There is something very liberating about Jonathan Sheehan’s call for moving orthogonally into the mundanities of everyday research, even though a part of me is skeptical of ever proceeding without at least tacitly presupposing the very ideological commitments he suggests we shy away from. As my former graduate colleague, Sean Silver, notes in a wonderful essay “Locke’s Pineapple and the History of Taste“: “The problem with empiricism, the argument goes, is that it doesn’t know that it is an ideology.” Be that as it may, perhaps this willing suspension of disbelief (to dip into my literary critic’s toolkit) is just the type of maneuver that can gain some traction in our attempt to think critique immanently.
It is this latter point that I’m especially interested in: getting back to “the stuff of things”—that immanent data forming the bedrock of our respective fields (historical, literary, anthropological, whatever). It’s Baconian, really, bracketing the dense, ideological baggage of old, quasi-scholastic debates in order to attempt a run at the properties that make up an object of inquiry. I suspect that if we take this seriously, one of the things we’ll find is that the “essentially ideological” jostling over intellectual provenance was doomed from the beginning. Those supposed bona fides— that Sheehan suggests lay behind much of the energies of the secularization thesis—always belied their hybridity. Neither the secular nor the religious is autonomous; neither is unidirectional in its influence. Things, ideas, concepts are hopelessly mixed. To insist otherwise is to lapse into a certain academic Puritanism.
Very early on in his classic study of Romanticism, Natural Supernaturalism, M. H. Abrams makes a similar point with almost shocking nonchalance: “Secular thinkers have no more been able to work free of the centuries-old Judeo-Christian culture than Christian theologians were able to work free of their inheritance of classical and pagan thought.” Conceptual purity, Abrams assumes, doesn’t seem to exist in a social context like this; we’ve been asking what Athens has to do with Jerusalem well before Tertullian got around to it.
This is, I suggest, neither to prove or disprove secularization. Rather, my point is to note that a central feature of religion and culture is always its syncretism, and realizing that is as liberating as it is commonsensical. To take things seriously, then, would be to privilege this syncretism, to properly appreciate the manner in which phenomena tend to be creoles, layered and interrelated. It would also be, conversely, to deemphasize the chicken-and-egg teleologies with which I take Sheehan to be principally concerned. On this score I completely agree, even if I’m lapsing (against my own better judgment) back into caring too much. Who cares what comes first? What do we gain by that, aside from a modicum of bragging rights? Does precedence prove superiority any more than succession implies progress? Clearly, no. Then why not embrace the creolization of things?
Call it a principled retreat, if only a temporary one. Either way, the mundane looks increasingly auspicious.