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 three

Series Index

The third session of this weekend’s conference featured papers by Rajeev BahrJava and Simon During; Michael Warner offered a response. (why am I posting my notes?).

**Rajeev Bahrjava – Center for the Study of Developing Societies – RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR IDENTITIES IN A SECULAR AGE

Taylor is committed to a multiplicity of identity in two ways:

Either multiple identities (Xn, Hindu, brick-layer)
Or multiple forms of identity (the way an identity is held—categorically, etc.)

Thesis: Taylor talks about multiple identities in both of these senses; he we would favor not a categorical identity, nor a non-categorical identity, but rather an identity with a “categorical flavor.”

For Taylor, identity is linked to strong distinctions, evaluative decisions and an orientation to “the good” held within a certain framework. “Who I am” is linked to my conception of what a “higher” or “lower” form of life would be.

Can there be ways of inhabiting a secular identity (a variety of secularism) which has more in common with a way of inhabiting religious identity than with certain other ways of inhabiting secular identities (i.e. rabidly and reductively).

There are various ways of relating to the good (of operating with strong evaluations):

  • All goods are subordinated (or even abandoned) for the sake of a hyper-good. He calls this a “categorical” identity.
  • One holds various goods and negotiates between them as to what the best ordering of those goods might be. A negotiated identity.
  • A third way of holding one’s identity holds to a governing hyper-good, but still attempting to negotiate with other goods. The hyper-good accompanies and orders them. This is the identity with “categorical flavor.” Identity is oriented around a single good, but other goods are not negated or denied.

Secularization is not the story of the inexorable march of atheism. Secularity three is not “the age of unbelievers” nor the age of “the domination of the unbelievers over society.” Rather, secularization issues forth in an age where every person experiences an expanding multiplicity of possible identities for themselves. Subsequently the possibility of inhabiting anyone of those identities (and the simultaneous plausibility of all of them) causes angst for people who carry (or half-carry) any identity.

A South Asian example of identity with “categorical flavor”:

19th c. Punjabis worshiped Hindu idols in the morning, and recited Sikh scriptures in the evening. These people are stirred by two religions at once, by two religious identities. In Punjabi culture there are several simultaneous allegiances. These people are living within two frameworks

Their religious identities are dynamic. People are moving between faiths. They are hybrid or amalgamated.

Choice does not mean leaving one faith and joining another. Choice is between one faith and many. Change is not a replacement of one faith with another, but of moving along in a journey and finding new guiding lights.

By the end of the 19th c. this multiplicity of identity in India was dying out and more and more people were drawn into categorical identities.

Secularization can be understood as the production and re-production of categorical identities which are mutually opposed. Taylor invokes a new religious hunger, a search. Might we come to a period of increasing and inspired belief which holds identity in a more fluid and less-categorical fashion?

**Simon During – English @ Johns Hopkins – COMPLETING SECULARISM: MUNDANE LIFE UNDER NEO-LIBERALISM

[During’s lecture was admittedly difficult to follow; it was delivered very quickly and heavy-laden with technical terms]

Short summary: The process of secularization has issued forth in a world where all hope has been lost in the flattening of existence under “end-game democratic capitalism.” Because there are no coherent alternative political visions, the world is without hope. During invoked the “mundane” as a way of seeing the world that stands outside both the religious and the secular. At times the world breaks in on our experience (something like grace/agapé, totally undeserved) and seems to carry great weight, even as it resists any “meaning” imposed upon it. In Taylor’s terms, this seems to be simply a strong re-affirmation of ordinary life against both instrumentalizing tendencies and attempts to posit transcendent meaning to objects and events.

The infusion of literary criticism with philosophy,

Taylor is one of the only scholars writing conjectural history today. (!?)

Taylor’s argument is Burkean in structure, but not in content. Taylor is close to Romantic conservatives like Burke and Novalis.

**Michael Warner: English @ Yale

@ Rajeev Bahrjava:

If the problem is the polarity between religious and non-religious identities, then the solution is identities held in fluid, hybrid, loose, etc. ways.

But perhaps we ought to ask why “identity” is the best lens to ask religious questions anyway? Are we looking for coherence and singularity (something to “be”) where it is not proper to do so? There is a continuity of practice across things that seem like they should be different “identity.” This is a basic notion within queer theory. Identity is a strikingly inadequate category to talk about being human. Even salvation is not really about identity in many frameworks, neither is piety.

 

reasonable religion :: Charles Taylor on history and faith

In a chapter of Sources of the Self devoted to articulating the Deist’s vision of human identity and moral sources, Charles Taylor offers the following on the relation between faith, reason, and history. To read the passage in context it is necessary to understand that Taylor doesn’t advocate the position he articulates in the second half of the paragraph.

“So the paramountcy of order [in creation, from the Deist’s perspective] excludes miraculous interventions. But it also marginalizes history. The ‘historical’ nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam—that is, the fact that allegiance and piety are focused on key historical events: Sinai, the Incarnation, the giving of the Quran—is intrinsically connected with their recognition of the extra dimension. These events are the eruptions of God’s affirming power in human life, and its continued force in our lives requires that we maintain unbroken continuity with these moments through tradition. Once the notion of order becomes paramount, it makes no more sense to give them a crucial status in religious life. It becomes an embarrassment to religion that it should be bound to belief in particular events which divide one group from another and are in any case open to cavil. The great truths of religion are all universal. Reason extracts these from the general course of things. A gap separates these realities of universal import from the particulate facts of history. These latter cannot support the former. ‘Contingent historical truths can never serve as proof for necessary truths of reason,’ as Lessing put it.” [1]

The very concept of “religion,” in its contemporary construal, contributes to the embarrassment about historicity. Religion is taken to be a general category, of which Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are all concrete examples. Similarities between these faiths justify classifying them together under one general concept. They all share things like: belief in what remains invisible, an account of the meaning of human existence, and concern for symbols, rites, and liturgies. Accustomed to ordering and classifying other particulars, sloths (both two-toed, and three-toed) or salamanders for instance, human reason turns its attention toward religious behaviors and beliefs, extracts their similarities and sets forth a category, “religion,” that holds them all.

Thinking about “religion” in this general way influences the way in which common sense approaches religious questions. The temptation offered by the concept of “religion” per se, lies in the attempt to skim all the “good bits” off the top of world’s religions by collecting what they hold in common without having to get one’s boots mucky by stepping into the historical events and subsequent authoritative traditions. The value of the general category, in other words, is that it allows us to understand and conceptually manipulate all the particulars—it allows for the broad view.

This perspective doesn’t merely hold sway with those who stand outside all the religions and looks down upon them. It is part and parcel of the way that believers themselves see their own faith, and shapes their thought and practice. We tend to emphasize that which we know will gain acceptance from listeners, and so we apologetically couch our particular faith as a particularly well-adjusted historically grounded expression of the universal truths that “religion” is supposed to possess. “Look at how impartially benevolent Christianity makes us,” we say. The difference between our perception of a “moderate” believer and a fundamentalist often lies in whether he expresses his beliefs in language subordinated to “universal truths” or whether he insists on grounding everything in historical revelation. Hence the embarrassment.

The trouble is that the general concept is dependent upon the particulars. There really is no such thing as “religion.” No general definition properly encompases the exemplars. If you want to point to what religion actually is, you need to point to a specific group of people with a particular set of beliefs and practices. This is no different than noting that there really is no such thing as “human suffering.” We all know what human suffering is (firsthand), but human suffering cannot be experienced generally; it happens in this arm broken by police brutality, this child’s hunger, this mother’s grief. The general concept is useful, but only as a summation. Similarly the “universal truths” that are skimmed off the top of “religion” are really dependent on their original context, the practices and beliefs that give those truths depth and meaning. Stripped of that context, what seems to reason like “universal truth” one day looks more flexible the next. Both Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre speak of modernity as inculcating patterns of thought that strip human beings out of the context of a larger story (an account of the origin and goal of being-human) in which to make sense of their actions. Instead we are left with “universal truths” and naked experience to interpret as best we can by our own lights. The context makes all the difference.

One problem with Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between the necessary truths of reason and contingent events of history is that it is terribly hard to find necessary truths expressed anywhere but by contingent and historical people. Reason itself is a historical event. And one does not escape “tradition” by allying oneself to the broadest and least committed perspective possible—it is only within the particular tradition of Enlightenment thought that this disengaged and instrumental stance toward reality is taken as authoritative. It is from this perspective that talk of interaction between God and human beings appears “embarrassingly” historical (and by implication, irrational).

All this to say that there is no way out of history and into the universal—at least not without making some very “religious” sounding claims about the capabilities of human reason. Likewise, any notion of the steady progress of humankind under the tutelage of Reason (now unshackled from superstition) is telling a story about the origin, goal, and meaning of human life, and as such is making religious claims. Finally, secular ethics is, at its best parasitic on the values inculcated by religious traditions. At its worst, it is unaccountable to religious traditions altogether and falls prey to the temptation to objectify and instumentalize human beings and the rest of creation for the sake of whatever appears “rational” at the time. The “universal truths” of secular ethics are a harvest planted by someone else.

These things have been pointed out elsewhere (and more articulately), but I find this pattern of thinking so deeply ingrained within my own mind (repent, repent!) and in the culture around me that another attempt to point them out cannot hurt. So I say, hold strong to the historical tradition of Christian faith, don’t bother too much with the embarrassment over historicity, and don’t be bullied out of faith by a rationality whose ethics feeds on faith anyway.
___________________________
[1] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 273.

varieties of secularism in a secular age :: april 4-5

Charles Taylor

The Social Science Research Council has announced a conference that it is co-sponsoring at Yale University surrounding Charles Taylor’s recent (Templeton Prize winning) book A Secular Age. The book has attracted significant attention from a wide range of critics (some deeper, some more superficial).

 Carolyn and I are going to gear up for a short road trip to Connecticut and attend the conference, which is free and open to the public. Besides the keynote address by Taylor himself, I am particularly looking forward to John Milbank’s paper entitled, “What is Ordinary Life? Taylor, Catholicism and Modernity.” I hope to post my notes and reactions to a few of the sessions here. Anyone else in the area ought to consider attending (and should also let me know so that we can go ruminate on the lectures over a pint or two).

The papers presented will be published by Harvard University Press and carry the title of the conference.