Poetic Faith: We Have Never Been Secular

Nearing the end of Week 1 of my “seminar,” I still have a fair amount of reading to do, but I’ve also been happily immersed enough to come up with some thoughts to share. How valuable those thoughts are I’m not sure, but we’ll see where this goes.

First, there’s this post’s title, a play on the title of Bruno Latour’s 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern. A historian of science and cultural theorist, Latour makes the argument that modernity is often defined by the ability of science to make a sharper distinction between nature and culture than was possible or normal in premodern times—and that what science has actually done is mixed nature and culture more completely than they were before. And then hide the fact that that’s what is going on. Some twenty years on from his argument, as scientists apply for patents on genomes and restoring wetlands has become a form of artwork, Latour’s thesis seems to bear itself out more clearly than ever. And my reading this week on secularism, modern religion, and theories of the post-secular, is that just as we have never been modern, we have never been secular.

The equation of modernity with science often goes hand-in-glove with equating modernity with secularism. A standard version of this comes from sociologist Max Weber in the early twentieth century: once, back in the day (either the good old days or the dark ages, depending on your perspective), God loved in the world and the world was enchanted. Then humanity changed, God departed, the world’s enchantment was lost. And now we’re living in an age of industry, pavement, mass production, labor alienation, etc. (ok, we’re shading away from Weber into Marx here, but they were both concerned with aspects of the same big problems of modernity). Science went from a form of the Augustinian idea of “faith seeking understanding” to a concept opposed to religion. For theorists like Latour, this opposition makes very little sense once you give it enough attention, but it’s been rhetorically powerful enough to control most of the stories, in and out of the church, that have been told about religion over the past two or three centuries.

One fascinating response to the Weber-style secularization narrative I read this week was Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (2010). Hungerford, an English professor at Yale, hones in on the origins of the sociological concept of “civil religion” in the US, finding a deeply American “faith in faith” as a key, often overlooked element of the American religious landscape. Americans by the 1950s weren’t nearly as invested in any particular doctrinal point, Hungerford argues (following the work of Robert Bellah and others) as they were that people should have some serious commitment to something like Judeo-Christian faith.

I was particularly interested in her discussion of the theological impulses behind the devising of “close reading,” the style of textual analysis that has defined English literary pedagogy for nearly a century. Proponents of what came to be called the New Criticism (which hasn’t been new since the passage of the GI Bill) sought to emphasize the quintessentially literary side of literature: its form. Content could be hijacked by history, ethics, sociology, or any number of other fields, but literary form belonged to literary studies. Hungerford connects this insistence on form—persuasively for me—to ideas of religious authority and truth as being pre-linguistic, beyond the bounds of paraphrase or rational explanation, just as the shape of a sonnet or the contours of a Shakespeare play were for the New Critics. Literary criticism has thus been, basically since the Nietzschean “death of God” began to take hold in the American academy in the early twentieth century, imagined as a substitute for religion—or, as Hungerford would insist, an enacting of a kind of religion. (By the way, Coleridge argued that this is precisely what the great interpreters of literature were meant to do for their nation, over a hundred years before the New Critics came along. Hungerford’s story is about the twentieth century, though, so I’ll go with her New Critics-as-origin argument for the time being.)

Thus, following Hungerford, thinking about religion—in fact, doing religion—has been at the heart of American literary production and criticism throughout what we tend to think of as the godless era in American history. There is no need for an idea of post-secularism for Hungerford, since secular academics in fact preserved a religious impulse by the very techniques of their secularizing.

But let’s assume for the moment that secularism has had its time, and that, since modernity and secularism have gone together, the demise of modernity into a postmodern age necessitates a parallel shift from secularism to post-secularism. As postmodern philosophy, exemplified by Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes, has undermined the very ground of absolute truth claims and the modern faith in reason, secular culture has lost its ability to keep religion subject to neutral, rational principles, allowing for a new rise in religious experience, from radical fundamentalisms to new syncretic mixes to revived interests in the deep histories of the great religions. This is the climate within which two of my other readings situate themselves: James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (2004) and Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001), which I’ll treat in their own posts soon to follow.


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