This month’s issue of the Forum features a recent panel discussion co-sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion on the theme, “Religion and Religious Expression in the Academy and Public Life.” The panel included featured guest and New York Times op-ed columnist, Ross Douthat; Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School; Laurie Zoloth, Dean and Margaret E. Burton Professor at the Divinity School; William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at The Divinity School; William Cavanaugh, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University; and was moderated by Williemien Otten, Professor of Theology and of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School, and Director of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion.
The panel debated the role that religion and religious thought should play within the life of the university as well as in American public life more broadly. As reported in The Chicago Maroon, “New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat argued for the reintroduction of religious awareness in university education, whereas Geoffrey Stone, a professor of constitutional law in the Law School, made a case for secularism as the basis of freedom of thought. Three professors in the Divinity School—Laurie Zoloth, Willemien Otten, and William Schweiker—each spoke on the importance for a university to remain neutral in terms of religious matters and to encourage a diverse community. William Cavanaugh, a professor of Catholicism at DePaul University, added to the emphasis on the exchange of ideas.”
In the coming weeks, we will publish several responses to the panel discussion by scholars associated with the Divinity School. The first response, “A Good Disagreement is Hard to Find,” comes from Michael Le Chevallier, a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the Divinity School. We invite you to watch the video of the panel discussion (below), to read the responses (below), and to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions.
We are grateful to the Lumen Christi Institute, who co-sponsored the event, for allowing us to publish the video recording of the panel. The Marty Center also wishes to thank the other sponsors of the event—The Institute of Politics and The International House Global Voices Program—for the partnership.
The panel discussion was held on January 17, 2018, at the International House at the University of Chicago.
3:10 Ross Douthat remarks
22:56 Geoffrey Stone remarks
32:18 Laurie Zoloth remarks
39:30 Ross Douthat response, panel discussion
56:22 William Schweiker remarks
1:07:34 William Cavanaugh remarks
1:18:55 Ross Douthat response, panel discussion
A Good Disagreement is Hard to Find | a response
by Michael Le Chevallier
“Disagreement is a hard thing to achieve.” Paraphrasing the great 20th-century American Catholic political thinker John Courtney Murray, S.J., Professor W. Clark Gilpin made this (seemingly offhand) comment about the nature of conversation in one of my first classes as a Master’s student at the University of Chicago. With discord pervasive, it might seem that our own contemporary social and political situation gives lie to this statement. Quite aware of the pluralism of his own moment, however, Murray wasn’t speaking of mere discord. The hard work of true disagreement relies upon some “common universe of discourse.”1 It relies upon a pre-existing consensus and agreement: “We hold certain truths; therefore we can argue about them.”2 The difficulty of disagreement, however, does not make it any less worthy of pursuit. For Murray, conversation that includes disagreement is vital for a divided public: “Civility dies with the death of the dialogue.”3 I suggest that the panel discussion “Religion and Religious Expression in the Academy and Public Life” falls short of Murray’s challenge to true disagreement. Nonetheless, by turning to another great American Catholic thinker David Tracy, I maintain that the panel discussion’s value lies less in disagreement or consensus, but rather in its embodiment of the art of conversation.
The Divinity School in many respects embodies the hard work of disagreement and conversation that Murray found so elusive. Within the ministry studies program, a year-long seminar for the first-year cohort, while dedicated to a constellation of topics on ministry and public life, seems implicitly designed to induce students to learn how to have a conversation—once ecumenically and now across faiths and religions. It is a trial by fire of interreligious dialogue across these pluralistic discourses that seem to make disagreement nearly impossible according to Murray. While perhaps rarely in the ideal form of dialogue, disagreement nonetheless rings through the halls of seminars, where master’s and doctoral students read texts and listen to each other charitably, enabling the possibility of a genuine critique.
To this robust praxis of disagreement, we could add the long history of theoria at the University of Chicago Divinity School on conversation, dialogue, and disagreement: Paul Tillich, Paul Ricoeur, Michael Fishbane, David Tracy, and many more.
It is fitting that a place that works so hard at being able to disagree well would host a conversation between prominent public figures and scholars who might have great reason for discord, if not disagreement, on the contentious topic of “Religion and Religious Expression in the Academy and Public Life.”
Within their remarks each panelist offered a multitude of keen insights. While I disagree with Ross Douthat’s diagnosis that “religious energies” are what fuel campus activism, in his remarks, he incisively underlined the danger of a perpetual apocalyptic mentality taking over campus activism that infuses ordinary disputes with “near religious significance.” Geoffrey Stone embodied a fundamental openness to all reasoned argument, while maintaining the necessity for the essential neutrality (at least with regards to religion) of the university. Laurie Zoloth reminded us that religious arguments are arguments just like any other, but that they also happen to make claims upon the self that seem almost unreasonable: demanding the poor be welcomed into one’s home and issuing a duty to the neighbor greater than oneself. William Schweiker warned against the precarious use of religions as means to political ends. Making claims about human ends themselves, religions defy utility; and when subsumed to the political, they lose their cognitive and moral force. Adopting a Macyntyrian understanding of all reason being “traditioned” in some way, William Cavanaugh underlined the dangerous ironies of the Enlightenment as a tradition that denies that it is a tradition, perpetuated still in secularizing projects that adopt as universals constructed distinctions like secular/religious, fact/value, and faith/reason.
It was a conversation that appeared to strive for robust disagreement, with Schweiker even jesting as he took the stage that this late in the program, he was happy to say that he disagreed with all the panelists. In their remarks, the panelists (barring Stone), used rhetoric of shared agreement with Douthat on his central premise that there is something wrong at the University to find points of departure for their own disagreement in the diagnosis of the problem of the modern university and the role of religion.
As formal disputations moved to public dialogue, however, it became increasingly difficult to note either disagreement or discord. In the two discussions that followed the prepared remarks, a cacophony of agreement seemed to echo through the hall. Was this the product of dialogue or rhetorical positioning? Murray’s caution rings in my head: if disagreement is difficult, it is because agreement already seems a distant goal in a society where religious (and, we might add, secular) pluralities leave disputing parties in confusion. Just what is understood by religion and religious discourse seemed implicitly contested by our various panelists’ positions, even if explicitly taken for granted in their frequent claims to concord, assent, and agreement. If true disagreement, born from a common universe of discourse, seemed hard to achieve, it might also be that a rhetoric of agreement obscured deeper rifts.
Yet, here, I would correct Murray with another great American Catholic thinker of this century, the Divinity School’s own David Tracy. In Plurality and Ambiguity, Tracy argues for the importance of conversation—with texts, traditions, and also others—not limiting conversation to modes of disagreement. Good conversations, according to Tracy, allow the question to dictate the conversation’s direction.4 They are not mere arguments within monolithic traditions but take place in the rich diversity of public spheres, as well as within traditions (including all religions) that are already internally plural and ambiguous. Here, the praxis of conversation, particularly between religions, is not only possible, but necessary.5 As Tracy states, “Anyone who can converse can learn to appropriate another possibility.”6 Conversation can thrive, even in the absence of Murray’s consensus.
One striking feature of this public discussion was that it was a good conversation, in the most robust sense of the term.
What we learn from this event is the value of conversations just such as these. True disagreement may be hard to achieve. Yet, conversations can help bridge the many divides plaguing the various contexts we inhabit, including our country. Even where consensus is absent, dialogue enables reasoned argument. It can be a praxis of the recognition of the other, be they religious minority, the other side of the ecclesiastic divide, or the political minority, whether Douthat’s conservative who feels alienated on the modern university campus or the liberal academic living in America’s heartland. In conversation, we each can learn to imagine more robustly the positions of the other. Perhaps, as Cavanaugh suggested, we needn’t even wait for the establishment of ground rules for discussion. Instead, “we just talk and then we see what happens in the give and take of conversation.” While true disagreement may be nearly impossible on the public stage, conversation seems within reach. ♦
Ross Douthat joined the New York Times as an op-ed columnist, the youngest in the paper’s history, in April 2009. His column appears every Wednesday and Sunday. He has established himself as a nationally recognized commentator on politics, religion, moral values, and higher education. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. He is the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (2005), and co-author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (2008). With Bad Religion, Douthat cemented himself as a leading cultural critic. The book’s thesis is that while religiosity and self-professed spirituality are not on decline in America, “orthodox” Christian belief and practice are. Americans today are a “nation of heretics,” professing and practicing faiths inflected by modern elements that distort Christianity into warped expressions. Bad Religion is about “the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place,” Douthat writes.
William Schweiker is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics. His scholarship and teaching engage theological and ethical questions attentive to global dynamics, comparative religious ethics, the history of ethics, and hermeneutical philosophy. A frequent lecturer and visiting professor at universities around the world, he has been deeply involved in collaborative international scholarly projects. His many books include, Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms (2010). He has published numerous articles and award-winning essays, as well as edited and contributed to six volumes, including Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Ethics and was chief editor and contributor to A Companion to Religious Ethics, a comprehensive and innovative work in the field of comparative religious ethics. Professor Schweiker was the 2015–2016 President of the Society of Christian Ethics and the Director of The Enhancing Life Project (2014-2017), supported with a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation. His present research is on ethics and the integrity of life.
William Cavanaugh is a professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, a research center housed in the Department of Catholic Studies and focusing on the Catholic Church in the global South—Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His major areas of research have to do with the Church’s encounter with social, political, and economic realities. He has authored six books and edited three more and is currently working on a book on secularization and idolatry, exploring the ways in which a supposedly disenchanted Western society remains enchanted by nationalism, consumerism, and cults of celebrity.
Michael Le Chevallier is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity school. He received his M.Div. from the Divinity School in 2011 and was a Junior Fellow at the Marty Center in 2016/17. His research focuses on social ethics, foundational ethics, Catholic Social Thought, and environmental ethics. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled “The Stain of Association and the Burden of Membership: Guilt, Responsibility, and Institutional Ethics in Paul Ricoeur and the Catholic Social Teaching Tradition.” Michael coedited the forthcoming volume Jean Bethke Elshtain: Politics, Ethics, and Society.
- John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 32. ↩
- Ibid, 27. ↩
- Ibid, 31. ↩
- David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 18. ↩
- Ibid, 92. ↩
- Ibid, 93. ↩