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.”
Posts Tagged ‘John Rawls’
Brad Gregory’s monumental and erudite book has yielded a wide range of reactions. Highly appreciative remarks (especially from the Catholic side) are countered by rather dismissive, sometimes even venomous reviews (by Ian Hunter, James Chappel, Mark Lilla, and others), as well as by more balanced critiques (those of Peter Gordon, Victoria Kahn, and Adrian Pabst, for instance). I will not dwell on the details of these divergent opinions; I would instead like to focus on the question of whether or not The Unintended Reformation is a genuine work of history. More specifically, I would like to tackle two questions: (1) What is meant precisely by the term “a supersessionist model” of historical narrative in contrast to “genealogical history”? And (2) does Gregory succeed in writing a study in genealogical or analytical history, as he claims to do, or is The Unintended Reformation itself an example of supersessionist historiography, albeit in reverse? My answer is based primarily on a comparison between Gregory’s book and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which are often mentioned in the same breath (cf. Lilla, Hunter, Pabst).
It is hard not to be convinced by Akeel Bilgrami’s careful, patient, and generous exposition in “Secularism: Its Content and Context.” And indeed there is much with which I agree, especially the balance that Bilgrami strikes between a care for truth, on the one hand, and the idea of internal reasons, on the other. My remarks below are offered by way of exposition and clarification, but they are motivated by a spirit of interpretation: it seems to me that the paper operates in distinct tonal registers: a primary register of hope, a secondary register of tragedy, and an unacknowledged third register, which I will call prophetic.
Akeel Bilgrami’s article, “Secularism: Its Content and Context,” is an important and welcome contribution on a topic that has acquired momentum with the renaissance of the public role of religions, in democratic and non-democratic societies alike. Bilgrami clarifies in a penetrating and lucid way, three fundamental ideas on secularism: first, that it is “a stance to be taken about religion”; second, that it is not an indication of the form of government or the liberal nature of a regime; and third, that the context is a crucial factor in issues concerning the relationship between politics and religion.
I begin with three fundamental features of the idea of ‘secularism.’ I will want to make something of them at different stages of the passage of my argument in this paper for the conclusion—among others—that the relevance of secularism is contextual in very specific ways. If secularism has its relevance only in context, then it is natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts. But I write down these opening features of secularism at the outset because they seem to me to be invariant among the different forms that secularism may take in different contexts. It is hard to imagine that one hasn’t changed the subject from secularism to something else, something that deserves another name, if one finds oneself denying any of the features that I initially list below.
This “religion in the public sphere” thread has featured debates about whether citizens of liberal democratic societies can offer religious reasons for public laws that will be coercive on all citizens, or whether they must use, in John Rawls’s terms, “public reason.” . . . This normative debate is about what people should do in public debates, but knowing what people actually do would allow theorists to develop greater nuance in their analyses. When we see what people actually do, we can further inquire as to whether there are social structures that are pushing people toward good or bad behavior. For example, it is possible that the normative structure of the contemporary public sphere works so strongly against certain normative proposals that they should just be abandoned as utopian. Moreover, it is possible that we may gain normative wisdom from the collective practices of citizens. In any event, given the many hundreds of normative analyses, some empirical examinations may usefully agitate the debate.
What is interesting about An-Na`im’s arguments is that they ground the case for the secular state not in the Quran, not in claims about the presence of the imago Dei in the person or in some other source of the person’s intrinsic dignity, not in natural law, some closely similar type of practical reason, or universal moral precepts, but rather in what might be called “second order” observations about the phenomenology of belief, the character of government, the lessons of history, and the like. To be sure, good reasons for the secular state lie therein. But are these arguments sufficient to ground an Islamic case for constitutionalism, human rights, and the secular state? I doubt it.
It is clear from the ongoing discussion about “Religion in the public sphere” that we live in an age when many inside and outside of the academy are thinking and talking about religion—specifically about religion in public and whether it ought to be there. Many are turning their attention to the relation among religion, law, and politics, now that the once-common theories about the inevitable march of (what is commonly understood as) secularization have been mostly discredited. Such theories were based on an erroneous interpretation of the Enlightenment as a monolithic force that discounted religion, and on the view that modernity would necessarily usher in secularism, that is, launch an age in which religion had no significant standing. Yet most have come to realize that religion as an intellectual, cultural, and political force is not, in fact, waning on the globe. To help us think about religion in the public and political landscape, I propose a model—what I call Public Landscape as Varied Topography—in which there is room for various socio-political stances, religious or otherwise. [...]
If the state is going to enforce any principle from Islamic sources, according to Abdullahi An-Na‘im, then it should implement the principle that the state should not enforce Islamic principles. This is the crux of An-Na‘im’s new book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari‘a. An-Na‘im, a renowned Islamic scholar and human rights activist, is a leading member of the generation of Muslim intellectuals that came to prominence in the 1980s as critics of both Islamist revolutionaries and post-colonial dictators. According to An-Na‘im, the secular state is not just a good thing on public-policy grounds; it is also justified on Islamic grounds. [...]
What are we to think of the idea, entertained by Rawls for a time, that one can legitimately ask of a religiously and philosophically diverse democracy that everyone deliberate in a language of reason alone, leaving their religious views in the vestibule of the public sphere? The tyrannical nature of this demand was rapidly appreciated by Rawls, to his credit. But we ought to ask why the proposition arose in the first place.