Is critique secular?:

What if?

posted by Simon During

It seems to me that Chris Nealon and Colin Jager are onto something important when they remind us that there exists a “left-secular structure of feeling” that too easily overlooks critique’s abiding relation to religion, and not least the history of Christian, progressive critique. They’re right too, I think, to suggest that this forgetting is in the interests both of the Western religious right and of Western defenders of the secular state and public sphere (e.g. those defenders of free speech against Islamic accusations of blasphemy whom Talal Asad discusses in his paper for the Berkeley seminar that inspired this series of posts).

I think we can also accept, with Foucault and Asad, that critique requires a certain “critical attitude” that is able to inform “a certain manner” of thinking, speaking and acting in relation to contemporaneity. But critique further requires an interpretative mechanism by which fragments of contemporary life (i.e. texts, utterances, images, behaviours, designs… whatever) are able to be thought of as expressive of larger formations in such a way that critical commentary on the fragment can ground commentary on culture or society more generally. More than that: modern critique borrows from a philosophic truth regime relying on evidence-based argument; it is this that most decisively marks it off from prophecy for instance.

But this triple discursive mechanism, so characteristic of modern intellectuals, is indeed pioneered in Christianity: to take an important English Protestant case, it is to be found fairly early on in texts commenting critically on the late-seventeenth-century London stage by the nonjuring Bishop, Jeremy Collier.

If, from an intellectual-historical perspective, it is not hard to show how deeply entwined modern cultural critique is with religious suspicion of the world, the problem for secularists remains: how to hold onto this history when you have no religious or transcendentalizing commitment? Otherwise put: How can secular-leftist critique parse positively the history of Christianity to which it is bound? What moments in that history are worth returning to our memory and admiration? Again I think Chris Nealon is correct when he says (not as a secularist perhaps) that, in this context, it would be best to resist the temptation to “hinge” our analysis and conversation primarily to “belief”, but rather to think about “particular theologies, religious institutions, or religious practices.”

However theologies, religious institutions, and religious practices don’t carry equal weight in the history of “progressivist Christianity”, where theology counts least. This is so, despite exemplary cases such Frederick Maurice’s nineteenth-century Christian socialism (itself loosely connected to 1848’s revolutionary “Christ of the Barricades”), which depended on a theological turn, namely the concentration on an incarnation theology as against an atonement theology. And one important reason why theology, institutions and practice don’t here carry equal weight is that the history of Christianity is remarkable, amongst much else, for the incapacity of its institutions to adhere to its theory or to its ethics despite almost continual efforts of renewal, reform and return to “primitive Christianity”. Of course, Christianity itself has little difficulty in explaining this persistent failure, but from a historicist point of view it means that it is difficult to have much confidence that Christian practice, especially at an institutional level, will implement Christian ethical or theological thought, or that the ethics that the gospels bequeath to us can maintain a steady, guiding political force.

So we need to examine Christian institutional practice—which, from a hard secular point of view, constitutes the real, true Christianity—in embarking on our act of rescue. We need especially to examine the practices of those powerful and complex institutions, deeply embedded in the world, which make a claim to Apostolic Succession and whose history precedes both the privatization of faith and modern state formations, namely, the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches. We can phrase the question like this: what possibilities for a non-conservative critique of, and alternative to, modernity shelters, or once did shelter, in them?

This is not the place to explore this thought further: let me just gesture in two directions for future reflection that might helpful for those who have not already turned aside from this rather thorny train of reasoning.

First, the gesture I am making is not new to political theory: it, or something approximate to it, can be traced in the 19thc and early 20thc strand of theo-political constitutional theory and historiography which leads from Maitland through Figgis to Laski and Cole (and Schmitt) and thence, if Darrow Schecter in The History of the Left from Marx to the Present, is right, to the new social movements. Part of this history has been recently explored by David Runciman and it marks a more political understanding of the associationalism that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, partly in response to the Solidarity movement. I am thinking here of Paul Hirst and Stephen Yeo from the British left, as well as from a more sociological perspective, of Robert Bellah here.

Second: in the English case, this line of thought can lead to the extreme counter-factual question: why was it exactly that the Anglican church failed to become a church of the people rather than of the respectable and the oligarchy? Why were new forms of non-competitive secular collective life unable to develop from it? Why was it so unable to cope with industrialization and urbanism? These are suggestive and rewarding questions precisely because, despite the seventeenth-century civil war and the emergence of Dissent after 1660, both English populism and local government remained so bound to the Church at least until the late eighteenth century. The Church was where modernity could have been reshaped, where the market’s reach could have been contained, just as today institutional Islam remains a hope for those who wish to escape the full force of democratic capitalism.

One answer to this intriguing question is perhaps hinted at in that moment in Oliver Goldsmith’s wonderful Tory populist novel of 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield. Its hero, Parson Primrose, a naïve and sentimental exemplar of primitive Christianity, is being led off to prison by the machinations of a corrupt libertine squire. Primrose’s parishioners, who love him because of his pastoral care and genuine goodness, want to set him free by violence: it’s a moment of popular resistance. But Primrose persuades them not to riot in a homily which appeals to the classic Lutheran/Anglican doctrines of non-resistance and passive obedience. “Alas my dear deluded flock, return back to the duty you owe to God, to your country, and to me.” There’s a case to argue that the people have paid a considerable price paid for obeying that “duty,” the price being that the loss of all alternatives except passive obedience to the sovereign order of global capitalism, an order that may well contain within it what the thirties Catholic social theorist, Christopher Dawson, called “democratic totalitarianism” and in whose interests secularism goes bad.

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One Response to “What if?”

  1. avatar Chris Nealon says:

    Simon (if I may) — a fascinating post, from which I learned a lot. I’d enjoy hearing more about “Christ of the Barricades” in particular. Meanwhile I hope you won’t mind my quibbling with your remark that “Christian institutional practice” … “constitutes the real, true Christianity” from “a hard secular point of view.” I think the idea of a “real, true Christianity” ends up negating your own remark that we need to keep the histories and possibilities of progressive Christian critique in mind when we tell the story of critique’s relation to Christianity. The dominant isn’t the true, unless you’re a really hard-line empiricist.

    I guess it’s not just a quibble — on my demurral from the idea of a “real, true Chrisitanity” hangs my hope that we can think about dissent within, as well as traditions without, Christianity as part of the story of “the secular,” always already tending too much toward generalities — a hope I found refreshed by the particulars you introduced into the conversation …

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