As a historian of religion, much of my recent work has focused on tracing the genealogy of what we call religious freedom in developments internal to European Christianity. My goal has not been to frame a normative theory of what limit ought to be placed on the freedom of religion—whatever this word is taken to mean—in any contemporary jurisdiction nor (apart from the effect of British colonialism on India) to trace the very different histories of the modernization of cultural traditions in other parts of the world, as these traditions have been shaped by the complex forces of economic development, nationalism, and technologization.
Posts Tagged ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’
It was their final conversation. She would soon die, although neither of them knew it at the time. St. Augustine and his mother waited for a ship that would take her across the sea, to Africa, where she had raised him. She had always prayed he would become a Catholic; now, after many years, he was one. “There we talked together,” he writes in his Confessions, “she and I alone in deep joy.” This common joy stemmed from their shared company, but also their shared belief in God.
Reading the entries posted at Frequencies, an online project that alleges to be “a collaborative genealogy of spirituality,” brings out the bitchy side of my temperament.
When Thomas Tweed asks, “Is ‘spirituality’ a noun? A verb? Something else?,” I want to send him a pocket dictionary that he can consult in future moments of linguistic crisis, so that he does not produce overwrought prose that only calls attention to himself. (Confidential to TT: it’s a noun.)
Sean Dorrance Kelly is chair of Harvard University’s philosophy department and has published on topics like cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics. For his first general-audience book, though, he teamed up with his former teacher Hubert Dreyfus and took on the Western canon. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, published this year by Free Press, is a daring proposal for a new embrace of ancient polytheism. Looking back to the epics of Homer, they find resources for thwarting the nihilism that has haunted some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I spoke with Kelly over cappuccinos in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, while he was waiting to catch a train back up to Boston.
At The Stone, philosopher Sean D. Kelly muses on Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and considers contemporary culture in light of Nietzsche’s epidemiology of modern nihilism. Aside from the oddness of seeing Nietzsche analyzed in the The New York Times, there are a few particular issues one could take with Kelly’s brief essay.
Anyone who has entered the labyrinth of A Secular Age should welcome this volume as a guide. Its contributors unwind many threads—some leading deeper inside, others promising a way out—but this series of posts can follow only one. Taking up Taylor’s distinction between traditions of transcendence and those of immanence, while remaining sensitive to its subtleties, William Connolly divides these traditions still further, observing that they are constituted not only by the beliefs they affirm about the world but also by the emotions they cultivate toward the world thus affirmed. Not content to delineate merely abstract possibilities, though, he adds that “each tradition is equipped to honor Jesus by offering a distinctive interpretation of his calling and mode of inspiration.” Accepting his invitation, this post (and those to follow) will attempt to offer such an interpretation—from the perspective of the Heraclitean tradition.
Why is it so difficult to treat religion as just another cultural phenomenon?
In a 1956 text on ethics and literature, Emmanuel Levinas offered the following diagnosis of the philosophical trends of his time: “Contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist. The gods are dead or withdrawn from the world; concrete, even rational man does not contain the universe.” This atheism that is not humanist, the sense that certain strands of contemporary philosophy had abandoned secularism’s central ethical and political investment in humanism, poses the motivating question behind the book I am presenting for discussion here, An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. In twentieth-century French thought, particularly in the period from the end of World War I through the late 1950s, a new form of atheism, and with it, a new conception of man, emerged and crystallized. What historians and critics of French thought, literature, and intellectual culture have, since the 1960s, called “antihumanism,” I argue, can be best understood in terms of this development, which is at once theological, epistemological, and political.
I was asked after the 2008 Presidential election to make some loose predictions about the future of conservative political religions in the United States. As any handicapper would, I’ve kept tabs as the Town Halls grew first loud and then armed, as cries of outrage were heard in legislatures, as conspiracies once the province of Lyndon LaRouche were given a national airing, and as tea parties were held. I’m not surprised, of course, having written two books about the recrudescence of religious antiliberalism. But I found it very interesting that Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age—a wonderfully rich collection of reflections on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age—should appear in the thick of revived public panics regarding the perceived value of secularism. As bumper sticker-length slogans are hurled like grenades from various corners—celebrating the “divinely-inspired” vision of the Founders or defending their cautions against religious presence in public life—it seems obvious that secularisms are precisely what we should be scrutinizing. Right?
I had the opportunity to sit for a conversation with the Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan at the end of the 2009 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal. Ramadan is a public intellectual who has been a figure of both much praise and much condemnation, occasioned by controversial statements and positions that have cast him alternately as courageous and dangerous. As an activist, Ramadan continues to call for European Muslims to resist the encumbrances of minority status and to strive to play a central role in European public life as engaged and active citizens. Through his writings and lectures, he speaks both with and on behalf of Muslims in the West, as well as for Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active in the academy and in various grassroots engagements, lecturing extensively on social justice and the necessity of inter-cultural dialogue. Ramadan describes his work as at once protecting “Muslim identity and religious practice” and encouraging the European Muslim “to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as a citizen at the social level and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs.”