In their posts, Vincent Pecora and Jonathan Sheehan suggest imagining secularization as an open-ended, ongoing project. Neither doubts that something described as “secular” is worth seeking. Given that a major goal of this DPDF program is to ask what might come “after secularization,” I find this a little curious—especially because it’s not clear why Pecora and Sheehan think that the term “secularization” is worth reclaiming or conceptually fine-tuning in the first place. What is particularly “secular” about the principles—openness to contingency, falsifiability, treating humans as ends and not means—that Pecora and Sheehan embrace? Do we believe that such principles are alien to religious or theological traditions? If so, why?
Before addressing these questions, we need to get clear on exactly what Pecora thinks secularization is. Here, too, I’m a little confused, because his post seems open to two interpretations. Secularization might be a historical quest toward the ever-receding goal of secularity—an ideal of immanence that, however we want to define it, is located in the future and always out of reach. Alternatively, secularity might consist in the willingness to accept contingency, in an element of existential or moral openness. Perhaps Pecora’s point is that these two notions are coeval—the developing robustness of the regulatory principle is itself a kind of progress, a step-wise but always incomplete realization of the secular ideal. But I think there is still a conceptual distinction to be made here, one that bears on a point Alex made in his follow up comment to his post on Blumenberg. Is Pecora thinking of secularization in terms of eschatology (albeit with what the Germans call a Parusieverzögerung built in) or teleology? Is he talking about a historical horizon—something to head toward—or a sort of virtue, a mode of behavior more or less immediately accessible to individuals in diverse historical circumstances? Or both?
Either way, there’s a bigger question at play: on what grounds does he call the (eschatological and/or teleological) end he is recommending secular? As I mentioned in a previous post, my own research deals with thinkers—such as Eric Voegelin, Karl Jaspers, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, to name only four—who imagined that, far from being an alternative to or antithesis of scientific discourse or Kantian regulatory principles, some category of transcendence was the precondition of these ideals. I’ll continue posting on this topic over the summer, but I want to flag the theoretical issues that bear on my historical work now. If episodes in the past suggest that there could be substantial convergence between theological and secular perspectives on certain key values or ideals, perhaps that’s good news for both sides.
You could read Pecora and Sheehan’s emphasis on contingency as an end run around the sort of Foucauldian critique that Talal Asad and others have applied to the secularization debate to such powerful effect. But does the play work? To call the values or ends (a distinction I’m not doing justice to here) that Pecora champions “secular” implies definitions of secular and religious that are disputable—even if they’re provisional. My intention is not to pursue an Asadian line of criticism down Sheehan’s “genealogical or deconstructive cul-de-sac.” The limits of the categories “secular” and “religious” are revealed not only through the regimes of “governmentality” that seem to undermine their integrity, but also—and perhaps more suggestively—in their points of theoretical and normative convergence.