How is what I have tried to call resacralization different from fundamentalism? Let us consider one definition that at least doesn’t intend to be merely pejorative. Appleby and Marty define fundamentalism as:
a strategy, or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group. Feeling this identity to be at risk, fundamentalists fortify it by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past. These retrieved ‘fundamentals’ are refined, modified, and sanctioned in a spirit of shrewd pragmatism: they are to fend off outsiders who threaten to draw the believers into a syncretistic, areligious, or irreligious cultural milieu.
But the Rimini Meeting seems to be precisely the sort of “syncretistic, areligious, or irreligious cultural milieu” that fundamentalists—as the movement that organizes this event has been categorized in previous studies—should be threatened by!
What characterizes this event, instead, is a different set of strategies and assumptions, for which I propose the category of resacralization:
- The assumption of a primacy of the religious over the secular, in the sense that the “religious” realm is not simply one among modernity’s various differentiated spheres—politics, economics, art, etc.—but is seen as serving an integrative and constitutive role;
- A criticism of the conceptualization of “religion” or “religious” that restricts it to specific religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. Instead, what is emphasized is a human universal, pertaining to “ultimate” existential questions and transcendentals such as truth, beauty, goodness, and justice;
- A rejection of the opposition (and hence separation) between the religious and the secular. Instead, all secular action is cast as inescapably religious (i.e., as pertinent to the human need for God, and as mediating religious experience). In this sense, resacralization aspires to a re-enchantment of the world.
It could be argued, perhaps, that if “fundamentalism” has to do with strategy, or particular forms of strategy, then the same movement can be seen to exhibit such a strategy in some instances but not others, or in certain periods of its history but not others. But recognizing this diversity of strategies—or “orientations toward action” perhaps, since I don’t think they are as calculating and intentional as strategy implies—should at the very least complicate the endeavor of categorization. And here we should heed Amy Binder’s injunction that scholars of organizations (and this can be extended to religious movements) need to study the “multiplicity of responses in an organization’s different subunits” rather than “looking for ‘an organization’s’ single response.” I think Mark Chaves is right that we shouldn’t expect any necessary consistency between this form and the group’s various other expressions.
One might also argue that there is still something reactionary going on here. The differentiated institutions and discourses of modernity have divested themselves of any ultimate referents. And so groups that experience this as a gap—as something important that has been left out—are trying to bring this in, or at least, to call attention to this something that is missing. But there is something distinct from the reactionary “fortification” of fundamentalism in the mode of retrieval here.
- Its logic is more romantic than rationalist. These may not be the best terms to express the distinction, but what I mean here is that the focus is not on reasserting dogmatic “beliefs,” but rather on the fulfillment of desires for beauty, friendship, etc., which they do not find adequately satisfied elsewhere.
- There is something markedly non-strategic in this approach. The thought of executing a pre-defined calculated strategy to impose the group’s vision or ideology is portrayed, in the discourse of movement leaders, as a violation of their interpretation of Christianity as being primarily an encounter. Rather than achieving specific ends, the approach seems to be focused on cultivating particular virtues, such as an “openness to the unbidden” that Michael Sandel, following William May, talks about. The insistence is on remaining faithful to encounters and building friendships, and to see where that leads. And so in numerous documents of the movement there appears to be a regular sense of surprise at the unexpected results: enduring friendships with Shingon Buddhist monks in Japan; or that in Alberta, Canada, a Baptist minister would be in charge of the movement; or that an entire movement of landless workers in Brazil would want to be grafted onto theirs; or that Muslims in Cairo would want to appropriate the event into Egypt. Not quite the focused approach of “claiming society for God,” as some who have studied the movement characterize it.
- The retrieval operates through translation into secular idiom, and a rejection, to some extent at least, of religious discourse. This is because they see not only modernity as impoverished, but even religious terms as having been stripped of meaning. It is not simply a reaction against modernity, but also against conventional “boring” and “moralistic” religion. So they often speak of God as “the Mystery” or “the Infinite”; instead of “God’s will” you have “what Reality puts in front of you”; instead of “religious,” you have “the human.” The form is different, but the content signified by these terms is meant to be identical. Physicists and mathematicians at the Meeting who talk about the attraction of the Infinite are understood as talking, in essence, about God. The emphasis on “the human” is undergirded by a philosophical anthropology that sees human beings as being made for a relationship with God, a need expressed in ultimate questions that are inevitably provoked by reality. It is at the level of these questions that we find our true “humanity” and can pursue its fulfillment. The Christian claim is understood as the answer to these questions—but not one that can be meaningfully pursued unless the questions are first experienced.
This has some interesting implications for the debate on the role of religious discourse in the public sphere (see, e.g., the debate between Habermas and Taylor, or some of Michael Sandel’s work on this). Should religious discourse be welcomed in the public sphere, or should we require that it first be translated into secular terms? Part of the concern in the debate is that such translation would be demeaning to religiously-committed people, and that they would be unwilling to do this. But in something like the Rimini Meeting it seems that the opposite is the case—translation into secular idiom may in fact be an attractive prospect to religious groups: an attempt to retain a freshness of content by changing the form, a way to express their way of life in a public forum that might invite those who might otherwise steer clear.
Whether this can be done successfully, though, is a different question. In the time I have spent with the CL movement, both at the Meeting and in its other expressions, I have seen it backfire several times: members complain that sometimes it just feels like a lot of jargon; people encountering activities of the movement for the first time comment that it seems like needless confusion and obscurantism that complicates what “normal” religious vocabulary can better communicate; there exists the perception that such an attempt to portray Christianity as something new, unusual, and relevant ends up coming across as an arrogant attempt to be distinct from and superior to “ordinary” Christians.
Still, these obstacles don’t seem to have hindered the growth of the movement and the diffusion of activities such as the Meeting, even beyond Christian circles. If this growth is indeed non-strategic, then it seems all the more peculiar. But I think the questions still remain, as to whether something doesn’t get lost in such resacralization-by-translation, and what consequences this might have, not just for the future of this group, but also in general for religion(s) in late modernity.