Signals of Transcendence
Robert P. Imbelli March 27, 2013 - 6:56am
The current issue of The New York Review of Books contains a generous excerpt from a new book by the late Ronald Dworkin: Religion Without God. In it he presents a careful statement of an approach to religion which he distinguishes both from scientific naturalism and from orthodox theism. It strikes me as essentially a "neo-Kantian" approach. I say this not to slight it, but to situate it within a tradition. Here is a key affirmation that he makes:
What, then, should we count as a religious attitude? I will try to provide a reasonably abstract and hence ecumenical account. The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of two central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.The second holds that what we call naturethe universe as a whole and in all its partsis not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder. Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.
Dworkin seems willing to characterize that "sublime" as "supernatural." In this he finds himself much closer to Albert Einstein than to Richard Dawkins. But where he takes leave of theistic religion is in his refusal to countenance that such a stance either requires or assumes the reality of a "supernatural person."Pope Benedict famously created an initiative called "The Courtyard of the Gentiles" which he entrusted to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. Ravasi has already sponsored several high profile dialogues between believers and non-believers who are open to religion, as is Dworkin.Reading Dworkin's account raises the question: were we to participate in such a dialogue, what grounds would we propose to move beyond the affirmation of value to the reality of a personal God who is the Source of such value? Or, to use the words of the First Letter of Peter: what account would we give of the hope that is in us?
About the Author
Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.