Beyond critique:

The theology blind spot

posted by Kristina Stoeckl

I have always been puzzled by the fact that Charles Taylor starts his book A Secular Age with a long quote from Bede Griffith in order to describe a religious type of experience. It is the description of a scene experienced by the author as a school-boy: trees are blossoming, birds are singing, the author has the sensation that angels are present and that God is looking down on him. My question is: Why this quote? Why choose an image and a language of sunset, trees and birds in order to describe something for which the different languages of theology have worked out precise and elaborate codifications? I understand, of course, that in the context of the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor uses this quote in order to make a soft claim to the human openness to experiences of transcendental nature. He uses the rest of the eight-hundred pages of the book to explore why it has become increasingly rare and difficult in our secular age to live these kinds of experiences, let alone to look for them in the context of an organized religious tradition. Most of us, he says, live our lives in an “immanent frame” and religious belief “has become one option among many.”

Taylor’s opening, I think, reveals as much as it conceals. It reveals self-transcendence to be at the core of the religious. And it conceals that, even though religions and their theologies have, throughout the ages, spelled out the experience of self-transcendence in the world, we live in an immanent world that has become unaccustomed to that kind of language. It is, therefore, much more uncontroversial, inclusive and elegant to start a conversation about the human desire for fulfillment with a quote involving trees, birds and a God behind the sunset, than it is to start with a quote from St. John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Griffith is accessible to a secular social science readership in a way a theological quotation would not be, even though the view on human self-transcendence in the quote from Griffith and in the hypothetical excerpt from Climacus would probably not be substantially different from each other.

I have used this example from Taylor by way of introduction in order to make more tangible the argument that I intend to lay out in this post: The political and theoretical debate on religion and secularism is afflicted by a theology blind spot. The topic of religion has returned forcefully into the social sciences and into political theory as one of its sub-disciplines, but theology has been excluded from this surge. It is quite understandable that theology as a discipline has not become a part of the academic “return to religion.” Theology, after all, had nothing to return to, since it has always been there. Additionally (but already more problematically, for reasons I outline below), the social sciences claim to aspire to objectivity and impartiality and therefore have great difficulties with a discipline that is openly grounded in faith. What is not quite so clear, however, is why theology as an object of study has been virtually absent from the one field that has provided the conceptual toolkit for the current wave of social science research on religion: political theories of the relationship between religion and secular society and politics. There is so much talk about “religion,” but so little unpacking of the religious black box into the different intellectual schools, theological struggles and internally contested teachings that make up a religion.

Contributions by Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, Charles Taylor, and others have defined the field and provided the vocabulary for its discussion. However, what has not yet received sufficient attention from the side of the political theory community, it seems to me, is the fact that their notions of “religion” rely on subjective theological assumptions that are rarely made explicit. Habermas, for example, in Religion in der Öffentlichkeit bases his argument about the three modern transformations of religious consciousness (which lead to the acceptance of religious pluralism, scientific rationalism, and profane morality) on two theological sources. He quotes (in footnote 46 on page 144 of Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion) the German Catholic theologian Thomas M. Schmidt and the German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher as evidence that the work of “religious self-enlightenment” (“die Selbstaufklärung der Religion”) is in the hands of “the non-agnostic philosopher of religion.” His exchange with German Catholic theologians also shows Habermas’ distinct religious philosophical position. It is evident that Habermas’ far-reaching claim about the modern transformation of religion at the basis of the complementary learning process in post-secular society is based on a specific trend in Catholic and Protestant theology. Similar theological source-studies could be made for Rawls and Taylor.

Now, I think that it is neither surprising nor problematic that the persons at the intellectual forefront of our political theoretical debates about religion and the secular are steeped in specific traditions of theological (or religious philosophical) thought; but what I do consider problematic is that this fact remains mostly implicit in their political theoretical “operationalization” of religion.

On a first level, it is simply a question of comprehensive accounts. Alfred Stepan has called the assumption of “univocality” of religions one of the three great misinterpretations in the study of religion and politics. I think he is perfectly right, but I am not sure whether his call has been heeded much. I think it is important for anybody working in the field of politics and religion to open the religious black-box and untangle the multivocal phenomenon one gets confronted with.

On a second level, however, my concern is with the conceptual sharpness and normative pointedness of political theories of the secular-religious divide. There has been much discussion of whether Habermas’ reciprocal translation-requirement for religious arguments in post-secular public discourse is ridden by a “secularist bias” that puts a greater burden on the religious citizens than on secular citizens. I don’t find this the most urgent question, because for me it is apparent that the “burden of translation” is not equally distributed even among religious citizens, let alone between religious and secular citizens. Some ways of religious argumentation will find it easier to communicate with the secular world than others; liberal religious actors will have no problems interacting with secular actors on issues of common concern where conservative religious actors detect insurmountable problems. Among themselves, representatives of the same religion holding different outlooks on the modern world may experience rear-guard battles that are far more fierce and difficult than the front-line struggles with the secular world. A political theory that is blind to the multivocality of religious traditions either runs the risk of downplaying conflictsthis, I think, happens in Habermas with his benign assumption about internal religious modernization processesor of operating with a notion of religion that privileges those religious actors who cry out the loudest: usually the conservatives, traditionalists, fundamentalists, etc.

Let me give an example: When the Russian punk-rock group “Pussy Riot” staged a “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Christ Saviour Cathedral, Western media were quick to identify the front-lines in the ensuing trial as secular artists engaged in a struggle for freedom of expression, democracy and fair elections versus a sinister autocratic-religious alliance of Putin and Patriarch backed up by icon-bearing babushkas and “Orthodoxy or death” Nazi-skins. What passed virtually unnoticed was a debate initiated by Deacon Andrej Kuraev of the Moscow Patriarchate (not at all a marginal figure), who stressed the subversive religious message of a performance that called itself, after all, a “prayer.” Many Orthodox believers could identify with his approach, which associated the Orthodox tradition with a pluralism of opinions rather than a monolithic ideology of the Russian nation. What was at stake were contrasting political theologies, the one side wishing for an Orthodox Church independent from the Russian state, the other upholding the notion of church-state symphonia.

The example shows, I believe, that the struggle between secular critique and religious sentiments—the very same conflict we had in the Danish cartoon crisis and other freedom of speech versus moral harm-cases (see Saba Mahmood’s “Is critique secular?”)—is only on one level a struggle between secular and religious worldviews; on a second level, it is a conflict among religious actors. The same is true for all other possible secular-religious conflict situations. My thrust is that it is really this second level that is the most instructive in terms of empirical insights for further theory-building.

In order to get access to this second level, however, social sciences have to overcome the theology blind spot and have to open up to the empirical study of theological debates. In the remainder of this post I quickly want to outline what this opening-up could look like in the three approaches to the study of religion identified by Cécile Laborde in her post: Where is theology in the critical, upholding, and disaggregating perspectives?

Many scholars are critical of the terms “religion” and “secularism” as categories of inquiry because they see them as initially Christian and ultimately secular concepts whose main purpose has been to impose a specific order and knowledge regime. Their main critical tool is genealogy, applicable also to theologies (Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular). The critical approach also trains the secular observer in epistemological self-reflexivity, and therefore the main obstacle for the social scientific engagement with theology that I identified above becomes questionable in itself (William Connolly in Why I Am Not A Secularist). All in all, therefore, maybe we could say that the critical approach is the indispensable first step for the social scientific study of theologies inasmuch as it provides the right kind of attitude and attention.

The nitty-gritty, down-to-the-text empirical studies of religions as intellectual traditions, of the kind Alfred Stepan may have had in mind when he coined the term “multivocality,” come closest to my imagining of how to overcome the theology blind spot. Examples of this are Katerina Dalacoura’s post in this exchange—the study of a text as the outcome of an internal theological struggle. My work on the Human Rights Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church also takes this approach (forthcoming 2014).

But I still see two problems with this way of upholding religion as a category of inquiry by unpacking it in terms of a multivocal intellectual tradition. The first is that, as political scientists, we tend to focus on those texts and religious utterances that appear politically relevant. We start off with good intentions to give due weight to multivocality and we end up reifying religion in the one key that best speaks to the modern world, thus transforming a theological paradigm into a trait of political culture. This is what happened to Protestantism in Max Weber (“spirit of capitalism”) and to Orthodox Christianity (“symphonia”). By reducing theology to a trait of political culture, the social scientist, who thinks that he or she has given due weight to theology, has actually deprived theology of what it is: a discourse of self-transcendence. Hence the blind spot remains.

The second problem I see with upholding religion in terms of a multivocal intellectual tradition is that of translating the insights gained into theory-building. One person who has tried to do that is Andrew March in Islam and Liberal Citizenship. His focus on a thinker like Tariq Ramadan allows him to match Islam with the Rawlsian overlapping consensus without too many problems. But March concentrates, like Habermas, on liberal expressions of Islam. My own research on Orthodox Christianity shows that the focus on liberal theological debates can be misleading and may leave us in search of an overlapping consensus where the best we can get is a modus vivendi. The nature of theological discourses is that they ultimately spell out an incommensurability between the religious and the political. A political theory that identifies what is “liberal” in a particular theological tradition fails to recognize this gap as an important part of theory-building. (Poststructuralist political philosophy has done much better in this regard—see Jean-Luc Nancy in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity or Alain Badiou in Saint Paul.) Theologians, by the way, have long been aware of this problem; see Aristotle Papanikolaou in The Mystical as Political or Pantelis Kalaitzidis in Orthodoxy and Political Theology.

How can the disaggregating strategy advocated by Cécile Laborde possibly help to overcome the selective scholarly gaze on the multivocal religious phenomenon and to translate insights from the study of religion as multivocal phenomenon into theory-building? I like her proposal of identifying a plurality of normative analogies for religion. In terms of theological multivocality, this strategy could translate into recognizing within a single religious tradition a plurality of normative outlooks that defy short-cut definitions such as “anti-democratic” or “anti-modern,” but also simple binary oppositions such as “pro-democratic” versus “anti-democratic” or “modern” vs. “anti-modern.” The richness of positions thus revealed is likely to stimulate our political theoretical imagination on the religious-secular divide beyond the overlapping consensus.

I thank Olivier Roy and Cécile Laborde for their comments on an earlier draft of this text.

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2 Responses to “The theology blind spot”

  1. avatar Phil Harrold says:

    Brilliant proposal. If I may attempt a reading between the lines, you are hoping that the “richness of positions” you hope to realize will not only “stimulate our political theoretical imagination” (which some might argue is already over-stimulated) by bringing theology into a more crucial public role, but that richness may also disclose some fundamental unities that can only be comprehended (apprehended?) via multi-perspectival reflection. We know, don’t we, that those unities are ultimately Christological in form/content? Isn’t the concreteness of the word-made-flesh the great gift we offer, unashamedly, to the whirlwinds of contemporary political theory?

  2. avatar Paolo Costa says:

    For what it’s worth, I agree with Stoeckl’s call to focus on the theology blind spot by which, according to her view, would be “afflicted the political and theoretical debate on religion and secularism” and, furthermore, with her invitation to unpack “the religious black box into the different intellectual schools, theological struggles and internally contested teachings that make up a religion.”

    And yet I would like to add a further element of complexity to its disaggregating strategy (further proof, if it were needed, of the existence of that “complexity of things within things” invoked by Alice Munro in an interview some years ago).

    The additional complexity that I wish to provide concerns our understanding of what may be hidden under the umbrella term “theology.” Viewed from a Catholic perspective, when we talk about theology today we mean at least three different things.

    (1) A highly specialized academic conversation (no less internally differentiated and uninhibited than other venerable academic fields);
    (2) a theological production which is functional to preserving a long-term tradition and to the pastoral work of a religious agency (in this case, the Catholic Church);
    (3) the theological imaginary of people whose religious literacy is more and more sporadic and eclectic, but who need some fundamental theological insights to make sense of the various “religious” practices they feel committed to (if you want, we could call this a “patchwork theology”).

    If this internal articulation of the theological “blind spot” is assumed, the interest in religion of great thinkers such as the ones mentioned by Stoeckl might appear in a different light.

    I try to clarify this point by getting more specific.

    Habermas, to begin with, “tunes in” more easily with (1) and, partly, with (2), whereas he struggles to come to terms with (3) because of his alleged (self-appointed) “religious unmusicality.”

    Rawls, because of its theological training, should have found it easy to interact with (1), but due to the development of its political theory and, especially, the strategic role played by his conception of the comprehensive doctrines, focuses essentially on (2) and (3).

    Taylor, in turn, tunes in with (2), due to his religious affiliation, and with (3), in virtue of his theoretical emphasis on the changing conditions of belief, but mostly avoids to deal with (1), because of the objective difficulty to keep up with developments in that area of knowledge (although both he, Habermas and Rawls are a relevant subject matter for people working in that research field).

    In short, theology is such a complicated thing that even a theology blind spot is often a a matter of gray scale rather than of black and white. One of the main problems for those dealing with religion today with a systematic intent is not just whether to opt for univocality or multivocality, but how to deal with the different genres in which religious musicality expresses itself today. In this sense, the renowned Weber’s metaphor underestimates the density of the in-between space separating the so-called religious musicality from religious unmusicality.

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