Religious Responses to Modernity
- ISBN: 9783110723892
- Published By: Walter de Gruyter GmbH
- Published: February 2021
Religious Responses to Modernity, an edited volume of seven essays, constitutes a joint comparative project undertaken by The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. While recognizing the theological distinctions between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the volume also endeavors to highlight the intersections wherein each religious perspective similarly struggled to come to terms with and advance through the 18th-century Enlightenment and its broader ensuing modernity. In focusing specifically upon the “rationalization of religions,” the essay collection seeks to place Christianity’s more familiar interactions with the Age of Enlightenment alongside the lesser known but often analogous interactions of Judaism and Islam (viii). Rather than offering the often negative religious and postmodern critiques of the period’s emphasis upon reason, science, progress, and autonomy, this thoughtful collection of essays more carefully nuances the discussion by not only critiquing but also by affirming significant aspects of the Enlightenment project.
The opening essay, entitled “The Rise and Decline of Protestant Rationalism,” provides a succinct but attentive summary of the “collision of two principles and two ages—scriptural orthodoxy and Enlightenment” (7) through figures such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), Julius Wegscheider (1771-1849), Karl Hase (1800-1890), and Johann Röhr (1777-1848), as well as through movements such as Neology and the Lichtfreunde. The second essay, “Individual and Community in Modern Debates about Religion and Secularism,” confronts the commonly held view that modernity singularly brought about the individualization and privatization of religion, and it does so by instead judiciously describing through individuals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), Louis de Bonald (1754-1840), Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) “a powerful dynamic at work” within modernity that also “ties religion to the cohesion of communities” (11).
Beginning with the talmudic premise that “converts are as difficult for Israel as a scab” (35), the third essay, entitled “The Conversion of the Jews: Identity as Ontology in Modern Kabbalah,” affirms that despite its nationalistic orientation, modernist-influenced kabbalistic Judaism also held untypically positive attitudes towards gentile conversion. This is evidenced in figures such as Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (c. 1565-1630), Rabbi Moshe David Valle (1697-1777), Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), and Rabbi Ḥayyim ben Moses Attar (1696-1743). “Catholic Europe and Sixteenth-Century Science: A Path to Modernity?” serves as the title to the fourth essay, wherein the author conclusively argues that contrary to the many polemical disagreements between Enlightenment thinkers and the Catholic Church regarding issues of science, religion, and state, the latter actually “took part in the creation of early modernity” (50) during the 16th and 17th centuries. As an example of this, Jesuits such as Paolo Casati (1617-1707) embodied a kind of “traditional” modernity (61).
“Jewish Intellectuals on the Chimera of Progress: Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber and Leo Strauss” is the title of the fifth essay, in which the author carefully outlines how Judaism benefitted from but also fell victim to modernity, in that many Jews—including Benjamin (1892-1940), Buber (1878-1965), and Strauss (1899-1973)—served as advocates for and conduits of modernity, but often at the expense and colonization of European Jewry (66). The sixth essay, entitled “Depoliticization and Denationalization of Religion: Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid and the Relocation of Islam in Modern Life,” provides an interesting and detailed study of the influential Egyptian intellectual, anti-colonialist, and nationalist Aḥmad Luṭfī al-Sayyid (1872-1963), who saw his life’s work as “translating and domesticating the Enlightenment and modernity into Egyptian politics, society and culture,” with the end goal of “freeing Egypt from British colonial rule, preparing it for independence and sovereignty, and reshaping its imagined national community as exclusively Egyptian” (81). The final essay in the volume, entitled “Socrates against Christ? A Theological Critique of Michel Foucault’s Philosophy of Parrhesia,” provides a general discussion of Foucault’s (1926-1984) understanding of Parrhesia—defined as “the free courage of telling the truth” (113), and an idea explored by earlier thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)—and then more specifically contextualizes Foucault’s account of the concept within a Nietzschean anti-metaphysics and “death of God” theology.
Although each thoughtful essay contributes something significant and generally positive to the longstanding dialogue relating to the Enlightenment, modernity, and religion, the volume offers a number of more salient highlights. These highlights include numerous poignantly clear and concise summaries of the philosophical and theological views of significant figures such as Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Friedrich Nietzsche, rarely made so accessible within the standard handbooks and biographies relating to them; several nuanced discussions of how Jewish and Muslim thinkers—like their Christian counterparts—contributed significantly to the Age of Reason and beyond, thus amending more common Western Eurocentric narratives of the period; and persuasive counter-expressions that challenge the regular binaries between faith and reason, revelation and religion, and dogma and science. Such considerations make manifest the idea that the Enlightenment was not anti-religious per se, nor that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious perspectives were monolithic in their endorsement of the ancien régime (“Old Order”) and rejection of le siecle des lumieres (“The Age of Enlightenment”).
Kent D. Clarke is a professor of religious studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.Kent ClarkeDate Of Review:May 30, 2022