Introduction to After the Postsecular and Postmodern – Excerpts and Comments

For anyone interested, the editor’s Introduction for After the Postsecular and Postmodern is available at Scibd.  One of the editors and several of the contributors in this volume are regulars at AUFS.  As I started reading through it I thought I would past chunks that stood out or reflected the direction or intent of the volume (I have not yet seen a copy).  I have inserted a few comments, some of which are critical but of course they are then very provisional as I am working from something that points to a whole that I have not seen.  I have tried to keep the comments then on how this piece structures the project.

The norms and traditions of theological modes of thinking are cast off in favour of a philosophy that is limited only by its own internal necessity (9).

The studies of modern philosophers which form section one of this volume are “test-cases for modern philosophy of religion”. Their aim is therefore twofold. First, by highlighting the depth, vitality and complexity of speculation about religion in modern, secular philosophy, the essays form indirect rebuffs to postsecular thought’s all-too-quick dismissal of it. Second, and most significantly, by uncovering and subsequently mimicking the intellectual strategies—whether emancipatory or mutative—by which modern thought upset orthodoxy’s claims upon it, they also directly combat the “theological postsecular”(11).

At the moment when modern secularism has failed and the so-called return to the religious is on the precipice of failing, philosophers must be bold in putting forth a theory of secularity that is, in its very thinking, an abstract instance of that new secular (13).

I will be curious to see where that precipice is located and who identifies it.

We must distinguish, however, between the genuine postsecular event and its misappropriation and misuse at the hands of theologians. In the wake of the postsecular event, a distinction is necessary between the infidelity to that event attested in the “theological postsecular” and a potential faithfulness to it made possible through thinking the secular anew (14).

The response to the postsecular situation is not,pace [Philip] Blond [and Red Toryism], to return yet again to the presecular (to theology), but (at least for Kotsko and Agamben) a radical messianic nihilism that dismantles the theo-political machine. In other words, what is required in the face of the postsecular event is a philosophy which takes up the modern emancipation of philosophy in the service of a new speculative construction of a true secular. This requires a reconsideration of discussions of the secular in modernity so as to take up what is most powerful therein, and recast it in a new critical form (15).

[T]his gives rise to a distinction between the “imperial secularity” of the past and the genuine potential of the secular as a category to do justice to all religious particularities. This latter idea we designate “the generic secular”. The task, then, a number of contributors undertake is the construction of a truly generic secular, a secularity that can sustain the particularity, and even proliferation, of all religious and post-religious modes of being (16).

It is around this point that my interest begins to wane.  Not for lack of intellectual interest but more on a practical level.  I am a particularity defined, in part, as being a Mennonite pastor.  I am NOT arguing that this project is insignificant or unhelpful only that it is not MY project.  Yes, I hope this creates a benevolent context in which for me to practice my particularity but I simply cannot see how this project escapes the logic and practice it seems to want to overcome.  I am sure the chapters address this very question directly.  But quote above reminds me that I am a particularity and my practice is not in the interest of ‘the secular’ as such (though I could be argued on this).  The point being that the resources for this project begin to take me away in places that I may not be able to justify for interests sake given the priority I place on other resources.  I suppose it is just the tone of this introduction that makes me wary that this offers any sort of alternative to existing imperialisms.  I guess I simply don’t believe that speculative reason is capable of this claim.

[T]here has been a persistent tendency to maintain that the truly radical response to the postsecular event is not only a return to the religious, but a return to the dominance of the religious over all other forms of thought. Theology— specifically  Christian theology—would once again become Queen of the sciences. The return of the religious means, within the context of globalisation, a return to religious conflict, war, and violence, and, it is claimed, Christianity would uniquely respond to such events as the tradition that would best rescue the meaning necessary to resist the loss of identity following from imperial secularism.  The choice given to us by these thinkers is not between freedom and imperialism, but between two imperialisms, both equally parochial.

This strikes me as patently untrue as the Anabaptist theology and practice continues to try and address (not without its own problems of course!).

Meillassoux’s After Finitude is certainly (although not solely) an indictment of the current state of Continental philosophy of religion. However, this critique of the return of the theological and its prevalence in postmodern and postsecular philosophy of religion is not, we contend, a critique of philosophy of religion tout court. In fact, Meillassoux’s critique of fideism could well be read as a call to practice philosophy of religion: to make rational claims on the absolute once again, in opposition to its theological colonisation by religious discourses. Speculative philosophy of religion is, therefore, a means of saving philosophy from religion. . . . Within the speculative realm itself there can be no orthodoxy, only a practice of radical heresy. . . . Thus, within the volume as a whole and this section in particular a nascent speculative debate opens up regarding the act of mutating theological practice. Already within this volume, a proliferation of heresies and experiments are in the process of being produced (20-21).

I will be curious to see how and if orthodoxy is consistently named in this volume.  The Introduction seems to indicate that it is a clearly identifiable and isolated expression.  If so I would tend to disagree with its definition looking towards Rowan Williams’ test of Christian orthodoxy as that which resists simplification.  I know this does not directly address or respond to the issues in this Introduction but I think ‘orthodoxy’ is more more problematic a term then how it is used here.

However, all such heresies must ultimately be assessed for their cogency and power, and one criterion recently proposed by Iain Hamilton Grant for so evaluating the recent spate of speculative experiments is the “extensity test.”. . . Yet (by way of conclusion), the “extensity test” is not the only criterion by which to evaluate new experiments in Continental philosophy of religion, and in the Afterword to this volume, Philip Goodchild (and the personae which populate his piece) subjects the very practice of philosophy of religion to a far-reaching critique of its sincerity/hypocrisy. The volume thus ends with a number of questions: is speculation necessarily fabrication? How can heresies remain faithful to human living in the world? Questions which only further experiments in Continental philosophy of religion can hope to answer. This volume stands witness to this call to further experimentation (22).

I will look forward to reading these particular sections as assessment always makes particularities more explicit.

I do hope to read a number of these articles and I recognize the significance of the shift this volume is seeking to make or contribute towards but as I alluded to earlier I also began to feel as though this represented a particular community, a community with valuable goals and agendas, but a community I am not a part of.  It reminded me of my reading of The Gift of Difference and how this volume reflected some of the same ‘open spaces’ advocated for in After the Postsecular.  However, The Gift of Difference engaged my particularity and called me to a fidelity that I could recognize and reflect on.  I am not sure how this volume will create space for ‘all modes of being’ without engaging particular communities.  And if it does engage particular communities then how will assessment (even if provisional) proceed, by virtuous contamination?  This is not said to condemn out of hand but more as a honest curiosity and hope that their project will take root beyond academic and political structures or even activist modes.  And I have no doubt that if I give this volume a careful read it will in fact inform my own particularity.

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10 comments on “Introduction to After the Postsecular and Postmodern – Excerpts and Comments

  1. Thanks for doing this. I feel I need help figuring out what this group of thinkers is about, but they’re not resonating enough with me yet to constitute themselves a priority need at the level of time or monetary expense, and I don’t read at AUFS anymore.

    There’s something about your ‘faith’ approach to all of it that suits me. Thanks again for the post, and the blog -an occasion for reflection this morning.

  2. Many of the contributors there continue to post in a way that I find quite stimulating even though I have not been attracted to some of the larger aims articulated. They have definitely helped to sharpen and expand my thinking. You raise ‘faith’ as a possible distinction which I find interesting. For me the question is more one of epistemology (which may well relate closely to faith). My limited engagement there has left me thinking that what they might right off as ‘piety’ or ‘ideology’ may actually be a legitimate contribution to knowledge. Well, perhaps it is a matter of ‘faith’ as I do not depend solely on my intellectual ability (in isolation or engagement) for my knowledge and awareness of the world.
    I hope to post on dreams in the future in relation to this.

  3. Alex says:

    As a contributor to the above volume, thanks very much for talking about it.

    But quote above reminds me that I am a particularity and my practice is not in the interest of ‘the secular’ as such (though I could be argued on this).

    I think you have misunderstood, even though you actually quote the precise element which gives the answer to you question. The new concept of the secular is not ‘the other’ of religion that those who claim to be post-secular believe to be imperial. It is not opposed to religion but is “a category [that tries] to do justice to all religious particularities”. Thus this notion of the secular is in the interest of all religions, whereas, as some Christian commentators in the past have noted, secularism previously meant the excision of religion from the public realm.

    I also began to feel as though this represented a particular community, a community with valuable goals and agendas, but a community I am not a part of. […] I am not sure how this volume will create space for ‘all modes of being’ without engaging particular communities. […] This is not said to condemn out of hand but more as a honest curiosity and hope that their project will take root beyond academic and political structures or even activist modes.

    So? There is a phethora of communities we are not part of, but can still read the work of. I really don’t understand what you are getting at here other than the fact it talks in a language you are not familiar with and makes you slightly uncomfortable.

    Thanks for you comments though.

    • Thanks Alex,

      I am definitely trying to be open on being corrected on this expression. I do get that this project is for particularities including religion. However, there remains an ‘it’ of this expression this not my particularity and so my comment was simply a personal reflection and clarification of divergence and difference, nothing much more substantive than that. This would also relate to the second quote, again this is a wondering and curiosity more than anything else.
      I find it interesting that I have been characterized as being ‘uncomfortable’ with these sorts of expressions before. I am not sure what I am wafting that people pick up on. I am often hesitant, uncertain, but also open and interested. And above all, whether I end up agreeing or not I definitely end up learning . . . a good thing, right?

  4. Alex says:

    No problem at all. I hope I can clear some stuff up for you.

    You seem to be saying that since the project is not for you particularism in particular, you don’t like it or think it theoretically flawed prima facie? Yet it is, by your implication, the authors at hand who are not open to particularisms. Thus, probably against your intentions, you are actually demonstrating the ‘imperial (post)secular’ that the volume is trying to think against – the deciding that a particularity is a universality. I also don’t see how this is open minded, it seems to be completely the opposite – if it does not correspond to my immediate interests, I probably won’t like it.

    ‘Uncomfortable’ is something that comes across when I, at least, read what you have said. Sentences like “I also began to feel as though this represented a particular community, a community with valuable goals and agendas, but a community I am not a part of”. What could the feeling being other than discomfort, the feeling you are not welcome etc, that is a common reaction to encountering the new? ‘Hesitant’ and ‘uncertain’ are terms that could easily be substituted for ‘uncomfortable’.

  5. “I feel I need help figuring out what this group of thinkers is about, but they’re not resonating enough with me yet to constitute themselves a priority need at the level of time or monetary expense, and I don’t read at AUFS anymore.”

    Ha! Well if there is one thing that has defined AUFS from the beginning is a crippling need for the approval of others!

    David,

    I appreciate that you took time to read our Introduction, but I understand the book probably won’t be of interest to you and concerning some of your misunderstandings here there is a gulf separating us that would take a lot of time to cross.

    • just to be clear, I mean there is a gulf in terms of our particular understanding of things, not between your ability to understand or something rude like that. For instance, you seem to think I have some kind of all-or-nothing approach to questions of piety, but I don’t. Similarly I have never said that faith is an invalid form of knowledge. You also seem to think I am unfamiliar with the notion that orthodoxy is resistant to simplification. That is sometimes true, but another meaning of the word orthodoxy is also valid, people do refer to two different tendencies within the world with the same word. You also misunderstand our relationship to Christian theology. Obviously there are traditions within the very complex Christian theological world that are going to be resistant to the sort of imperial use of the postsecular we ascribe to schools like RO, but the Anabaptists don’t suddenly make those real issues go away by having their own unique stance. We also would blatantly draw on those forms of theological thought, just without expanding that particularity to a universal. Dan Barber’s essay is very good on this. As you can see, though, there would be a lot of explaining…

  6. Anthony, the intellectual helplessness I expressed (I had already read – in vain – the book’s Intro) is the same as I feel in regard to RO. Except my motivation to understand RO seems to have run a little higher recently – I did in fact get a short pile of Milbank’s books from the library (only to return them largely unread).

    I am suspicious of Milbank’s appeal to medieval ground. I don’t think we have to go back further than Kant, and I don’t think Milbank understands Kant’s service to theology in the same positive way I do. Aside from that he is no more intelligible to me than you are.

    I’m beginning to think I have a problem not with any school in particular, but with “continental philosophy of religion” in general (including anything that defines itself in contradiction to cpr, i.e. radical orthodoxy).

    For reasons of personal taste, I can dedicate only a small percentage of my energy to attempts at understanding what is now passing as contemporary. But I still feel an amateurish need to discover if anything contemporary can be related to my ultimate concerns – aware of the joke of my apparent anachronism, but nevertheless believing I will have the last laugh.

  7. John,

    While I would never want to deprive another human being of their personal tastes, I’m not sure that it means much to me. After all, laughing last isn’t much of an argument let alone dialogue.

  8. Thanks for your engagement Alex and APS.

    Alex,

    You seem to be saying that since the project is not for you particularism in particular, you don’t like it or think it theoretically flawed prima facie? Yet it is, by your implication, the authors at hand who are not open to particularisms. Thus, probably against your intentions, you are actually demonstrating the ‘imperial (post)secular’ that the volume is trying to think against – the deciding that a particularity is a universality.

    Like, is not really the issue. Flawed, is not really correct either. Hesitant (uncomfortable or otherwise) is still probably best. I continue to read at AUFS and many of the contributors published pieces because I do find value in it. I am simply trying to navigate that in the midst of my particularity. What I am hesitant about is in regards to universalism/imperialism. I have not decided that my particularity is a universality. Perhaps this is where the ‘gulf’ APS mentioned becomes apparent. I look to One in whom the universal/particularity is taken up (and I am saying nothing of others commitments here). The project that I am reading seems to be trying to restore truly modern philosophy of religion, which seems to bracket out my position methodologically (though include it practically) . . . is that a fair statement?

    I also don’t see how this is open minded, it seems to be completely the opposite – if it does not correspond to my immediate interests, I probably won’t like it.

    I fail to see how my ongoing engagement demonstrates my closed mindedness and distaste for this expression.

    APS,

    Thanks for clarifying your initial comment. I do not presume to know what this sort of dialogue will lead towards . . . if anywhere. I will continue to read many of the works coming out from AUFS contributors but I have been more hesitant in jumping off the edge of the cliff into dialogue thinking that angels will keep me from being dashed on the rocks! As you point out Dan B is interested in resources from my own tradition and I have gained from his works. So again, my hesitancy is in how this movement will gain traction. It is no surprise that well-intentioned and thought-out positions can easily fall into the trap of imperialism or constantianism (my tradition is no exception). I guess I hope that my particularity can help offer itself to keep that from occurring in other particularities, whether I fully understand them or not.

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