I. Showing the Extraordinary Work Which Has of Late Been Going On in This Land
The work of conversion is never done, which is to say that the work of The Immanent Frame has not yet been achieved. To be sure, it has accomplished much, and on this august occasion I offer some scattered thoughts on these achievements and the road ahead.
First and foremost, I am forever in debt to the founding editor, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, for inviting me to contribute to its inaugural season of posts. For in those early days, before I had published much of anything on secularism, I was able to work out a critical voice I had been auditioning in the classroom. And I am forever in debt to The Immanent Frame for hosting such a motley crew of writers invested in the revolutionary potential of humanistic analysis. Something was going on in the fall of 2007 and everybody knew it. What that was, and still is, exactly, is difficult to pin down and perhaps can only be judged by its multifarious fruit.
At this moment in the study of the secular/secularity/secularism, we owe a great deal to The Immanent Frame, not least for well-nigh inventing the space for a particular style of analysis to flourish but also for moving us well beyond the binary of the religious versus the secular and, thank god, the embarrassing desire to expose what really is religious or not. The answer, we now say, demands all manner of blurry analogies. So we do not answer directly. And The Immanent Frame has made such indiscretion OK.
The Immanent Frame, in other words, has made room to consider, in nonpolemical ways, how the theological origins of church history (and its “secular” antitheses) continue to haunt our various disciplines and subfields. The Immanent Frame has taught us that such “mutual imbrication” of the religious and the secular (an early rallying cry of secular studies) is inevitable and neither a good nor bad thing in relation to which one takes a principled stand (or, perhaps, one can do so only in a deeply ironic mode). And The Immanent Frame has taught us what may and may not be delineated or distilled in movements from god, to god’s providence on earth, to a reliable human gaze and its various forms of vaguely gained leverage—political, ethical, aesthetic.
The Immanent Frame has made me a better reader of texts and the world those texts inhabit. It has, through featured essays, special forums, occasional pieces, and here & theres, demanded that I address the blithe affirmation of binaries that so often animates both our contemporary scene and so many otherwise smart and competent studies of religion. It is hard to be an avid reader of The Immanent Frame without assuming critical distance from one’s own analytic choices or, for that matter, without feeling the forging of categories as you turn the page of so many academic monographs. All those books that fill in the picture that we already know about American religious history. All those categories sharpened and weaponized for ever-increasing precision and future revelations.
For in the end The Immanent Frame has taught me that the secular, and whatever the ground of secular critique may be, cannot be reduced to an exposure, to greater clarity about how things are in essence. The Immanent Frame has inspired me to dissect this desire to expose—its effects, its practices, its principles and institutions—and to consider how that desire assumes massive potentiality and is lived with and within. The Immanent Frame and its offshoots like Frequencies and Reverberations have demonstrated, time and again, that the study of the secular can be strange, indirect, and tangential to the burden of heralding a newly arrived-at rationality that does justice to our contemporary concerns.
I was lost but now I am found. I have seen the light. I have been washed in the blood of The Immanent Frame and I feel no shame.
There is nothing pure in this world. Everything and everyone is complicit—with the past, with the shitshow that is our contemporary scene, with whatever future we imagine may be on the horizon. All critique is immanent, analysis of the world being but an effect of that world, an effect that in those rare cases is fed back into the scene in such a way as to inflect rather than affirm what already is. You and I, dear reader, are as guilty as sin, and there is no quarter given or deserved.
This is my declaration of faith. Perhaps a bit too Calvinist for some, too extreme for the Bernie bros in the room, too devoid of a saving grace or shard of analytical hope. Perhaps you subscribe to a different set of principles. Good for you and god bless. I am only trying to be honest here, a difficult thing using these Latin letters, these keys, and this platform at this particular moment in time. Whatever clarity or leverage we achieve, as scholars, is but an acrobatic feat of scanning for patterns we are already used to recognizing, assembling them to stave off the debilitating buzz that lies directly below their surface. And it is this electrical moan, this baseline static that signals our continual efforts to frame and delimit and to know what not to know.
I am guilty of analytical sins too egregious to mention in this family-friendly domain. So I will keep things clean. I once knew exactly what religion was and where to find it and the sad, sad story that it had been overlooked by, well, just about everybody but those within religious studies. Secularization was not true, I cried! Just look at all the religion between the cracks of our secular gaze. I once knew that religion was often good for people and sometimes bad, and anyway, I was sure as shit that I was an authority on the difference. I once assumed it was my role to bring religious literacy to the masses as the title of Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book suggested. I, too, was an American religious historian. Earnest about my authority about religion and its American story. There were the easy dismissals of those who did not share my pedigree or curiosity about culture. There were the dreams of exposure and the fame that came with the occasional TV appearance. (“John,” my mom would wistfully note, “you are so handsome and articulate. You should have your own TV show!”) I had spent the first few years of my scholarly career proving that the Beat poets were an American religious tradition. I then went on to argue that Herman Melville’s literary imagination was actually religious (the working title of my dissertation was “A Secret History of Moby Dick”). I could see the religious dimension of any situation. I could see the clues, patterns unbeknownst, the locks on the horizon and the keys lying in plain sight.
There is something to be said about these desires to expose, to be televised, themselves longings for conversion and the revelation that accompanies it. Who amongst us does not feel emboldened by their image on the screen, certain of their presence in a world that otherwise throws that presence into doubt? Stick to the screen, says the screen. Consummate your urge to be transparent to yourself and others while gaining a glimpse into the truth of the world.
I once conceived of my own critical acumen as bound up in the actualization of my own agency—to see things clearly before me was to become, well, me! Like any good social scientist, I reveled in the purity of my categories and categorizations—making sense of this, making even more sense of that! Everything susceptible to my categorical imperative.
But something happened when the categorical bleeds began to show, when the messiness of the world could no longer be contained by my imagination of it, when that messiness showed itself to be my own (and yours, too, dear reader), to have and to hold and to bear witness.
It had been building up, of course. The slow burn of what Horace Bushnell called “a kind of ingrown habit.” But whatever analytical and prosaic struggles I was having as an American religious historian seemed to crystallize (ever in hindsight) in the fall of 2007. In October I had been invited by Jonathan VanAntwerpen at The Immanent Frame to write about Charles Taylor’s recently published A Secular Age (2007). I accepted the invite and began writing about Emily Dickinson and railroads and never quite got around to the substance of Taylor’s tome. I ended up, quite literally, judging his book by its cover. I was somewhat new to Facebook (under the guise of “Cotton Mather”) and I was beginning to recognize myself as I had never before. I began to feel the corrupt nature of my categorical instincts. I felt shame about the strategic ignorance I had assumed when it came to my performance of exposure. And looking back, I began to channel all of those jangly emotions of regret and self-betrayal at Charles Taylor. He could handle it, I told myself. He was a super famous and “serious” white dude who had just won 1.5 million dollars!
In November of 2007 I attended the America Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in San Diego and the author-meets-critics session celebrating Catherine Albanese’s magnum opus, A Republic of Mind and Spirit. I recall Tracy Fessenden’s moving critique about melancholy and the whiteness that courses through the American metaphysical tradition. I am also reminded of Stephen Prothero’s advice to the scholars of religion in the room that day to assume their proper role as arbiters of good and bad religion. This is what we did or should do, he realized after having lunch with his editor in the city. His advice to us, as he had been advised, was to give the people what they want. Thumbs up or thumbs down! Authentic or fake! We, as scholars of religion, had the power. Let the testosteronic judgement flow! Ethics never felt so good and profitable! (And this, from what I could gather, was Prothero’s critique of Albanese’s book—that she had not adequately and/or willfully addressed the relationship between fraud and the metaphysical tradition.)
I remember turning to my friend, Darryl, and we both winced that wince that manifests at some point during every AAR, a wince full of disdain but also mixed with that flavor of self-contempt one inevitably feels at a family reunion or a birthday party for somebody else’s child. These were my people. This was who I was. Whatever pose of superior intellect I could muster in that moment was an empty gesture masking the submission within.
To make a long story short, I became consciously skeptical of the sleuthing pose, dutifully appalled by the miraculous technologies of amplification that promised total exposure of self and world and the relationship between, all those screens revealing this secret or that and all those scholars who doubled down on their earnest pursuit of truth in a world that had become, for all intents and purposes, unhinged.
But alas, dear reader, declarations of conversion, announcements of clean starts and new dawns, should not be trusted. As a reader of The Immanent Frame you know this to be true. For such proclamations—to embrace the blur and disabuse yourself of the impetus for clean categorical lines—participate, themselves, in the rhetoric of purification.
So, no, this is not all there is. The Immanent Frame is not an end game. It is simply a tool, a ritual object that aids and abets the conversion that will come. The ground remains slippery and declining and all our feet will slide in due time. The Immanent Frame is rather a modest invitation to get one’s hands dirty, to forgo what Walter Benjamin once ridiculed as the penny-in-the-slot version of meaning that has so pervaded (and pervades) the scholarly episteme. The notion that every penny has its slot and every slot its penny is a comfort that keeps the vertigo at bay (an image made even more disturbing by the casino pasts and mob metaphysics of our current regime).
A fiction that enables the smooth workings of inquiry and interpretation and, too often, historicization. The thrill of the inquirer, the interpreter, the historian of having arrived at some sort of ground of secular solidity—that this or that lies behind the door. A new self, objectively objective, unburdened of the past and others.