A Few Thoughts on the Postsecular, Post-Paris

Friday, November 13 was a day of good fortune for the BYU Humanities Center. We held our Annual Symposium, and our guest, Caroline Levine (of the University of Wisconsin–Madison), could not have been more gracious, engaging, or interesting. But that same evening, a terrorist cell affiliated with ISIS launched a coordinated attack in Paris, detonating bombs in a football stadium, sniping patrons at restaurants, and opening fire in a concert venue. 130 people lost their lives. The day before, terrorists had set off bombs in Beirut, killing approximately 40 people. (Only the heroic actions of Adel Termos, a 32-year-old father of two, who tackled a suicide bomber at the cost of his own life, prevented the toll from climbing well into the triple digits.) Then, on the morning of November 20, three attackers entered a popular hotel in the capital city of the African nation of Mali and killed more than 20 people. And as I write this post, Belgium has placed Brussels on its highest terror alert.

Such incidents obviously compel global attention, and focus usually turns quickly from shock, grief, and death tolls to public reflection on the status of terrorism, the organizations that promote it, tensions between East and West, and the alienated mindset of those who inflict mortal harm. Lurking, always, in the shadows if not brought into the center of the frame, is the subject of religion—less its doctrines or humanitarian efforts than its capacity to inspire the types of fantasies that tilt personal discipline into violence directed toward others.

Religion occupies my thoughts a lot these days. It always has, though my thinking has evolved over the years. Much of that thinking is practical. Like many, perhaps most, BYU colleagues, I have fairly intensive weekly responsibilities in the local congregation of a worldwide church that asks a significant commitment of time and resources from its members. I have learned to embrace this commitment as it has served as a gateway to many of the things I most cherish, from close relationships with extraordinary people to a range of intense, spiritual experiences—experiences that bring meaning to my life while also seeming to soar above it. This is what religious experiences do: they connect one to things larger than oneself. My religion thus shapes and rocks my world; I lose and find myself in it.

And so, when the CNN gaze turns to religious aspects of terrorist zeal, I feel myself strangely torn. With secularists, I react in horror to spectacles of evil explicable on grounds of human abjection (perpetrated by twentysomethings who in many cases can’t get a date, let alone a job—or who, to describe them less invidiously, have suffered the effects of war, sanctions, and bigotry that cripple opportunity and engender violence as a kind of mimetic reflex). As a religious person, I feel repulsed by the perversion of the sacred into an excuse for slaughter (or, for that matter, into isolationist platforms on the part of reactionary politicians). But by the same token, I also recoil from the scapegoating of principles like sacrifice and solidarity by wags with no feeling for religion, or by public moralists who show little capacity to discern key differences between faiths, or by weary sages who affect to know too much to care about faith one way or another.

I can’t help but contrast these recent catastrophes with an event held earlier this month. On November 5 and 6, BYU’s College of Humanities, English Department, and Office for the Study of Christian Values in Literature sponsored a conference entitled Beauty and Belief. In some ways, the theme of this conference represents a sugarplum fairy cousin of the nightmares covered a week later by the major news networks. (“Beauty,” really? Barbarism and Belief might better capture the spirit of the age.) And yet, some real thought and, dare I say, inspiration went into the planning of the conference. For example, this was among the topics listed in the call for papers:

  • A consideration of the impact of literary theory on religious belief and practice (and vice versa). Postsecular studies will be one topic for discussion, but presentations that cover other aspects of the relationship between theory and religion or theory and belief are equally welcome.

That caught my attention, as well as the attention of several colleagues, and many of us joined the conversation by writing papers for the conference and attending multiple sessions. I may share the subject of my talk in a future blog post.

But here, I wish to accentuate instead an excellent keynote lecture given by Lori Branch, associate professor of English at the University of Iowa and a prominent national voice on the intersection of religion and literature. She titled this lecture “Postsecular Approaches to Literature and the Humanities” and in it made several salient points about the turn to religious thinking in the humanities over the past couple of decades. Or rather, she discussed what should be a more vigorous turn to religion. After all, there has been a spike of philosophical interest in theological questions; new books have appeared (like Charles Taylor’s massive tome The Secular Age) detailing the exhaustion of the centuries-old turn away from religion; scholars have expressed a new curiosity about the religious lives of famous writers and critics (like W. H. Auden and Mikhail Bakhtin). And, crucially, everyone generally seems more mindful of the aftershocks of 9/11, of which the attacks in Paris, launched a week after Branch’s talk, seem only to be the latest tremor.

And yet, she acknowledged, religion has not yet achieved as widespread a presence in literary studies as, say, historicism, or feminism, or explorations of race, or the environment, or the ever-expanding culture of information. Each of those categories, it seems worth noting, potentially factor into an analysis of the event in Paris (even the less obvious ones—say, the gender dynamics obtaining in the credos of the Islamic State, or environmental conditions in a Syria ravaged by biochemical weapons). But religion—more particularly, the postsecular: the uncanny persistence of religion in a modern world that supposedly left it behind—is a constant there, pervading all those categories and many others besides.

With the possible exception of Bill Maher, people realize that religion is not primarily about terror; rather, terror should prompt us to think more closely about religion. That there is vastly more beauty in religion than barbarism was a premise of Branch’s talk. And she concluded it with two points that underscore the importance of bringing religion more squarely into literary studies. The first point involves human complexity, specifically the status of individuals as embodied souls whose lives are a complex composite of nature and narrative, of meaning derived through the complementary relationship between circumstances and beliefs—of faith placed in (better) futures that these beliefs help us realize. Her second point speaks to the peerless capacity of religion to pose “ultimate questions” concerning the origin, end, and purpose of human life. The humanities often claim such questions as their domain, their value added to a grand project of knowledge production implicitly imagined around the sciences. If the sciences tell us what is, the humanities tell us what it means.

Human complexity and the quest for meaning: these were the subjects of religion before the humanities claimed them, so there is more complexity, and more meaning, in the world when humanists take religion seriously. If the humanities include the study of religion, it is religion, in some ways, that makes us most human.

My thoughts tended in this direction as I watched the coverage of the attacks in Paris, and as I found myself wishing for, yet again—putting my hope, my faith, in—a world that might be, that should be, better. Not heaven on earth, but something more like it. At least, something better than this. It was a wish at once secular and religious.

By Matthew Wickman, Director of the Humanities Center

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2 Comments

  1. Carol Van de Wetering says:

    This won’t be academically profound as your essay is, Matthew. Evil and barbaric events cause us to recognize that having “opposition in all things” obliges us to search inward, and reach upward. It compels us toward introspection and gratitude simultaneously. It generates an intense sense of responsibility in the acknowledgment of “good” (spiritual blessings) in our lives. We may even find ourselves embracing an element of “survivor” guilt for those blessings. It is religious faith in unseen good, while much around us demonstrates very visible evil, that succors, strengthens, comforts and directs the religious.

  2. Jacob Carter says:

    Thank you, Matt.

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