Nature and Norm
Judaism, Christianity, and the Theopolitical Problem
- ISBN: 9781644695098
- Published By: Academic Studies Press
- Published: December 2020
Randi Rashkover’s Nature and Norm: Judaism, Christianity, and the Theopolitical Problem has two theses. The first thesis concerns the fact-value divide, an epistemological commitment so common in Western modernity that literary critic Wayne Booth called it the “modern dogma.” In this framework, “facts” (reliable, objective, context-free) are separated from “values” (dubious, subjective, contextual). The natural sciences are taken as the primary provider of facts, and so the gold standard for logic and truth, while values, whether aesthetic, emotional, or religious, are demoted to secondary status. Rashkover argues convincingly that this divide is harmful to religious praxis. She makes her case by bringing together otherwise strange bedfellows, Jewish and Christian, whose commitment to, or tacit entanglement with, the fact-value divide variously inhibits their religious claims. Immanuel Kant and Franz Rosenzweig, Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes, Martin Buber and Karl Schmitt, and Karl Barth and Leo Strauss—the wild diversity in their intellectual method and claims belies their shared enmeshment in this modern problematic. The acceptance of, or entanglement with, this divide takes the characteristic form of what Rashkover calls “arbitrary anchoring”: when facts are played off against values, the logical validity, and therefore veracity, of religious claims immediately become dubious. This arbitrary anchoring expresses itself in a number of other symptoms: meaninglessness, acosmism (separation from other claims about the world), dogmatism, and tragic ineffectiveness (23).
The book’s second thesis concerns the epistemological journey of modern Western culture. Rashkover makes the provocative claim that the figures listed above embody a journey from lesser to greater epistemological self-consciousness. She begins with Hobbes and Spinoza, who straightforwardly accept the fact-value divide; continues with Buber and Schmitt, who appeal to a “more that transcends it; and concludes with Barth and Strauss, who mount an external critique of it. Rashkover, it turns out, is offering a phenomenology of modern Jewish and Christian thought. Like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the book’s hero, her goal is not to tell a history of philosophy, but rather to show how certain philosophical commitments are inadequate, and how this inadequacy drives a kind of dialectical progress toward more adequate positions. In the book’s final chapter, she argues that each of the inadequate types of responses to the fact-value divide she has outlined roughly correspond to a shape of consciousness discussed in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Just as Hegel charted modern Western culture’s collective journey through naïve epistemological realism toward more sophisticated, and self-conscious, epistemological stances, Rashkover spies in the history of modern Christian and Jewish thought a journey toward increasing philosophical self-consciousness, in which the fact-value divide, so often assumed as normative, is finally dislodged from its place of primacy. Ultimately, Rashkover argues that to move beyond the fact-value divide, Jewish and Christian thinkers must articulate their own alternate theo-philosophical account of logical validity. She draws on Nicholas Adams and Peter Ochs to illustrate what such accounts might look like.
Both of Rashkover’s theses are broadly convincing. Christians and Jews in the West will be acquainted with the negative impact that comes from assigning their faith without remainder to either the “fact” category (e.g., dogmatic fundamentalism) or the “value” category (e.g., wishy-washy accommodation). But Rashkover helpfully shows how a variety of figures that rise above these crude extremes, and who indeed might otherwise have little in common, struggle with this same difficulty. That she does so across religious traditions is a particularly gracious act of hospitality that primes the pump for further fruitful dialogue. And the claim that getting past the fact-value divide requires religious communities to self-consciously engage in evaluation of the conditions of logical validity is correct as well. As Christian thinker Lesslie Newbigin, no philosopher but a shrewd critic of Western modernity, pointed out a generation ago, the fact-value divide seems like the only “reasonable” way to view the world because it is woven so deeply into the fabric of Western culture. But there are other ways of looking at the world that do not require turning one’s back on the gains of the Enlightenment, and Jewish and Christian communities owe it to themselves to self-consciously embrace and promulgate such views.
In a book this rich, and with this broad a scope, there are bound to be questions and points for further dialogue. So too here. I will conclude by raising some questions about Karl Barth, a figure of some importance for Rashkover, with the aim of complicating his place in her typology.
Rashkover pairs Karl Barth with Leo Strauss as figures who externally critique, but do not overcome, the fact-value divide. Her reading of Barth charitably steers clear of well-worn stereotypes of his work as crudely irrationalistic (105-6). Indeed, she rightly points out how much of his work is devoted not to abolishing the claims of reason in favor of those of revelation, but to re-establishing both reason and revelation on a firmer foundation. In the end, however, Rashkover concludes that Barth fails to really overcome the fact-value divide: like Strauss, who figures theology and philosophy as stark alternatives distinguished only by a “fundamentally blind decision,” Barthian Christians wind up enclosed in an epistemological corner (90). They “cannot show how believers and non-believers can mediate their claims to one another,” nor indeed do they “possess the justificatory capacity to be certain about the validity of their theological beliefs nor to defend the validity of their claims to other believers” (95, 107).
The textual evidence suggests that matters here are more complex than Rashkover makes out. Recent work by Gerald McKenny and Derek Woodard-Lehman (both acknowledged here) emphasize the communal, reflective, and mutually accountable nature of Barth’s ethics. If, for Barth, the content of the Word of God can never be stipulated in advance, apart from prayer and the venture of obedience, neither is it completely arbitrary, swinging free of any constraint by Scripture, reflection, and the believing community. At least within the Christian community, Barth does provide resources for situating Christian decision-making within a larger reason-giving process. As Woodard-Lehman points out, in this respect Barth’s ethics situate themselves much closer to Hegel’s understanding of communal reasoning than we might expect. It may ironically be, then, that while Barth’s project stands at some distance from Rashkover’s on the level of theory, he nonetheless offers resources in practice for the Christian community to pursue the kind of renewed reflection she outlines.
David Bruner is a pastor at Paoli Presbyterian Church in Paoli, Pennsylvania.David BrunerDate Of Review:June 14, 2022