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’
Without pointing out those places where I agree with Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I would like to add a qualification to his claim that the modern Western world is correctly described as “hyperpluralistic.” The term “hyperpluralism” is sometimes used in socio-political discourse to refer to the fragmentation of political interest groups and the resulting challenges associated with forming coalitions. Gregory, however, often writes about “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose.” He thus uses the term in a more general sense, which includes moral, philosophical, cultural, political and theological aspects.
Recent years have seen the resurgence of “metahistories” that seek to provide a single complex narrative of seemingly disparate events and developments. Among the most prominent contemporary accounts are Marcel Gauchet’s La condition historique (2005), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011). In different ways, all three offer an overarching story of how the distant past—whether the emergence of the modern state or the rise of secular unbelief as a default position or cultural capacities driving religious development—continues to shape the present. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is another such ambitious attempt, charting the way in which Protestantism unwittingly invented the capitalism and secular liberalism that together constitute our current condition.
In many ways, the argument of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a familiar one. Gregory aims to explain our modern condition genealogically, by tracing the “hyperpluralism” of modern religious and secular commitments to the Protestant Reformation. The unintended consequence of the Reformation was the proliferation of individual truth claims that led to the proto-liberal separation of church and state. Univocal metaphysics and Occam’s razor (the principle of explanatory parsimony) simultaneously brought God within the same ontological order as creation and led to the “exclusion of God” from scientific explanations of the natural world. Once empirical science became the new standard of truth, the metaphysical rug was pulled out from under religion and morality: belief and value became subjective and relative, leaving individuals with no standard by which to adjudicate conflicting truth claims. In the place of a substantive “virtue ethics” of the Good, some early modern thinkers began to advocate a formal, individualist ethic of rights.
Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is noteworthy for its readiness to tread upon questions of morality and metaphysics that most historians would consider forbidden terrain. It is a common characteristic of historical scholarship as it is practiced in the modern university today that it abstains from grand philosophical themes and fastens its attention upon a narrow set of questions in an empiricist mode. This is perhaps due in part to the way that a highly administered society that is bound with ever-increasing intensity to technocratic norms is inclined to make a fetish of academic specialization. It is no doubt also due to an accumulation of historical knowledge and a professional imperative to keep abreast of the published work within one’s field. Because the drive to produce in the corporate university cannot exempt itself from the largely quantitative assessment of a scholar’s value, the sheer mass of information to be absorbed increases as the range of academic expertise narrows. Despite the new vogue for “global” history and high sales for books that extol the apparent superiority of Western civilization, most historians are humble creatures who prefer the domesticity of the local and the precise.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 on Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, is unconstitutional. The Court also declined to rule on Proposition 8, a California case that banned same-sex marriage, on technical grounds, deciding that the case was improperly before the Court. The following roundup presents a range of reactions from both sides, with a focus on the religious aspects that have long influenced this debate.
In a recent article, Libby A. Nelson discusses the role of faith in Catholic universities and puts forth the question, how Catholic are these institutions?
What is religious freedom supposed to free? That is, what is the operant understanding of “religion” behind the claims of religious freedom such that religion requires its own forms, practices, and concepts of freedom under the law? Is there something about religion that gives freedom of religion either a privileged or a peculiarly worrisome character different in kind from artistic, political, or sexual freedom? And to this list, why not add occupational, associational, or, say, economic freedoms?
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.
Author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism, and, most recently, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, Andrew Bacevich is a celebrated veteran as well as a fierce and indefatigable critic of American militarism and imperial policies. A self-described “Catholic conservative” and an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., Bacevich is a social critic of note as much for his independence of thought as for his insistence on grounding his public remarks with a clear sense of moral principles and purpose.
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.
Though currently on sabbatical at the University of Zürich, Richard Amesbury teaches religious and philosophical ethics at the Claremont School of Theology, where he is is involved in establishing a new School of Ethics, Politics, and Society. He is the author of Morality and Social Criticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Faith and Human Rights (Fortress, 2008), as well as numerous articles. His interests reach across many themes and fields in which the concept of “religion” is constructed and mobilized, from human rights law to civil religion to the New Atheism.
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.
At first glance, Justice is an internecine wrangle between theists (or better put, Christians). On the one side is Alasdair MacIntyre and his crowd, with their passively pious, neo-Aristotelian foundationalism. “We are waiting not for a Godot but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” MacIntyre concludes in his After Virtue, and I assume he is waiting still, whoever happens now to be sitting in the chair of St. Peter. On the other side, those like Wolterstorff who hope that Christianity might still have something to say in contemporary conversations about politics, justice, and human rights. Kozinski and Smith take up this wrangle in various ways. But it is a wrangle that I, standing over here, view with some detachment. What do I care whether Christianity can reconcile itself with a theory of inherent rights?
Perhaps one might argue that Justice: Rights and Wrongs is not simply a contribution to a conversation among philosophers. It is also a contribution to a public dialogue about human rights and thus a conversation among citizens. Here one might argue that because human rights are the sorts of things that are instituted and enforced by governments, we need to approach the conversation from the point of view of what we could agree upon, and not from the point of view of establishing what we think is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is a profoundly ambitious book. His normative aspiration is nothing less than “speaking up for the wronged of the world” by reorienting contemporary thinking on rights and justice. … But what about the practice of liberal democracy? What would it mean to govern so that members of a society can “enjoy the goods to which they have a right”? Justice is not a book of practical application, but it is clearly on Wolterstorff’s mind.
The central claim of Nicholas Wolsterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is that justice is based on natural human rights that inhere in the worth of human beings, a worth that is bestowed on each and every human being through God’s love. He contrasts this view of “justice as inherent rights” with an alternative notion of “justice as right order,” the view that was espoused by pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and dominated philosophical thinking until relatively recent times. […]
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.
Why is it that sex is such a central part of American political life anyway? Why, when The New York Times reported on the influence of “values” voters on the 2004 Presidential election, did the Times name only two “values,” both of them reflecting a conservative sexual ethic: opposition to abortion and opposition to “recognition of lesbian and gay couples”?
Despite the putative separation of church and state, one of the major places in the U.S. where religion and the state remained entwined is around sexuality, specifically at the point of marriage, where religious officials are actually empowered to act on behalf of the state. And whenever politicians talk about marriage laws, they nearly always do so with reference to religious commitments—and the political affiliation or philosophy of the policymaker doesn’t much matter in terms of this outcome.
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 […]