[Event Report] Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today: Vattimo’s ‘nonreligious’ Christianity

Davide Monaco reports on the event organized by the Normativity Research Group on May the 5th, 2016, titled: Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today; A day with Gianni Vattimo. A cycle of seminars on the work of Gianni Vattimo, addressing his theories and writings on politics, religion and secularity, and his dialogue with Heidegger and Girard on these topics. What is secularity in relation to religion, particularly, Christianity? Vattimo’s thought develops an attempt to Davideunderstand Christianity in a post-metaphysical way, a “secular” Christianity. 

The Normativity cycle of seminars “Philosophy and Faith in Europe Today”, which took place at the University of Aberdeen on May 5th, 2016, was a great occasion to address the relevant issues of the relation between religious and secular understandings of moral life through an analysis of the thought of Gianni Vattimo. Exploration of these issues has been the focus of the studies of the Normativity research group, under the supervision of Prof. Philip G. Ziegler. This project has focused on questions of morality, by evaluating normative claims from the point of view of law, philosophy and theology. Three main “sources” of normativity have been analysed: nature, narrative and nihilism. This last theme received special attention during our seminar, since it is a key-term in Heidegger’s and Vattimo’s philosophies. Alongside philosophical nihilism, the main topics and themes discussed during this event include the relationship between Christianity and secularity, and the reflection on the current political situation of Europe. The morning session was devoted to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, as a fundamental inspiration for Vattimo’s own philosophical work, while in the afternoon, we moved closer to Vattimo’s thought, by comparing it with René Girard’s views on Christianity. As a Ph.D. student working on this project I chaired the morning seminar on Heidegger’s Introduction to the phenomenology of religious life.

I believe this cycle of seminars addressed the question of great relevance for the debate on nonreligion and secularity. In our first seminar, we have seen how Vattimo’s own project proposes a post-metaphysical age in which early aspects of Christianity are still at work, albeit in their non-metaphysical qualification. According to Vattimo, a secular society should possess a non-dogmatic, non-metaphysical, moral structure inspired by early Christianity, which keeps its fundamental moral claims at work without relying on an ultimate metaphysics.

In our seminar, we addressed more deeply the relevance of Vattimo’s thought for an interpretation of secularity and its post-metaphysical character through another text: Christianity, truth and weakening faith (2010). In this book, Vattimo faces the criticism of René Girard against his philosophy of “weak thought”. In Vattimo’s intentions, the age of secularization corresponds to a post-metaphysical philosophy: in this regard, secularization is viewed as a positive aspect and a necessary outcome of a new philosophical paradigm. A weak interpretation of Christianity, which is particularly visible in Vattimo’s own reading of Pauline kenosis, was contrasted to René Girard’s ‘dogmatic’ interpretation. In other terms, Vattimo’s concept of Christianity has been purified of all its dogmatic and metaphysical aspects (e.g., it has been “weakened” and freed from its Catholic framework), while Girard is more sympathetic with a structured conception of Christianity, and in this regard, his Catholicism is much more prominent.

This led us to discuss the problem of violence, which is crucial for Vattimo’s reflection, given that his concept of Caritas (charity) at the core of his ethical project involves the progressive reduction of violent mechanisms within a secular society. For Vattimo religious metaphysics must be regarded as violent in its own nature and its elimination would correspond to an equivalent decrease in violence. This happens because metaphysics is viewed as the expression of a dogmatic and “totalitarian” thought. In its search for a universal truth, Western philosophy seems to have forgotten that truth is just an army of metaphors (Nietzsche), or a disclosure (Heidegger) and therefore not something that could be grounded once and for all. Secular societies, in this sense, guarantee a reduction of violence through their total rejection of any given metaphysics. Girard, instead, believes that secular societies as well possess the tendency to resort to violence and “scapegoating” to escape their inner contradictions.

Both Vattimo and Girard agree on how Christianity has played a fundamental role in the historical development of Western secular societies. The main difference between their interpretations concerns the relationship between secularity and Christianity: for Girard there is a clear dialectic relationship between them, while Vattimo considers secularity as the fulfilment of Christianity. According to Vattimo, secularity is just the continuation of Christianity by other means. Secularity has appeared just as one mask (the latest) of a long-time historical and hermeneutical process.

These problems, then, call for a discussion about the status of the discipline of ‘philosophy of religion’, which was the common thread around which the seminars have been developed. For example, in Heidegger’s perspective, which was our starting point, one can notice the uttermost complexity of the link between philosophy and religion. While lecturing in Freiburg in the early Twenties, Heidegger did not mind calling himself a ‘Christian theologian’ (Letter to Löwith: 1921)[1] while at the same time remarking that philosophy must be a-theistic in principle (1922). In 1919 Heidegger formally abandoned Catholicism and, therefore, started to re-think his relationship with the Christian tradition. In his opinion, philosophy of religion as such is a problematic discipline. What kind of relation exists between the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ contained in this definition? What is the nature of their connection, expressed by the preposition ‘of’? For Heidegger, the religion with which the philosophy of religion deals is not an object. Namely, philosophy of religion does not aim toward «a scientifically valid, essential determination of religion». If this were the case, religion would be absorbed by philosophy and it would be not the primary element of the investigation. We would have, in this case, a Theologia ancilla philosophiae. Instead, truly reflected philosophy of religion arises «out of a certain religiosity», which in Heidegger’s case is early Christian religiosity. In this regard, both religion and philosophy are altogether overcome, while the main attention is drawn to religiosity. Religiosity is, for Heidegger, a historical life-experience, a primordial phenomenon that cannot be trapped neither in metaphysical nor in theological categories.

What is instead religiosity for Vattimo? In fact, it must not be forgotten that Heidegger represents a direct model for his philosophy. If this is true, then also Heidegger’s “conversion” from Catholicism to his own personal form of Lutheranism can be considered as a model for Vattimo’s “conversion” to a form of religiosity which is nothing but «to believe in belief», i.e. «believing that one believes». In other words, his personal variant of Christianity includes both elements of certainty and uncertainty in a paradoxical mixture: «to believe means having faith, conviction or certainty in something, but also to opine – that is, to think with a certain degree of uncertainty». Therefore, secularity is the stage in which Christianity reaches its post-metaphysical form; only within it is possible to welcome Christian values such as ‘charity’, allowing us to escape religious violence.

[1] Papenfuss D. – Pöggler O. (edited by), Zur philosophischen Aktualität Heideggers, vol. II of Im Gespräch der Zeit (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1990), 27-32.

 


I graduated from the University of Naples Federico II in 2012 with a thesis on Ernst Mach’s philosophy of science.  I started my PhD at the University of Aberdeen in 2014 (Normativity Project Award Scheme) under Dr. Beth Lord’s supervision. I’m currently working on Spinoza’s theory of parallelism and monism and their relation. I’m also interested in other conceptions of monism (e.g. Haeckel, Mach) and parallelism (e.g. Fechner, Wundt, Mach). Besides early modern philosophy, my areas of interest include continental philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of science and German philosophy of the 19th century.

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