After the Postsecular

A new collection of essays continues "the religious turn" in philosophy. Scott McLemee interviews the editors.

August 4, 2010

Call it a revival, of sorts. In recent years, anyone interested in contemporary European philosophy has noticed a tendency variously called the religious or theological "turn" (adapting a formulation previously used to describe the "linguistic turn" of the 1960s and '70s). Thinkers have revisited scriptural texts, for example, or traced the logic of seemingly secular concepts, such as political sovereignty, back to their moorings in theology. The list of figures involved would include Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Gianni Vattimo, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, and Jürgen Habermas -- to give a list no longer or more heterogenous than that.

A sampling of recent work done in the wake of this turn can be found in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, a collection just issued by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. One of the editors, Anthony Paul Smith, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nottingham and also a research fellow at the Institute for Nature and Culture at DePaul University. The other, Daniel Whistler, is a tutor at the University of Oxford, where he just submitted a dissertation on F.W.J. Schelling's theology of language. I interviewed them about their book by e-mail. A transcript of the discussion follows.

Q: Let’s start with one word in your title -- "postsecular." What do you mean by this? People used to spend an awful lot of energy trying to determine just when modernity ended and postmodernity began. Does “postsecularity” imply any periodization?

APS: In the book we talk about the postsecular event, an obvious nod to the philosophy of Alain Badiou. For a long time in Europe and through its colonial activities our frame of discourse, the way we understood the relationship of politics and religion, was determined by the notion that there is a split between public politics and private religion. This frame of reference broke down. We can locate that break, for the sake of simplicity, in the anti-colonial struggles of the latter half of the 20th century. The most famous example is, of course, the initial thrust of the Iranian Revolution.

It took some time before the implications of this were thought through, and it is difficult to pin down when “postsecularity” came to prominence in the academy, but in the 1990s a number of Christian theologians like John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas, along with non-Christian thinkers like Talal Asad, began to question the typical assumption of philosophy of religion: that religious traditions and religious discourses need to be mediated through a neutral secular discourse in order to make sense. Their critique was simple: the secular is not neutral. Philosophy is intrinsically biased towards the secular. If you follow people like Asad and Tomoko Masuzawa, this means it is biased toward a Christian conception of the secular, and this hinders it from appreciating the thought structures at work in particular religions.

One of the reasons the title of the book reads, “after the postsecular” is that we felt philosophy of religion had yet to take the postsecular event seriously enough; it was ignoring the intellectual importance of this political event and still clinging to old paradigms for philosophizing about religion, when they had in fact been put into question by the above critique. So, the question is: What does philosophy of religion do now, after the postsecular critique?

DJW: There are two other reasons we speak of this volume being situated after the postsecular. First, in our “Introduction” we distinguish between a genuine postsecular critique of the kind Anthony mentions and a problematic theological appropriation of this critique. The former results in a pluralization of discourses about religion, because the secular is no longer the overarching master-narrative, but one more particular tradition. The latter, however, has tried to replace the secular master-narrative with a Christian one, and so has perversely impeded this process of pluralization.

Yet it is precisely this theological move (exemplified by Radical Orthodoxy) which is more often than not associated with the postsecular. Thus, one of the aims of the volume is to move beyond (hence, “after”) this theological appropriation of the postsecular.

Second, we also conjecture in the Introduction that postsecularity has ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater – that is, everything from the secular tradition, even what is still valuable. So, in Part One of the volume, especially, the contributors return to the modern, secular tradition to test what is of value in it and what can be reappropriated for contemporary philosophy of religion. In this sense, "after the postsecular" means a mediated return to the secular.

Q: You mentioned Radical Orthodoxy, of which the leader is John Milbank. His rereading of the history of European philosophy and social theory tries to claim a central place for Christian theology as "queen of the sciences." As an agnostic, I tend to think of this as sort of the intellectual equivalent of the Society for Creative Anachronism. But clearly it's been an agenda-setting program in some sectors of theology and philosophy of religion. In counterposing your notion of the postsecular to Radical Orthodoxy, are you implying that the latter is exhausted? Or does that mean that Radical Orthodoxy is still a force to be reckoned with?

APS: On the one hand Radical Orthodoxy, as a particular movement or tendency, is probably exhausted in terms of the creativity and energy that attracted a lot of younger scholars who were working mostly in Christian theology but also in Continental philosophy of religion.

In a way, those of us in this field know what Radical Orthodoxy is now -- whereas before its anachronism seemed to be opening genuinely interesting lines of intellectual inquiry, perhaps encouraging interesting changes in the structure of institutional religious life. Now its major figures have aligned themselves with the thought of the current Pope in his attempt at “Re-Christianizing Europe,” with its nefarious narrative of a Christian Europe needing to be defended against Islam and secularism. They are also aligned with the policies of the present-day UK Tory Party via Phillip Blond and his trendy ResPublica think-tank.

So, on the other hand, while its creative power is probably on the wane, it is still something that must be reckoned with -- precisely because of this newfound institutional power, and because we know that its research program ends in old answers to new questions. We have to move beyond mere criticism, though, to offering a better positive understanding of religion, philosophy, and politics, and this volume begins to do that. This means going far beyond addressing Radical Orthodoxy as such, though, and to addressing the reactionary and obfuscatory form of thought that lies beneath Radical Orthodoxy and which persists in other thinkers who don’t identity with this particular movement.

DJW: Yes, it is something broader that troubles continental philosophy of religion now – not merely Radical Orthodoxy as such, but what we try to articulate in our Introduction as the more general tendency to theologize philosophy of religion. Many philosophers of religion – even when they see themselves as opponents of Radical Orthodoxy – ultimately treat their discipline as an extension of theology. It is quite normal to attend a keynote lecture at a Continental philosophy of religion conference and end up listening to a theology lecture! This is the reason that questions concerning the specificity of philosophy of religion (what sets it structurally apart from theology) dominate After the Postsecular and the Postmodern. Such questions are not meant solely as attacks on Radical Orthodoxy, but aim to interrogate the whole zeitgeist in which Radical Orthodoxy participates.

Q: I'm struck by how your book reflects a revival of interest in certain thinkers -- Schelling, Bergson, Rosenzweig. Or rather, perhaps, their transformation from the focus of more or less historical interest to inspiration for contemporary speculation. How much of this is a matter of following in the footsteps of Deleuze or Žižek?

DJW: Deleuze and Žižek are exemplary figures for many of the contributors to this volume. We philosophize in their shadow – and, you’re right, in particular it is their perverse readings of Bergson, Schelling etc which have taught us how to relate to the history of philosophy in new, heterodox ways.

“Experiment” is one of the key words in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: all of us who contributed wanted to see what new potential could be opened up within philosophy of religion by mutating its traditions and canons through the lens of contemporary speculation. Having said that, I think both terms of your distinction (“inspiration for contemporary speculation” and “historical interest”) are important at the present moment.

Ignorance of the history of philosophy of religion is the academic norm, and our wager is that through straightforward history of philosophy one can excavate resources that have been neglected, so as to begin to see the discipline afresh. It is a matter of revitalizing our sense of what philosophy of religion can do. Therefore, while mutating the history of philosophy is crucial, so too is understanding what that history is. So little has been written about Bergson or Rosenzweig’s contributions in this regard that a relatively straight-laced understanding of them is one of the volume’s most pressing tasks.

APS: In France at the time that Deleuze was studying and writing his first books, there was hegemony in the study of philosophy by the "three H's” (Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger). He followed a different path in his own work, writing important studies on Hume, Bergson, and Nietzsche (amongst others). With the rise in Deleuze’s popularity these choices in figures have taken on the character of a canon, but at the time it was considered quite heretical and bold.

While the historical canon for mainstream Anglophone philosophy of religion tends to focuses on Locke, Hume, and Kant, we hope our volume helps to establish an alternative canon that draws on more speculative thinkers from the modern tradition, like Spinoza, Schelling, and Bergson. We think that not only will this help us to address the persistent questions of philosophy of religion but will allow us to reframe those very questions.

Q: The names of a few contributors are familiar to me from reading An und für sich and other blogs. Would you say something about how the sort of "floating seminar space" of online conversation shapes the emergence of a project like this one?

APS: Many people have noted the democratic nature of blogging, which can disrupt the usual hierarchies in the academic world. While that can lead to intensely antagonistic encounters -- especially in the early days when we were all still navigating this new social space -- it can also lead to incredible intellectual friendships. I started blogging when I was 19 in the hopes of being part of an intellectual community that I didn’t have at university. This lack of a community was partly because I was a commuter student traveling four hours round trip per day, which didn’t leave a lot of time to participate face-to-face, and partly because my own interests in religion were not shared by most of the other students in my philosophy department.

The group blogs I have been a part of, first The Weblog and then An und für sich, attracted people in similar situations -- people who existed in a liminal space between philosophy, theory, theology, and religious studies and wanted to discuss these issues, but for whatever reason couldn’t do so in their immediate communities.

I think it is safe to say that without the blogging community the volume wouldn’t have existed. It was because of the blog that Daniel first contacted me about participating in the postgraduate conference in philosophy of religion that he had set up in Oxford and it was this conference that ultimately led to the volume. We have tried to transfer the democratic spirit of blogging to the volume, so while we do have contributions from established academics in the volume, we also have included a number of graduate students, intellectuals outside the academy, and those still searching for a tenured position (if there are any!).

Even though we don’t have a “big name” like Žižek or Vattimo in the volume, we have still been able to attract interest simply on the strength of the ideas in the book, which are talked about on AUFS and other blogs. The volume has even made its way onto a syllabus already! John Caputo, formerly professor of philosophy at Villanova and now professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse, has his students reading the Editors’ Introduction for his graduate course called "The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion," which we are really excited about.

Q: Sometimes the relationship of academic theological discourse to any creed or confession can be difficult to make out. With the philosophy of religion, obviously, such distance seems to be built right in. What are the stakes of your book – if any – for "people of faith," as the expression goes? That is, do you see this work as having consequences for what goes on at a church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever?

DJW: I tend to deploy a rather crude, form/content model on this issue: the material with which "people of faith," theologians, and philosophers of religion all deal is the same – "religion" in the broadest sense of the word. It is the operations of thought to which this material is subjected that differentiates them. What distinguishes philosophy of religion from theology or everyday religious practice is the specific kind of labor to which “religion” is here subjected. The question then becomes: Does "religion" after such transformations bear any resemblance to or (more importantly) have any relevance to the “religion” with which “people of faith” engage? And the answer is still very much open to dispute.

To take some examples: George Pattison (one of the contributors to the volume) is currently involved in a project on the phenomenology of religious life and it seems plausible that some form of this project could indeed be relevant to everyday religious practice – articulating its often implicit assumptions. On the other hand, I would be horrified if someone found a kernel of everyday relevance in my contribution on Schelling (in which I argue that names such as “Christ” or “Krishna” are literally the products of geological eruptions).

Personally (and here I am speaking very much for myself), I think there’s an element of smugness to the anti-“ivory tower” rhetoric that has emerged in the academy in the last century: the assertion that academics have something interesting or useful to say to the world imparts, in my mind, false value to what we say. In other words, I feel content to revel in the uselessness of my work.

APS: I love this answer! The militancy behind it stands against the pathetic “Theologian-Pope impulse” of so many theologians or the “Philosopher-King impulse” of so many philosophers that think the salvation for the world lies in our thought.

However, I want to nuance it somewhat, as I do think some of what lies behind what we do as academics, the reasons we take up this work, can participate in political struggles or help to deal with the very serious problems we face without our thought being directly “useful” in some crude practice of meeting targets or productivity goals. Spinoza wouldn’t have been much use as the ruler of the Netherlands, I’m sure, but when his ideas were taken up by others, and thereby mutated, they did have a real effect, and much of it positive.

The same goes for most of our great philosophers. But what Dan called the "uselessness" of our work in some sense mirrors the uselessness of religion in general. This character that religion has, identified by philosophers like Bataille, Nietzsche, and contemporaries like Goodchild, is in many ways offensive to the shape of contemporary life, where everything has its proper price, where we have to be thrifty and austere. Religion seems like a magnificent waste of time and money, unless of course it can be put to use convincing people to go to war to kill or be good little boys and girls and not harm their potential market value as workers with too much unclean living.

The same is true of this kind of academic work we do. It is useless within the parameters of contemporary society, but when contemporary society produces things like the poor and middle-class paying for massive bank bailouts and ecological disasters in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Nigeria, then maybe uselessly thinking about things outside those parameters isn’t such a bad way to spend ones life.

Q: As I've been reading your book, Republican leader Newt Gingrich and others have been arguing idea that the imposition of Sharia law in the United States is an urgent danger that must be fought. From one perspective, this looks like pure cynicism; the notion that it’s a real issue in American political life is laughable. But what do you make of it? How does it fit in any narrative of the postsecular condition, or any analysis of the strains and fault lines of secularity?

APS: Right, there is about as much danger of Sharia law being imposed as there is of French becoming the national language! This is an example of what we call in our introduction the “obscure postsecular” (again drawing on Badiou). Out one side of their mouth these politicians tell us that we must defend our modern, secular values from the medieval barbarism of radical Islam, and out of the other side they are condemning secularists for not understanding the “power of religion.”

The power of this obscure postsecular, why it gets taken seriously, is because it latches on to a kernel of truth. Frankly, many in the public sphere don’t understand the power of religion! Hell, when it comes to Islam, many of them don’t even understand the basics, let alone that within Islam there is a cacophony of different spiritual practices and, as in most religions, an internal conflict between a law-bound Islam and an Islam of liberty. This is argued for very clearly in a number of French scholars of Islam, like Henry Corbin and Christian Jambet, though it doesn’t appear to have been a lesson the ruling class have learned going by the recent idiotic, racist and completely unsecular headscarf ban in France.

So, this lack of knowledge is behind both Gingrich’s call to resist Sharia law and the ruling, which Gingrich referenced, from the New Jersey judge that a Muslim man could forcibly rape his wife because it was a religious custom; I know of a number of Islamic feminists who I’m sure would like to speak with Judge Edith Payne! With both Gingrich and Payne we have an obscuring of the postsecular: they both recognize that something has changed, but they call on some transcendent identity of Islam or America that obscures any real confrontation with that change. Notice that neither one of them recognizes that there are elements within Islam -- mainstream Islam! -- that reject honor killings, abuse of women, the murder of civilians, and the like.

The situation becomes even more obscure in the UK, where I currently live. While in the U.S. all our money declares “In God We Trust”; in the UK all money bears the image of the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. Surely this, a divine right monarchy, is an example of the relic of medievalism that Gingrich mentions! Yet, on the other side of the bill, depending on the denomination, you will find Charles Darwin or Adam Smith. The very figures who ushered in the forms of thought that our old narratives tell us swept away medieval superstition.

Now, to my mind this means that all our conventional narratives of secularization are inherently flawed. The classic liberal narrative of a neutral secular has been undone by the postsecular event. The liberal secular was a weapon used in the expansion of European imperialism, which tried to deny those in the colonial world resources from their varied religious traditions.

At the same time the anti-liberal narrative that secularity is to be rejected because of this complicity is also false. It has a similar political function, by creating and exacerbating divisions within a particular class but along imaginary or unimportant differences, playing into a myopic Clash of Civilizations theory that actually engenders the reality of that clash. The volume offers resources towards constructing a very different theory of the secular, of a postsecular secular, what we call a “generic secular” that goes some way towards superseding these flawed, conventional narratives.

Practically that means both a straightforward understanding of particular religions as they present themselves in their complexity, suppressing as much as possible the imperialist tendencies of the liberal secular, and deploying the same kind of bold internal, immanent critique of these particular religions that we find in the modern thinkers covered in the volume. The answer to these political problems may partially be found by experimenting with ideas from Islam and Christianity from the position of the generic secular.


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