First, many thanks to Vincent Pecora for responding (in “Waiting for Godot, who is either late or not coming at all“) to my two, somewhat uppity, posts: Thinking of Vincent Pecora, with Eric Voegelin in mind and After secularization? In retrospect, I was not as clear as I should have been, so I welcome the chance to clear up some misunderstandings.

Pecora writes that I claim his “use of the term ‘secularization’ must be secretly eschatological” and that he “cannot escape from transcendence.” Actually, I didn’t intend to make either charge. When I asked if Pecora’s idea of secularization as an ongoing, open-ended project was eschatological, it was a genuine question, not an accusation. Now I’m a little embarrassed because he seems to think that it was obvious that he did not intend the term that way at all. Still, not all the causes of my initial confusion have been resolved. Let me try to state them more clearly.

Although Pecora has denied, in both of his posts, that his vision of secularization entails acceptance of any end or telos, he is not entirely consistent in his argument. For instance, he writes at one point that “the pathway to the ideal of ‘secular criticism’ (or ‘Hellenism’)—that is, the pathway to secularism, in the terms I have set out in this post—is itself without end.” On the one hand, the phrase a “pathway to secularism” (italics mine) suggests that there is an end in mind—even if it is imagined as an unachievable ideal, even if it never comes. But this possibility no sooner appears than it is banished: that “pathway to secularism” is actually a pathway “without end” (and thus presumably ultimately not “to” anything at all). There is a tension here that, rather than undermining Pecora’s provocative proposal, I think enriches it. Even if the eradication of religion is not a telos worth pursuing (and Pecora eloquently explains why this is so), what about a world in which regulative principles are respected? If such a vision is not a telos, what is it? Teleology needn’t involve non-human or supernatural agency as it does in Hegel or Bossuet—it need not be religious or crypto-religious. It can simply be a way of reclaiming some notion of what we desire, or what is good. It seems that now is the time to have a discussion about what we mean by ends, about what kinds of ends we want, and what kinds we do not. That’s a conversation worth having.

But there was a second reason I brought in the term eschatology. Pecora may very well, and perfectly consistently, reject any association with the term, but it was of great importance to the Anglo-German theologians and philosophers I am researching this summer, and therefore of particular interest to me. For a figure like Reinhold Niebuhr, eschatology captured precisely the ambiguity contained in the idea of ends that could not be “completed.” Responding to the secularizing tendencies sanctioned by liberal Protestantism and taken to hideous extremes by Communism and Nazism (the “political religions”), they sought to remind heirs of the “Western tradition” (Christians and non-Christians alike) that the eschaton was an irruption from another world.  In other words,  its coming or not coming was not in human hands. Eschatology properly understood in this light was a defense against dogmatism— acknowledging divine omnipotence checked the sorts of political action that license any means in pursuit of predetermined ends.

This interpretation of eschatology, of course, is not even analogous to Pecora’s secularization theory. While the midcentury Christians presumably looked forward in good faith to the coming the Millennium (although this element is notably absent from their work, and unimportant for the agnostic thinkers like Voegelin and Jaspers), Pecora’s point seems to be either that there is no end, or that the end is never coming. But this is exactly the rather modest observation I initially wanted to make: “secularization” is not the only path to “Kantian” regulative principles. In light of this, what are the specific grounds for calling the pursuit of these principles “secularization”? This question is still on the table.

I believe that it is not simply a matter of semantics. “Transcendence” might, for some people, be open to the sort of associative discrepancies that, mercifully, distinguish Pecora’s and my notions of “wife” and “sex.” But this was not the case for the thinkers I am currently working on. For them, “collective consciousness” was no replacement for the divine for those in search of a “humanly bearable” history. I am not embracing their views. But I do think they help us to raise useful questions about Pecora’s rationale for the terminology he chooses.