The Return of Religion in Europe? the Postmodern Christianity of Gianni Vattimo

By Guarino, Thomas G. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Return of Religion in Europe? the Postmodern Christianity of Gianni Vattimo


Guarino, Thomas G., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


WITH THE ONSLAUGHT OF RECENT BOOKS extolling atheism, speaking of the contemporary "return to religion" sounds a bit naive, akin to nervous whistling in the dark rather than to the rigors of critical analysis. Yet there is such a movement afoot, often linked to the rise of postmodernism. One of its most acute practitioners is the Italian thinker Gianteresio (Gianni) Vattimo, a philosopher well known throughout Continental Europe and rapidly becoming known in English-speaking lands as well thanks to the impressive translation project of his numerous works undertaken by Columbia University Press. Not that Vattimo has gone entirely unnoticed in the United States. The American philosopher Richard Rorty has said that Vattimo's "writings are among the most imaginative contributions to the tradition of philosophical thought that flows from Nietzsche and Heidegger." (1)

In this article, I would like to introduce the reader to the fundamental themes that characterize Vattimo's philosophical work--particularly his reading of Christianity's contributions to contemporary culture--and then offer an evaluation of his thought. Despite its patent opposition to anything resembling historic Christian orthodoxy, Vattimo's interpretation of Christianity constitutes an influential achievement that has proven, either explicitly or implicitly, to be attractive to large segments of contemporary society.

Gianni Vattimo was born in Turin, Italy, in 1936. After graduating from the university there, he went on to Heidelberg, studying with K. Lowith and Hans-Georg Gadamer. From the early 1960s until 2008, he was a professor at the University of Turin--with specialties in hermeneutics, Nietzsche, and Heidegger--as well as a visiting professor at several American universities, including Stanford and Yale. Vattimo has amassed an impressive array of publications, with scores of volumes and hundreds of articles both in professional journals as well as in general-interest newspapers and magazines. He has continued to engage the thought of Heidegger and Nietzsche (with his work on the latter sustained and even groundbreaking) and is the Italian translator of Gadamer's magnum opus on hermeneutics, Truth and Method. More recently, the Torinese's work has centered on the role of religion in contemporary life and thought as well as the possible convergences of postmodernity with the Christian faith. He has been a member of the European parliament for several years and continues to be involved with reform political movements in Italy. Vattimo delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 2010.

Given Vattimo's contemporary influence, it is worth examining the fundamental linchpins of his philosophy and his recent reinterpretation of Christianity.

Postmodernism

A phrase frequently heard recently is the "postmodern return of religion 'after religion.'" This enigmatic expression wishes to say that postmodernity has shattered and transgressed the constricting canons of modern rationalism, allowing religion to reappear in the process, albeit in a changed form, differing from prior understandings of its societal role. Of course, contemporary definitions of postmodernism are legion and even conflicting, so one is wary of invoking the term. Nonetheless, one may outline some broad contours of this movement.

In general, the term "postmodernism" refers to the continually growing critique of Enlightenment construals of rationality. Modern rationality is understood as attempting to pin down reason to the limited canons of empiricism, positivism, or some equally narrow form of thinking and knowing. Modernity is equated with a reductive attempt to reduce truth to methodology, particularly those methods and canons associated with scientific inquiry, leading inexorably to the detriment of philosophical wonder, to the rise of rationalism, and to the equation of thinking with mere techne. Postmodernity's contemporary ascent, then, is fueled by its opposition to modernity's simplistic trust in scientism, its devaluation of the truth mediated by the arts and by tradition, and its marginalization of religion under the banner of the Enlightenment claim that science has unmasked faith as little more than superstitious mythology. …

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