Jonathan Sheehan—co-director, with Vincent Pecora, of “After Secularization: New Approaches to Religion and Modernity,” one of five research fields of the 2010 SSRC Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship—responds here to previous posts by graduate fellows who will be blogging regularly at The Immanent Frame throughout the summer. Follow their ongoing efforts here.—ed.
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Pondering a bit the posts so far in Notes from the field—those focused on the theoretical side of the secularization question, anyhow—it is not clear to me how much daylight there actually is between, say, Justin Reynolds’s position and my own. My interest in my initial foray was not so much to liberate secularization or the secular for an appropriately contextualized present (i.e., one that has taken on board both the historical dynamics of modern religious transformation and the critiques of secular reason that abound in our contemporary moment). Rather, it was to offer some kind of hope for something else “after secularization,” something other than the repetition of the same.
That may be an eschatological hope. Or not. It doesn’t much matter to me. In fact, the point of this exercise would be precisely not to care whether or not our concepts and ideals have “religious origins” (whatever that might mean, as if religion were something homogeneous and transparent to itself, as if it even could be an origin in some absolute sense). At a place of indifference like this, the discovery that, to take Reynolds’s example, Christianity might also be able to generate the sense of a contingent future would mean something different than it does now.
But it seems to me quite difficult to get to this equipoise. And that, I think, is because the war for conceptual primacy has been running hot for the greater part of the last four centuries. It is not just that the so-called secular has historically insisted on the need for some kind of autonomous intellectual vision, insisted that it can create its own concepts, free from the inherited baggage of religious tradition. It is also that the so-called religious has, with equal vehemence, insisted that anything good in this world was generated from out of its own intellectual vision, and everything else is merely a distorted refraction of that.
This is an essentially ideological conflict, and one that has been fought at least since the Reformation (though it was likely a vigorous one already in antiquity). It has been fought on the desks of academics eager to prove their bona fides by purging themselves of a perceivedly theological past. And it has been fought by theologians eager to show that their discipline remains the (often secret) foundation for contemporary thought. I see very little likelihood that one could, with one great final surge, end this conflict by “reclaiming” the secular or secularization in some new form—not least because it has been precisely this hope of ending the battle that has been the engine of the conflict all along.
So I’d like to put my hopes in something more mundane, if perhaps romantic, for all that. Namely, that we—all of us together here in this research group, but also in that wider community of interested scholars and thinkers—might create something new, a language and practice of analysis that moves orthogonally to these older conflicts. An immanent critique, as it were, that begins in the stuff of things: historical, anthropological, political, and so on. One that does not begin with a vision of how things should be for them to ultimately come out right, whatever that means. One that does not seek to “prove” the secularization thesis, however understood, or disprove it. But rather, one that is generative of new possibilities for understanding both religion and our own modernity.
I don’t know if a concept of secularization (or the secular) will prove useful in this new analytical stance. I have my doubts. But I have no doubt that, were it to be useful at all, its uses would emerge only at the end of research. No longer, I think, does it make sense to take it up as a foundational first principle, either as that which must be proved, or, just as importantly, that which must be disproved.