John Boy, in a post on March 15th, titled “What we talk about when we talk about the postsecular,” provides a brisk empirical overview of his key word’s appearance in recent discourse. But it is not at all what I talk about when I talk about the post-secular, and in many ways I think Boy’s account is potentially misleading.
Boy takes his cue from a lecture delivered by Jürgen Habermas in 2001, where Habermas proposes to bridge the gap posited by Ernst Bloch’s notion of non-synchronicity—which is simply an uncritical early version of Johannes Fabian’s “denial of coevalness,” in his Time and the Other—through “democratically enlightened common sense.” However, what this “common sense” means for Habermas—“a translation of religious positions” into (for example) “Kant’s postmetaphysical ethics”—is in no sense post-secular! It is in fact the essence of the secularization thesis itself, in one of its most prominent historical guises, as I have tried to demonstrate at length in Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity.
Over his career, Habermas has had the uncanny ability to say the same thing, in different guises, though in ways that make those who follow him think that he is saying something rather new. In fact, Habermas’s idea of gradually translating (via communicative action) the truths of religion into secular (Kantian) ethics is almost as old as his main philosophical project itself, and it is basic to his version of the secularization thesis. As Habermas writes in Nachmetaphysiches Denken (1988), in phrases that he would repeat numerous times elsewhere, “As long as religious language bears with itself inspiring, indeed, unrelinquishable semantic contents which elude (for the moment?) the expressive power of a philosophical language and still await translation into a discourse that gives reasons for its positions, philosophy, even in its postmetaphysical form, will neither be able to replace nor to repress religion.” Habermas voiced similar sentiments in his earlier critical essay “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness Raising or Rescuing Critique?” (1972), and he has repeated them almost every time since, whenever he has been asked to speak about religion and reason. But, as I said, this is the essence of the secularization thesis in one formulation, and it derives directly from Hegel: secularization as the translation, without residue, of earlier metaphysical truths into post-metaphysical language. It is the core of what Hegel meant by dialectical Aufhebung, which is to say that for Hegel and for many who followed him, especially in European philosophy, it is what we came to understand by secularization. Hans Blumenberg lays it out in more sophisticated terms (as does Jean-Claude Monod), and Habermas develops his own account of the process, but it is, without doubt, one version of what we talk about when we talk about secularization. There is nothing “post-secular” about it. The other primary version of secularization, as seen, for example, in Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, assumes that the scientific revolution marked a fundamental rupture with the past that bequeathed to modernity a new, rational, and materialist mode of understanding that owed nothing to prior religious thought. Blumenberg tries to negotiate a bit between these two versions of secularization, though he finally comes to rest with the “fundamental rupture” version. Indeed, most historians tend to switch back and forth between the two versions without warning—Edward Said used to do so at the drop of a hat. But make no mistake: there is nothing “post-secular” here. It is what we have always done, at least since Hegel (on one side), and figures such as Spencer and Huxley (on the other).
To find something that is worthy of the name “post-secular”—though I have my doubts about the utility of the term precisely because of its terrible ambiguities—one would have to reject not only the all-at-once break with the religious past demanded by the materialists (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.) but also the Hegelian model (still embraced by Habermas) by which the rationally or ethically “unrelinquishable” core of the religious past is gradually translated, in good democratic fashion, into rational discourse that “gives reasons” for its positions. But then, if we rejected both versions of secularization, what would remain? It seems unlikely that the scholarly community would ever accept a wholesale return to belief, as John Milbank proposes. Does the term “post-secular” then have no meaning, as Jonathan Sheehan has suggested?
I propose that the only real philosophical alternative at this point to both the scientific, materialist break with the past and the Hegelian overcoming of it is the one promoted by Heidegger—the refusal of, or the “step back” away from, the entire history of Being in the Platonic-Christian-Enlightenment model of progressive reason. This Heideggerian notion of Verwindung—the distortion that also opens up a space for a new approach to Being—is the very opposite of Hegel’s Aufhebung. But it also, and in ways unintended by Heidegger, may open up new ways for thinking about secularization—that is, secularization less as an inevitable, one-way street to either sudden materialist transformation or slow Hegelian translation (however “non-synchronous” either of these may be geographically), but rather as a process in which “strong religion,” if I can borrow the term, will always and inevitably recur, as a form of resistance to the seemingly inexorable (even mythical) imperatives of rationality (think Frankfurt School); as an escape from certain forms of perverse political expediency (recall Max Weber’s need for a charismatic balance against bureaucracy); and, perhaps most of all, as the imagination’s spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion that we once naively thought could be safely contained by “the aesthetic.” Though on one level I share Habermas’s desire (fond hope?) for a truly thorough-going, democratic, dialogic, and universal post-metaphysical secular ethics and politics, I don’t finally think it is possible to get there from here, or that we would like it much when we did. And that, for me, is what we are really talking about when we talk about the post-secular.