Stanley Fish on Liberalism

Posted: March 13, 2010 by joelmartin in Philosophy, Politics
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Fish discusses the liberal Western order (not political liberalism) and observes:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.

How is it that he sees things so clearly and yet Christians are so blind?! He writes later:

That is what Marsden should want: not the inclusion of religious discourse in a debate no one is allowed to win, but the triumph of religious discourse and the silencing of its atheistic opponents. To invoke the criterion of intellectual validity and seek shelter under its umbrella is to surrender in advance to the enemy, to that liberal rationality whose inability even to recognize the claims of faith has been responsible for religion’s marginalization in the first place. Marsden wants to argue against that marginalization, but his suggestion for removing it is in fact a way of reinforcing it. He calls it “procedural rationality.” The procedure is to scrutinize religious viewpoints and distinguish between those that “honor some basic rules of evidence and argument” and those that “are presented so dogmatically and aggressively as not to be accommodated within the procedural rules of pluralistic academia.”
One could hardly imagine a better formula for subordinating the religious impulse to the demands of civil and secular order. Presumably it will not be religion that specifies what the rules of evidence and argument to be honored are; and it surely will not be religion that stigmatizes as dogma any assertion that does not conform to the requirements of those rules. Dogma, of course, is a word that once had a positive meaning: it meant the unqualified assertion of a priori truths and was indistinguishable from a truly strong religiosity. It is only under the liberal dispensation that dogma acquires the taint of obdurateness, of a culpable refusal to submit to the test of reasonableness as defined by the standards and norms of the civil establishment.

Fish sees the Van Tillian antithesis. The very notion that “religion” should “contribute” to a “public square” marginalizes the truth which is that all of reality is encompassed in the rule of the resurrected Messiah from Nazareth. I think such public square attempts are fine if they are recognized for what they are: tactics in the long war which will tide us over until the nation is baptized and under the reign of King Jesus.

That is what Marsden should want: not the inclusion of religious discourse in a debate no one is allowed to win, but the triumph of religious discourse and the silencing of its atheistic opponents. To invoke the criterion of intellectual validity and seek shelter under its umbrella is to surrender in advance to the enemy, to that liberal rationality whose inability even to recognize the claims of faith has been responsible for religion’s marginalization in the first place. Marsden wants to argue against that marginalization, but his suggestion for removing it is in fact a way of reinforcing it. He calls it “procedural rationality.” The procedure is to scrutinize religious viewpoints and distinguish between those that “honor some basic rules of evidence and argument” and those that “are presented so dogmatically and aggressively as not to be accommodated within the procedural rules of pluralistic academia.”One could hardly imagine a better formula for subordinating the religious impulse to the demands of civil and secular order. Presumably it will not be religion that specifies what the rules of evidence and argument to be honored are; and it surely will not be religion that stigmatizes as dogma any assertion that does not conform to the requirements of those rules. Dogma, of course, is a word that once had a positive meaning: it meant the unqualified assertion of a priori truths and was indistinguishable from a truly strong religiosity. It is only under the liberal dispensation that dogma acquires the taint of obdurateness, of a culpable refusal to submit to the test of reasonableness as defined by the standards and norms of the civil establishment.

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