The following is adapted from Nancy Levene’s forthcoming book, Powers of Distinction: On Religion and Modernity.—Eds.

In a recent piece in The New York Times’ column The Stone, philosophers Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden lament the blindness of contemporary philosophy departments towards cultures outside the West. Since such departments promulgate a specifically Euro-American philosophy, they should either identify themselves accordingly or expand to include non-Western materials in their curricula. The argument raises a long-standing but still urgent question in the humanities and social sciences. What is it to expand canons of study when the principles of those canons are themselves specific? This is not, to be sure, how Garfield and Norden see it. The canon of philosophy is rather precisely non-specific and can—indeed must—be expanded without further consideration. That academic philosophy does not do so is not principled but simply prejudicial.

I want to migrate this concern to the study and conception of religion. It might be said that Garfield’s and Norden’s expansion has already happened, with the stipulation that non-Western philosophy exhibit its wares in departments of religion. There one will find Islamic philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and so on. This state of affairs is no doubt unsatisfactory. But let it nevertheless reframe the question. The study of religion has had no trouble expanding the canon of religion. The question is, on what basis has it done so? To give a preliminary response, I call on a few exemplary characters and motifs.

In the opening paragraph of his Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes famously confesses that many of the opinions he has held since his youth have turned out to be false. “I realized,” he writes, “that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations.” He notes, however, that years have passed since he first made this realization. He “procrastinated,” he admits. His Meditations represents his eventual resolve to enact what he calls his “demolition” [eversio]. Why did it take so long? Quite simply, he notes, “the task seemed enormous.”

I take inspiration from Descartes’ sense of enormity both insofar as religion provokes a question concerning foundations and insofar as it has languished. One might protest: What more vibrant topic exists in contemporary social and cultural theory? Has not the field of religious studies labored for more than a century to interrogate the nature and parameters of religion in a global context? Undoubtedly. What is required now is a revision of what Émile Durkheim called religion’s “elementary forms.” I borrow Durkheim’s iconic language, while amending his assumption that there are elementary forms of a generic religion at the root of all cultures. Durkheim identifies an elemental religion that, in encompassing all peoples, corrects the monstrosity of Western self-regard. What the scholarship of his day called the primitive is placed not only at the root of more developed societies, to be surveyed from the heights, but in the very midst of Western civilization. Religion is the idea and practice of community, says Durkheim. The civilized have nothing fundamental to add that simpler communities do not express from the beginning.

It is a brilliant effort. Religion will repent of its services to imperialist ventures by removing all particulars from its elemental vocabulary. What remains, however, are distinctions of the social overlooked by Durkheim in his effort to make a unified theory. If religion is an articulation—a theory—of community, then it can be enchanting to document all the different kinds. But although the field of religious studies has stalled there, whether in confirmation or refutation, that is not a reason for readers and citizens to continue to do so. Yes, religion might serve to divide civilized from primitive, West from its others. Division is the very mark, the very totem, Durkheim saw, of community, including the community of scholars. What Durkheim only implicitly saw, however, is that religion might also power the critique of communities whose borders are inclusive of only some arbitrary “we,” or, what is the same, a we comprised of kin, tribe, and kind. If he is right that the social elementary is one of borders, he did not complete the interrogation of kinds of borders. It might be tempting to respond by flinging open all borders and claiming supremacy over the collectives that cling to them. This is exactly the mentality Durkheim resisted, and rightly. The point is to understand borders and their different distinctions.

The power to do so belongs not to a generic religion, but to a particular historical and social topos, a religion, but no less a secularism, which can serve as another name for modernity. Religion is modern insofar as it expresses that what theorists like Durkheim help us to see is ordinarily the case—that human beings are communal and political beings—may also be subject to the extraordinary pressure on the border of community that it be extended. Religion is modern to the extent that it holds that what is righteous for one’s own kind might be made righteous for other kinds, and indeed, perhaps, for all. Religion is conceived generically on the grounds of extending its borders to all in their differences. But in addressing only the political struggles that necessarily attend difference, that is, by formulating religion as generic so that it can preemptively include all social formations, the study of religion has evaded the question of principle, the question of which principles make such inclusion possible. That Descartes is now a thinker to be “demolished,” to turn his own metaphor on him, may mean we have kept faith with his impulse to rethink foundations. Or it may mean we have failed adequately to do so, the compulsion to rebroadcast the failed foundationalism of Descartes a sign rather of our failure more than his.

How might one arrive at the principle of inclusion, the principle of self-critique as elementary form of (a study of) religion? The question calls to mind Edward Said’s short book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, in which Said calls for an investment in the humanities as “the critical investigation of values, history, and freedom.” Such an investment would be as vigilant about the abuses conducted in the name of these things as it is hopeful that the catalogue of abuse does not overwhelm the desire to practice them.

Said’s call for the humanities to embrace this role is not disconcerting to most fields. In the study of religion, however, the question of values remains vexed, undoubtedly in proportion to religion’s quest for social primacy. An inquirer is understandably cautious in considering what his or her stance towards the object shall be. The study of religion has dealt with this challenge by a separation of sub-fields (theology the realm of values, history and theory the realm of analysis) or by sequestering scholarly study from the question of value altogether.

At the same time, fields outside the study of religion have absorbed a story that has religion die as a conceptual problem sometime at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Philology, history, and anthropology come to fill the space evacuated by the divine sciences. These new disciplines support the West in turning its attention to the rest of the globe and to traditions less buffeted by reformation and enlightenment. To the extent religion in the West continues apace, it is a topic for sociology, cognitive science, and perhaps psychology most of all as elite Westerners settle down into the therapeutic remainders of the god-complex. The study of religion becomes the study of why people, these or those people, are religious; what solves the problem of why there still is (and what is) religion given its (so-called) demise, the surest sign of which demise is the very scholarship on religion that asks the question. Let the field of religious studies take on and represent treasures from the past and traditions the West ignorantly overlooked, including aspects of its own.

But what live problems religion presents to contemporary thought and culture beyond the oddity or offense of its continued existence—in face of this question there is puzzlement.

One of the signal weaknesses of Said’s own authorship is his undigested premise that “the humanities concern secular history.” Said follows Giambattista Vico in conceiving the secular as what concerns “the products of human labor, the human capacity for articulate expression.” The “core of humanism” is Vico’s claim that, in Said’s words, “we can really know only what we make or, to put it differently, we can know things according to the way they were made.” In the aphorism from which Said is drawing, Vico proclaims his surprise that “the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it He alone knows,” and that “the world of civil society,” which “has certainly been made by men” and whose “principles are therefore to be found within the modification of our own human minds” should have been comparatively neglected. We can know history because “we” human beings, and not God, have made it. It is a work of the human from beginning to end.

Yet this distinction between the works of human beings and the works of God does not end the matter for Vico. Said is astute in choosing him as an intellectual comrade for their shared commitment to history as a site of knowing what it is to be human through what human beings have made.  But Vico goes further into the matter of God and the human than Said acknowledges. For who is God? In the contemporary humanities, God is simply a name for what stands outside rational and historical knowledge and thus outside the humanities. This judgment has an institutional thrust. For the pursuit of matters divine there are the separate conclaves of divinity. For Vico, however, the realm of human history is also providential, also divine in a sense different both from nature and from some supernatural realm. Said neatly borrows Vico’s richest notion—that, again in Said’s words, “historical knowledge [is] based on the human being’s capacity to make knowledge, as opposed to absorbing it passively, reactively, and dully.” Hence the centrality of value to knowing insofar as making involves investment and choice. However, he thereby excises a dimension of Vico’s project: to understand the divine in the terms of history, the ambition of which is captured in Vico’s multi-nominal description of his project as a “rational civil theology of divine providence.” Said is right that Vico means by this “the secular.” But he is insufficiently curious about what the Vichian secular fully entails. One has cause to observe in this light that while the study of religion lives uneasily with theology, the humanities lives uneasily with religion and its study, neither domain knowing quite how to speak about religion within the confines of scholarly work; neither knowing quite what to do with Said’s call for critical thought and human emancipation as parts of the same investigative posture and project. Here would be the principle of plurality, and not only, as in Garfield and Norden, the pluralism of principles.

In the early pages of Orientalism, Said gives us the operative question: “Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” This question is bedrock. Human reality seems to be divided. One is called to divide it—to distinguish, to apprehend, to conceive. Together in their mutual criticism these claims constitute the genius and the responsibility of the humanities. Reality will put pressure on our investments. Yet we are bound to a shared real that “seems to be genuinely divided” as we struggle to make our divisions truthful—supportive of self and other. As Said puts it, humanly survivable; as Garfield and Norden imply, true because inclusive. The work to do so—to see reality as it is, as we have taken it, shall take it—is ongoing.

This is to say that the principle of inclusion is distinct from principles that exclude. It is the recognition that, in the world of divisions, some are supportive of life and some are invidious and violent. The principle is therefore the paradox that inclusion is only possible in refusal—in the distinction of distinction as expansion from the distinction of imperialism.

In the study of religion, Said’s gambit for the “the critical investigation of values, history, and freedom” has seemed too dangerous, consistent with Said’s own ambivalence about religion. The worry is Christianity, and specifically Protestantism, whose theological norms are seen to cling to every effort toward secularity, and which therefore require special measures of exposure and critique. This worry constitutes a part of the work of post-colonial studies, which indicts Christianity and the West as historical complexes that have dominated those of other regions and religions, in part by claiming to serve as neutral hosts for an ostensibly expansive plurality. Better, it might seem, to denude religion of any history whatsoever. Religion would now be undisguised, but also cleansed of certain identifying features. As a generic concept, religion is both essentially plural—anything can count within it—and essentially empty, neither rooted in history nor possessing any necessary content. From this vantage, to count religion as a generic category is the same as to postulate that religion does not exist. It exists, that is to say, as a function of scholarly investigation and is limited thereto, having little beyond an ideological meaning in the world scholarship aims to understand, and thus constituting a primary site of scholarly demystification.

Religion, however, is a historical concept. It is not merely a term with a history to which it would be limited or a term by which to pick out historical variation. Religion is a concept used in systemic distinctions in and of history. Generic accounts imagine religion as a sign of primal difference, constituted by such pairs as the sacred and the profane, man and the gods, chaos and order. Yet in a history of distinctions in (within) religion, religion is not only a conceptual container for a difference of this from that. Religion is productive of distinction, serving either as the ideological-political conservation of community (the distinction between us and them) or the ideological-political engagement with the principle that the border can be mobile and thus inclusive/expansive (the distinction of inclusion). This distinction (of distinctions) is not without cost. The conception of religion and history as key terms whose work is co-involved cannot support religion as something in general or predicable of the human as such. It therefore has no way of avoiding the offense of characterizing particular standpoints, including that of scholarship; of involving, then, the demolition of the generic and the commitment to foundations of inclusion in principle.

Inclusion is a value in both study and worlds. Scholars have long-since internalized the unsettling work tracing the relationship between religion and forms of empire and colonialism, formations built on invidious distinction. Such work shows no sign of slowing. The thoroughgoing prejudices at the heart of Western religious thought and politics, the pervasiveness in scholarship of invidious distinctions between us and them, good and bad religion, the West v. the rest, the assumption of Protestant frameworks and metaphysics in contrast with which all else is implicitly deviant, not to mention the perfidy of a liberalism that attempts to solve these ills too quickly or unconsciously—all have been scrupulously documented and exposed. Distinctions of value in or of religion cannot, agreed, recapitulate these sins. Now what? It is time to advance to the next move.