Where have we arrived?
That’s the question that comes to mind, after already having written six entries on the issue of secularization (and religion). Perhaps it’s better to ask, Where have I arrived? And I wish to write one more entry, after this one, dealing with things more personal. But for now I want to see where my thoughts on secularization take me…theoretically.
As mentioned before, Charles Taylor argues persuasively against what he calls the “subtraction theory” of secularization, whereby we rid ourselves of superstition and bad science and arrive at some neutral site cleansed of the sins of bad thinking. For Taylor, secularization is not only not neutral but a peculiar outgrowth of axial religion, and particularly Christianity. Taylor, a Christian himself, is also famous for thinking that this development allows for a religious viewpoint to continue to co-exist, if in altered form. I have less sympathy for that argument. But let’s just agree that secularization is a very messy thing, not aimed in a particular, predictable direction, and it constitutes a world viewpoint not much different in form than religion (which isn’t surprising, given its offspring status).
I think I have, until recently, adhered to a view that merely wished, via Taylor, to point out the hypocrisy of those who think of themselves as somehow getting beyond religious categories. Adherents of an atheist liberalism are here the main culprits, since they hint at a view of life that doesn’t necessarily include religion or other (intolerant) foundational categories. According to this idea, if remnants of religion persist, they serve as a temporary inconvenience. But liberalism—or, more generally, humanism—seems to me more a version of three-card monte. Or a warmed-over Christianity, sprinkled with the pursuit of happiness and sacred notions of human dignity. No wonder, then, that a good secular humanist like Philip Kitcher can take a walk with his Christian friend and find themselves disagreeing about so little: they belong to the same tradition. (And from a Martian’s point of view, the differences are insignificant—more a question of style than anything else.) According to this anti-humanist view, Kitcher’s sin is that he doesn’t go far enough down the Nietzschean path of shedding himself of new religions. He’s a backslider, without knowing it. He’s a foundational thinker without wanting to admit it, whereas I was under the impression what we wanted, as good atheists, was to forego conventional, foundational ideas about the good.
Well, my thinking on this has changed, at least a little. No, it’s not about how I’ve willingly become a secular humanist. (I’m kicking and screaming.) And it’s not about how religion is inevitable, or how it’s impossible to come up with moral categories without resorting to religion, or how we have a spiritual side deep down whether we like to admit it or not. No—it has more to do with a simple recognition of a complicated historical predicament: that is, where we’ve landed, so to speak. We are caught up in a dualistic situation—a clear legacy of our axial past—and it’s best to just admit. In other words, we can’t think out of the box because our vocabulary is of the box. I don’t mean this in some ontological way, or even in some Wittgensteinian sense, but in a very, very historical way. I can imagine, and I’m downright certain of it, that there will be a time when this human predicament that I’m describing—this little dogleg in human thinking—will appear as an historical oddity, with thinkers of this a-long-time-from-now time smiling at our squirming, our wriggling, our discomfort.
Thinking psychologically, I would say that our predicament is akin to that of a patient in psychoanalysis (or at least the more modest post-Freudian versions). It’s not true that “the truth will set you free.” It’s not true that you can know your unconscious, let alone significantly change your course with what limited knowledge you can gain about your unconscious. You are who you are. Your possibilities are severely limited. This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to be gained by recognizing who you are; and it isn’t to say that people don’t change, or that you can’t be affected by the process of psychoanalysis and feel, at the end of the day, in a better place. But your solutions are written with the language of your problems, and there’s really no way of getting away from that. Dispensing with foundational thinking, at least at the present time, is like pulling yourself up with your bootstraps. Though that’s not right—it’s less a question of effort (or physics) and more a question of the limits of imagination.
As usual, much of this thinking comes from a recent article I read. (I am, if nothing else, suggestible; for me, the passing of eyes across a page of words is an act of transference.) I’m thinking particularly of Laurens ten Kate’s article, “To World or Not to World: An Axial Genealogy of Secular Life,” in which the author suggests, in so many words, that we all humanists. (I cringe.) He relies mostly on a reading of Etienne Balibar, who argues that humanism is best understood as a common heresy. Not common in the sense of being prevalent, but common in the sense of being a heresy that has general characteristics that make is useful across the board, with various religions. According to this conception, humanism is not neutral ground, nor a universal umbrella, nor even one world view among others—but, instead, a mediating space that comes from inside a religious discourse. In speaking of believers, Balibar says that this heretic element, within a particular religious discourse, “must also ‘expropriate’ of their own singularity and disturb their certainty of being uniquely ‘true’ or ‘just,’ while not preventing them from seeking truth or justice along their own ‘path.'”
“The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics,” Ernst Bloch wrote. In other words, religion develops. A humanist, in this view, is a Christian heretic intent on tinkering with what has come before. For ten Kate, this note of heresy is a good way of thinking about contemporary secularism because it both honors “the intertwining of secularity and religion” and suggests what amounts to “the lived practice of dual history”—that is, the peculiarity of our current situation. For Balibar, we are living within a crisis that began with axiality; but that “rupture with the gods does not simply turn humans into new gods, omnipotent, limitless and infinite as the gods were. No, in the world as saeculum, as other, humanity encounters its limits and vulnerability just as well.” Ten Kate speaks of this moment in time as “the twilight zone between human self-assertion and ‘transcendence,'” which gives way to “a humanism continuously negotiating between…humans and gods.”
This of course raises the question, at least in my mind, of what simple, unadulterated “human self-assertion” might amount to, if we were able to jettison “transcendence” entirely. But this question has increasingly become, for me, speculative. I think of answering it as less a theoretical stance than as an act of imagination. And I realize that it requires imagination because it’s not a matter of another act of subtraction (as in Taylor’s scheme)—getting rid of the transcendent, and leaving us finally in the company of ourselves. I may be misreading him, but it seems to me that the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy is often suggesting that leaving us in the company of ourselves is a very tall order—at least right now. For Nancy, divinity is “a human relation to the outside”—that is, to the “other world” (whether we say it exists or not); and yet this is not a second world or even a world-behind-the-world as much as it is the “other of the world.” (Go ahead and try, Nancy seems to be saying, to act as though the “other world” doesn’t exist—here, there, somewhere.) I think Nancy is asking us to appreciate the depth of the duality that is implied in the seriously strange idea of Incarnation—an idea we can’t seem to easily shake.
Here I want to return to something I said a few weeks ago about ownership. I’d asked the question, Who owns the world? The Christian answer is quite simple. And the Nietzschean answer is relatively simple, though not quite convincing: we own the world (though, out of weakness, we’ve projected our ownership onto an imagined deity). But what if no one owns the world? What does that make the world? And for ten Kate, this is the heart of the problem: “This essential lack of ownership from both sides marks the crisis that the axial shift engenders ipso facto.” And here, ten Kate quotes Hans Blumenberg, who is quoting Hannah Arendt when he writes that “man has ‘removed himself from the earth to a much more distant point than any Christian otherworldliness had ever removed him.'”
In this scenario, humanity becomes a very lonely place—somehow held beyond the world, but not in the sense that God is beyond. As Blumenberg puts it, “When humanity lost its hope for a beyond, it has not, through the intensity of conscience freed up by this loss, entered the here and now; rather humanity, thrown out of the world beyond and out of the world here and now, was thrust back on itself.”
In this sense, we are homeless. It’s an existential thought, yes, but I’m thinking of it here more as a historical predicament that will, in time, lift and then become, as it were, senseless. (History is a graveyard of the senseless; there is, it seems, no other way to die.) For now, as Marcel Gauchet puts it, we live “a life in the world outside the world”; or, put differently, we live “in time that is outside time.” What a strange predicament! And, needless to say, this condition of ours suggests, besides the possibility of monomaniacal arrogance, a kind of whimpering vulnerability. It’s as though we’re cowering in the shadow of a nonexistent God, and yet now taking ownership of the world isn’t really one of our options. What renting might amount to is anyone’s guess.