living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Doubt and the Rational Dimension of Religion: Stages of Response

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As we stated earlier, the self stands in a dual relationship to the other. The self grasps the objectivity of an other by way of reflection, and it responds to the subjectivity of the other by way of response. We have just explored the stages that reason passes through as it seeks to establish an objective certainty. We will now address the parallel journey that response undergoes as it seeks to establish the character of the religious power (the reality of the subjectivity of the objectival) that acts upon it.

A few more words must be said with respect to this idea of a “religious power.” As was argued earlier, most contemporary people tend to so identify the whole scope of reason with technical/reflective rationality that the responsive dimension of rationality is left off their conceptual map entirely. This way of thinking will immediately confuse Scharlemann’s category of “religious power” as an objective reality that is to be assessed by reflective rational means.We see this, for example, in the work of analytic theologians and their efforts to do theology with an explicit allegiance to exclusively reflective methods. Such theologians are puzzled by the cool reception that many other theologians have given their young movement. Yet this situation is understandable when one realizes that the religious dimension of reality is by nature a matter not of reflection, but of response. Here “religious power” is not an objective reality to be grasped, but rather it is the subjectivity of the objectival impacting the knower. It cannot be grasped at all by means of critical reflection. To be known, it must be allowed to grasp us.

This last point should register a note of alarm in the reader, for what is to stop false forms of otherness from disintegrating the self in its reception of them? For example, there have always been charismatic leaders with a special knack for disarming their audience so as to be invited in, and, of course, history is littered with the remains of lives torn to pieces as a result.

It is due to this concern that we can now introduce the negative counterpart to critical reflection, namely, doubting response. Doubt places distance between the self and the power that is acting upon it. The question, then, is whether or not there is any true religious power that does not fade when exposed to critical doubt. In fact, this is what Scharlemann picks out as the very criterion of religious power. “The character of religious power,” he says, “is that it engages the free response of the self by answering the doubt or bridging the distance set by the self.” (Scharlemann, 16.) “[I]t establishes its presence by the fact that my doubt does not remove it. If it cannot bridge the distance or reestablish its own presence, it cannot elicit a free response.” (Scharlemann, 16.) This failure precludes the possibility that the power acting upon the self is a truly religious power because in its failure to reestablish itself and elicit a free response, it reveals itself as being finite limited, and unworthy of worship. Thus, doubt is introduced by the self to establish the real subjective power of the other, the religious dimension of which is its capacity to bridge this critical distance and thereby elicit a free response.


Just as with reflection, responsive rationality is sensitive to the kind of presence towards which it is directed, and this again can be viewed in a series of stages. Among the most salient of these stages is the second stage of reflection. Where at this point reflection distinguished between particular beings and being-itself, response here distinguishes between the gods and God. “At the monotheistic stage response is made not to any one objectival subject but to the quality of subjectivity as such in the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 16.) At this stage the self “no longer needs to ask whether currently ruling Gods are true since it knows that, critically viewed, they are false. At the same time it also knows that the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.” (Scharlemann, 80.)

The crisis that responsive thinking eventually finds itself in is parallel to the one that reflective thought ended up in. This crisis is reached when responsive thinking “turns upon its own act and discovers that its temporality always eludes its grasp.” (Scharlemann, 16.) Scharlemann shows how this occurred for Christianity at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the dissolution of the sacral presences of medieval and classical Protestant theology. His concept of a sacral presence is important to grasp, for seeing it helps us understand the bind we saw the young Tillich struggling with. A sacral presence, notes Scharlemann, is

some reality—an institution, a person, and idea, or whatever else—which is present in the world in such a way…that when I view it I do not view it in its relation to things around it. I do not ask from what other thing it comes (since it is directly of God) or to what other things it leads or is related. It is ‘just there,’ underivable from anything around it, encompassing and sustaining all else. (Scharlemann, 17.)

So long as such a presence exists in the world, reflective thinking is prevented from turning upon its own act, because response is stopped by something tangible in the world. The medieval church possessed such a presence in the penitential and sacramental reality of the church, and classical Protestantism possessed such a presence in the Sacred Scriptures. Again, Scharlemann is worth quoting at length.

Both sacral presences were dissolved by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Protestantism had destroyed the sacral character of the medieval church, and historical criticism had destroyed the sacral character of the Scriptures. Henceforth they were both subject to criticism and doubt. Of course, they were and are still sacral for many people, but not for theological thinking that is historically conscious. And they were not available for theological construction in the new era since their sacral character could not be restored. Anyone who either directly or by recapitulation participated in the historical development leading into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could no longer revert to the medieval and Protestant theological stances without a loss of integrity. The disappearance of sacral realities is never a reversible process. (Scharlemann, 18.)

Once all sacral realities are removed by criticism and doubt there is nothing in the world to stop the self from trying to catch the here-and-now act of response. This can be seen, for example, when one is able to ask for the very first time, “what do I love when I love God?” With all sacral realities removed, the self faces a dilemma. Either one can arbitrarily “call a halt” to their doubting response, or they can continue their doubting response. In the first case, one opens oneself up to being grasped by the demonic as well as holy powers, whereas in the second place the religious presence will continue to vanish due to the nature of its temporality. As Scharlemann, following Tillich, notes, “Faith turned on itself is confronted with the choice between fanaticism or fatuousness, demonization or profanation.” (Scharlemann, 19.)

This leads us now finally to Schleiermacher. Scharlemann sees Schleiermacher’s solution to this problem as paralleling Hegel’s solution to the problem of absolute reflection. Schleiermacher “identified the act of religious response with the content of a whole system of responsive thinking. What the self responds to and its act of responding were identical in the whole, just as for Hegel the act and the object of critical reflection were the same in the absolute system.” (Scharlemann, 19.) Scharlemann sees this is a problem for the same reason that Hegel’s absolute system was deemed a problem. It is of little use for temporally conditioned human life, for even if the act of response and objectival presence that is responded to are identical, “the response never finds an objectival presence, because the act it catches is already past by the time it is caught.” (Scharlemann, 18.) Either that, or the whole system of response must be deemed “post-historical,” in the same sense as Hegel’s system and therefore preclude the possibility of any new response. (Scharlemann, 18.)

Schleiermacher’s system, like Hegel’s was deemed by most to be a failure, but nobody else was able to do any better. It is the great virtue of Paul Tillich, thinks Scharlemann, that he solves this great riddle in a system of thought that is both complete, yet open. Tillich’s system does not fall into the totalitarianism of either Hegel or Schleiermacher. He accomplishes this by way of his concepts of correlation and paradox. We will turn to these in the final section of this chapter.

This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.


Written by Alex

March 3, 2015 at 12:36 pm

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