefs. Instead, it will recognize that the resonant logics between certain aspects of the secular and certain religious phenomena, framed by a model of encounter, reveals a potentially analogous relation on the basis of which one might become more vibrantly secular—might gain the eyes to see what’s really there—by engaging religious phenomena, texts, communities, rituals, and figures.

The approach I’m outlining gestures toward points of resonance between secular and religious faiths. It hopes for the development of a new interfaith dialogue that includes coalition building, activism, and institutional cooperation among, for example, Christian communities and humanist organizations. As Westphal notes, “‘rational’ and ‘revelational’ theologies” share an “equal vulnerability” (214). Recognizing this vulnerability seems key to making heteronomy the unexpected hinge of renewed dialogue between the religious and the secular, philosophy and theology, reason and revelation.

However, if Derrida has taught us anything it’s that nothing is immune to deconstruction, which leaves me with a question concerning Westphal’s praise of heteronomy: What heteronomies are worth praising? Early on in the work, he makes it clear that he wants to praise a “strong form of legislative heteronomy . . . according to which the revealed will of God is the highest norm for human behavior, trumping human reason and making its authority relative and conditional” (3). This means, as Westphal says on the same page, “biblical religion in both its Jewish and Christian forms” (3). Yet, in the last pages of the work Westphal claims to have been a “defender of the faith whose content is first of all Abrahamic monotheism and then mere Christianity” (225). As such, he sees his accomplishment as proving that philosophy has no right to hegemony over such a faith (226), since the “prosecution” (philosophy) “has not proven the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” (226).

There are two issues worth noting here. First, revealing the philosophies of Kant, Spinoza, and Hegel as forms of faith may be an indictment on their claims to authority, that is it may be a proving of their illegitimacy, but it is not proof of the “innocence,” or authority, of what Westphal calls biblical revelation, whatever that may be. Thus, and this is my second point, what seems more accurate to say is that Westphal has shown—and I agree with him—that even if we are not all believers, we are all faithful. According to the hermeneutical turn, we must give account of our faiths, even if we cannot legitimate them absolutely or without doubt.

But, and though this may be in some ways a trite point, I think it is worth making. Whose heteronomy is worth praising and why? Westphal praises “biblical revelation,” but that phrase is so general and so removed from the actual biblical texts that it demands suspicion. Even more so that in the beginning of the work it is claimed in a Jewish and Christian context and by the end expanded to Abrahamic monotheism. Are all forms of heteronomy worth praising—those of Muslims, wiccans, Hindus, and Moony’s, as long as they recognize their vulnerability? In essence, I’m wondering if the goal of praising heteronomy is simply a defensive tactic useful for warding off hegemonic critics of Westphal’s own brand of faith, or is it a means for a more expansive model of heteronomic dialogue?

  1. Tyler Roberts, Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 107.

  2. Roberts, Encountering Religion, 89–90.

  3. It is important to note that the type of “encounter” Roberts proposes and that I am sketching here can be interpreted as an attempt at “re-enchantment.” I am hesitant to use this term, however, because it now bears a wide array of connotations. If what I outline in this work is a form of what Kosky and Connolly call “enchanted secularity,” the emphasis is on “secularity” rather than on the “enchantment.” By referencing enchantment or re-enchantment I do not analyze how and why religious devotion, new religious movements, or alternative forms of spirituality have either remained surprisingly intact in the modern context, or emerged vigorously on a global scale. My interest is not in enchantment as the persistence of belief in mystery despite secularity. My interest is in enchantment as part of a more expansive vision of the secular.

  4. Hent de Vries, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 185.

  5. De Vries, Turn to Religion, 243. My analysis concerns only Heidegger’s work up to 1927, and thus I do not challenge de Vries’s reading of Heidegger’s later work.

  6. Carlson, Indiscretion, 244. Carlson, Indiscretion, 244.

  7. Carlson, Indiscretion, 245–46. “To negate all beings in both thought and language, and in turn to negate those negations themselves, constitutes the doubly negative or hyper-negative path through which the soul might strain toward the ineffable and incomprehensible God who is no being among beings but who calls all beings to be. In this sense, the mystical path in Dionysius aims toward that without which thought and language are not possible which itself remains beyond any thought or language.”

  8. Carlson, Indiscretion, 254.

  • Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal


    Response to Bradley Onishi

    Bradley writes that I see the religion of reason and the religion of divine revelation as two competing forms of faith by virtue of the hermeneutic situation in which we always already find ourselves. Fair enough. He continues, “If Westphal doesn’t want to force a choice between faith and reason, he does seem committed to one between faith in revelation and faith in reason” (where reason means human cognitive powers at work without giving normative significance to any putative divine revelation).

    I’d like to be clear about two points. First, I do not seek to force a choice between these two faiths and for two reasons. On the one hand, we have always already made at least an implicit choice on the matter if we talk about religious matters at all. On the other hand, if something like a forced choice ever occurs, it is life or existence that does the forcing, not some panelist at SPEP. I take seriously what William James says about live options, recognizing that for some faith in revelation is not a live option and for others faith in reason is not a live option. Any live options may turn out to be on the same side of this fence.

    On the other hand, insofar as there is a “staged confrontation” between the two faiths, that Bradley rightly notes are very generic, with many differing and competing species, it is very limited. I do not seek to stage a substantive, across-the-board confrontation between them but only to call attention to one very generic difference: appeal to (some version of) reason as the highest norm versus appeal to (some version of) revelation as the highest norm. It is the failure of the claim that reason is universal and in that sense autonomous, unconditioned by the language games, practices, and traditions of particular historical locations, cultures, and societies, that leaves modern versions of the religion of reason self-deconstructed (if that isn’t a pleonasm) and leaves postmodern versions looking like, heaven help us, a form of fideism.

    Bradley raises the important question of the role of philosophy of religion in the college or university. The identity of the school makes a difference. If it is a “church-related” school that has a religious identity built into its constitution, there is no reason why courses that touch on religious matters should not reflect that identity. For both educational and religious reasons, it would, however, be a good idea if they made it clear in concrete ways (courses, reading lists, etc.) that they are not the only game in town. Even here, or perhaps especially here, the hermeneutical conception of reason as dialogical rather than monological can and should be honored.

    The case is different with public institutions, especially in view of our national commitment to the separation of church and state. I see no reason why a committed Buddhist, a committed Catholic, and a committed Derridean should not be colleagues in a Religious Studies department, giving courses that reflect their prejudices. But I would hope (1) that no tradition would be given monopoly power, excluding differing voices and (2) that the notion that operating within the framework of faith in reason rather than faith in revelation somehow makes one objective, neutral, unconditioned, and without presuppositions would not be assumed. Of course, we should make every effort to be fair to views other than our own, but we should not pretend that we somehow have attained the view from nowhere.

    Finally, Bradley asks what forms of heteronomy are worth praising and why? For the most part my praise of heteronomy has been the mere observation (“modest proposal”) that in some form or other it is inevitable and inescapable. I’ve spent precious little time praising the form of heteronomy that is my, gladly confessed mere Christianity on the foundation of mere theism. In relation to the Psalmist, I have tried to show that it can be joyful and illuminating, not necessarily alienating and blinding. And in relation to C. S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, I have tried to show that it is not an easy form of wish fulfillment but represents the painful struggle to be honest with ourselves about ourselves before God.


Keith Putt


“Negative Apologetics”

Meditating on Merold’s Modest Proposal

I know that He exists.

Somewhere—in silence—

He has hid his rare life

From our gross eyes.


’Tis an instant’s play—

’Tis a fond Ambush—

Just to make Bliss

Earn her own surprise!


But—should the play

Prove piercing earnest—

Should the glee—glaze—

In Death’s—stiff—stare—


Would not the fun

Look too expensive!

Would not the jest—

Have crawled too far!1


Such is Emily Dickinson’s poetic declaration of the mercurial tension between divine secrecy and silence and divine epiphany and exposition. Her attitude begins with a sense of playful joy at the prospect that God’s little game of hide and seek can produce a surprising bliss. She notes that we do often love the startle delight of being ambushed by an unexpected moment of theistic peek-a-boo, the magical lucidity of a mystical union in a moment of divine immanence. Yet, that “instant’s play” has a darker and more somber aspect to it, given that the specter of death with its intimations of eternal consequences transforms the dialectic of the deus absconditus and the deus revelatus into something potentially insidious, something with a “piercing earnest” that makes the jest more problematic than pleasurable. If we shall be held accountable for responding to God’s soteriological demands, why does God not make those demands more overt, more logically identifiable, more evidentially apparent? What kind of game is God playing when God veils the divine presence, camouflages the divine communication, and enshrouds the divine reality within the penumbra of non-knowing that requires an epistemically uncertain faith?

If one looks into the Dickenson archives, one will find the facsimile of a manuscript of the above poem. That manuscript betrays an interesting textual variant in the final word of the first line of the final quatrain. Dickenson scratches out her original word and replaces it with “fun.” The word she removes, however, remains visible behind her emendation; it is the word “joke.” “Would not the joke / Look too expensive! / Would not the jest— / Have crawled too far!” Personally, I prefer that first form, since it emphasizes the primary conceit of God’s playing with us, merely joking around, as it were, by shuttling between manifestation and obscuration. Yet, it could be construed as a cruel joke that God plays on us. Indeed, it could be construed in an even more troubling manner as merely a joke that we play on ourselves, in that we may, perhaps, be deceiving ourselves by thinking that there is a God to tease us. Such an interpretation impeaches Dickenson’s first line. How exactly does she “know” that God exists? On what basis can she establish her existential certitude that God does abide somewhere in seclusion and in silence?

Perhaps the entire experience of the jest is nothing more than a psychological joke that educes a cosmic projection—vis-à-vis some form of farcical Feuerbachianism—that deludes us into accepting the virtual reality of a fictitious God. So that God is not hiding, joking, playing; on the contrary, God is not—full stop, period, fini—God simply is not. In other words, there is the possibility that John Wisdom’s classic analogy of the gardener comes into play in this context, leaving us with the competing conclusions that in examining the play of existence we either find evidence suggesting an unseen caretaker who comes in secret and cultivates the garden, or we find evidence suggesting that there is no such gardener and that merely assuming one is quite plainly unreasonable.2 Correspondingly, how does one genuinely “know” whether there is a Dickensonian divine playmate engaging us in that game of hide and seek or whether we simply play with a Voltairian invisible friend of our own deluded desire for companionship—that is, even if there is no God, we so need the bliss of thinking we infrequently catch a glimpse of one that we insist on inventing a deity. Consequently, the game we traditionally end up playing de facto is more the game of choosing sides and debating whether there is a divine companion or not, the game of apologetics, with the hermeneutical competitors on each team consistently claiming victory.

I think that Dickenson’s poem Fr 365 correlates well with Westphal’s new book, In Praise of Heteronomy. Indeed, I can quite effortlessly enumerate several points of rapprochement between her poetry and his prose. First, Westphal would most assuredly echo Dickenson’s first two lines, since he, too, believes that God exists somewhere. He testifies to being a theist, not in a noncommittal generic sense, but categorically in the restrictive sense of Christian theism. He certainly admits to the efficacy of the Pascalian distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, but clearly confesses that it is the God of Abraham as the Father of Jesus the Christ in whom he believes intellectually and to whom he has committed himself spiritually.3 One need not read too far into In Praise of Heteronomy before one encounters this Westphalian creed. His personal catechism on the God of “biblical monotheism” goes as follows: “God is an agent and not merely a cause, having purposes and intentions and bringing things to pass in accord with them and not merely in accord with impersonal laws of nature. . . . This God is also a speaker, one who performs such speech acts as promises and commands” (24–25). His existential certitude in the being of God, however, never deteriorates into an obscurantist dogmatism. He unpretentiously affirms that he is a Protestant adherent to “mere Christianity,” adopting this Lewisian nomenclature as shorthand for “the common core of the revelational faith shared by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions of Abrahamic monotheism” (xxi). In other words, Westphal unequivocally believes that there is a God, that this God is personal and agential, that this God intervenes in the affairs of the world, and that this God’s interventions instantiate themselves in divine acts of spiritual presence and divine speech acts of sacred discourse.

Second, although Westphal would not necessarily agree with Dickenson’s rather abrupt reduction of God to silence—after all, the subtitle of his book clearly celebrates the potentiality of revelation—he would, nevertheless, concede to her sentiment that God has undeniably “hid his rare life / From our gross eyes.” Undoubtedly, he would consider Dickenson’s reference to God’s “rare life” as a clear affirmation of the reality of divine alterity and divine heteronomy, the former signaling God’s ontological transcendence and holiness, while the latter establishes both moral and epistemic heteronomy, the conforming of our ways and thoughts to the Law of God and to the Word of God (xv–xvi). For Westphal, the rarity of the divine life finds eloquent expression in Rudolf Otto’s classic confirmation that God is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” The mysterium tremendum divulges that God exceeds our language and comprehension, while instilling in us a reverential fear of divine holiness, even as the fascinans comforts us with the reassuring promise that God can be merciful, that the divine righteousness may be creative and not merely condemning (xiv). He insists that the dialectic between these two complementary and competing aspects of God should not be preemptively resolved, since, for him, it represents God’s heteronomy as revealed through divine disclosure, specifically through the divine speech acts that result in the written Word of God. Yet, Westphal never fails to constrain his committed adherence to what he considers to be the actuality of divine revelation by a constant attestation to the ineluctable reality that we as humans always only see through “gross eyes.” He references that ocular obstacle through a rhetorical interrogative in In Praise of Heteronomy when he inquires as to why theists should concede a monopoly to Nietzsche of the phrase “human, all too human” (4). Indeed, he, himself, uses that phrase a dozen times throughout the book, thereby indicating its significance for his argument concerning heteronomy and revelation.

Of course, any reader familiar with Westphal’s work over the past four decades will not find his agreement with Dickenson at this point surprising at all. Her “gross eyes” allusion and Nietzsche’s “human, all too human” phraseology both advance the fundamental reality of human finitude and the necessity for hermeneutics. For Westphal, it all intensifies around an Archimedean problem, which is, in its essence, a spatial suspense, the question as to whether we actually have a place to stand (pou sto) that would give us leverage over absolute knowledge and transparent cognition. Such an “epistemic pou sto,” as Westphal classifies it, “presupposes some standpoint outside the human condition” (xxii). But as hermeneutical theory, with its Heideggerian, read “Kierkegaardian,” emphasis on thrownness, constantly vindicates, human beings are finite creatures condemned to confinement within traditional, historical, cultural, linguistic, sociological, and political contexts. These “plausibility structures” into which we have been thrown cannot be overcome; consequently, they contaminate us with presuppositions that manipulate our knowledge and actually serve as an initial encounter with heteronomy, precisely because “we are heteronomous in relation to the cultural carriers from which we have received [those presuppositions]. We inherit them, we do not invent them or merely discover them” (212–13). In other words, “we are cognitively conditioned and significantly constituted by what others have already said and put into institutional practices” (205). Furthermore, he adds the hermeneutics of suspicion to this hermeneutics of finitude and amplifies the “grossness” of our eyes with the actuality of our fallenness, in other words, complicating the Archimedean problem with the “noetic effects of sin” (xxi).4 Since we are finite and fallen, we are, therefore, doubly repressed in our rational attempts to comprehend and communicate the heteronomy of God. Accordingly, “even if God has spoken to us, whenever we try to say what we have heard, the formulation is our own and thus human, all too human.”5

I now come to the third, and final, point of complementarity between Dickenson’s poem Fr 365 and Westphal’s In Praise of Heteronomy, namely the implications and applications of apologetics. I believe that this issue cuts to the heart of Westphal’s thesis in the book and ultimately identifies what I term his “modest proposal.” Now do not misread that phrase and conclude that I consider his argument in the text to be simplistic or lacking in rigor and critical creativity. On the contrary, In Praise of Heteronomy displays Westphal at his intellectual best, as one who excels at the close reading of texts, one who analyzes and synthesizes difficult and demanding concepts and interpretations, and one who articulates with lucidity esoteric assertions and complicated arguments. His readings of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel are truly masterly, granting him the right to the immodesty of arrogance over the quality of his work. For as my former Marine nephew reminds me, it is hard to be humble when you’re the best! And Westphal is certainly one of the best hermeneuticists.

My use of the adjective “modest” should only be understood as applying to the primary theme that lies behind all of Westphal’s extensive critical apparatus. He, himself, frequently distinguishes as his primary vouloir dire nothing more profound than what is expressed in his subtitle—he merely wants to make room for revelation, simply arguing that heteronomist theists should be allowed to play the theological language game. Indeed, he refers to his work as a “testimony,” not an argument. The book offers merely an attestation, admittedly one predicated upon clear and distinct arguments, that considers the performative contradiction inherent in various claims to the universality of rational autonomy as consent for confessional theists who embrace mere Christianity or mere monotheism to enter into various dialogues without playing the sycophant to an ersatz uncontaminated and unconditional rationality (xv, 215, 225–26). Relying on something of a tu quoque argument, although not one that should be censured as fallacious in this context, Westphal convincingly details how Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel espouse a universal and objective reason, yet still come out with vastly different conclusions. His testimony gives a critical polemic against the deceptive belief that reason is pure, immune to the infections of thrownness, and autonomous in some Cartesian foundationalist sense. On the contrary, autonomous reason cannot escape the limiting dynamics of history, culture, traditions, or language, restrictions that it typically uses to rebuke and revile heteronomous faith in God. For Westphal, consequently, one should not “speak of the conflict between faith and reason; it is rather the conflict between two faiths, faith in some particular revelation and faith in some particular version of reason” (48–49, 154).

Again, I contend that this is, genuinely, a modest proposal, simply a defense of the theist’s right to be allowed to play the game on what Westphal calls a “level playing field” (184). Now, he never uses the word “modest” in the book; however, he does use the synonyms “mere” or “merely” 175 times, referencing among other things “mere Christianity,” “mere theism, “mere monotheism,” and even “mere reason.” As a result, I feel quite comfortable in christening his testimony “merely” a “modest proposal.” Moreover, I also feel comfortable in construing his modest proposal as a form of apologetics, simply another insightful attempt at playing what Westphal calls in God, Guilt, and Death the theism/atheism methodological game.6 Here again, I recognize that I am using a concept that he does not use in the book. The word “apologetics” only appears once in In Praise of Heteronomy and that is in an endnote where he cites Crina Gschwandtner’s work entitled Postmodern Apologetics? I also acknowledge that by his own admission regarding his primary thesis in the book, Westphal intentionally avoids traditional apologetics with its desire to prove the truth of various interpretations of God’s existence, the function of religious language, or the potentiality of divine intervention through revelatory miracles. He states categorically that proving the truth of his mere Christianity “is not the premise or the conclusion of my argument” (117), and he makes no attempt at arguing for the veracity of divine heteronomy and revelation (184). As a good phenomenologist of religion, he guilelessly places the issue of truth in an epoché.7

Yet, Westphal’s refusal to engage in some variety of positive apologetics does not disenfranchise him from offering a “negative apologetics” in his work. Now that phrase is, indeed, Westphalian, coming out of a 2015 SPEP session in Atlanta at which he responded to John Caputo’s The Insistence of God. His response during that session could be considered In Praise of Heteronomy in nuce, since that response focuses also on the theories of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel as evidence for the historical and cultural particularity of rationality and on his testimony to the philosophical empowerment of heteronomy and revelation. In that response, he maintains that his “argument” has a Kierkegaardian character to it, which means that it does not assume that it can rationally and empirically prove the “objective uncertainties” of mere Christianity but more modestly serves as a negative apologetic that establishes that one need not reject mere Christianity on the basis of some artificial universally rational a priori.8

Two years later, in 2017, In Praise of Heteronomy gives us the more complete version of that earlier more concise precis of negative apologetics. Staying true to his lifelong vocation of prophetic philosophy of religion, whereby he has exhorted us to analytical meekness and to the devoutness of an epistemic diffidence, Westphal yet again uses his modest proposal of negative apologetics to propose to us the virtue of modesty. He announces through his critique of pure a priori reason and his advocacy for hetero-theonomous revelation that we finite and fallen human beings must simply surrender to the reality that we are not God. But that is precisely where we may all find a level playing field as participants in the risky game of hermeneutical peek-a-boo. As he so insightfully points out, atheists accept that we are not God because they believe there is no God, while theists believe that only God is God and we are not.9 Accordingly, I think that he would most assuredly agree with yet another poet, T. S. Eliot, and confirm that the wisdom of humility is the only wisdom that ultimately lasts.10 Perhaps, then, his version of Dickenson’s poem would be “I know that God exists / And that we are not He.” That is Merold’s modest proposal.

  1. I know that He exists. (Fr 365).

  2. John Wisdom, “Gods,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 45 (1944–45).

  3. Blaise Pascal, Memorial.

  4. See also Westphal, “Faith Seeking Understanding,” in God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, ed. Thomas V. Morris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 222; Westphal, “Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy,” Christian Century, June 14, 2003, 35; and Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

  5. Westphal, “Deconstruction and Christian Cultural Theory: An Essay on Appropriation,” in Pledges of Jubilee: Essays on the Arts and Culture, in Honor of Calvin G. Seerveld, ed. Lambert Zuidervaart and Henry Luttikhuizen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 121.

  6. Westphal, God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 19–20.

  7. Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 7.

  8. Westphal, “The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps,” unpublished presentation given in Atlanta, at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy annual conference in October 2015, p. 9.

  9. Westphal, “Blind Spots,” 32–33.

  10. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “East Coker,” section 2.

  • Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal


    Response to B. Keith Putt

    In his reflections on a poem by Emily Dickinson, Keith finds her flirting with a “farcical Feuerbachianism” according to which God is the “cosmic projection” of a “fictitious God” grounded in our “deluded desire for companionship.” He notes the tendency for philosophical reflection to end with us “choosing sides and debating whether there is a divine companion or not.”

    That is most decidedly not the task I have undertaken. I am not trying to prove or to show that there is a divine companion. I do make clear my own theistic prejudice (in the Gadamerian sense of pre-judgment). I am a “mere Christian” before I am a philosopher, even a mere theist. For I take theism to be the affirmation of a personal God, one who is both an agent and not merely a cause and a speaker who performs, among other speech acts, promises and commands. And this Abrahamic monotheism is to be found in Judaism, in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christianity, and in Islam. (There are also theistic elements in Hinduism and Buddhism.)

    While I believe that such a God is real, even, if you like, the ens realissimum, my claim is much weaker than the claim that God is a cosmic reality and not a cosmic projection. It is, as Keith rightly notes, a “modest proposal” (but without Swift’s irony). I take Kant’s title, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, to be the name of a project with many practitioners, most especially in this context, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel. This project takes the faith of the hoi polloi (or “deplorables,” if you like, for there is an academic elitism at the heart of this project), Judaism in Spinoza’s case, Lutheran Christianity in the case of Kant and Hegel, and offers us a new and improved version that is better because it is in conformity with Reason while pre-enlightened religion lives at lower levels of Plato’s divided line. Philosophy “corrects” (Heidegger’s term) the relevant version of orthodox theism in two ways. It rejects outright some of its claims, and it reinterprets other aspects beyond recognition. Thus, for example, Spinoza speaks endlessly about “God” but was rightly recognized to be an atheist, for by “God” he meant the world of nature as described by mechanistic physics. And Derrida tells us that “God” is the name for “the absolute singularity of the other” or “the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior.” NB: This “Enlightenment Project” is taken over wholesale by many postmodern philosophers!

    My claim is that this project deconstructs itself, that its claim to legitimate hegemony over theologies that appeal to divine revelation as source and norm rests on its claim that Reason is Universal, unconditioned or uncontaminated by anything particular and contingent is not merely false but plainly false. Each of the three versions of this claim I have explored is mutually incompatible with each of the other two, and at their very foundations. The religions of reason are as sectarian as the religions of revelation. Their a prioris differ both generically and specifically, and any attempt to argue that this set of presuppositions is superior to the others (a legitimate if very difficult task) takes place within the hermeneutical situation, located somewhere that itself requires justification.

    Keith rightly points out that I disavow the suggestion that receiving divine revelation somehow makes our thinking about God itself divine. That might not be a bad definition of theological dogmatism or fundamentalism. We remain “human all too human.” We see “through a glass, darkly” and know only “in part.” This is partly due to our finitude, partly to our fallenness.

    During Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein knew that in spite of sincere attempts to be objective, the work of the journalist is contaminated by subjectivity, most especially by never having the whole picture. So they described their goal as providing “the best attainable version of the truth.” That seems to me the strongest claim any theology should make, with or without appeal to divine revelation. Of course, what counts as evidence and what the criteria are, are themselves matters in dispute. The hermeneutical insight is that it’s turtles all the way down. We have always already been conditioned by the cultural carriers of presuppositions, whether we call these language games, social practices, traditions, or paradigms.

    This does not mean that there is no truth or that all views should be considered equally true (or false). It only means that the search for “the best attainable version of the truth” is a human task for those who are always human, all too human.



J. Aaron Simmons


Heteronomy and Epistemic Authority

I was once sitting at a Starbucks in Conway, Arkansas, working on a paper and I was struggling to find the words in order to say something exactly the way that I wanted. I remember doing what many of us probably do when we are running into blocks in our writing: I picked up another book and started reading in the hopes of finding some inspiration. The book was by Merold Westphal. I have forgotten which book it was and what the specific passage said, but I vividly recall reading a few sentences and standing up in the middle of the coffee shop and saying, “Damn it, he has already said exactly what I was trying to say, and better than I could ever say it!”

It is in this spirit that I read In Praise of Heteronomy. This book is a book I wish I had written, but importantly I am thankful that I didn’t because it wouldn’t have been as good! Jack Caputo once rightly referred to Westphal as the most courageous thinker in all of continental philosophy because he writes so clearly that others can actually understand what he is saying (and therefore offer criticism to it!). For now, I will leave the criticism to others, not because there are not spots where I diverge from Westphal in potentially important ways, but because I am more interested in pursuing a line of inquiry that I take Westphal’s book to open to us. This direction is one that is not frequently pursued by contemporary continental thought, but I think that it should be; and perhaps engaging Westphal’s book provides just such an opportunity not only for us here, but for the discourse of continental philosophy of religion more broadly. The issue that I want to explore is the idea of epistemic authority, and in particular the role of trust in such authority. In brief, I want to ask what questions might emerge if we read Westphal’s In Praise of Heteronomy alongside Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.1

At its most basic, the complicated thing about trust is that it implicates us in relations of heteronomy. And, the inverse is true as well: defending heteronomy as rationally legitimate (whether epistemically, as in Zagzebski, or hermeneutically, as in Westphal), implicates us in relations of trust.

For Zagzebski, the idea that it would be rational to believe something purely on the basis of the word/testimony of another person strikes many contemporary philosophers as odd due to what she terms “two deep modern values” that characterize our contemporary epistemic lives: egalitarianism and autonomy (Zagzebski 2012, p. 6). As a result of these values, we tend to view “epistemic self-reliance” (or what Elizabeth Fricker terms “epistemic autonomy”) as the default setting for conscientious belief formation. At its most basic, epistemic self-reliance is the view that one’s beliefs should be based on “third-personal” reasons that allow us to weigh and consider evidence for ourselves because it stands universally available in the same way for all rational persons. Like LeVar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, we don’t have to take his word for it, but instead we can, following Augustine, “take and read” the evidence for ourselves. And, indeed, only doing so for ourselves will yield the sort of justification that we should desire if we are appropriately epistemically responsible—or as Zagzebski terms it “epistemically self-reliant.”

The historical story that Zagzebski tells about the emergence of epistemic self-reliance is, in many ways, parallel to the story Westphal tells about the project of “religion within the bounds of reason alone.” “Epistemic self-reliance,” Zagzebski explains, “became an ideal because it was thought to be demanded by autonomy” (Zagzebski 2012, p. 18). She goes on to situate this idea in the moral philosophy of Kant. For Zagzebski, the modern conception of rationality amounts to a rejection of heteronomy. Notice, though, that this is essentially Westphal’s argument for how the heteronomy of revelation gets rejected by modern notions of universal, and objectivist, reason. As he notes: “It is precisely this claim to universality that underlies the Enlightenment’s autonomy project. For only if my reason is . . . universally . . . present in human nature can I claim to be autonomous vis-à-vis particular and contingent factors, including divine revelation, on which it would otherwise be dependent” (xvii). Here Westphal offers the metaphysical conditions under which something like epistemic self-reliance would be possible.

Now, it might be hardly surprising that two philosophers offering criticisms of the same general trends in the history of philosophy would have points of resonance with each other. Yet, what stands out to me is that when we read them together, we begin to see that Westphal’s basic thesis is directly relevant to debates in epistemology that largely go ignored (or get dismissed) in contemporary continental philosophy of religion, and also that debates concerning trust and authority are, in many ways, dependent on hermeneutic realizations that often go unacknowledged within much of analytic epistemology. For example, when Westphal claims that “the Enlightenment needs to be enlightened by a postmodern critique that has taken the hermeneutical turn” (213), I read this as similar in kind to Zagzebski’s claim that “ultimately we have to decide what we trust, and some of what we trust is more basic than the beliefs we would use in a justification for any view on authority” (Zagzebski 2012, p. 28).

One way we might understand the hermeneutical turn, then, is to think of it as the realization that we are always in interpretive communities such that even if there is a “view from nowhere” available to God (or some Q-type being from Star Trek), that this is not the view that we find ourselves occupying. Postmodern hermeneutics appreciates the effects that our social location and historical inheritance plays in our understanding and identity. Westphal thus considers the fact that Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel all claimed to be conceiving of religion from a purely objective and universal rational standpoint, and yet all three give fundamentally different accounts, to stand as evidence for why strong epistemic realism is untenable as a lived prospect. Accordingly, even when attempting to be purely rational, we are always doing so in ways that bear the traces of our lived practices of shared historical communities.

We do not stop being historical when we attempt to think rationally. Instead, reason is itself an historical artifact. This does not mean, however, that rationality is simply a social conception. Rationality names something important about the ideality toward which we expect our practices, our beliefs, and our actions to tend. In an almost Peircean way, and harmonious with the communitarian inclinations of MacIntyre or Taylor, postmodern rationality can stand as a discursive, epistemic, and moral expectation within our communities without assuming that the way that this expectation gets actualized will be identical across those communities. Zagzebski’s account of communal epistemic authority expresses this very point but in a different philosophical register:

The fact that authorities in a community are not perfect highlights the fact that getting truth is a corporate project, sometimes involving hundreds of years of effort. (Zagzebski 2012, p. 158)

Almost riffing on the biblical idea that “none is righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10), Zagzebski and Westphal both stress the importance of living into the humility that postmodern rationality cultivates. Zagzebski’s sustained critique of “epistemic egoism,” then, appears as something that should be embraced by all postmodernists who take the hermeneutic turn seriously. As a matter of lived practice, appreciating humility involves embracing the trust that is essential not only in all communities, but essential to the community even existing in its historical specificity. At its most basic, trusting others requires us to admit that we are not self-sufficient.

Epistemic self-reliance, or epistemic egoism, alternatively, resists the epistemic authority of communities and individuals, whether human or divine. In this way, epistemic egoism does not, to borrow from Westphal, “make room for revelation.” In contrast to the third-personal reason that prized objectivism and the universality of evidence according to an essentially non-social conception of reason, Zagzebski highlights the importance of “first-personal reason” that depends on the interpersonal relationships that form the historical and phenomenological context in which our identities and beliefs emerge. Rather than requiring all reason to be speculative such that only from the “view of nowhere” could we be fully rational, Zagzebski argues for the importance of “deliberative” reason. I take her idea here to be similar to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s idea of “dialogic rationality” such that it is not indifferent to the lived history in which one holds beliefs, but instead is a product of that very history. Zagzebski extends this relational logic to our religious belief as well: “The ground of faith is trust in God, which gives me a deliberative, first-person reason to believe what God tells me” (Zagzebski 2012, p. 190). Importantly, though, such trust is always formed in communities of practice. This epistemic point helpfully explains Westphal’s claim that revelational theologies and rational theologies, alike, are heteronomous, but differ in the way that they describe the origins and authorities operative within their communal discourses—divine on the one hand, and human, all too human, on the other hand (see 214).

Reading Westphal’s account of hermeneutic openness to (theistic) revelation in conversation with Zagzebski’s account of the inescapability of trust at the heart of our selfhood and our discursive communities, we can better appreciate Westphal’s final turn to testimonies to support the “possibility that biblical heteronomy is not inherently immature, alienating, and destructive of human dignity” (215). Differentiating such testimonies from argument, Westphal rightly avoids the idea that we can collapse all modes of justification into each other and place them into the same discursive basket. Giving testimony is not the same thing as giving an argument, and some social contexts demand a preference for one over the other, but if Zagzebski is right about authority, then it is plausible that receiving testimony from someone you trust might be able to convey a similar epistemic status on one’s belief that considering the soundness of an argument would. So, given that Westphal’s book is a sustained argument for heteronomy, it is appropriate that he concludes his argument by turning from third-personal reasons to first-personal reasons. In this way, he performs the hermeneutic importance of thinking-with others while thinking-in our historical communities.

In the end, Westphal concludes, “philosophical reason turns out to be just as particular and as conditioned as biblically based faith. Or, to say the same thing differently, reason . . . is itself a form of faith” (xxiv). Given that faith and trust are both derived from pistis, it is interesting to hear Westphal’s claim with this alternative resonance: “Philosophical reason turns out to be just as particular and conditioned as biblically based trust. Or, to say the same thing differently, reason . . . is itself a form of trust.” Perhaps the problem with the postmodern versions of the modern religion-within-the-limits-of-reason project is that they do not adequately make room for the explosive nature, and yet existential requirement, of trust.

Trust, like love, is a relation to the Other that does not allow for self-protective retreat. As C. S. Lewis notes in his excellent underappreciated essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” the shift from speculative rationality to personal relationship changes what counts not only as evidence, but how we make sense of ourselves in relation to whatever we take to be evidential. Westphal’s use of testimony forces a decision upon us that is about much more than simply whether we will choose to accept the soundness of his argument about heteronomy. It leaves us with the question of who we take ourselves to be. Are we self-sufficient (at least at some level such that we are able to rest easy in our rejection or our reinterpretations of the views we no longer consider rationally plausible), or are we Other-ruptured (see Westphal 2017, p. 214)? As I see it, this question animates the basic divisions within postmodernism itself.

Along with Westphal, I have been accused by Jack Caputo of “settling for an abridged version of postmodernism” (see Simmons and Minister 2012). Caputo’s basic contention is that keeping open the possibility of some sort of metaphysical realism (and specifically a theistic personalism) fails to appreciate the depth to which the postmodern hermeneutic turn cuts. In brief, like Westphal, for Caputo, I am not “radical” enough. Yet, let me close with a thought that I am not sure Westphal would endorse, but I take his and Zagzebski’s work to make possible. I acknowledge that Westphal goes no further in his book than suggesting that it is no less rational to affirm heteronomous revelational theology than it is to affirm autonomous rational theology: both are matters of faith/trust. Similarly, I recognize that Zagzebski goes no further in her book than suggesting that it is possible that affirming heteronomous epistemic authorities is as rationally legitimate as is restricting oneself to autonomous epistemic self-reliance: both require trust as the backdrop of conscientious belief. Yet, maybe we can push things a bit further than they do.

I am no fan of apologetics (at least not of any traditional sort) because I take it to give too much credence to the sort of autonomous rationality that Westphal and Zagzebski both rightly challenge. However, it seems to me that personalistic theism is actually supported by the way in which trusting a personal God requires being exposed to critique in a way that rationalism (in its modern or postmodern forms) seems to foreclose. Let me be clear: this is not an argument for the truth of theistic belief, but instead merely a suggestion that an embrace of postmodern hermeneutics might actually be more consistent with the framework of personalist theism than with other alternatives. Specifically, if God “insists” rather than “exists,” as Caputo suggests, then it seems that at the end of the day, the hermeneutic task in relation to such “insistence” still falls on us in a way that makes too much room for self-sufficiency, albeit in much more constrained ways. Alternatively, if God “exists” (but only ever as appropriated by us in relational contexts of trust as located within historical interpretive communities), then it the very content of our religious belief would appear continually to call us to “die to ourselves” in the humility that trust itself demands. So, in this way, perhaps the most radical postmodern turn is one that takes seriously the “wounding” as Jean-Louis Chrétien puts it, of being in a relation of trust to a personal God who does not leave us alone in our hermeneutic decisions, but instead always calls us to task whenever we think we have allowed such decisions to become stabilized by our political preferences or our philosophical commitments.

Rather than seeing the historical church, then, as a place where hermeneutics is resisted in the name of orthodoxy, Zagzebski helps us to see the church as the historical site of communal truth-seeking such that orthodoxy, as G. K. Chesterton and Slavoj Žižek both acknowledge, is far more radical than we could have expected. As strange as it might seem, then, postmodern revelational theism might be significantly more hermeneutically open than postmodern rationalistic atheism or theopoetics. The question asked by Nietzsche’s Madman, “What are these churches now other than tombs and sepulchers of God?” may turn out to be the question that can only ever be appropriately asked in the community that continues to articulate its faith, its trust, in a way that exposes it to being wrong about God and ourselves, not because there is no God, but because there is.


Works Cited

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Stephen Minister, eds. 2012. Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion: Toward a Religion with Religion. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Westphal, Merold. 2017. In Praise of Heteronomy: Making Room for Revelation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus. 2012. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Are the italics necessary? If they’re original, let’s add a note so indicating.

  1. Westphal does mention Zagzebski’s work on virtue epistemology at one point in the text (205), and refers to her book Epistemic Authority specifically in a note (2012, p. 227n14).

  • Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal


    Response to J. Aaron Simmons

    In seeking to explore the significance of trust in authority, Aaron distinguishes “existential” from “epistemic” trust and in the religious context glosses this with the distinction between liturgy and orthodoxy. He seeks further to explicate the distinction in terms of Wolterstorff’s distinction between “control beliefs” and “data beliefs.”

    I don’t think this works. Our control beliefs are, for each individual or community, the particular beliefs that function in an a priori fashion and are the semantic and evidential conditions for the possibility of the data beliefs that rest within the parameters of their authority or on their fluid foundation. They may be self-evident to “us,” but they are not self evident or incorrigible in themselves. The problem is simply this: control beliefs are beliefs and our trust in them does not take us from the epistemic to the existential. Thus, “the Bible is the Word of God” may be a control belief in relation to “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” but both beliefs show up in debates over orthodoxy, and they surely have existential import for those who hold them. They fall on both sides of Aaron’s fence.

    In a Heideggerian spirit we may draw a possibly related distinction between the pre-predicative or pre-linguistic and predicative or linguistic cognition. The interpretations with which hermeneutics is concerned are construals or seeings as. But it may be argued that often, at least, I see something as something or feel something as something before I say something as something. Seeing, in the broad sense that includes feeling is prior to saying. In this sense I am in the world before the world is out there for me.

    This distinction does not neatly map onto the distinction between liturgy and orthodoxy, for liturgy is said (or sung in words). But the question of autonomy and heteronomy can be put in these terms. Is “man,” individually or communally, the measure of all things, or would I and we be better off undertaking the difficult task of bringing our seeings, feelings, and sayings into conformity with a wisdom that comes to our human, all-too-human construals from a transcendent, divine source?

    Philosophical hermeneutics is rightly associated with continental philosophy and such individual thinkers as Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. Aaron calls attention to the overlap between my work and that of Linda Zagzebski and Nicholas Wolterstorff, two of our finest analytic philosophers. He might have added the names of many others, including Alvin Plantinga, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty, who may be said to have made the hermeneutical turn in one way and in some degree or another. I welcome this observation. Here, as is often the case, the vocabularies and bibliographies of those from these two broad and diverse traditions may differ while significant substantive convergence takes place. I can’t remember for sure, but it may have been Rorty who said, “We’re all Gadamerians now.”

    Finally, Aaron calls attention to the dialogical concept of reason (with or without the appeal to divine revelation) at work in my work. Wherever we start out of the spectrum of autonomy and heteronomy, we need to talk with others and above all to listen to others. There are at least two reasons for this. First, both the I and the we can be closed in on each other. As Freud has taught us, the I can succumb to wish fulfillment, believing what it is convenient to believe (a fact of human nature that demagogues are skillful at deploying). And as Marx has taught us, the We can reinforce itself and exclude others by cultivating ideologies. As I like to put it, everybody needs a friend who will tell them what their best friend won’t tell them. This kind of vulnerability is a kind of heteronomy. Or, as Zagzebski might put it, it is the epistemic virtue of humility.

    Second, absent this virtue, we end up with what C. S. Lewis calls the “obstinacy of belief” and Charles Sanders Peirce calls the “method of tenacity.”

    In politics these days this is called the “silo effect.” In religion it is expressed in the father’s prayer: “Dear Lord, bless me and my wife and our two kids. Us four, no more. Amen.”


Noëlle Vahanian


A Room (for Faith) between Reason and Revelation

A Response to Merold Westphal’s In Praise of Heteronomy: Making Room for Revelation

In Praise of Heteronomy celebrates the failure of the Enlightenment project of autonomy. Perhaps the word celebration is too strong, though failure, here, is cast as just deserts for irrational motives, or, in Christian terms, sin.

After retracing the steps of this failure as, foremost, an attempt to immure religion within reason alone, from Spinoza to Hegel through the hermeneutical turn, one more rendition of this failure is offered, this time, in the manner of testimony rather than argument, where the penultimate witness to epistemic and moral heteronomy is a fictional protagonist in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, namely, the Queen of Glome, the ugly Orual, 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.”

Orual learns the hard way to recognize how downright ugly, deceitful, and selfish she is in her philosophical autonomy: “She had to be dragged to her faith kicking and screaming” (224). Only then does she realize her true face, or, again, “Without having read Calvin’s Institutes, she has learned that we only come to know who we are as we come to understand who God is” (see 229n46). But this understanding isn’t gained through inquiry and investigation: “I ended my first book with the words no answer,” writes Orual. Instead, realization and revelation lead to discovery: she continues, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” (224).

So then, there are two ways to this realization, one is the long, tortured road of autonomous philosophical reasoning, the way of Oedipus, one might have said, who, like Orual, finally comes to recognize divine heteronomy. The other is joyful, free, and childlike. This is the way of “mere Christianity,” of primary basic beliefs, the Psalmist’s way of testimony.

Those postmodern theologians who don’t quite gouge out their eyes to see what they could not see before—namely, divine revelation—might all be talking about God, but such talk is idolatry—one might have said, it is a fiction of the Devil’s whore. Their philosophy has nothing to do with their theology. They recognize the failure of the Enlightenment, and they see this failure as an opening for faith, but they won’t make the leap. They are still hanging in the margins of rational discourse, still trying to translate biblical language into the feasible, the logical and the sensible or into the quasi-autonomous realm of infinite resignation.

Here, then, in that Kierkegaardian fashion, one realizes how faith isn’t easy after all, something to be outgrown and to be supplanted by reason and the ethical. Instead, our postmodern view from nowhere or from the middle of experience precludes epistemic and moral autonomy. There is no author, there is no moral subject either. All perspectives are decentered. Even where reason has hegemony, reason is heteronomous to itself. Thus heteronomous revelation is just a faith among others and a heteronomous reason can no more argue against the possibility of divine revelation than it can prove the existence of God. Room for revelation has been made.

From this angle, while faith is operative as the ground of every perspective, philosophical and religious discourses have nothing to say to each other. I take it that this is why Merold Westphal asks and writes “about the theological projects of these secular and atheistic postmodern Kantians[:] Are not the theologies that accompany their critiques contingently associated with those critiques? For example, I see no conceptual link between Caputo’s ‘weak’ theology and his Derridean/deconstructive critique of reason” (xx). The assumption here being that Caputo’s philosophy doesn’t presuppose his theology, or that such a religion within the limits of heteronomous reason is an afterthought, a why not—the possibility of the impossible. In other words, not a theological claim or a warrant.

How should one respond? Westphal concludes that reason’s own heteronomy means that one ought not give it any more privilege than revelation. In what follows, I’ll not take issue with Westphal’s reading of Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, and I will also accept that testimony can be proof, since, as Hume put it once,

It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favor of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.1

In his reading of the three masters of universal reason (Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel), Westphal refers to their respective interpretations of religion as theologies of autonomy. That is, as anything but “mere Christianity,” or, more inclusively, as anything but “mere theism.”

Spinoza’s God is a substance, not a personal being, and as substance, Spinoza’s God is closest to Nature, immanent power rather than creator. What is more, that we should love God means that we must love a god who does not love us back, for on Spinoza’s account, love appears to be a kind of masochistic pleasure, suggests Westphal. That is, the more pleasure one obtains in understanding oneself and one’s emotions as the result of impersonal necessity the more one is said to love God, since, as Spinoza defines it (and Westphal reminds us), “love is pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause” (see p. 32). And in these ways, already, this is not the God of “mere theism” who reveals himself to man and enters into a covenantal relation with him.

Kant’s God is the Creator of the world, but through reason, this God is simultaneously (that is, without needing to interfere within history or nature) the giver of the eternal moral law. Thus human beings ought to, and therefore can, seek the good. Yet, precisely because Kant cannot simply make room for faith more than as what he calls, as Westphal notes, a “fetish-faith,” there is no genuine Christian hope of redemption in the face of the perversion of the human heart (63). Insofar as human beings stray from the moral law whenever they act in accordance with their inclinations, that is, even when they also act in accordance with the moral law, because, regardless, they, as Kant put it, “subordinate the incentives of the moral law to others,” nothing can redeem them from this perversity of their heart but some conversion whereby one, to quote Westphal, “freely adopts as one’s supreme maxim the rule never to subordinate moral maxims to non-moral maxims” (72). From a “mere Christianity” perspective, save through faith and grace, there is no possibility of conversion. But, according to Westphal’s reading, Kant can’t quite make room for such faith after all. We “may hope” for divine grace or assistance, but “are not justified in believing in it” (77). So that, it may well be that Kant adopts a Pelagian view. But, even if he does not, he is too ambiguous. As Westphal puts it: “His God is indeed an agent, but only within the limits of his reason alone” (78).

Finally, we turn to Hegel’s God. For Westphal, there are two (or at least two) main points that make Hegel’s God wholly incompatible with “mere Christianity.” First, this God is, much like Spinoza’s, pantheistic rather than theistic, though Hegel’s pantheism is not one of nature but of spirit. But this pantheism is, in Westphal’s conception, nothing but atheism, since it does away with a Creator God of history. Second, for Hegel, religious stories are but mistaken representations to be supplanted by true concepts. It is in this sense that the Incarnation is, religiously speaking, a “unique event,” but philosophically, it is the “universal, atemporal, ontological truth” such that “Jesus is everyone” (174). And Jesus being everyone, speculation reveals God to himself as God, Absolute Spirit. Hegel’s concept of revelation seems to be the big conceptual reveal of God to himself.

But, if Spinoza should be correct, then Kant and Hegel would be wrong. And if Kant should be correct, then Hegel and Spinoza would be wrong. In short, it does not matter that neither of these thinker make room for revelation à la “mere Christianity” because they cancel each other out. “My argument,” writes Westphal, “is that their common claim to be the voice of a universal reason is refuted by the mutual incompatibility of their three systems” (123n70). Their theologies of autonomy rely on all too human reasons. These religions are all within the limits of reason, but the various reasons operate within history, language, places and, let us add, bodies. From Westphal’s perspective, this heteronomy of reason, together with its displacement of subjective autonomy—the view from nowhere, in the middle of experience—“fit[s] well with the notion that human reason is not only finite but also fallen” (xxi). The fool who says in their heart there is no God is deluded, but also, “Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are right to insist that we . . . are influenced in our thinking by desires and interests” (xxi). Religion is wish fulfillment, and why not, it is also true. Even Freud concurred that illusions could be true and that the little girl might marry a prince one day.

So I am reckoning with these various claims: (1) the heteronomy of reason plunges us into a relativistic morass; (2) theologies of autonomy (including postmodern theologies—Caputo, Vattimo, Taylor, etc.) are, from the view point of “mere Christianity,” atheistic, and evidence of sin; (3) heteronomous faith based on biblical testimony is no less valid than these other “faiths” that either don’t even recognize themselves as such or that nevertheless still show bias against biblical revelation.

Perhaps one could take on the claim that postmodern theologies are theologies of autonomy. If this is so, then any non-dogmatic theology, any theology that can be agreed to, hoped for, or even enacted poetically—as in a Kellerean sense of cloud of the impossible God that we are, would not count as “mere Christianity.” But would it still pass for Christian? Would a culturally Christian, but secular theology, be rejected as evidence of sin? 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 the others? In an echo to James’s repudiation of Clifford’s evidentialism, Westphal suggests that to “reject the idea of divine revelation” because some people’s interpretations “are repulsive to one’s own . . . understanding, is to cut oneself off from possible truth to avoid a perceived error” (215).

But it is very difficult for me to go along with this and you may call me ugly like Orual. Because, for one, just as all these universal reasons that Westphal deals with cancel each other, testimonies cancel each other as well. It was Hume, again, who after all, pointed this out concerning the possibility of miracles. That should we accept testimony as evidence for a religion, then religions would cancel each other. So that in that Humean sense, room is made, but not for revelation, for faith indeed. And yes, there is no assurance that such faith rises above a Kantian would-be faith, or that we would be going anywhere higher than the universal. We would not know the difference between the butcher and the knight of faith. But also, we would not be able to compartmentalize our faith when it comes to employing any means necessary to guarantee the good, say by some contorted logic to reject her testimony (Blasey Ford’s perhaps)—not that she was lying—just because his belligerent testimony convinced them—not that he was innocent (Kavanaugh, then)—but 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.

So to the point that postmodern theologies and the like neatly fall in the camp of autonomy for not falling neatly into the camp of heteronomous theology, it seems to me to close itself off, not to possible truth, but to possible change. For it is wrong to suggest that on the other side of biblical revelation, trust and love is only Platonic recollection, knowledge and truth. If reason is heteronomous, then, how is it not theological? Isn’t it even more miraculous that this heart whose reasons reason cannot comprehend could be converted, changed, for love of this world than that only a god could save us?

And on that Humean note that between two miracles the more miraculous would count as evidence for the less miraculous, wouldn’t the faith of divine revelation appear too reasonable? Should Erasmus become witness, such so-called autonomous faith would be as ridiculous as love so blind it fails to see the ugly in the loved one’s sin. For, “What is it when one kisses his mistress’ freckle neck, another the wart on her nose?”2

  1. David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. David Steinberg (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), “of Miracles,” 74.

  2. Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg, 2009). Retrieved November 7, 2018, from

  • Merold Westphal

    Merold Westphal


    Response to Noëlle Vahanian

    Noëlle notes that I find postmodern as well as modern versions of the project that gives philosophy hegemony over theology (or, more specifically, theistic religion). In the postmodern case the reason that practices hegemony already acknowledges its heteronomy. But this puts the hegemony claim and practice of non-theistic postmodern theologies, such as those of Heidegger and Derrida, in an awkward position. Modern philosophies appeal to the universality of Reason, and thus its autonomy, as warranting this authority to reject and redefine. Postmodern versions of the project are left without any obvious warrant, unless it be modernity’s tradition of giving this right to philosophy. Noëlle rightly notes the implication of my view, that whether we acknowledge our heteronomy or not, our theology rests on a faith in its a priori conditions.

    At one place she rightly sees me challenging the idea that nontheistic modern or postmodern philosophy has any a priori privilege over theistic theology, whether academic or popular. In another place, noting the relativism implicit in my view that thought is always already somewhere, committed to something or other, she speaks of one view being no less valid than another. I resist this latter formation for two reasons. First, in philosophical discussions I prefer to keep the term “valid” to its proper home in formal logic, where it signifies the entailment of one proposition by another or a group of others, although I recognize that in popular usage it has a much looser sense, roughly equivalent to “well grounded.” Second, this formulation suggests that the relativity of our views to our location in semantic and epistemic (read cultural and historical) space implies that all views are of equal epistemic value. My claim is that all views are formally equal in that all are conditioned and contaminated in various ways and degrees, but that this does not mean that they come equally close to telling us how things really are. Even Nietzsche, as radical a perspectivist as one is likely to find, doesn’t think that Christianity or Buddhism are as good as his will to power philosophy.

    Noëlle refers, happily, I think, us to the recent Senate hearings and the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford. If it had been a court of law where the criterion is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the verdict would have had to be not guilty. What was offered by either side by way of confirmation fell far short of that standard, as I think most parties on either side have agreed. But I know no one who thinks the accounts were “equally valid,” equally close to the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, for our political discourse, party membership was the best predictor of whom one ended up believing, the best identifier of the reigning presuppositions. Dispassionate weighing of putative evidence did not seem to be the order of the day. Like Noëlle, I believe Dr. Ford, but I suspect neither of us makes that judgment from the standpoint of pure objectivity. We can acknowledge our relativity (since on my view only God is absolute) while not giving up on the search for “the best available version of the truth.”

    Finally, at once place Noëlle speaks of our conditioning and contamination by “history, language, places, and bodies.” That woke me up. My argument regularly appeals to our situatedness within history, language, and places (semantic, epistemic, cultural, etc). But about bodies you will find precious little in my book. She might well have taken me to task for this. I don’t think our thinking is gender neutral or free from body relativity in other ways. But on the basis of this text you’d have to guess about that.