The book blog
Human beings live in virtual worlds that define what they value, what they aspire to, and what they are able to imagine. Those virtual worlds are typically shared with fellow members of a given culture, and each culture is a collective projection of the human imagination, instantiated in a way of life. Robert Bellah has written a book whose objective is to understand how those virtual worlds—in other words, those cultures—came into being, and what role religion played in this process.Read State of the Species.
Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the “axial age.” Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded. At the same time, it draws Bellah into positions he might actually not always be comfortable with.Read Dangerous evolutions?.
In seeking to make sense of modernity in the classical tradition of sociology as a field, the body of Robert Bellah’s work spans the social sciences and comparative cultural inquiry to embrace the global diversity and coherence of religion as the key to culture across civilizations and epochs within the framework of human evolution. Formally trained as a student of tribal cultures, East Asian civilization, and Islam, Bellah engages the West, and America in particular, as problematic cases that can only be understood in the broadest comparative perspective on human cultural development. This global perspective informs Bellah’s conceptions of religion and human evolution as they have deepened and grown over a half century.Read Where religion comes from and leads us.
No one reading this seven hundred page book can fail to be impressed with the sweep of its argument or with the range and depth of its scholarship. There is, indeed, nothing like it currently extant and it will take its place as a major landmark study. That range and depth of scholarship may perhaps explain why from time to time I felt as though I were drowning in multiple cross-references and superimposed typologies. Indeed, I was not entirely clear how tight the superimpositions were, or whether they were roughly parallel. For example, I found myself unsure what the relation was between the familiar sequence from hunter/gatherer to tribal societies and from archaic civilisations to the axial age, and the Merlin Donald sequence from the mimetic to the theoretic, and I was equally unsure about how these two sequences related to the sequence of childhood development based in Piaget, Bruner and others.Read What should we now do differently?.
For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.Read Weber for the 21st century.
I knew that my new book, Political Theology, would be controversial. It covers a lot of ground; it produces odd conjunctions; and its rhetoric can sound extreme. It pays little attention to academic conventions and often cuts against popular, political expectations. Some might think presumptuous its design and method of “rewriting” Schmitt’s classic. Many readers are startled to find that out of an engagement with Schmitt can come an exploration of freedom in its political, legal, and discursive dimensions. Others are surprised to find that a book about sovereignty and law—let alone a theological inquiry—puts the imagination at its center.Read A response to critics.
Hence, the tenets of liberal positive theory are opposed in Kahn’s book via the recourse to questions of state violence, revolution, terror, and sacrifice as the key political categories that are the platform for a post-foundational constitutional theory and juridical doctrine. That is, what is presented here as the underlying objective basis of the political, instead of Kant’s categorical imperative-as-transcendental judgment, is the immanence of popular sovereignty embedded in the Constitution. Or, if we interpret somewhat freely: instead of the fullness of Kelsen’s foundational law or Ground Norm, the absolute void of Ground Zero.Read Ground: Zero.
When an interviewer for the Atlantic Monthly blog asked me “What prompted you to write this book?” I apparently replied, “Deep desire to know everything: what the universe is and where we are in it.” I don’t deny that I said it—it’s just that I would have thought I would have given a more pedestrian reply, because I am a sociologist, with a Ph.D. in my discipline and some 40 years experience as a professor at Harvard and Berkeley. And I am quite aware that early in the last century Max Weber, in a famous 1918 talk called “Science as a Vocation,” warned that “science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and this will forever remain the case.”Read Where did religion come from?.
I find Kahn’s book as a whole less coherent than some others have. One issue I want to raise is the specter of American exceptionalism that haunts the book. Haunts, actually, may be too mild a word, since Kahn enthusiastically embraces the exceptional nature of American politics and law, and does so in absolutist terms (perhaps this is just the unfortunate sign of the legal mind at work, as is also the case in Schmitt).Read American exceptionalism redux.
Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace follows up on these Tocquevillean themes, exploring the contemporary American religious landscape to understand, in the words of the subtitle, “how religion divides and unites us.” As in Putnam’s earlier work, the book mobilizes the full array of methods available to the social scientist—survey research, interviews, participant observation in relevant settings, historical comparisons. Vignettes drawn from qualitative research are interspersed with discussions of the quantitative data accessible to the uninitiated. The authors draw frequently on other pertinent studies to buttress their own findings, helping reassure us that the results of their research are reliable.Read American Grace and public sociology.
Paul Kahn, in his rereading of Carl Schmitt by way of the American context, seeks to “depersonalize the sovereign.” As he states, “there is no reason to think that such a power must be exercised by a natural person, as opposed to a collective agent or institution.” Indeed, Kahn identifies “the sovereign” with the univocal expression of collective agency—that is to say, with “popular sovereignty.” It is possible that such a significant revision of Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty might make some of what Kahn says unrecognizable to a Schmittian analysis. But Kahn is less interested in, as it were, what Schmitt would think (a lack of interest that I share) than in drawing on political theology to grapple with some problems that confound liberal analyses of political interest.Read Don’t tread on me.
What we need is a bird’s eye view, and that requires taking theology seriously, and considering a longer view of the history of Western civilization than any sociological survey can provide. [...] American Grace adopts a position of respectful skepticism toward theology. The authors dutifully reproduce the questionnaire of “measures of theological belief and religious commitment” included in their survey, but they express surprise that many Americans “have stable views on such seemingly arcane theological issues” as whether a person is saved by faith or by their own good deeds. (Calling this fundamental question “arcane” is a bit like expressing confusion at that obscure rule in baseball that allows a player to score a run by crossing home plate.)Read Taking theology seriously.
Paul Kahn has written a remarkable meditation on Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology. A truly adequate response would undoubtedly require a book at least as long as Kahn’s own. Instead, I want to offer some comments playing off of some of Kahn’s own observations. Indeed, as Kahn makes clear, his own book is meant to be, not a genuine exegesis of Schmitt’s (in)famous book, but rather his own reflections that have been stimulated by taking the concept of “political theology” seriously. I find Kahn convincing that the concept draws not only on the notion of “sovereignty,” insofar as it is transferred from God to those who claim “leadership” of the state, particularly when it is faced with existential threats, but also on the important reality of “sacrifice.”Read Not for the squeamish.
At a moment when some of the theoretical gestures being inspired by old, new, or futuristic political theologies have become ineffective, Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty is a book of extraordinary significance. Or, perhaps I should say that I think it might be a book of extraordinary significance, inasmuch as it bears a potential to do something which has remained impossible, not only for Carl Schmitt, but also for some important contemporary critics of neo-liberal political economy. I want to reflect specifically about the way this impossibility might become possible, strangely, by way of a new migration of Abraham into the territory of philosophies of freedom and difference.Read For a new migration of Abraham.
David Campbell’s and Robert Putnam’s American Grace left me historically puzzled on my first reading, and my second didn’t clear things up. Its 550 pages of text, plus 97 pages of appendices and notes, probe the range and complexity of contemporary American religiousness with remarkable patience and detail. Although American Grace doesn’t leave historians on the whirling dime, wondering “So what?” it does raise questions about historical context. In other words, how do the changes that Campbell and Putnam retrace fit three centuries of evolution in American religion, politics, and culture?Read A historian’s reaction to American Grace.
Is bland beautiful? Almost never, most of us would say. But when it comes to religion in a diverse society, the answer may be yes. This is the chief, if probably unintended implication of American Grace, which I take to be the most successfully argued, comprehensive sociological study of American religion in more than half a century. Robert Putnam and David Campbell harvest a generation of research and mature reflection about how religious affiliations of all kinds divide and unite Americans of different generations, regions, sexes, educational levels, and ethno-racial groups.Read American religion in the era of Fosdick’s revenge.
I agree with Kahn (and with Schmitt) about the fact that political theory should leave room for decision and exception. But to me, the main question is: to what extent? Are there no principles that admit no exception? When I read Kahn, as when I read Schmitt, I don’t seem to encounter any such principles—anything like what Habermas thematized in Law and Morality as “indisponibility,” that is, rights that are not at the disposal of the sovereign. Can the sovereign decide that torture is a legitimate practice? The answer, to me, should be no without exception.Read Democracy under exception.
“At stake in our political life,” Paul Kahn observes, “has been not our capacity to be reasonable, but our capacity to realize in and through our own lives an ultimate meaning.” While it would require little effort for me to catalogue the many insights that seized my attention while reading Kahn’s thoughtful and highly provocative new book, it is this basic insight that chiefly arouses my interest, insofar as it serves as the organizing premise for the argument as a whole. It is therefore this claim most of all that deserves close scrutiny.Read Political theology and political existentialism.