Rethinking Secularism is the title of a striking new collection of essays, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen that is rich with shrewd, and often detailed and intricate, discussions of the way the political and the social, the public and the personal, are threaded with, and frequently created out of, the interpretive, the symbolic, and the imaginary. It is also a book with whose central claim I could not be in fuller agreement: the religious and the secular do not designate different ends of a historical timeline, much less a simple binary, so much as different inflections of a process beginning, at least in the West, with the slow disintegration of Latin Christendom in the Late Middle Ages, and that we have come to recognize as the longue durée of the modern. Nor can this process, as Rethinking Secularism correctly maintains, be viewed as simply degenerative. The secular is very much with us, and the challenge remains to determine what have been the gains and losses in a world where religion is no less there.
My own interest in the relationship between the religious and the secular centers less around the way the former gave way to the latter than on how the latter has often been created in no small measure out of elements of the religious, elements that emerge as much from a relaxation of its constraints as from an outright repudiation of them. Thus what to other specialists may appear in actual processes of secularization to be a dismissal or negation of the religious often presents itself to cultural historians and theorists to be more than not a reconstruction of the world out of some of those same interpretive and imaginative activities that religion itself set free and that must now be brought into play if some alternative vision of life, experience, or the really real is to take its place.
Robert Bellah has articulated what I mean to identify about this process in his magisterial new book Religion in Human Evolution, where he insists repeatedly that the history of this process, both from one human stage to another—the mimetic, to the mythic, to the theoretic—and from one religious formation to another—the archaic, to the tribal, to the axial—reveals that each stage or phase succeeds what proceeded it not by supplanting or superseding it but by reorganizing and readapting it in new ways. Axial religion does not destroy tribal or archaic religion but makes itself out of elements of the former two that it reconfigures for its own purposes. Hence the emergence of new forms does not require, and cannot take place, by their simple disembedding from older ones. Earlier stages of religious development, as in all evolutionary schemes, are “not lost,” as Bellah argues with the assistance of Merlin Donald, “but only restructured under new conditions.”
This has inevitably drawn me to think again about the argument that Charles Taylor has made in his own magisterial A Secular Age and then restated in the volume in his essay on “Western Secularity.” His is an argument of immense sophistication and complexity that is not insensible of the way the secular is made out of components of the religious, and particularly its interpretive and imaginative energies when they are released from their embeddedness in theological structures, but I am persuaded that his way of modeling this process has cultural and historical problems that Peter Katzenstein’s essay from the same volume on “Civilizational States, Secularism, and Religion” conceptually and historically avoids.
Taylor is clearly aware that the terms “secular” and “religious” have very different meanings in different traditions, which is precisely Talal Asad’s point in his discussion on blasphemy in Rethinking Secularism, but Taylor’s essential proposition that from the seventeenth century onward in the West the secular became a domain understood to be inhospitable to any claim made in the name of transcendence, “that the lower, immanent or secular, order is all that there is and that the higher, or transcendent, is a human invention,” is, at least from a cultural and historical perspective, seriously problematic, if not misleading. Yet before turning to what I find troubling about Taylor’s account of the relation between the religious and the secular in Western spirituality, let me say something first about the narrative Taylor is trying in important ways to correct.
That narrative is a coming-of-age story which has most recently been expressed in one of two ways. In the first, which is found in the work of the late American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, the secular is the result of a process of de-divinization that began, initially, with metaphysical idealism’s attempt to relocate the sphere of ultimate reality not beyond but within human experience; then led to Romanticism’s claim that if ultimate reality is now immanent rather than transcendent, its meanings can be described in more than one vocabulary; and eventually wound up with pragmatism’s assertion that these different vocabularies are ultimately no more than different ways of expressing what we need but only sometimes get. In the second narrative, really genealogy, of the secular, this sequence of historical transformations follows a course charted by Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, where the love of God gave way, first, in the seventeenth century, to the love of truth, until the love of truth gave way, by the end of the eighteenth century, to the quasi-divinity of the self, and the idealist or Romantic love of the self succumbed, toward the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, to the realization, variously phrased by Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, that now nothing can be worshipped as divine, since everything, in effect, is a product of contingencies. In short, the world has not only lost all its transcendent reference but has been emptied of intrinsic significance.
Taylor’s object is to challenge this narrative by complicating it, and he complicates it by showing that the move from a transcendentalist spiritual perspective associated with Late Medieval Latin Christianity to an immanentist spiritual perspective by the seventeenth century was made possible because of the adaptation of religious ideas about the porous character of selfhood to a to a more buffered sense of the self. Here a new religious perspective is being partially remade out of components of the old, but for Taylor the process is one of irremediable loss rather than gain. The modern self is not only dissociated from the realm of transcendence associated with the Late Middle Ages but is now disposed to view religion itself as but one choice among others in the new wholly immanent sphere where, at least for many evangelicals in America, as Alan Wolfe and others have argued, the spiritual challenge is not to get right with God but to get God right with, or for, the self.
While I lack the space to do justice to Taylor’s many-layered explanation of this process, its difficulties become clear in his discussion of the notion of “enchantment,” which he, with Max Weber, takes to be the differentiating essence of Western Christian spirituality before it began what he describes as its “long march to secularism.” The problem with Taylor’s treatment of enchantment is that it is exceptionalist and, at least in the metaphor he uses here, too unidirectional, homogenous, and degenerative. By exceptionalist I mean that Taylor treats enchantment, or the experience of living in what he calls a “magical universe,” as something limited primarily to Christians alone and dependent on the kind of theological transcendentalism that Taylor posits as its precondition. But it is comparatively easy to argue, as Bellah has, for example, that if the experience of enchantment can be said to have been definitively expressed in a well known passage about the fullness of Being from Jonathan Edwards’s “Personal Narrative,” it has also been expressed in virtually the same terms by former Czech President Vaclav Havel in one of his remarkable letters from prison before he became the leader of the Velvet Revolution. Enchantment in response to a universe experienced as suffused with a sense of divine presence can as easily be evoked, some might argue, by the most abstract natural landscapes of the great nineteenth-century English painter John Constable as by some of the Southwestern canvases of Georgia O’Keefe. The sense of living as a porous self open to the infinite above is, by personal testimony, as easily accessible to astro-physicists (or anyone else capable of reckoning on this scale) who can contemplate a universe composed of up to five hundred billion galaxies like our own Milky Way, which is itself composed of hundreds of billions of stars such as our own Sun, as it can be by ancient Christians, Zoroastrians, or other cosmologists. Taylor might reply that these representations and experiences of enchantment are, at best, intermittent and do not derive from habitation in a spirit or Being-filled world, but surely no one, including saints in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, lived in a continuously enchanted world open to the fullness of Being except in moments, and they needed all the trappings of ritual, symbols, music, and the visual to do so.
Indeed, in the late Middle Ages one of the explicit purposes of Christian art was to assist communicants in developing and preserving a religious sense they were always in danger, even the most pious, of losing. Take, for example, the relationship between Quattrocento painting and Early Modern Roman Catholicism in fifteenth-century Italy. Such painting existed not only, or even mainly, to reflect spiritual concerns but also, as Michael Baxendall has demonstrated, to enrich and augment, and thus change, them however subtly. The artist was interested in doing more than depicting religious material on canvas; he was even more eager to invite the beholder to reflect on it in a specifically religious manner. In other words, the artist’s aim was not merely illustrative or even exegetical but evocative. His public did not need what it already possessed; what it needed, in Clifford Geertz’s words, “was an object rich enough to see it in, rich enough, even, in seeking it, to deepen it.”
Geertz is here drawing on a view of culture, and particularly of the role of the imagination in culture, which assumes that culture in its more creative dimensions is not additive but generative, not merely transcriptive but provocative, that it changes the thing it engages and in ways that are very difficult to map or narrate in linear or sequential form. Despite Taylor’s abundant qualifications, his account of the transformations in the relations between religion and the secular is too episodic and successive, as if the break between the transcendental and immanental was sharp, successive, and final. Taylor would—and does—reply that German and English Romantics were among those who attempted to recover a sense of unmediated Being, but he believes they were doomed from the start because they were already working within what Taylor calls “the immanent frame.” But just how immanent was the frame assumed by Romantics in the West if it deserves the description M.H. Abrams definitively gave it as “natural supernaturalism?” In any case, this is a cosmology that has lived a vigorous afterlife in the modern poetry of everyone from Rainer Marie Rilke to Paul Verlaine, and Wallace Stevens to A.R. Ammons.
Second, his presentation of Latin Christianity is too uniform and, for want of a better term, sanitary. What of the masses of people who lived on the edges of this system, often in utterly wretched conditions, or perhaps within its center, but clung to earlier forms of archaic, tribal, and clanish religion that were vernacular, profane, folk, or improvised? I can remember my former colleague at the University of Chicago, the great historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, continually complaining to a faculty that made much of its own intellectual strength in the history of Christianity that there was too little history in it. What was being left out of most traditional accounts of Christianity, despite Peter Brown, were the irregular metaphysics, the disruptive logics, the unruly heterodoxies, and the powerful paganisms of people who may have been subjected to the theological and institutional governance of Latin Christendom but who at the same time worshipped their own, as the Anglican prayer refers to them, “ghoulies, ghosties and goblins.” Even more likely, as well as distracting and clearly divisive, was the presence of the carnivalesque, the parodistic, the perverse, the subversive, the sacrilegious, the scatological, the entire realm of Gargantua and Pantagruel, of Rabelaisian, Bakhtian excess that was always threatening to disturb the noise of solemn assemblies and crack the dome of the sacred canopy.
Third and finally, Taylor’s argument conforms to the subtraction theory even as it disavows it—secularism is not only different from religion but less. Where secularism emerges in Taylor’s narrative, religion not only changes but is fatefully, or at least emotionally and existentially, diminished. But that, I would suggest, is not exactly how it happened. The religious and the secular have not only coexisted in their modern formations—Taylor wouldn’t disagree—but actually adjusted to, and profited from, the rearrangements and adjustments required for co-existence with the other. Such was clearly the case with the United States, which is why so many religious scholars consider America to have been the one Western exception to the rule that secularism displaces religion rather than the exception that proves the rule that, as Peter Katzenstein argues, “secularization and religion…were deeply entangled at the outset of the modern state system and have remained so ever since…and the sociological turn in international-relations theory makes it possible to deploy now commonly accepted categories of analysis—culture, identity, norm, idea, ideology—to probe once more the connections between secularism and religion in international politics.”
Katzenstein’s thesis is that we will not fully understand how secularisms and religions intermingle in global politics—and I would add global social life—until we revise our understanding of how such matters are determined culturally in considerable part by civilizational, and not merely by religious or secular, processes. Here he turns to Randall Collins’s notion of civilizations as zones of prestige which radiate outward to create networks of attraction and repulsion. Rather than viewing civilizations and their components as cultural codes to be deciphered, Collins construes them as sets of relationships and activities that exert magnetism because of the dialogues, debates, and disagreements at their center, thus attracting admirers, challenging uniformity, and stimulating creativity and change. Hence the differences and conflicts around which they organize collective life can become at least as determinative and influential as the structures of assent and consent by which they govern their relations. Emulation and rejection of particular zones of prestige—religion, science, the public sphere, aesthetics—within or between civilizational systems can be deeply entwined, which creates the possibility of cultural commensurabilities being created across civilizational formations that are otherwise quite different. This creates what Katzenstein calls a “polymorphic globalism” in which “various intersections of secularisms and religions are created through never-ending processes of mutual cooperation, adaptation, coordination, and conflict.”
Does this mean that this globalism will be more secular than religious? Hardly. Think merely of the liberal, democratic sentiments that organized political resistance in Tahrir Square (along with a good deal of collective feeling about just being fed up) and the Islamist politics that have replaced it. Or, the possibility of a Rick Santorum Presidency in the United States. Or, better, the reason why the civilization of Latin Christendom was first able to unite, according to Karl Deutsch, and then fated to split. His argument that the spiritual, political, and cultural unity of medieval Christendom—defined by a common Latin language, the legal and spiritual authority of the Pope, the governance structures of the Holy Roman Empire, the military and missionary adventures of the Crusades, the styles of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture—was a transitory rather than seminal stage in history, and was destroyed by the very forces that gave rise to it, couldn’t be further from Taylor’s explanation. Drawing on a model of cultural commensurabilities and overlaps that function as networks of prestige, attraction, and coordination, Deutsch asserts that the economic foundation of the international civilization of Latin Christendom was based on a scarcity of goods, services, and personnel that enabled the growth of a thin web of supranational trading companies sharing language, customs, laws, traditions, family connections, and religion. Capable of traveling over long distances, these trading companies eventually created a superficial internationalism knit together by commerce, intellectual life, politics, and faith. Initially involving three civilizations and two trading peoples, Latin Christianity by the thirteenth century had prevailed over the challenges of Byzantine civilization, Islam on the Iberian peninsula and elsewhere, the Jewish diaspora, and Viking conquests, but was then compelled to face its own demise as increasing contacts among village, manor, town, and sect enabled the rate of sectarian division and then regional migration to outpace the rate of international assimilation. What followed was the loss of the thin internationalism provided by Latin Christianity in favor of a more polymorphous regional and creedal differentiation to which modern nationalism subsequently gave rise, but only because the nation and its imperial aspirations could as easily become a vessel for religious enchantments and control as the seemingly more religion-based and ecclesiastically-centered civilization it replaced.
This brings me back to some of the ideas with which I started where, from a cultural perspective, it would appear that the transition from the religious to the secular is less accurately described or modeled as a structure of displacement and substitution than of recovery and adaptation. There is and has been marked change, to be sure, but to go back to Bellah’s discussion of the evolution of religion itself, it is not most accurately figured as a sharp break with the past so much as a repossession and rearrangement of it under new circumstances.