Religion As A Plurality Of Poets: The Great American Philosopher Richard Rorty's Vision Of Spiritual Life

11/21/2016 12:56 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2017

The question of the nature and meaning of religion, in many ways, is directly related to larger questions orbiting around the meaning of life and the place of humanity in this vast impersonal universe (nay, multiverse) we inhabit.

The feeling of uncertainty, the sense of being a meaningless 'meat robot' in a world without cause or purpose is strong and poignant these days, especially in the aftermath of the twentieth century. In the wake of the Cold War and World Wars, combined with the advent of rigorous forms of empiricism, rationality and the ever-widening horizon of research and exploitation of the planetary ecosystem via the hard sciences (and their neoliberal emissaries), the so-called Death of God seems like a vast understatement.

Put more poetically, we moderns share a shocking experience of metaphysical nakedness, a constant sobering encounter with the sheer indifference of the cosmos, one devoid of any human-centric consolement, forcing upon our gaze and bodies an existential vertigo before a gaping abyss (as Michel Foucault put it in his later writings).

Nevertheless, religion - in all its violent, extremist, traditional and "spiritual but not religious" forms - remains entirely relevant to many people in North America and the world over.

While materialist, utilitarian and practical understandings govern much of western modern public discourse and institutions, for the most part spiritual matters are allocated to the imagination, the arts, and the private sphere tucked away from vulnerability and scrutiny. This, at least, is the official picture in the American landscape, where church and state are separated and diversity is privately celebrated and circulated in culture via the arts (if with a host of secular stipulations). But can a society adequately celebrate and circulate its diversity shorn of the intimate values, existential aspirations and spiritual understandings that form the personal bedrock of swaths of its citizens?

The well-known American philosopher Richard Rorty wrestles with this question concerning the place of religion after the demise of all things enchanted, sacred or believed to be 'transcendentally real.' In an elegant chapter entitled "Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism" (1998), Rorty explores the role of religion in our contemporary plural milieu, in light of this notion of 'romantic polytheism.' While known for rereading and reviving a once-forgotten American lineage of powerful pragmatist thinkers before him, such as William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, here Rorty fuses the thought of John Stuart Mill, Frederick Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold's, one that crafts a broad vision that endeavors to retrieve at least a trace of the sacred--in the form of poets, aesthetics, and the relentless human tendency to strive for perfection.

But such traces of the mystical and the ideal--the metaphysical and romantic, and their manifest content and modes of being--have been thoroughly established in the private sphere and in democratized forms of artistic expression. As Rorty puts it:

For human perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibility to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns--to worship their own gods, so to speak--as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all. The tradition of religious toleration is extended to moral toleration. This privatization of perfection permits James and Nietzsche to agree with Mill and Arnold that poetry should take over the role that religion has played in the formation of individual human lives. They also agree that nobody should take over the function of the clergy. For poets are to a secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism. Once you become polytheistic, you will turn away not only from priests but from such priest-substitutes as metaphysicians and physicists--from anyone who purports to tell you how things really are, anyone who invokes the distinction between the true world and the apparent world that Nietzsche ridiculed in Twilight of the Idols. Both monotheism and the kind of metaphysics or science that purports to tell you what the world is really like are replaced with democratic politics.

This passage situates the precise place of the sacred or transcendence in contemporary American life, namely, in the romantic dwelling of one's interior private life. Here all things vulnerable, idiosyncratic, fetishistic, mystifying and cherished in ritual dress can be pursued in the midst everyday life and during leisurely time.

For Rorty, then, the sacred is situated on practical grounds, as that which has 'use value' in the privacy of one's personal vision where "human happiness becomes all that matters" and on aesthetic grounds, as that which we might call the secularized mythos and celebration of the beautiful soul, to re-read a notion from G. F. Hegel. The beautiful soul possesses a soul only insofar as it's embedded in domestic life, tolerated by a liberal acceptance of the uncanny and fantastic, and even enacted communication on festive occasions that express and celebrate various forms of spiritual or religious consciousness. But all this is ignored when it comes to any serious states of public affairs, despite whatever personal approach to religious content or perspectives one positively espouses; this amounts to saying that we "may each pursue our own intimations of truth, beauty and goodness so long as we do not interfere with other people's pursuit of their intimations" (Ryan, 1999).

While in ancient Greece a muthos was "a true story, a story that unveils the true origin of the world and human being," now the veridical potential of any such muthos, the transcendentally real status of any such visions or imaginal powers has been patently nullified, perhaps determined as some combination of what philosopher Stephen Bush might consider an interplay of 'illusion' and 'fabrication'--justified according to its use value or its status as an entertaining fantasy, a grown-up and publically acceptable version of Blake's forever innocent child, as it were, who at heart does her duties while being quietly repulsed by the spiritually sterile social conditions and crackpot institutional complexes of the times.

Thus Rorty takes up the precarious status of religion and attempts to make good sense of its nature and privatized value, to bring together pragmatism and religion without the outdated baggage of the latter that has otherwise, for centuries and even millennia, insisted on an "object of knowledge that tells one how to rank human needs," and that has made us servants of deities and dictators sanctioned by the heavens.

However, in the legacy of William James, Rorty does retrieve a place for a spiritual orientation toward the good in the form of the pursuit of happiness via the spiritual and religious imagination. In particular, he favors the unchurched spirit of John Dewey and restricts the meaning and aims of such spiritual topics solely to the private sphere.

Rorty's reflection written in the late 1990s is certainly sensible, even a bit prophetic (to put it hyperbolically), given the increasing default presence of the "spiritual but not religious" demographic with which many of America's current youth and boomers identify. But although writing with incredible clarity in the voice of a truly senior scholar, in the end polytheism appears as a mere nominal designation, pace his provocative placement of it in the substantive (in the title of the article). To place polytheism in the substantive (read: as a noun) is to afford it a status that, ironically, is categorically heretical to the master of contingency!

Rorty himself admits the purely rhetorical verve entailed in this linguistic construal when he equates his polytheist approach to Arnold's "romantic utilitarianism." Thus he does not retrieve a legitimate place for taking seriously the content and modes of being religious (unless one considers poetry or the expressive arts serious--as I see it, the arts negate the existential and political heaviness, for better or worse, that religions point to), but aligns with a liberal political toleration of belief in "higher things" and perhaps an amusement and nostalgia for their relatively harmless manifestations in private; for in the end:


Nietzsche's attempt to "see science through the optic of art, and art through that of life," like Arnold's and Mill's substitution of poetry for religion, is an attempt to make more room for individuality than can be provided either by orthodox monotheism, or by the Enlightenment's attempt to put science in the place of religion as a source of Truth. So the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as "symbolic," and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track.

Despite Rorty's view that religion amounts to a form of poetic agency, creative imagination, or perhaps a ritual process that invokes at best metaphysical dreaming, I would suggest that things are more complicated, that there are certain spiritual and visionary dynamics that cross-pollinate and dwell between the practical, public, aesthetic and spiritual domains of life.

Professional research in the history of religions and the current field of religious studies provides multiple case studies that demonstrate some variant of this thesis, which I can't unpack here. But I will say that the aforementioned 'privatization of perfection,' which is akin to the privatization of the religious or spiritual impulse being considered here, is neither purely private nor a matter of strong yet always naïve notions and fantastic pursuits of perfection solely in one's personal life, as if acknowledging some sort of enchantment, vibrant spiritual life or notion of transcendence did not impact one's social productions, political relations and lived pursuits of the good life, human potential and justice.

But for Rorty being wrong is nothing to be ashamed about. After all, he can't really cross over the linguistic divide to deal with normative problems or veridical claims in any universalizable way. Why? Because religion and philosophy are mere fictions (in Obeyesekere's words applied to Oedipus) insofar as they adhere to a divine source or metaphysical ground of being. The same charge applies to any polytheistic harvest of imagined supernatural possibilities through which one might fantasize or otherwise pursue fullness, transcendent forces or deities in ways that one believes bear directly on the world:


There is no such thing as the love of Truth. What has been called by that name is a mixture of the love of reaching intersubjective agreement, the love of gaining mastery over a recalcitrant set of data, the love of winning arguments, and the love of synthesizing little theories into big theories. It is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it... The attempt to love Truth, and to think of it as One, and as capable of commensurating and ranking human needs, is a secular version of the traditional religious hope that allegiance to something big, powerful, and nonhuman will persuade that powerful being to take your side in your struggle with other people.


To start wrapping up this reflection: the whole question of universal truth and a transcendent vantage point from which human needs are ranked ubiquitously may be wrong and it certainly evokes scholarly suspicion because of the fascist tendencies entailed in any totalizing perspective; in this I concur with Rorty. But his treatment of religion is embedded in the ongoing influence of western monotheism and his reflections are more or less restricted to its dominant logocentric orientation where acknowledging transcendence is conflated with Thomasine propositions, a unifying Godhead or some variant of Christian apophatic and kataphatic mysticisms. Rorty is thus not nearly as apt or generous to religion as he might presume. His bold and elegant use of the term polytheism, while debunking monotheism, is still bound up with it.

Further, his thought in this piece is devoid of any attention to Asian religions and indigenous communities, while resorting to the Greeks with just passing reference; beyond problematic, this is plain negligent. One does not need to be a 'neo-colonialist' or 'liberal humanist' sympathizer with the comparative study of religion to admit such an assessment! Be that as it may, given the monotheistic Abrahamic backdrop of Rorty's American philosophical ruminations--which strictly place religious truths, divine 'sources of the self' and their manifold deities in the realms of private musing and poetic aspiration--his thought is a welcome reminder of the death of monotheism and a reasonable negotiation against the dismissive attitudes and standards of social scientific approaches that insist on the total decline of religious thought and life ways.

Monotheism of the Western Abrahamic variety, however structurally subtle or secularized, should neither have the first nor the last word. With Rorty's later writings, it does seem to have the last word on religion, and there is a lot more to the lived polytheistic landscape than this dominant "horizon" that Nietszche tore asunder. By the last word I mean that Rorty contributes to the effective silencing of the spiritual, of transcendence, by situating it solely in the quasi-esoteric sphere we call the private, where 'what you do with your time' is your business and your business alone. This is akin to the saying 'what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' The sensibility is fair enough and the general argument understandable, but Rorty's invocation of polytheism begs explication and behooves a far more substantive engagement and nuanced comparative effort than his rhetorical, merely nominal flourish on pragmatism as romantic polytheism affords.

While I admire the spirit of his direct invocation of pragmatic polytheism as a complement to affirming spiritual life as enacting a range of amusing and artistic content and modes of personalized fantasy, poesy and idiosyncratic expression, Rorty advances only the barest invitation to investigate just what happens for people who live serious and dynamically engaging spiritual lives. In principle, for Rorty the entire manifestational sphere of the spiritual impulse and its varied expressions amount to an occasion no better than a weekend in Vegas! Of course, Vegas would be on the more plastic and crass side of the artistic spectrum, but of the same kind.

The underlying critique of "Religion as Romantic Polytheism" is intended to de-center the knowing self altogether, not unlike Obeyesekere (incidentally, both draw from Nietzsche) and underscore the reference to the One as only merely reiterated via an integrative endeavor sustained by illusions and fabrications of the grandeur and universality of truth, all framed in secular terms but structurally amounting to the disposition of a child.

For Rorty, the imaginal depths of religion are nothing more than childlike echoes of a nonexistent home more real because of its pangs than its place. Such depths are Romantic and worthy of multiple forms of private pursuit. In its best moments religion enacts a poetics of excellence, revealing aesthetic cadences of sublime caliber and commendable or even prophetic talent. Here, in the private sphere, Freud's symptoms and fantasy can mature, but not quite to the degree of Obeyesekere's South Asian religious adepts, who impact public culture through fusing their private visions and explicit engagements in community life.

Still, Rorty tries to retrieve the spiritual and aspiration to 'higher things,' and does this democratically according to utilitarian notions of human happiness (a la John Stuart Mill), which has become plural (i.e. polytheistic), and the latter is the critique he levels at monotheism. The Romanticism he has in mind also stems from the work of Isaiah Berlin who recovered and illuminated the work of Herder, a major figure in developing a theory of language that would have a big impact on the religious imagination of the nineteenth-century and the study of religion, both then and now. Without getting into nuances, such a "linguistic turn" coupled with the romantic ethos of self-expression and sacralization of the arts brought forth a distinctively religious and German idealist sense of consciousness and its creative capacities in the unfolding of history (which, as we've seen is virtually restricted wholesale to the private sphere). Here sentences become symbolic sites of the creative acts of spirit experientially descended from the infinite expressive power of nature, which is reflected and celebrated through minds realizing the awe, incandescence and transcendence of the imaginal depths.

But to take seriously these imaginal depths and expressions of religion in the form of the love of Truth at the expense of Mill's utilitarian insights into human happiness is to place one's universal vision on a pedestal, on a high mountaintop. For various ethical and practical reasons in the shadow of the twentieth century - with its despicable fascist tendencies that enabled multiple horrors and embarrassing justifications for widespread systematic violence and destruction of 'raw life', all of which we still haven't recovered from - such musings are placed solely in the private sphere, cushioned between pragmatic and democratic norms.

In this way, to insist that the big mountain top view is more than a romantic childlike vision or talented poetics of the imagination, for Rorty, is to reassert monotheism in secular dress, to conflate happiness, usefulness and beauty with the possibility of actuating Gods in the world. This is not about rationality versus irrationality. It's not about science versus myth. For Rorty, all of us are at best beautiful dreamers guided for better or worse by our pursuit of happiness and cooperative existence; and to insist otherwise, even just theoretically, is to flirt seriously with fascist tendencies and jeopardize our intellectual credentials.

Does spiritual life have any purpose outside of private life and cultural expressions of art and entertainment? Well, it certainly does insofar as religious studies walks the tight rope between intellectual integrity and deep investigations of a wide range of spiritual and religious patterns through history and in the multi-religious wildly diverse present times. So, at least in the professional field of religious studies (and many sub-fields), ironically and significantly enough, religious studies crosses the boundaries of the hard and fast separation between private spiritual life and public social-cooperative life premised on rules and axioms of rational-critical discourse. I wonder if Rorty would approve of the legitimacy of the field of religious studies, or, if so, what sort of recommendations he might issue>