Secularism and the Humanities

Matthew Wickman, Director of the BYU Humanities Center

Recently, and coincidentally, I read two articles on the same day that seemed to speak to, and yet past, each other. One was in The Salt Lake Tribune and bore the ominous title “BYU Prof Fears Mormon Scholars Are Giving In to Secularism,” while the other, published in the scholarly journal Modern Language Quarterly, was more blandly descriptive: “Secularity and the Uses of Literature: English at Cambridge, 1890-1920.” (Read an abstract of the article here.) The common thread between these articles, of course, was secularism, and it was not lost on me that, judging by their titles alone, the Tribune piece might well have appeared in a Cambridge newspaper a full century ago.

What’s the message here? That those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it? Hardly, for questions about the relationship of the secular to the religious remain pertinent across much of the globe. As its suffix implies, secularism involves a kind of systematic orthodoxy, and questions of secularity feature front-and-center at BYU, where the university’s foundation documents address BYU’s reputation for “deep commitments to inspired religious values and rigorous intellectual learning.”

The “and” in that last phrase is an animating force at the university. In my experience, most faculty and students at BYU identify it as a source of inspiration, though it can also foster anxieties. For example, and according to the Tribune, BYU Political Science professor Ralph Hancock believes that some Mormon scholars are yielding to secular viewpoints that conflict with Church positions, or at the very least are rooting their ideas of subjects like equality and freedom in secular rather than religious value systems. Where Alison Wood, the author of “Secularity and the Uses of Literature,” might take issue with these assertions is that, historically speaking, and despite the implied orthodoxy I mention above, secularism simply hasn’t proven that uniform. When one reviews the case of early twentieth-century Cambridge, one finds instead “decidedly unstable notions of public secularity and enduring uncertainty about how tensions between precedence and ambitions for future life might be negotiated.” She appeals to the religious philosopher Charles Taylor, who reminds us that, historically speaking, secularism has championed “freedom for religion” as well as “freedom from religion.” Indeed, Wood adds, it is the ambiguity between those positions that incites – and, historically, fails to secure – “a settled method in public and institutional life by which multiple perspectives (including multiple understandings of secularity) can both cohabit and be equally heard.” By this estimation, what secularity seeks is not global domination but rather a seat at the table.

A blog post like this one is not the ideal medium for pursuing either article’s claims at any length (though I will confess that I disagree with Hancock’s premise). Instead, I want to comment briefly on a debate one might imagine between the two positions – a debate that pertains, obviously, to BYU but also to the humanities. To Hancock’s concern that secularism is all around us, Wood might reply “If only!” Or, if Wood were to make the point that secularity is an ongoing and unrealized project, then Hancock might proclaim BYU to be at the vanguard.

What strikes me as most significant in this discussion is the difficulty of arriving at stable ground, perhaps most poignantly within the very concept of secularity. For that instability not only informs the historical mission of BYU, it explains a key institutional function of the humanities. This may be the case most obviously in literature departments, which emerged in their modern form in the nineteenth century as laboratories for the creation of skills of thought and expression and also for the public articulation of national traditions that, historically, had been inseparable from state religions. During this era, science placed increasing cultural as well as more purely theoretical pressure on traditions. This was especially true of evolutionary theory and correlative geological disclosures of the ever-deepening duration of the earth – receding further and further from the Biblical horizon of seven thousand years. In this milieu, literary works, ostensibly operating through a “suspension of disbelief” (or a kind of practical faith), served as vehicles for questions pertaining less to facts than to meaning concerning what is true, good, and beautiful; what societies value at present and of what they inherit from earlier civilizations; what it means to become a fully-realized individual, and what it means to be human; indeed, what it means to “be” at all.

These are questions that have traditionally been the province of religion. And what the disciplinary and institutional history of the humanities shares with the mission of BYU is that it is usually secularity, and not religion per se, that is up for discussion. After all, nobody questions whether BYU is a religious university; what they ask, instead, is what the secular means within BYU’s framework of shared beliefs and values. If one starts from a place of faith, then what is history, and how are we to read it in all its complexity? What do we make of scientific ideas concerning mountains, insects, or subatomic particles, or of mathematical mysteries like the Ulam spiral? How do we explain human behavior, or the nature of network societies and “distributed cognition,” where thought is shared across large groups? Why do we cling to narrative, whether in a novel or a family history? And what is poetic truth (in, say, the testament to Holocaust horrors in the work of Paul Celan? Or, for that matter, relative to the experience of suffering in the Book of Job)?

Ultimately, I think Wood is right: secularity is a profoundly, and historically, uncertain category. And, from the perspective of the humanities, and BYU, the more uncertainty the better, for that makes everything seem all the more complex, open, and infinitely possible. But that leaves us in a tenuous place with which neither Hancock nor Wood may be entirely comfortable, a place of paradox we can perhaps best articulate by paraphrasing the aphorism (mistakenly attributed to Abraham Lincoln) about the common man: God must love the secular, he made so much of it.

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  1. Janis Nuckolls says:

    Dear Matt,

    Thanks for this. It is provocative and very edifying to read. I enjoyed learning from your font (of wisdom, not typeface:)) and I hope Brother Hancock, as well as others who need to, will take the time to read your essay.

    Looking forward to next semester.


  2. Gideon Burton says:

    This is a generous and open take on secularism, and that sets it apart from Hancock’s use of the term, which is rhetorical. He uses the term to levy an accusation against LDS intellectuals, but I think this relates less to any shift in philosophical position and more to perceived loyalties. I happen to agree that many Mormon intellectuals (more those in the Bloggernacle than at BYU) manifest more loyalty to contemporary liberalism and its social agendas than to their religion or its leaders. This saddens me, but I think it is more the consequence of easy online communication than premeditated heterodoxy or a conscious shift to secularist views. People are more reactionary and less reflective, and they forget their blog or Facebook stream is not their living room but a broad public forum. Both conservatives and liberals have discovered their casual comments being spread and read not so casually. As for secularism, I don’t think attacking or defending it is any more useful than apologetics of the religious variety. Perhaps Hancock would have done better simply to point out that some Mormons, like so many others today, are adopting tolerance as a dogma–an ironic counterfeit of Enlightenment values all too familiar in public discourse today (“You expect toleration for your views but deny tolerance for mine.”) That position is the most problematic of all, a breach of the best in both religious and secular ethics.

  3. Two of my favorite professors engaged in public debate; this cannot end well for me.

    Note; I do not claim to fully understand Dr. Hancock’s views, or to completely agree with them. What I am presenting here is a synthesis of his views and my own.

    Well, if I may stick up for Dr. Hancock, I don’t necessarily think he has advocated a uniform secularism. What he attacks is uniform “scientism.” The underlying assumptions of quantifiability, testability, and materialism may lead to a diversity of perspectives and opinions, but they are uniformly in conflict with a revelation-based form of understanding. The point Dr. Hancock has always made is that we ought to use “scientific” methods (or, in his parlance, secular methods), but only as a tool. The scientific method may help us understand God’s poetry, but it is not itself a work of God’s poetry. A religious understanding would be more open to questioning our senses, our epistemology, and our capacities to comprehend things beyond ourselves. Before using scientific methods to question the beautiful and mysterious things you mentioned, we ought first to debate whether scientific methods are even worthy or capable of such an enterprise in the first place.

    What Dr. Hancock is bemoaning (and from my experience, this seems valid) is the separation of revelation and religion from the scientific dialogue of the university. In an academic culture which is becoming less concerned with ethics and theology, and more concerned with quantification and science, we as a religious community should think twice before embracing the trend. Religion should not be limited to a prayer before class, but ought to inform how we see the subjects we study, and ought to bring all fields into a dialogue about the eternal truths to be found in each one of them. For example, the subconscious (which is completely incompatible with a belief in God), should be taught at BYU, but need not be unquestionably accepted. Statistical methods in the social sciences should be taught, but with the understanding that the idea of human quantifiable is in direct conflict with our religious understanding of the nature of man.

    Finally, it is disheartening to hear so many embrace academic fads which contrast with the doctrines of the church. I don’t know how it is in other programs, but in political science it is all the rage to be anti-Zionist, gender-neutral, feminist, pro-equality, and decidedly modern. Coming from the flag-ship school of a patriarchal, marriage-based, pseudo-Zionist Christian community, these trends are disturbing. The problem is not the presence of other viewpoints, but their ubiquity. To even mention the role of gender complimentary in the poetry of God is to be “outdated” “parochial” “sexist” or “benighted.”

    Dr. Hancock, as far as I understand, wants a forum where religious ideas can clash, compliment, and help build our pre-existing secular knowledge. So, for that matter, do I.

  4. A pleasant discussion. But, can we so sanguinely assume that it is the norm at BYU that one does really “start from a place of faith?”

    It may, or may not, be a small point, but my observation is that secularity, which “once championed freedom for religion” now leans very strongly toward freedom from religion. Is that an evolution that you can sense, and if so, do you approve?

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