Secularity and the liberal arts:

Thinking otherwise

posted by Mary-Jane Rubenstein

In Why I Am Not a Secularist, William Connolly offers a usefully reductive gloss of the standpoint he does not avow. Secularism, he ventures, is the effort to maintain a rigid distinction between church and state by “strain[ing] metaphysics out of politics.” For my limited purposes here, I would like to propose, similarly, that a Euro-American secularist is one who insists that religion be confined to the realm of private belief and that politics be conducted independently of any purported vision of transcendence. The dangers of transcendence are clear to the secularist; she worries that it inspires other-worldliness at best, and dictatorship at worst. This is to say that a politic suspended from some mythic other world either encourages people to neglect this world (as in, “global warming and nuclear proliferation only hasten the rapture”) or imprints upon a particular political configuration the stamp of eternity, necessity, and truth (as in, “God is on our side because God is on our side”). It is in this spirit that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri insist that “when political transcendence is still claimed today, it descends immediately into tyranny and barbarism”).

So as to avoid other-worldliness, on the one hand, and tyranny and barbarism, on the other, the secularist entreats us to own up to what we all secretly know already: there is no transcendence grounding the temporal flux, no world of Forms outside Plato’s cave. All we have are the shadows on the wall, and it is our task to arrange ourselves as harmoniously as possible in relation to them.

Of course, the critiques of this secularist perspective are manifold. Through the work of Connolly, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, to name a few, we have learned that the secularist cave is neither the universal nor the neutral playing field that it pretends to be. Just like whiteness and maleness, secularism claims to speak for the whole world by effacing the particularities of its genesis—specifically, Protestantism, colonialism, and capitalism. One could write full-length books undertaking any of these critiques, but for the purpose of this forum, I would like to bring another perspective briefly into focus, primarily because it does not get quite as much attention in discussions of secularism among religious studies scholars, anthropologists, and political theorists.

This position is the one advanced by the increasingly political Christian theological circle known as Radical Orthodoxy (RO), and it goes more or less like this: secular political theory is doomed from the outset because it cuts itself off from any outside—that is to say, any order of things that is truly different from the ordinary order of things. Christianity offers the only viable socio-political configuration for two reasons: first, it alone is truly universal; and second, it alone offers a truly peaceful vision of the world. I will not discuss the issue of RO’s claims to universality here; rather, I refer the reader to the critiques I have offered here and here. More important for the moment is RO’s conviction that Christianity guarantees peace because Christianity ontologizes peace; that is to say, Christianity tells a story that grounds our being-together in a fundamental harmony with other beings and our creator.  This horizontal and vertical harmony is tied up and secured by means of the doctrine of the Trinity, which draws difference into loving identity without canceling out the differences it relates. So, it’s peace all the way down, and anything less than peace is a denial of the way things actually are.

The problem with secular political theory from RO’s standpoint is that it starts the story too late. Rather than grounding our being in a fundamental harmony and then accounting for our fall into violence and greed, secular political theory assumes violence and greed from the outset. Hobbes, Weber, Mill, and, to a certain extent, Rousseau—all of these thinkers begin from an irreducibly agonistic state and then devise ways of managing the violence they’ve enshrined in the first place. In short, secular political and social theories are hopelessly lodged in violence because they assume that the way things look “down here” is the way things fundamentally are. Secularism, in other words, divorces the shadows in the cave from their sunlit originals, abandoning us to a parodic world of simulacra simulating nothing, with all of us taking meaningless bets on which shadows might prance across the wall next.

Now, I must confess, part of me finds this critique quite convincing—not because I am wedded to a Platonic metaphysic, but because it seems to me that secular political theory, insofar as it assumes the inescapability of violence, cuts itself off from what Derridean shorthand would call the possibility of the impossible. By insisting that this is all there is, the secularist position forecloses the emergence of anything other than this. Since people are violent, we must manage violence with violence as responsibly as possible—any other option is just foolish. What troubles me is that by sticking to what is probable and practical, secularism misses that which from our perspective seems impossible—say, peace, justice, compassion for all sentient beings, swords into plowshares. . . . These sorts of promises, it seems to me, are only held by something like transcendence—even if only the possibility of transcendence—the possibility that things might genuinely be otherwise.

Sympathetic as I am to the Radically Orthodox critique, however, I do not at all agree with their solution, which is, in short, to make the whole world Christian (specifically, high Anglo-Catholic) insofar as the whole world already is, at bottom, high Anglo-Catholic. To be sure, one massive stumbling block for me is the neo-imperialism at work in this insistence on Christian universalism. But there is a theological problem too—namely, the demand for transcendence, coupled with the claim to know what that transcendence looks like. This is a problem because, to risk a tautology, transcendence is not transcendence if it doesn’t transcend—if it just confirms our vision of the way the world really is. If transcendence were genuinely to transcend, it seems to me that it would not ground our political convictions so much as unground them, for the sake of reconfiguring the political terrain itself. To deny this discomfiting truth and attempt to lay claim to transcendence would be to confirm the secularist’s justifiable fear of theocratic tyranny and barbarism. But, again, to cut off transcendence is to close off the space of something genuinely new.

So as far as I can see, the question becomes not whether we’re “for” transcendence or “against” it, but how we might conceive of transcendence differently. Rather than confining it to some static realm outside the world, to which a privileged few have access, how might we think of a transcendence that opens dynamically through the world, surprising and unsettling us each time? How, in other words, might we rethink the topography of the cave?

Now, the source I find most helpful and most frustrating for re-thinking this infamous allegory is Martin Heidegger. In his two interpretations of Plato’s cave—one in a 1931 lecture series on Plato and the other in an essay written in 1947, after Freiburg University’s denazification committee had forbidden him to speak in public—Heidegger’s great insight is that truth does not reside in the brilliance of the Forms, but rather in the transitions from the cave to the sunlight, and from the sunlight back down to the cave. This is to say that truth and shadow open through one another, or to push Heidegger a bit further than he allows himself to go, the cave and the sunlight are not two separate spaces at all. They are, rather, different modes of seeing the same world. (I discuss this point at length in Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe.) The sunlight opens through the cave. I think this is a fair extension of Heidegger because it echoes one of the central claims of Being and Time, which is that authenticity is not some realm set apart from the everyday—it is merely a modified way of apprehending everydayness itself. The true, the authentic, the space of freedom is folded into and only emerges by means of the ordinary, untrue, and unfree state of things.

So, where are we? Weren’t we talking about secularism? We will recall that the Euro-American secularist construes “the religious” as an escapist or tyrannical privilege of the space outside the cave over the cave itself. As a remedy, she offers the space inside the cave as the only space there is, leaving us, as far as I’m concerned, cut off from anything that truly differs from the rather intolerable way things are. The pseudo-Heideggerian interpretation I have offered here weaves itself somewhere between the religious other-world and the secular this-one, not only refusing to privilege either over the other, but, more radically, reading them as thoroughly interwoven. So, if the religious standpoint lodges itself in the extraordinary as such, and the secular perspective roots us in the ordinary as such, I am pressing here for some way of seeing the extraordinary in and through the ordinary.

To remain a bit longer with Heidegger, there is a name for this attentiveness to the extraordinary in and through the ordinary. Plato called it thaumazein, a word most often rendered in English as “wonder.” In his reading of Plato’s Theaetetus, which claims wonder as the origin of all philosophy, Heidegger explains that unlike curiosity, amazement, or stupefaction, wonder (Erstaunen) wonders not at the extraordinary as such, but rather, at the strangeness of the everyday. As Heidegger puts it, “precisely the most usual whose usualness goes so far that it is not even known or noticed in its usualness—this most usual itself becomes in and for wonder what is most unusual.”

So, if the “religious” standpoint loses itself in some other world, and the “secular” accepts this one too uncritically, wonder’s relentless between looks for what’s shocking about the ordinary. This shock can give way to all sorts of different value judgments—wonder might expose the ordinary as suddenly beautiful, or inexplicable, or as thoroughly unacceptable. Thus its political promise: wonder neither allows us to claim access to a fixed order no one else can see nor to remain content tinkering with a patently broken set of ethico-political configurations. Rather, to put it in totally ordinary terms, wonder reveals that the way things are need not be the way things are. And it could be just this sort of denaturalization that might allow us to begin to think the secular—otherwise.

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3 Responses to “Thinking otherwise”

  1. avatar Gene McCarraher says:

    As sympathetic as I am, “wonder” also recalls Thomas Carlyle — hardly a champion of democracy. Carlyle invoked “wonder” in Sartor Resartus and elsewhere in his work to mean respect and reverence for the power and majesty of God, the finitude of human power, the beauty of the natural world, the giftedness of things, the extraordinary quality of ordinary life and existence. But as the author of Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle eventually enlisted “wonder” in the service of idealizing strong, authoritarian figures, more filled with “wonder,” apparently, than the “mobocracy” he disdained. Even though Christopher Lasch tried to vindicate Carlyle and “wonder” in The True and Only Heaven, his attempt founders on what even Lasch has to concede was Carlyle’s “unpalatable” political views — which, however, he doesn’t want to link back to “wonder.”

    And it’s not as though Heidegger has the most inspiring political record. . .

  2. avatar Hugh Thomas says:

    Your argument has a great deal in common with Mahayana Buddhism. I’m not saying this in an attempt to contradict RO by claiming that reality is really Buddhist, not Trinitarian! But it seems like there are interesting resources within Buddhist thought that could contribute to this discussion.

    To begin to outline what I’m talking about, Mahayana Buddhism’s critique of Theravadan Buddhism is essentially that it seeks an other-worldly transcendence. Mahayana Buddhism asserts that samsara (confusion; everyday reality) is not different from nirvana (enlightenment). (“As it is, whole and complete, this sense world is enlightenment.”) And yet, transcendence is not foreclosed. Though it’s perhaps not so easy to sort out how this is managed…

  3. avatar Zog Kadare says:

    This discussion can also be understood in terms of critical theory and the discourse on “reification,” that is, the discourse on hegemony and the creation of common sense within ideological regimes.

    I think trying to show functional examples is an interesting way to go with Heidegger. Although at times we must step beyond the vault of some Kierkegaardian “new” space, we can still speculate effectively about such an “impossible” avenue.

    To stay within a Heideggerian discussion, one that goes to Being, I think we can study genetics in terms of the ontic “worldings” generated. The wolf becomes a dog through selection in quick time. All our sense data—the world that shows up for us—is (or can be understood to be on a certain view) determined by genetics. We can understand changes in “worldings” even within the Darwinian discussion.

    One can bring “cold philosophy” “down to earth” by watching the history of the introduction of some social change, as in the theory of Judith Butler. Or my old crude example, the games in ancient Rome: they were thought ordinary activities like the practice of “exposure” of infants—that is leaving the child to die or be taken up by another in the street. In movies today Caesar gives the thumbs up to signify that he will save the life of a gladiatorial combatant; this agrees with our present notion of normal behavior; In fact the thumbs up meant kill the man, i.e., the crowd got the pleasure of watching the blood sport’s consummation in death; “as cheap as life itself” was a common sense utterance at that time. So there is certainly change in this “modest” social sense. However, one could even say here that Dasein has changed also, if minutely. And also that such changes can happen in fits and sudden “mutations”.

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