Tuesday, November 17, 2009

R. Bruce Douglass reviews Rawls on religion

R. Bruce Douglass (Georgetown University) reviews John Rawls's "A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith" (Harvard University Press, 2009) in the November issue of "The Christian Century":

"Reasonable God"


"Reading his statement, one gets the sense that his initial movement away from the religion of his youth hardened into something much deeper—and more polemical—as he matured. By the end of his life, Rawls could find nothing good to say about Christianity. He even mounts a moral critique of the idea of salvation itself, on the grounds that it is a recipe for spiritual isolation and self-absorption. "Christianity is a solitary religion," he writes; "each is saved and damned individually, and we naturally focus on our own salvation to the point where nothing else might seem to matter.""

"In the introduction, Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel observe that "those who have studied Rawls's work, and even more, those who knew him personally, are aware of a deeply religious temperament that informed his life and writings." That may well have been the case. But the statement shows that Rawls was not religious in any conventional sense.
The book contains none of the sentiments generally expressed in religious practice—not even the reverence for "higher powers" that has often characterized the outlook of deists in the past. It's possible that Rawls simply does not express himself well on this subject, but I don't think it is any accident that he is silent about everything—including the question of creation—that might inspire a sense of indebtedness or gratitude. The affective side of religion was just what he wanted to get away from.
Would Rawls have liked his outlook on religion to be shared more widely? Did he think we would be better off if this were the case? Probably, but as an American living in the latter part of the 20th century, he could hardly have been under any illusions about the likelihood of this occurring. Nor does he seek to be a public advocate for the sort of alternative to conventional religion he favored. He kept that to himself, treating it as the private matter I am sure he thought religion should be."

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