Vincent Pecora—co-director, with Jonathan Sheehan, 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 Sheehan and the graduate fellows who will be blogging regularly at The Immanent Frame throughout the summer. Follow their ongoing efforts here.—ed.
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I think Jonathan Sheehan points to something quite useful in his last post: the need for a discourse that does not immediately slide into the “ideological” conflict of religious versus secular teleology. I think many in the religious studies and sociology of religion fields have tried to find such a discourse for decades now. It is just that their disciplinary efforts have become far more visible to the rest of us recently. Still, Justin Reynolds raises a point that is indeed important in the entirety of the “post-secularization” discussion, as it is now being called. However we contextualize this discussion—I tend to see it as accelerating rapidly after the end of the cold war—it is clear that much of it has circled around the question of teleology. For a variety of reasons, two of the foundational questions of religion and philosophy, and certainly not only in the West, have reemerged to trouble the standard thesis among Western intellectuals that predicted inevitable and irreversible secularization and modernization: What is the aim, the end, the purpose of human life? and, Can different societies reasonably embrace quite different answers to this question?
Actually, if I am right about the coincidence of post-secularization’s rise and the cold war’s end, there is perhaps a fairly superficial but still interesting answer to be had. Socialism, or at least some fairly perfected version of social democracy, had long been regarded as the likely end or goal of human history by a fair number of Western and “Third-World” intellectuals, many of whom cut their critical teeth by working through the contradictions of capitalism and its purely instrumental version of reason—that is, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations minus Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments. When Francis Fukuyama turned this conviction on its head in the summer of 1989 (actually, before the Berlin Wall fell later that autumn, though this chronology is now routinely reversed) with “The End of History?” in The National Interest, the problem (as even he came later to admit) was that Western capitalism did not provide a very satisfying sense of fulfillment, even acknowledging that some bugs remained to be worked out. In Blumenberg’s terms, Fukuyama put capitalism into the answer position formerly held by socialism (and before that by Hegel’s constitutional monarchy), but it fit far less well, especially if we accept, as I think we must during this season of terrible economic upheaval, Joseph Schumpeter’s insight that capitalism is always a process of “creative destruction.” Now, really, what kind of telos is that?
Some old Marxists faced with socialism’s recent rough patch—think Terry Eagleton—turned hard to religion as a result. But many more recognized that the purely economic (that is, Marxian) narrative of social evolution was no longer going to hold. Suddenly bereft of the extraordinarily bad model of Soviet socialism; increasingly confronted with the evidence that even the good (if for my taste often narrow-minded, ethnically monotone, and boring) social democracies of Scandinavia might not be as sustainable as once thought (change the ratio of workers to retirees and the math turns funky, and don’t even think about assimilating Muslim immigrant populations); terribly unimpressed with Fukuyama’s solution (end of history, indeed!); and, perhaps above all, realizing that the most potent political forces in the “Third World” were on longer socialist parties (no USSR to support them anymore) but religiously based ones (think Hamas and Hezbollah today, or, earlier in the twentieth-century, M. K. Gandhi), intellectuals have witnessed the problem of moral-social teleology raising its ungainly head all over again.
And so, we find ourselves in forums such as this wondering about “what ends we mean” and talking about teleology, as in the old (pre-Adam Smith, pre-Marx) days, because the “material” (that is, purely economic) answers satisfy us less and less. I will conclude with two observations. First, by insisting that I do not regard a “fully secularized world” as a telos worth pursuing, I am hardly throwing out the baby of teleology with the bathwater of secularism. I believe, as I think Kant did, that our brains are hard-wired to think in terms of purposes, goals, ends, and (even on occasion) final ends—though, as I have observed elsewhere, Kracauer’s late notion of “the last things before the last” is for me a preferable formulation. Asking about the nature of the “good life” is not necessarily misguided, but “modernity” itself means that a wild variety of quite reasonable answers will be given that would not accord to classical ideals with all their caste and class presumptions. I thus find it hard to credit Alasdair MacIntyre’s attempt to resurrect Aristotelian teleology in its Catholic (Thomist) form—a resurrection that would probably require a true second coming to find enough agreement on what it now means—or Charles Taylor’s numerous meditations on “wholeness,” a term that is likely to stir up far more profound disagreement than Taylor’s ecumenical (more liberal Anglican than not) Catholicism seems to allow for. Freud was likely right that the only form of thought that can actually claim to provide an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” is religion, but (with Freud) I get no satisfaction in my late fifties from asking the question. Still, my claim that complete secularism should not be regarded as a teleological project is not meant to rule out teleological thinking altogether, any more than it is designed to say that secularization is not a necessary (though very partial) part of human history.
But the second point I want to make is that, pace Reynolds and his Straussian-Lillaesque line of reasoning, I wonder about the consequences of concluding that any human telos must come from outside the human being and human history, as some of his scholarly subjects once claimed. (I also feel bad, by the way, for the poor liberal Protestant theologians, who somehow in this narrative always get blamed for Hitler—but that’s fodder for another post altogether.) That is, while I enjoy borrowing from Heidegger in my own way, I can’t embrace the basically Heideggerian atheism that resurrects the problem of Being on non-human grounds (whether via the four-fold (Geviert) of a Black Forest farmhouse or via language itself), a topic recently opened up yet again by Stefanos Geroulanos. No Ereignis, no arrival from without, not even some weak Benjaminian messianism that magically reverses a world run to ruin seems, contra Judith Butler, like anything worth putting our faith in. And yet I am now quite convinced that the option to which we should pledge our allegiance is not “secularism fulfilled”—indeed, I doubt our perennial dissatisfactions with civilization (and here Freud is indeed handy) would allow such a thing. Most of all, and perhaps on this score I do feel some kinship with the subjects of Reynolds’s research, I worry that “secularism fulfilled” would simply mean “hubris fulfilled”—the old dialectic of enlightenment still retains some force for me. But that too is the subject for a later post.