The latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Sociology features a review by David Lyon of Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun (HUP, 2010).
Posts Tagged ‘Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age’
In Akeel Bilgrami’s contribution to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, “enchantment” refers to the historical belief that God or his divine expression is accessible to the everyday world of “matter and nature and human community and perception.” Correspondingly, “disenchantment” refers to that shift in perspective (encouraged by early modern science and its mechanistic model of nature) by which God was exiled from nature. Bilgrami’s ultimate aim is to “reenchant” the secular age by affirming the “callings” of a world laden with “value elements.” I will say more below about this interesting notion of a call from outside and its role in ethics; let me point out now that the processes of “enchantment” and “disenchantment” are for Bilgrami, as for Charles Taylor, essentially shifts in theological orientation, different views of the relationship between God and nature.
Like many contributors to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I share the sense that Taylor’s account of Latin Christianity demands greater attention to its global entanglements. Specifically, I am concerned with tracking the processes whereby reconciliation was bound up with the concepts, practices, and vocabulary of ubuntu during South Africa’s transition to non-racial democracy, and how, in turn, ubuntu has come to inflect the social imaginary of Taylor’s Latin Christianity.
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?
What would secularity look like if we approached it through the perhaps vague rubric of “indigenous ‘religions’”? . . . Will we ever know? Most considerations of secularity, secularism, and secularization take the Abrahamic religions and, in the South Asian context, Buddhism and Hinduism as their objects, and much discussion in the wake of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has continued this trend. Whether implicitly or explicitly, secularity is usually understood as a “civilizational” condition, and Taylor seems to confirm this by relying on Karl Jaspers’s notion of an “axial age” to mark a major civilizational transformation in thought that took place in China, India, and the Mediterranean world in the last centuries BCE. Hence, one variety of secularism, or one consequence of the varieties of secularism, might be that the practices and “myths” of indigenous religions will constantly defy availability to knowledge. Taking cues from some of the essays collected in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, I want to use this category of indigenous religions to think through the absences in and limitations of Taylor’s book—specifically, its misrecognition of indigenous religions.
The various essays on A Secular Age gathered in Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig Calhoun’s Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age raise a host of important and interesting questions with respect to Taylor’s account of secularism: Do we really need recourse to a notion of transcendence that takes us beyond the immanence of natural and human life in order to re-enchant our world? What kind of history—or, perhaps better put, story or narrative—of secularism is Taylor offering us? Can one properly define Western secularism in isolation from explicit consideration of the West’s encounters and intertwining with non-Western cultures?
What I think is most intriguing, however, about this book is how it unfolds as a dialogue between various visions of secularism informed by different background beliefs, thus illustrating the very kind of interaction between different options of belief and non-belief that characterizes secularism itself according to Taylor.
The heft of a book would seem proportional to its exhaustiveness. It is no surprise that Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is criticized for failing to be exhaustive, for missing important components of the story it purports to tell. Taylor responds: the book should have been longer. But this criticism and response both depend on a certain ambition—a certain desire for completeness, a certain will to truth—that author and critics themselves find problematic.
There are “others” whose voices must be heard, so the criticism goes. Taylor constructs “Latin Christendom” and the “North Atlantic” as entities that are internally homogenous with unproblematic boundaries. But what about Jews? What about Muslims? What about colonial encounters? What about the complex religious terrain of America? Don’t these differences call into question the exhaustiveness of Taylor’s historical narrative, and of the terms out of which it is constructed? How would Taylor deal with the non-believers, neither secular nor church-goers, of, say, rural eighteenth century America (as Jon Butler queries)?
But this line of questioning is symptomatic of a certain ambivalence, a tension between purported intellectual commitments and the performance of scholarship. The line of questioning is animated by a desire for completeness, by the fantasy that, once all of the data is accounted for, we can rest assured that we will get the world right.
Rich in interdisciplinary breadth, Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age offers an opportunity to reflect on the reception of Charles Taylor’s magnum opus. Edited by an English professor and two social scientists, it includes contributions from a political philosopher, a sociologist, a theologian, and a literary critic. Given the many reviews of A Secular Age in these disciplines, this mix of contributors is not surprising.
Somewhat more surprising is the inclusion of two historians, members of a discipline that has largely ignored Taylor’s book. Three years after its publication, A Secular Age has yet to be reviewed in the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review.
What explains this lack of interest? Writing in Church History, Martin Marty notes that while “the ordinary historian has very much to learn from Taylor’s use of history,” it cannot be appropriated “without undertaking a significant act of translating and organizing the material.”