varieties of secularism :: session four

Series Index

The fourth session of the conference was by far my favorite, both José Casanova and John Milbank’s papers were excellent, thought-provoking, and close to my own area of interest in Taylor’s work. As an added bonus, Milbank included the line, “Humanism without a party no longer obtains.” Enjoy. [Why am I posting my notes?]

**José Casanova – Georgetown University – A SECULAR AGE: DAWN OR TWILIGHT?

We live “esti deus non daretur.” Self-sufficient and self-contained attempts toward fulfillment.

Modern unbelief requires the perfect tense. “We have overcome belief.” Implicit in unbelief is the narrative of “having been” a part of a believing culture that now sees other options.

All analytical and phenomenological accounts of modernity are always grand narratives. They are genealogy and they tell us who we are by giving us something of a lineage by which we can trace out our own figure against the background of those who came before us.

4 genealogical accounts of modernity:

1. Emancipation. The narrative of “progress.” Taylor does not dispute the positive claims of this account, but critiques the extent to which it thinks that it has “moved beyond” and not grown out of Christianity and faith. He also distances himself from any assertion of progress being a series of necessary changes (from “progress” as eschatology).

2. Intellectual deviation. Modernity is a problem and a significant going-astray. At some point things went off the rails and now we are stuck with the cultural morass that is modernity

3. Modernity equals Protestantism.

4. Modernity is the bastard child of Christianity. The seed conditions of secularity are present in Christianity and it thus grows out of the faith (before it turns to attack it).

[Interesting to try to place Taylor’s account in this scheme. Casanova may have made a suggestion, but it was subtle enough that I didn’t catch it. I would argue that Taylor’s retellings of modernity in Sources of the Self and A Secular Age combine elements of both the second and the fourth type.]

Two Questions to raise:

1. How are we to understand the explicit aims of Taylor’s “summa,” but also its unintended consequences? Will he be remembered as the prophet of exclusive humanism?

2. How is one to account for the radical secularity of European society, and the persistence of religious belief in a widespread way in the United States? Both sides of the Atlantic live within the immanent frame, and we are all humanists. So what accounts for the difference?

a. Perhaps the religious persistence in the states can be explained by the fact that there was no church establishment to “overcome.”

b. For this reason, American politics and American civic consciousness has rarely, if ever, had the anti-Christian edge that it has carried in Europe.

c. The “age of authenticity” came early to America because of the predominance of dissident believers and marginalized pietists. Thus the “imperative to authenticity” did not drive Americans away from belief in the way that it drove Europeans away.

How does globalization affect a secular age?

Can the immanent frame and secularity take root in places with alternate cultural backgrounds? Or will it be recognized only as a Western force growing out of Christianity (and thus as some odd extension of colonialism).

Dichotomies and mediation. Repeated attempts to eliminate the gap between the immanent and transcendent. Attempts to overcome the secular space, turning the secular religious.

Two patterns of secularism, two different patterns of modernity. Will we discover other modernities and other secularities “under” or “out of” other religions? Casanova aims at something like a “global denominationalism” where we recognize the “otherness” of various other bodies and the parochiality of our own perspective.

Race and religion are the two ways of organizing identity in America—from the first boats in the beginning to the present. Notice the difference between Senegalese immigrant communities in Paris and in the Bronx. The latter maintain their religious identity while those in Paris are often stripped.

**John Milbank – University of Nottingham

A Secular Age could only have been written by a North American. Any European would not have been able to balance the German, British, and French strands of thinking and would have come off as a partisan.

When a new book comes out, often the big idea is so big that no one is able to recognize it for some time. Taylor’s book is anti-sociological in a radical way, and no one has yet recognized it. Anyone who cannot see Ivan Illich as the hero of the book hasn’t understood it.

Impersonal order. This book, astoundingly, says that we only live in an impersonal order because Christianity has betrayed itself. Chrisitianity is supposed to be incarnational, and yet has produced the most excarnational culture in history.

Why is this book anti-sociological:

Sociological accounts talk about “putting religion in its place.” Taylor respects sociology, but refuses its marginalization of religion as an inhabited (and inhabitable) perspective. Non-sociologically, Taylor claims that secularization is an entirely contingent event, one that can only be explained by a historical narrative that points toward its happening-to-us. The heroes of the book are historians and not social theorists (because the of the extent to which the latter press a prefabricated and ossified notion of “society” upon us).

Religious people are both wildly Dionysiac (in touch with crazy transcendent realities) and Puritanical (extremely well-behaved). Sex and violence both lie close to religion because both deal with wild energy. There is a reflection on ethics running throughout Taylor’s book and he is right to pay attention to both sex and violence.

What happens when we lose the “pre-ethical” religious framework behind ethics? A founding of a “tame” in the “wild.” The tameness of ethics is best grounded in the wilds of religion. Yet we’ve lost the wild energy (religion) that holds the tame (ethics) together, and so our wildness takes on a religious air—it’s where we look for meaning.

Ivan Illich—attempts to institutionalize and “tame” love. We’re trying to do without the mystical roots that make sense of and hold together our ethics. All we’ve got left is codes of civility, order-producing, bland, value-less bureaucracy. Many of us then blame this on a (rule-making) God, when in fact; it is the distance from religion that makes secularity so insipid.

Right at the end of the book, Taylor connects “reform meta-narratives” with “intellectual deviation” story of modernity. Med. Fransciscan theologians became suspicious of Greek elements, separated reason and faith, and flattened the world.

It is a certain type of piety that wants to “disenchant” the world. The animation of the world is idolatry. Anti-celebratory anti-festive sorts of religion (Calvinism, certain sorts of Evangelicalism, Wahabism, etc) are actually furthering the progress of secularity and disenchantment.

The instability of liberalism. The thinness and inadequacy of liberalism. Liberalism does not stop torture—we can see that now. Have we moved beyond the age where the driving narrative of secular humanism functions?

A link between the ethical and the festive is necessary. Humanism without a party no longer obtains. It has no way of believing in human beings, trees, or ordinary things. Religious believers are once again holding the “common-sense” vision against the “rational economic male” or the buffered self. The stance of suspended neutrality is fading away.

My question for Milbank (connecting back to his question at the end of session two):
Does the attempt to detach ethics from ontology, end up speaking of a different kind of love. A love that knows only total self-emptying (a total loss of self, rather than utter obedience)? Does making love bureaucratic and “taming it” also lead to a loss of hope? Is the best model of Christian love really utter self-emptying, or is that an appropriation of modern thinking? Would it be better to speak about committed obedience?

3 Replies to “varieties of secularism :: session four”

  1. Sounds like a great session Eric. I appreciate your including your notes here. This is all very stimulating stuff.

    Was there much sense during the conference of a prescriptive “where to from here”? or was it more of an analysis of the current situation?

    On Friday Lea and I will be speaking at the meeting of a local church’s family ministry about “Family as Congregation, Congregation as Family”. Both areas have been considerably redefined in modern Europe and arguably are eroding. If they were simply non-essential sociological forms that we were evolving beyond that would be one thing. But it is also clear that Estonian society is getting further out on the weak limb Milbank seems to be talking about.

    Looking toward a recovery not just of the church but also of society, I like the connection Milbank makes between tameness and wildness: “The tameness of ethics is best grounded in the wilds of religion” (your paraphrase or his?). The church needs to recover its wildness and to reintegrate this into its way of being in an increasingly roboticaly secular world. What is interesting about the particular secular society we are in (Estonia) is that in divorcing itself from all metanarratives and forms of belief (including sword point Christianity, foreign dominance, forced Communism, and modern religion) it is loosing both its tameness as well as its passion. We see lots of passion-like activity but it is without heart, without connection, without source … interestingly, a lot like Augustine in his “liberal arts” stage. People appear to be released to freely choose from an endless buffet table catered by Secularism (the liberal hope of goodness in an unconstrained world) but nothing they ingest is in the least way filling. What we need is a dangerous communion table: eating together to our fill in communion with the Wild One of Israel.

    Just some rambling thoughts … provoked by you! Thanks for passing all this stuff on. I’ve got some books to add to my reading list.

  2. Hey Eric…I can relate to this one. What got my attention was first the idea that “religious people are both Dionysiac and Puritanical” and that “sex and violence both lie close to religion because both deal with wild energy”. Taming the “wild” viewed as a form of ethics seems to be how many see the church. And I agree “we’re trying to do without the mystical roots that make sense of and hold together our ethics” or I’d prefer to say our “being”.

    The gentle nudge of the Spirit at times takes on wildness or as the contemplative theologians would say ecstasy. This joy is harnessed in expressions of love. The role of the institutional church today offers programmatic and prescriptive framework for discovery that seems to carry people only so far until they must explore beyond cloistered secularized boundaries into the realm of “The Wild”.

    How does this happen? It can’t be forced. It’s not out of some kind of dogmatic obedience. It’s not dependent on our intellect. “The Wild” comes intuitively knowing well the time.

    Thank you Eric…I had some fun with this one. Let me know when my daughter is done poking around gastrointestinal tracts. Sometimes her curiosity gets the best of her.

    Love U

  3. I am glad that both of you (Matt and Willy) find the tame/wild line of thinking to be stimulating. I’ve been letting it rattle around my head ever since Milbank gave the paper a week ago.

    Was there much sense during the conference of a prescriptive “where to from here”? or was it more of an analysis of the current situation?

    There were certainly a number of prescriptive suggestions given at the conference, and many of them were divergent. A lot depends on the interpretive shape that one gives to the narrative of secularization (Casanova’s four genealogical accounts are quite helpful here).

    Some of the contributors are on the prowl for some sort of “secular spirituality.” These folks (in all their different stripes) seem to recognize the flatness and inadequacy of reductive notions of human-ness, but still regard secularization as a large step forward. Personally, this looks like a bit of a dead end to me, or at least efforts toward a second-rate imitation of what the church (at its best) has been doing for a long time.

    Milbank, on the other hand, advisedly placed himself in the “intellectual deviation” account of secularization, and is doing his best to show the deficiencies and inadequacies of an ethic that is “unhooked” from its ontological foundation. I’m inclined toward this genre of narrative as well. From this perspective, the “where to?” question garners an answer pointing back toward many of the resources from which we’ve been busily “liberating” ourselves. At its best, the church’s perspective on the world (if I can posit such a preposterous singular) is one that explains further, better, and with less self-mutilation than the secular accounts.

    So far as demonstrating the strength of this position to “enlightened” Europeans (and Americans) goes, I’m not entirely sure how to proceed, but I have a few thoughts. I imagine the best witness to take the form of devoting ourselves to small and coherent communities whose common life stands open to the surrounding people. Traditions “make sense” once they are embodied. There is no short-cut to that end—lots of very difficult pastoral work, and a redoubled commitment to one another.

    Perhaps it will get easier as the church occupies less and less the awkward middle ground of being quasi-established in the culture (a situation less prevalent in Europe, I’m sure).

    Taylor’s “way forward” would be something like an increased dialogue—more of the conversations by which we get to know and value one another across the great differences in our diverse understandings of the world. He laments secularization insofar as it has made it difficult for any of us to really stand in a tradition and know (strongly) who we are; he lauds secularization insofar as it has opened up space for us to talk across our differences. I’m sympathetic to both impulses, but I think that the more urgent task in our days is to restore the depth and strength of the Christian tradition against those who would flatten and erode it, both from the fundamentalist side and from the secular side.

    Thanks for both of your thoughts! I’m going to keep chewing on this, and hopefully offer a few thoughts after I’ve finished posting the notes.

    God’s peace,

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