John Milbank and Catharine Pickstock on CBC :: “Ideas” interview

If you are looking for an intriguing way to put an hour of your audial energies to good service, may I suggest a podcast from the CBC program “Ideas”–an interview with Catharine Pickstock and John Milbank. It serves as an excellent introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (and brings some of its more abrasive aspects to the surface). The interview is a few years old, but I didn’t find it till last week, perhaps you haven’t found it either.

It is available here. 

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
 — WHAT IS ORDINARY LIFE? TAYLOR, CATHOLICISM AND MODERNITY

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?

varieties of secularism :: session two

Here are my notes (lightly edited) from the second session of the conference this weekend (why am I posting my notes?). Papers were given by Jon Butler and Colin Jager. A response was offered by Craig Calhoun. John Milbank asked a particularly provocative question. 

** Jon Butler – GSAS Yale – PEOPLE, HISTORIANS, AND THE PHILOSOPHY PROBLEM

Historical vs. Philosophical. [A methodological quibble?] Butler is going to argue that history is primary to Taylor’s argument, even the philosophical parts.

The Philosophy problem:
The world is moved by ideas. Taylor seems to argue that ideas, and almost ideas alone seem to drive history. Taylor does a better job of doing history than merely doing intellectual history.

Historians (Butler included) will find the argument “too philosophical.”

Around 1500 the rupture occurred that will set “modernity” against everything that came before.

Belief and unbelief are “neat” philosophical terms that don’t always jive well with what happens on the ground in history.

Religion and History:

The distinguishing features of secularity is not unbelief but choice.

Taylor washes over too much differences in belief and unbelief. Who was calling who an “unbeliever?” And who was believing in which God, for what reasons, and to what end? Who is the “God” that is being believed in or disbelieved. Where did accusations of heresy come from?

Is the inconstancy of belief before 1500 as rare as Taylor seems to argue. In what way is the nature of the world’s medieval “enchantment” a slippery term? Does Taylor presume a total Christianization of Europe that history cannot bear?

Taylor’s argument against subtractive theories of secularization is valuable, but is perhaps correct only because subtraction implies a substance to begin with. Butler is not sure just how Christian the West ever was.

Butler thinks that Taylor over stresses the late modern, post-industrial age, and overstresses the role of ideas in moving Western society toward secularism. He understresses the role of environmental factors, social factors, economic factors. These economic changes had more to do with secularization than the ideas did. Taylor seems to argue for secularization without industrialization, bureaucratization, urbanization, etc.

The persistence of religious faith in America is a very significant event. What is new in our time is simple indifference toward religion.

** Colin Jager – English @ Rutgers – CHARLES TAYLOR’S ROMANTICISM

What would a non-transcendent enchantment of the world look like? What would it mean to experience the world that way? Secular spirituality.

Taylor’s method of telling the story of history is phenomenological. Taylor is really interested in a first-person perspective and moves periodically from first to third. Taylor’s method is Herderian, he is always trying to “feel his way in” to other ways of experiencing the world.

What is the place of literature in the argument about secularization. What is the changing role of literature? What happens when people are encouraged to read scriptures as “literature.”

Romanticism:
A period in which “literature” replaces religion. (but telling the story this way, while partly helpful assumes “literature” as an already-formed object waiting for “religion” to get out of the way).

Taylor’s contribution is not to be found in the plot, but in the details. A Secular Age is a book which cannot be summarized, but must be read. It must be lived through. In that sense, his book is “literary.”

Relationship between Literature and the Secular: Reading the Bible as Literature

Herder:

  • Primary Romantic figure. “Feel yourself into everything.”
  • Primary proponent of reading the bible as literature. Reading the bible as a literary text is a crucial aspect of the new understanding of literature in the late eighteenth century. Reading the OT as inspired poetry—by reading through a “feeling” hermeneutic, one can be united with the spirit in which it was written.
  • Hebrew poetry: Herder notes the centrality of Verbs
  • Lack of vowels: writing the inessential; omitting the essential (the breath, the spirit).

Spiritualization of literature and the expressivist turn.

Wasserman—the loss of a public poetry. The lack of a “background” that we all share out of which deeper metaphor and meaning can be drawn. On this count, the Romantic poets have to invent a new language in order to describe reality. In this “restructuring” a space is opened up that feels “neutral” or “free” in a way that foments disenchantment, even secularization. Seeing the world in one way and not another becomes a choice, something that one selects. The posture of selection is one of standing back at a distance, in open/neutral space. Romantic poetry starts, from a certain perspective, starts to look like trying to live without ontological commitments, something that starts looking more sinister more dubious to Taylor.

There is a tension between Taylor’s humanism and a genealogical imperative (to discover the roots, history, and context of all).

Nietzsche’s anti-humanism that feels the imperative for genealogy would be a very helpful point for Taylor to hang on to, while the Romantic humanism might actually undercut his position.

Literalism and Literature:

Wordsworth vs. Boyle: counter-accusations of idolatry.

Wordsworth wants to pen a “philosophic song” – tell the story of the world wrought with meaning. Describe the world in such a way as to bring life and depth to what seems, superficially, dead.

Boyle thinks that attributing anthropocentric qualities to inanimate objects (i.e. meaning!) is the source of idolatry.

Jager argues that Taylor is trying to fill the world with meaning—to write a philosophic song.

** Craig Calhoun – President SSRC

Taylor’s book performs what it speaks about. By placing opposing views in juxtaposition he often undermines their claim to objectivity; he subjects them to “secularizing” forces (in the sense of a surfeit of options).

Taylor’s way of doing philosophy depends on a narrative. This is neither a history of philosophy, nor a history (as such).

Critique: Along with Butler, Calhoun thinks that Taylor is too much reliant on a top-down model and places too great a weight on ideas as the prime movers of history. Butler’s main point is that “variety” cannot do the work that Taylor’s ascribes to it because there has been variety of belief-patterns all along (therefore variety itself is not inherently secularizing).

Taylor’s historical narrative hinges on providential Deism and the notion of an impersonal order. By impersonal, we might understand purposeless.

Reform movements encourage a sharpening of positions and a policing of boundaries, as well as an emphasis on the internal integrity and coherence of a movement.

Putting our story within a narrative.

** John Milbank:

Why did Christianity largely back mechanism against vitalism? Something like Boyle’s argument—that “meanings” had accreted to inanimate objects that was something like idolatry. In this Christianity is attempting to purge itself of its own ineluctable pagan parts (and feeding secularization in the process).