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10. Remembering Isaac: On the Impossibility and Immorality of Faith
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257 c h a p t e r 1 0 Remembering Isaac: On the Impossibility and Immorality of Faith J. M. Bernstein Desire mediates between subject and object, and it annihilates the distance between them by transforming the subject into a lover and the object into the beloved. For the lover is never isolated from what he loves; he belongs to it. . . . Hence, in cupiditas or in caritas, we decide about our abode, whether we wish to belong to this world or the world to come, but the faculty that decides is always the same. Since man is not self-sufficient and therefore always desires something outside himself, the question of who he is can only be resolved by the object of his desire. —hannah arendt, Love and Saint Augustine Secular modernity is in retreat, its ideals, ends, and fundamental forms of self-understanding under a constant barrage of interrogation and challenge . Correspondingly, the goods of religion, the inevitability of political theology, and the necessity of faith are being offered a late veneer of legitimacy, a guilt-ridden acknowledgment that their intended destruction at the hands of rational modernity has been somehow undeserved. This reevaluation of religious modes of thought strikes me as deeply mistaken, a work of self-hatred and self-repudiation, as if secular modernity could be reduced to its most destructive movements. Although the issues here are multiple and complex, my narrow focus in this essay concerns the resurgence of faith as the presumptively necessary complement to secular reason. Faith gets a good deal of its current acceptance through its contrast with reason, as if the only “other” to reason were faith, even reason requiring faith, at least in itself. The now all too familiar “reason needs faith” view assumes that if reason is left to its own devices it becomes totalitarian, transforming all ends into means. Although the idea of a wholly self-sufficient reason is indeed dangerous in its totalizing aspirations, there is no reason to think that only faith is truly other 258 J. M. Bernstein to reason, or that faith is the paradigm of reason’s other (although that thought hits on a significant historical moment, as we shall see). There are numerous others to reason: trust, love, commitment, loyalty, courage, the whole panoply of feelings, emotions, and affects.1 Commitment to reason does not entail a wholly rationalized, calculating view of the world: Reason can be in the service of the love of others, of children, friends, and fellow citizens. Reason can orient trust in neighbors and strangers (doctors, teachers, politicians, plumbers, secondhand car salesmen). It can inflect our commitment to causes and ideals. What distinguishes these others is that they are not absolutely other to reason since each carries within itself norms of appropriateness and inappropriateness that make it available to rational evaluation. Trust, for example, can be earned or unearned, excessive or insufficient, sensitive or insensitive to evidence. Trust is indeed an attitude of acceptance; but for all that, it can be rational or irrational.2 Faith is otherwise; by definition it exceeds the parameters of reason and evidence; that excess is constitutive of (modern) faith, in particular the concept of faith pioneered by Pascal that receives its definitive philosophical elaboration in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. It is only faith in its austere understanding, the kind of faith that Kierkegaard unflinchingly urges (and, arguably, belongs to both fundamentalism and many resurrected religious practices) that challenges the secularist self-understanding of reason. Arguably, it is this conception of faith that is at stake in the actual debates between religious and secular views of the fate of modern society, since only this notion of faith must dispute the restricting of faith to standing within the limits of democratic pluralism alone. (Religious beliefs that accept democratic pluralism and the claims of natural science as trumping the demands of faith are sufficiently secular in their outlook as to raise no problems requiring immediate address.) And it is certainly this conception of faith that has been used within philosophy for contesting the authority of secular reason, and hence this conception of faith which yields the radical self-doubt of secular reason underlying claims for our now living in a postsecular society, not just factually, but by right. My argument is critical, diagnostic, and genealogical. In the first and third sections of the essay, I track the genealogy of secular reason in its scientific...