In his new book Minding the Modern, Thomas Pfau presents a searching, and often scathing, indictment of the modern regime of personhood, which he regards as not only irredeemably soulless, but also endlessly self-deluding. In Pfau’s view, to approach personhood in terms of historical regime already amounts to a capitulation, since doing so reproduces and thus extends the fragmentation to which it unwittingly gives rise. In a curious manner, Pfau shows himself willing to echo Michel Foucault’s pronouncement in The Order of Things of the impending demise of man—at least insofar as moderns have engaged in a systematic effort to estrange themselves from logos, “the manifestation of the abiding framework within which alone meanings of any kind are to be prima facie achieved” (162). Yet this tragic tale also allows for a glimmer of hope: the resurrection of the dead is possible, if only the truth of unlikely prophets—including, in Pfau’s account, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—would inspire deeper reverence.
Posts Tagged ‘morality’
My dissertation is a comparison of the use of prayer, scripture, science education, and “high technology” in four religious high schools, and I’m rather provocatively labeling these four categories “moral technologies”: that is, tools created by (or provided to) humans that are used to accomplish certain moral goals. This definition builds upon Mitcham’s more expansive understanding of technology, and it is obviously deeply indebted to Foucault.
Thomas Farr, in his recent post, links the mass protests in the Arab world, combined with the persecution of Christian minorities in the region, and what he called “the Obama administration’s striking indifference to America’s statutory policy of advancing international religious freedom.” In my view, if the Obama administration is to do anything with respect to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), it should seek to repeal it and to dismantle the whole policy and institutional structure that it entails, because this statutory policy is an insult to and betrayal of victims of human rights violations throughout the world, including Christian minorities in the Arab world.
At the core of contemporary secularism is the denial of the existence of deities and the supernatural. There is only the natural, as described by our best sciences. This ‘disenchantment’ of the world seems to leave no place for value, and this exclusion of value from the world is, Akeel Bilgrami argues in his essay “What is Enchantment?” one of the central and damning failures of contemporary secularism.
How does secularism crowd values out of our picture of the world? If we accept a secularist metaphysics, then a necessary condition for the existence of values is that they can be accommodated by our best sciences. But our best sciences do not seem to have any room for values. Values make demands on human beings as actors—for instance, we ought to pursue the good, we ought to avoid the bad, and so on—but science describes no such free-standing “oughts.”
A lengthy profile by John Cornwell, which appears in the November issue of Prospect, examines the biography and the philosophical work of Alasdair MacIntyre, particularly in regard to the relevance of his Marx-inflected Thomism for confronting the ongoing crisis of capitalist economies in Europe and the U.S.
At the NYTimes.com blog “The Stone,” Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, writes on the roots of human morality, using a series of fascinating examples from research on primate behavior to illustrate man’s natural attraction to “the good.”
Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.”
I don’t doubt that this interesting focus is quite different from mine, though I think it would be wrong to represent my view as being focused on the theological. In my analysis, the theological had only a central genealogical role to play in the process of “disenchantment.”
Religion and the sex scandal are still closely linked, though the targets of public outrage have morphed: it is often religious authorities and bearers of traditional morality whose sexual desires and actions are publicized and condemned. With so many religious institutions and their authorities rocked by sex scandals in a litany of abuse and victimhood, it behooves us to ask what, precisely, is being exposed and denounced, and, conversely, what is being protected and perhaps even obscured. What aspects of “religion” are under fire in these scandals? What role does “spirituality” play in this discursive reconfiguration of sexuality and religion?
The dismissal of Kenneth Howell, a University of Illinois adjunct professor of Catholic history and thought, has generated much discussion and commentary in the last week, most of it focusing upon the appropriateness, tone, and argumentative validity of an email that he sent to students prior to their Spring semester exam.
Sam Harris, author and vehement secularist, argues that science can create a moral code as effectively as religion can.
The World Economic Forum has released “Faith and the Global Agenda: Values for the Post-Crisis Economy,” an annual report on issues related to the role of faith in global affairs. John J. DeGioia, the President of Georgetown University, which collaborated on the report, explains its rationale: “The economic and financial crisis is an opportunity to re-articulate the values that should underpin our global institutions going forward. The world’s religious communities are critical repositories of those values.”
I’ll start with a comment about my own angle of approach. There is of course no view from nowhere, and it is one task of the commentators to point out the blind spots that any perspective inevitably brings with it. As an anthropologist, my aim was not originally to construct a critique of modernity or of Christianity. The book emerged out of a long series of attempts to grapple with the challenges my research in Sumba presented to certain common sense assumptions about persons, materiality, and language. I came to see those assumptions as characteristic products of the liberal and secular world that produced the habits and disciplines within which many of us live, and thanks to which, in part, the book itself was written.
Like Webb Keane, I have come to see some metapragmatic elements in evangelical culture as bringing about some important and related consequences: projects of translation that make religiosity into a portable content; modular conceptions of subjectivity and conversion; rhetorics of agentialized belief, and so on. Like him, I see many of these as processes that mark evangelicalism as a system of modernity, having perhaps even more in common with structures of the public sphere or scientific inquiry than with some rival modes of religiosity.
I argue that the moral narrative of modernity is a projection onto chronological time of a view of human moral and pragmatic self-transformation. This narrative, and the concrete projects it entails, runs into certain ubiquitous problems that arise from the material dimensions of human sociality and subjectivity. Protestantism was, historically, one major source of practices and concepts that express and try to control these problems. It was also a force for their circulation well beyond the Protestant, or even the religious, sphere as such.
President Barack Obama’s May 17 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame deftly demonstrated the president’s unique ability to elevate civil discourse and to eloquently incorporate a deep religious sensibility into the nation’s most divisive contemporary public debate. Many observers have rightly commented on Obama’s important emphasis that the abortion issue requires “Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.” What is equally impressive is the religious repertoire that Obama used in articulating his vision of how that so-hard-to-come-by common-ground might be achieved. I am not thinking of Obama’s references to the “imperfections of man” and to “original sin,” or to the invocation of “God’s creation”—though these religious references are important. More striking was how Obama, a non-Catholic, showed his ability to think and to talk like a Catholic. […]
Obama’s list of virtues comes in pairs, and the pairings are mutually illuminating. I will, though, examine them not in the order in which they are listed in the address, but rather according to the depth of their roots, beginning with those anchored most firmly in the ancient classical and, later, the Christian traditions of the West. What emerges when we take this angle of approach, I will argue, is not simple continuity. Neither do we uncover a sharply defined contrast between classical and Christian, or ancient and modern, virtues. Rather, what comes into focus is a continuously unfolding understanding of the virtues, driven on the one hand by socio-historical changes and on the other by efforts to resolve internal tensions in how the virtues are conceived, both singly and in relation to one another.
Politics is not reducible to elections, of course. Yet these contests—particularly the quadrennial spectacle that is a Presidential race—usually conclude with opportunities for political reflection. Nowhere is this more evident than in the blogosphere, now crowded with academics’ reflections mere days following the tallying of votes. […]
Today at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan writes: 9/11 was a call, in my mind, to defend the Enlightenment from the nihilistic forces of murderous theocratic fanaticism.
Anglophone scholars have long struggled to find a terminology with which to study non-Catholic Christianity in Latin America. We are used to studying Christianity in terms of Catholics versus Protestants, with “Evangelicals” being a subcategory of the latter. But Latin Americans tend to divide Christians into Catholics versus Evangelicals. To make matters worse, when scholars go to Latin America and start talking to those who call themselves Evangelical, they quickly realize that these are what would be called Pentecostals, as spirit baptism, faith healing and speaking in tongues all play a central role in their religious practice. […]
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s erudite and thought-provoking book Islam and The Secular State provides a clear-sighted argument made from within the Islamic tradition for a state formation that allows Islamic beliefs and culture to enter the public domain through politics (as one of many rationally contested visions) and thereby influence the laws of the land. The keys to An-Na’im’s vision are Islamic morality and civic reason, both of which, in his interpretation, ensure a shared respect for constitutionalism, citizenship and human rights, and a neutral, secular state that provides an even playing field for public debate and makes sure that non-democratic instincts are kept in check. An-Na’im’s utopian vision stumbles here, however, in failing to provide any mechanisms for achieving its desired outcomes beyond good will, morality, and reason. […]
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.
To appreciate the cultural impact of the “cognitive revolution” discussed by David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists” (May 13, 2008), we need to be clear about what has and has not been revolutionized by neuroscience. Brooks gets the research essentially right, but he overlooks some key issues raised by “neural Buddhism” that make me question his view of its future effects on religion and culture. […]
Few books in Islamic studies have been as eagerly awaited or intensely debated prior to publication as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, An-Na`im has for more than twenty years been a tireless proponent of a deeply religious but liberal-modernist reformation of Islamic politics and ethics. […]
A funny thing happened on the way to last Sunday’s Compassion Forum: the politics of religion gave way to the politics of confession.
Sometimes we come closest to the gods in moments of play. When play is genuine, time is suspended and we are lifted into an eternal Now, where passing away seems to pass away. The value of play, like fine art, is intrinsic. We might say of play what Heidegger says of a rose, that it is “without why.” Always purposeless, the beauty of play is that it is not utilitarian; it is valuable because it is impractical. As Nietzsche teaches in his “Gay Science,” play, which is beyond good and evil, reveals the wisdom of unworldly folly and the folly of worldly wisdom. […]
One of the main arguments of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is that people, at least modern secular Westerners, have come routinely to think that the world as it is must be all there is. The contrast between immanence and transcendence is thus one of Taylor’s main organizing themes. Immanence locates both our sense of reality and our sense of the good within the world around us; transcendence gives us a sense of something beyond. Taylor develops this in conjunction with a notion of “fullness” to try to evoke what it means to live in more constant engagement with that which is beyond the immediately given, the spiritual which might infuse nature, for example, or the Divine which might lift morality above a notion of ethics as mere fairness. […]
The current campaign within the Archdiocese of New York to canonize the radical activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) offers a good example of what Elizabeth Povinelli, writing here on December 13 (“Can Sex be a Minor Form of Spitting?”), calls the “mutual conditions and secret agreements” that tie the sexual revolution and Catholic teaching together behind the scenes—and of the “transformation in the field of sin” sealed in their alliance. It isn’t simply that the candor with which Cardinal O’Connor and now Cardinal Egan have described Day’s sexual agency, single motherhood, and presumed abortion signals the Church’s accommodation to new, post-1960s norms of frankness.
I want to raise some questions about Taylor’s account of “our moral landscape” after the mainstreaming of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Our moral landscape has indeed changed—that is undeniable—and yet, in Taylor’s hands, the cartography of that moral landscape appears all too familiar, and this is so because he does not take—indeed historically has not taken—the challenge of post-Nietzscheanism seriously.
One of the most important books of our time, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explains how many Europeans and their cultural heirs have come to experience moral fullness and identify their highest moral capacities and inspirations purely within the range of human power and without reference to God. It presents an alternative to “subtraction stories” of modernity in which superstition and belief are understood to have withered away, leaving room for modern science and humanism to flourish uninhibited by metaphysical constraints. […]
I have long admired Charles Taylor and have read most of what he has written and always found him helpful. Yet for me, A Secular Age is his breakthrough book—one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime. Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism. From the very first pages it is clear that Taylor is doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved […]