Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Richard Rorty's American Faith

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Richard Rorty's American Faith

Article excerpt

Richard Rorty is notoriously skeptical of traditional religions beliefs. They are "too childish to he discussed seriously."1 And injecting them into public debate seems likely to frustrate the pluralistic dialogue we need if we are satisfactorily to resolve our social, political, and economic problems.2

But even if "we have got rid of theology,"3 we apparently can't quite do without religion, at least of a sort. This seems, at any rate, to be one theme in Rorty's recent book, Achieving Our Country.4 In Achieving Our Country, Rorty argues provocatively against a pessimistic withdrawal from practical political engagement by Americans committed to seeking social justice-a withdrawal grounded in an ideology he characterizes in religious terms. And he argues for an optimistic American faith he believes can and should nndergird political struggle.

In this essay, I attempt to engage with Rorty's treatment of a range of related religious themes in Achieving Our Country. I begin by identifying what he sees as a crippling source of inertia on the part of Americans on the Left: a focus on high theory in place of practical political engagement. Rorty regards the retreat to theory by some American Leftists as a consequence of their post-Vietnam disillusionment with America and interprets it as rooted in a secularized version of the doctrine of original sin. I examine his argument for attributing their withdrawal from politics to a loss of faith in American possibility and ask whether his use of sin-language is helpful. I reflect on his rejection of the pessimistic theology of the cultural Left5 and his proposal for what amounts to an alternative theological position. I assess his implicit proposal for a common, American faith as a replacement for the theological vision of the cultural Left. I question whether his pragmatism provides adequate warrants for social criticism. And I suggest that a critical project like Rortys might benefit from attending to Christian ideas about sin, forgiveness, and providence.

I assume throughout, no doubt controversially, that Christians ought to share many, though not all, of Rortys concerns and goals. In particular, we ought to join him in rejecting what he calls "sadism" and "selfishness"-the oppression of the culturally and economically marginal. A Christian vision of inclusive love ought to dispose us to oppose social injustice and to hope and work for a better American future. At the same time, I believe, Christian faith can offer accounts of the human condition and the American project that can enrich-and qualify-Rortys proposals.

Theological Vision as a Source of Mischief

Rorty's focus is on what he views as a crisis of self-definition faced by Americans committed to social justice since the 1960s. Rorty believes that American progressives adopted an increasingly pessimistic theology, central to which was a secular analogue of the idea of original sin, according to which American society was irredeemable. In this section, I explain why he believes this is the case and ask whether he is right. I suggest that the "theology" of the cultural Left may not be the sole or even the principal source of mischief.

The retreat to theory

The progressive tradition Rorty associates with Walt Whitman and John Dewey was passionately critical of many aspects of American life. But it was critical in the name of a conceivable and achievable future. It was not burdened by a crushing sense of American sinfulness that rendered hope impossible. James Baldwins continued embrace of such optimism gives Rorty his title. Unwilling to forgive the United States for its treatment of African Americans, Baldwin nonetheless held out the hope that Americans might yet "end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world" (quoted on p. 13).

According to Rorty, the optimistic progressive tradition, with its hope of fulfilling America's promise-achieving our country-ran aground in the '60s. …

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