As I work my way through Hans Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age this week, I’ve been thinking about Vincent Pecora’s recent post on the “unfinished project” of secularization. Not only because they both seem to share a certain prescriptive vision—a secularism that is at once a “regulative principle” while simultaneously open to the contingency of the future, an “unending process” divested of any definitive end—but also because, in both cases, the struggle is to re-think our models of historical self-consciousness. What’s at stake is our sense of where we’re going, even if we can never be sure that we’ve arrived.
It’s hard to say how Blumenberg would have responded to recent data troubling the secularization thesis other than to see in such revisionist accounts further confirmation of precisely this contingency in the future of the secular. While his thesis works to shift the emphasis to the formal structures of the sacred-secular binary rather than the “substantive” features of a residual religion, at times he takes secularization to have substantively occurred only insofar as, to take one recurring example, church lands were confiscated by governmental authorities. Secularization, in the few cases in which it is finished, applies only to the expropriation of that which was once tangibly religious (the decidedly non-conceptual—lands, institutions, etc.). This is, I think, a modest claim on his part, and consequently much of Legitimacy reads as a list of offenders castigated for their overeager insistence that “X is the secularization of Y.” One thinks here of Carl Schmitt, whom Blumenberg singles out as particularly imprecise in his deployment of this meme: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.
Still, I can’t resist pointing out the irony implied by a confrontation between the Blumenbergian and the priests of secularization theory in light of our post-secular moment. For isn’t the problem of the classical secularization thesis—its failure to deliver, both empirically in frustrated sociological models, and ideologically in the killing fields of various nationalisms—that of an eschatology deferred?
As Blumenberg might say, the crisis of secularization in our time is a revision brought on by a deliverance that failed to materialize, a failure that elicits the corresponding need to rationalize its postponement. He calls this dynamic “secularization by eschatology” and opposes it to the “secularization of eschatology” model by which historical progress is understood as the transmutation of theological concepts into historical ones (so, for instance, Hegel’s hypostatization of Spirit as a secularization of the immanent Spirit of Christ).
We can see the traces of this secularization by eschatology in the scurrying to re-imagine where secularization goes from here. The grandiose model is broken—why? And how do we fix it? Secularism is dead, long live the secular! But if this is correct, and what is occurring in this re-imagining is in fact a secularization (by eschatology) of secularization itself, shouldn’t we pressure Blumenberg a bit more on his allergy to the “X is the secularization of Y” meme? At the risk of sounding irreverent, we might call this moment of aufhebung: “secularization by eschatology of a secularization of eschatology.” After all, from our current vantage point, one suspects that secular modernization carries (carried?) much more theological baggage than Blumenberg was willing to acknowledge.