Once a week I imagine my city under water.
I am sure I am not alone in having this nightmare. It is the summer of 2017, the central question about climate change has by now morphed into one about how many millions will die, and I live in Manhattan. In another life, in another time, I might have imagined my future children toddling after my dog as she bolted toward pigeons on our evening walk through Washington Square Park. In this life, I watch my little ginger pit bull sidle up to strangers under the park’s arch, tumble head over haunch for a tummy rub, and think, “One day this too will be under water.”
The idea does not panic me, though it should. Instead, I find myself idly wondering how it will happen. Will we lose the city by inches, the coastline strolling up the fashionable streets of SoHo like yet another a tourist window-shopping after brunch? Will we build bulwarks higher and higher, until with one storm they all go at once? Will we be driven out long before the buildings collapse by the flooding subways? Will the wealthy in their low-lying penthouses move north, to higher ground, buying out the immigrant Dominican communities in Inwood, or will they abandon the city first, writing off their worthless properties? Will those who remain finally be able to afford rent? Most of all, will future generations (however many there may be) remember where we were, or, when asked, will they mumble vague clichés about a new Atlantis?
There are smaller catastrophes that worry me when I think about where we are going and where we have been—the rise of adjunct labor, the possibility that full-time faculty will one day be a status symbol confined to the most elite schools, the collapse of the public sphere, the return of open, armed white supremacy—but only this image of my home submerged under an ocean that has no memory gives me something like a feeling of clarity. Perhaps it is only the morbid clarity of Samuel Johnson’s quip: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Our collective appointment with the hangman has grown exponentially closer in the last ten years and in that time some of the best minds in the field have concentrated on the question of how Christianity relates to secularism. My question is how to understand that focus. What if we are living in the last moments of relative peace before the floods, epic storms, and mass displacements make it impossible to ignore that we are in a new world, where all concerns are secondary to survival? What will we make in future years of our decision to spend the last decade preoccupied with questions about religion and secularism, old divisions between the Occident and the Orient, and the specter of Christianity that never quite dies? Why this question, now, when this might really be all there is?
* * *
The fact that it might be true that secularism cannot be easily separated from its roots in Christianity has never seemed sufficient to explain the strength of recent scholarly interest in the topic. If it is true that there was never a distinct break from a world saturated by Christian practices into one where religion has disappeared from daily life, then it has been true for centuries. Arguably, the claim does not even have the appeal of novelty in scholarly conversations; Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Carl Schmitt, and Robert Bellah can all be read as troubling the line between the religious and secular decades ago. Faced with the spectacle of the best minds in the field seizing on a theory popular a century ago I find myself asking what this conversation does for us. Are we interested in the link between Christianity and secularism because we think it explains our present historical moment or are we, as I increasingly think, attempting to bind past to the present through Christianity? Are we making reference to history or covertly building a new theory of history that might help us think about the catastrophe to come?
In part, these questions grow out of my puzzlement with the strength of the claims scholars sometimes make about the relationship between secularism and Christianity. In its boldest form, the argument states that secularism is Christianity under another name. I understand the value of saying secularism is derived from Christianity, or pointing out the specific ways that the realm of the secular is shaped by Christian definitions of the religious and non-religious. I am sympathetic to the claim that secularism and Christianity are co-dependent terms, and that the secular is often blind to its debts to Christian theology and practice. I grasp the pragmatic point that the same European actors who once thought of the struggle between Christendom and the Muslim world carry on the same fight under the banner of the secular West against the religious Orient. In short, I am happy to have a conversation about the concrete ways that secularism is entangled with Christianity but do not see what collapsing the two into each other accomplishes, except to obscure what is new in the conversation. The strength of the rhetoric has never seemed matched by its explanatory power.
On a deeper level, however, I have long been perplexed by how very many different voices with different agendas have enthusiastically embraced the connection between secularism and Christianity. Postcolonial scholars like Gil Anidjar and Talal Asad see the Christian nature of secularism as a way of understanding the continuities between historical forms of religious conflict, new forms of geopolitical domination, and the biases within the categories of thought the academy uses. The legal scholar Paul Kahn recently published a reinterpretation of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology arguing that only by taking seriously the theological roots of the modern democratic state can we understand why citizens are willing to sacrifice themselves for the collective good, even though such self-sacrifice for a larger ideal flies in the face of the idea that the state is the product of a social contract meant to promote individual good. Writing in a very different vein, postmodern thinkers like Mark C. Taylor, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, and Jeffrey Kosky have sought to combat the idea that we live in a disenchanted world, freed from the affective pull of religion and given over to reason, by seeking the wondrous and the ineffable in seemingly secular domains.
All of these worries bring me back to my original question: Why do so many different people, with so many different commitments, want to think the present is continuous with the Christian past at this moment in time?
I increasingly think at least part of the answer lies in the threats posed by climate change. We are drawn to the continuing influence of Christianity because the topic lets us fantasize about how we will be remembered after our own present way of life is past. The debates about secularism are a dress rehearsal for thinking about our own destruction.
* * *
I want to qualify this thought experiment before continuing. I do not mean that secularism debates exist solely to satisfy our needs to speculate about the future. There are real political situations making the question of the nature of secularism a particularly pressing one. Very likely, the recurring European court cases about whether women in hijab violate the separation of religious and public spheres would be enough to trigger suspicions about the biases built into the claims of secularism, given the enormous historical influence of French and German thought on the academy. I also do not mean to stipulate what level of destruction we are faced with. Imagine anything between the destruction of a few coastal cities and the complete desertification of large sections of the world.
With those caveats in place, here is my suggestion. At the center of all of these arguments about the religious core to secularism is a belief in a Christian past that can neither be lost nor forgotten. Even when people have abandoned all of the internal and external markers of Christianity, even when they have given up belief and practice, even when they desperately try to distance themselves through polemics from their Christian heritage, Christianity’s influence persists in the faith they accord the sovereign, the arguments they use to bomb foreign countries, the wonder with which they face art. Secularism debates are an argument for history as haunting.
Obviously this is not the only way to think about history. Places, people, locations, things are forgotten all the time, particularly in the aftermath of a catastrophe. We know this. Not that long ago, the field of religious studies was captivated by questions about ruptures in history and radical, irrecoverable shifts in how we know things. So why do we want to believe in the ghost in the gears of history at this particular moment in time? Because we are the ghost.
If we are essentially Christian and Christianity is the past that can never die, then we can never die. The argument is a hopeful one for people worried about their continued existence; something of our hopes, our accomplishments, our aspirations might be transferred to the future by way of this Christian legacy that no one can escape. That statement is not an unambiguously positive one that lets us blindly affirm the value of our continued existence but, in some ways, its ambiguity is its strong point. The thesis at once provides some basic hope of survival and allows us to try on different attitudes toward a violent, unjust past that, for all of its very real accomplishments, is partially responsible for our current disorders.
Our desire to place ourselves within that complicated Christian history can be understood partially as a selfish one. It is a way of controlling the narrative and preemptively warding off the accusations of an almost infinitely wronged future generation by confessing our guilt. What, after all, is there left to accuse us of if we take responsibility for the Inquisition and the witch burnings, antisemitism and the Holocaust, colonialism and capitalism?
More benignly, evaluating how our Christian past persists in the present is a way of imagining how others might think of us. One day in the not-so-distant future, our descendants will likely look at the physical remnants of our culture of recklessness—whether that means abandoned car parks, airports, or coastal cities—in much the same way we look at European cathedrals. They are part of our landscape; we have built our lives and memories around them. We even know in many cases when they were built, by whom, and why. And yet, the mindset that led generations to devote their lives to these titanic projects in service of a God many no longer believe in feels wholly alien. What will they make of us, when we are the past generation whose decisions can be found etched into the landscape? What of our lives will persist? What verdict will we deserve?
* * *
All of this is speculation, of course. The focus on secularism’s roots in Christianity may be explicable solely by political events, or the inevitable backlash of theory against overly neat binaries, or even the sheer self-interest of a field that is incentivized by disappearing faculty lines to argue its relevance by making its subject matter the key to everything. And the catastrophe that comes may be so total as to make questions of human memory irrelevant, or so minor as to allow daily lives to carry on roughly as before. This may be all there is and the best response might be the wry resignation Derek Walcott captured in his poem “In the Village.”
I came up out of the subway and there were
people standing on the steps as if they knew
something I didn’t. This was in the Cold War,
and nuclear fallout. I looked and the whole avenue
was empty, I mean utterly, and I thought,
The birds have abandoned our cities and the plague
of silence multiplies through their arteries, they fought
the war and they lost and there’s nothing subtle or vague
in this horrifying vacuum that is New York . . .
It was no way to die, but it’s also no way to live.
Well, if we burnt, it was at least New York.