On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

“Do you consider yourself postsecular?”

That was the last writing prompt I crafted for students of my graduate course on postsecular theory this semester. The responses were creative and frequently moving, as I expected they would be. More on those responses, including my own, below.

First, let me provide some backdrop for those who may be less familiar with postsecularism or its contexts. Postsecularity broadly names a renewed interest in religion, spirituality, or some combination thereof. This is an academic field, and it designates a body of theory – a field defined by a densely secular history – so it should surprise no one to learn that postsecularity is characterized by wide diversity of opinion and approach, much of it ambivalent. Some scholars in the field are devoutly religious and welcome the prospect of addressing religion and religious experience – in language that is, or is almost, religious – in academic work. A greater number are not religious, at least not overtly so, but express fatigue with the hegemonic “hermeneutics of suspicion” and delight in a resurgent cultural poetics of wonder. Still others embrace the postsecular as part of an unfolding, global project of enlightenment, contending that “we moderns” must make a space for religious cultures in the public sphere lest we betray our secular ideals by becoming as dogmatic as they. And then there are those who, affecting a kind of world-weary wisdom, argue that it might be nice if we could actually invest faith in religious nonsense, given how important it is to our history and all that, but alas … pass the vodka.

The end of that last paragraph grows a bit glib, but actually, I empathize with the skeptics, at least to a degree. Religion is all around us, whether we like it or not – and often in forms we don’t like. I’ve heard Church leaders express dismay over the findings of the Pew Research Center that Westerners seem to be less and less religious but more and more spiritual – SBNR: spiritual but not religious – because spirituality is so notoriously individualized and individualizing. There’s great irony in this, to be sure: in his landmark 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James concluded that spirituality connects us to each other and to things beyond ourselves: “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance,” and “union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end.”1 And yet, in practical terms, spirituality is often “eclectic, practicing outside or on the margins of institutionalized religions,” thus devolving into something “self-authorizing and idiosyncratic … [and] commercialized.”2 Religious fervor, meanwhile, if not downright intoxication, seems more evident in social movements than in traditional faith communities: witness the tribalism infecting American politics, where even ethical causes toward which many of us are sympathetic mobilize gatherings that take on the quality of secular revivalist meetings.

In short, religion and spirituality in the modern age are subjects that often emit more heat than light. The postsecular thus represents not so much a “return” to these topics as an exploration of what they mean in our contemporary moment.

My class on postsecular theory addressed this question by mapping broad territories of the field. We read Charles Taylor’s massive intellectual history, A Secular Age, which charts the complex course of religious belief in modernity. We took up debates – Jürgen Habermas vs. William Connolly – about whether religion could be accommodated within the rational mores of civil society or, by contrast, whether the depth of religious attachments might help us appreciate civil society as an affective, more-than-rational phenomenon. We juxtaposed longstanding academic imperatives toward “suspicious” critique with newer, more agile, postcritical and post-suspicious perspectives (Judith Butler standing on one side, Rita Felski on the other, and allies beside each). And we reflected on new media and “posthumanist” theories that, in some instances, seem almost unwittingly postsecular in invoking enchantment as a principle of everyday life and belief as a capacity of organic (and even technological) forms to evolve.3

I have a vested interest in this subject, as do my students: as religious people, we addressed the diversity of ways faith signifies in our modern world and questions of what our faith, in particular, means in the cluttered sphere of postsecular thought. We deliberated over the complexities of writing from a postsecular perspective given diverse readerships, impassioned feeling on multiple sides, and sustained devotion to secular discourse within the academy. I shared my forays into postsecular criticism – its graces and failings – and students reflected on their own scholarly voices, interests, and commitments. Poignantly, to me, we shared ideas and experiences about what it means to open ourselves to reading and writing, to thinking and feeling, in more spiritually attuned and vulnerable ways. This was postsecular theory as a postsecular practice.

So, back to the question I posed the group: “Do you consider yourself postsecular?” The answer is not as straightforward as it may appear. One distinguished scholar at a prestigious university opens an essay by declaring “I’m not a postsecularist because I’m not even a secularist. I’m an atheist.”4 He contends that only if God does not exist does human freedom bear genuine consequences, for only then are the contingencies of our actions final and not swallowed up in a vision of divine harmony. The argument has a familiar aroma, a kind of warmed-over Nietzsche with a pungent eau de Sartre. Oddly, it shares with LDS theology the repudiation of a metaphysical deity – the rejection, that is, of a notion of God as a disembodied presence filling the universe and pre-containing human agency. On that score, this atheistic manifesto can be read, somewhat kaleidoscopically, as postsecular despite itself.

Honestly, I found my students’ responses to that question more reflective, more deeply aware, often movingly and ingeniously so, attuned as these responses were to the valences of belief – its permutations and manifolds, its dark nights and rich affordances. Here they are, in a nutshell, heavily edited to protect anonymity:

 

  • I’m not a postsecularist because I’m not even a secularist. I’m a believer. As such, I live in a continuum across worlds, or different manifestations of one world.
  • If postsecularism implies a return to religion, then no, I’m not. But I applaud theories that expand the circumference of belief, thought, and agency.
  • I am a postsecularist because I’m also a secularist, and I increasingly understand how material and spiritual things commingle.
  • I’m a postsecularist who wears contradiction comfortably: believer and skeptic, humanist and pilgrim.
  • I’m less a postsecularist than an admirer of the postcritical turn that converts suspicion into enchantment, freeing us to consider wider vistas of experience.
  • Postsecularism does not go far enough to capture the stages of my life experience: secularist, mystic, student, Latter-day Saint.
  • Do I even know enough to call myself postsecular? But, having tasted the sacramental offering – having melded diverse parts of my life, literary study and religious experience – how does one return to blander fare?
  • Because postsecularity affords multiple ways of reading (for beauty and virtue in addition to truth; for joy as well as healthy skepticism), and because this accommodates more parts of myself, I aspire to be postsecular.

 

I love these responses. Knowing their sources, these people, each bears a world of meaning.

Do I consider myself postsecular? As one of my students put it, I aspire to be, if only because the term evokes something akin to ongoing conversion, or spiritual refinement, implicitly narrative in form: once I was one thing and then I was … something else, something more than I had been. Myself and something besides.

 

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

 

  1. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The Modern Library), 528.
  2. Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3.
  3. “The sum total of the world’s complexity is continually increasing, according to [Ladislav] Kovaç, advanced by the testing of what he calls the belief of organisms: ‘only some of the contructions of organisms are embodied knowledge, the others are but embodied beliefs…. If we take a mutation in a bacterium as a new belief about the environment, we can say that the mutant would sacrifice its life to prove its fidelity to that belief.’ If it continues to survive, that belief becomes converted into embodied knowledge and, as such, is passed along to the next generation.” N. Katherine Hayles, “The Cognitive Nonconscious: Enlarging the Mind of the Humanities,” Critical Inquiry 42.4 (2016): 783-808 (790).
  4. Stathis Gourgouris, “Why I Am Not a Postsecularist,” boundary 2 40.1 (2013): 41-54 (41).

 

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