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Thursday, February 09, 2012

The parallax view

There's a post at dotCommonweal about the parallax view - no, not the movie :) but a change in the spatial orientation of an object when viewed from two different vantage points. It's a thoughtful post that resources Kant and the way we in America view religion. Here's a little of it ...

The Parallax of American Religion

[...] Well, since “religion,” for better or worse, is not really a theological concept in American life, but a sociologically contested one, it won’t do to let believers simply self-identify as religious or not. Since “religion” is essentially contested, different perspectives will have to be brought to bear on the question of what counts as “religion.” The benefit of this is that it allows us to perceive the depth of a world that includes such irreducibly perspectival concepts. Those who consider themselves “on the inside” of the concept might be reminded of the fragility of their faith and the fact that it is a dynamic relationship that is constantly moving as they make shifts in their own lives rather than a static possession with a perceptually fixed location. One day they might be comfortably sure of their theological line of sight, and the next they might be confused as to what side they are on. Those on the outside might be also compelled to consider the changes in contrast, the present and persistent absences, in their experience of the world that gives shape to the things they know by shading in the spaces where acquisitive thought fails. One day they might feel confident that they can see everything, and the next day they might be made aware of a potential blind spot.

In this way, we might come to see that “religion” is necessarily a moving target precisely because we are in motion. So, we should not be surprised when the very concept itself is interrogated, as it is in the current debates over the supposed claims to religious freedom versus the right to healthcare. Yet, many commentators have been reluctant to take on the question of “religion” directly. It is precisely because training one’s sights on the concept of “religion” results in a kind of oscillating parallax, that we would rather focus on issues that can be reduced to more stable questions, e.g. Is contraception medically necessary? Should religious groups be forced to pay for it? These are closer questions that don’t move around as much when perspectives change. But it’s too easy to ask, as Amy Sullivan does, “whether the federal government should be able to require a religious institution to use its own funds to pay for something it finds morally objectionable.” The parallaxical question that Obama has raised (or maybe stumbled into) is: What is a “religious institution”? And this includes the question: What is “religion”?

The Administration, for better or worse, seems to have dragged us into the dark and terrifying waters that lay beyond the shores of what we might consider “politics as usual,” which Kant would have thought of as the bounds of common sense rationality alone ...

I don't really understand Kant - he's just too hard for me -- but I grasp his questioning of what we hold to be true and I identify with his belief that the will of God and one's conscience will always be on the same page. Keith Ward has a great lecture on him ..... you can watch it here at


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