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Now Available! Telos 166 (Spring 2014): After Faith

Telos 166 (Spring 2014) is now available for purchase in our store.

According to the secularization thesis, religious faith should have long ago disappeared, overwhelmed by the forces of progress. Yet while explicit membership in denominational communities is certainly less an obligatory feature of contemporary culture than it was a generation or two ago, modes of religion still play important roles in aspects of social life. This issue of Telos explores some of the ramifications of this afterlife of faith.

Greg Melleuish opens the discussion, explaining how religion is changing rapidly and in unexpected ways, as he underscores by pointing to Olivier Roy’s stunning juxtaposition of two new formations: “Evangelicalism and Salafism are associated with the Sixties generation, with evangelicalism finding California’s hippie milieu fertile terrain. . . . Churches are seen as ‘new paradigms’ which attract the baby boomers. . . . But this same scenario is also repeated among numerous Salafis, who originated among the ranks of the far left.” From secularization to neo-fundamentalism? Shedding the self-imposed strictures of traditional faiths, some new creeds develop an oppositional stance to surrounding society, drawing on heterogeneous resources through transformation processes accelerated by globalization. These new faith communities, variously fundamentalist, can generate a strong sense of social solidarity, at least internally among their members: they watch out for each other. Yet this communitarian tendency stands at odds with the growing individualism and dismantling of historical communities that accompany the improved living conditions in what Melleuish labels “the age of comfort,” e.g., the dramatic reductions in childhood disease and extended life expectancies. The ubiquitous encounter with death that characterized the premodern world has disappeared in much of the West, undermining the role religion played in addressing mortality. A cultural transformation follows that leaves many unprepared to face the challenges that could ensue if, due to economic or environmental limits on growth, contemporary levels of comfort should disappear. We may face the “historical irony” that, for all their seemingly backward character, fundamentalist groups prepared to care for their members may weather such a storm better than the individualist heirs of the secular enlightenment.

Luciano Pellicani traces a different path of secularization, the transformation of the prophetic discourse of ancient Israel into the apocalypse of the modern gospel of revolution. At stake is one core component of western civilization, “the spiritual victory of Christianity over Greco-Roman culture,” in particular the reception and transformation of the prophecy of a reign of justice through a Kingdom of God. This is a Nietzschean paradigm, pointing to ancient Judeo-Christianity as the source of modern egalitarianism. Underlying the millenialist vision was a new, linear structure of history, looking ahead to the “end time,” profoundly at odds with the cyclical and conservative temporality of ancient Greece. After carefully dissecting its origins, Pellicani examines the metamorphosis of this legacy, especially in the French Revolution: the vilification of the “bourgeoisie” as “evil,” the urgency of purifying society through terror, and the uncompromising pursuit of virtue. The political theology of the millenialist revolution allows for no moderation, as Pellicani demonstrates by citing the chilling words of Saint-Just: “Purge the fatherland of its enemies: You can hope for no prosperity as long as the last enemy of freedom breathes. You have to punish not only traitors, but even those who are neutral; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it. Because, after the French People has declared its will, everyone who is opposed to it is outside the sovereign body and everyone who is outside the sovereign body is an enemy.” The absolute eradication of the old became the precondition of the new, a fateful aftermath of faith that underwent radicalization through Marx, Lenin, and beyond. It produced, as Pellicani puts it, “a never-ending trail of corpses and a great mound of material and moral ruins. Its final objective of a classless and stateless society was exhilarating, which explains the extraordinary enthusiasm aroused by the Bolshevik Revolution and by all those whom it inspired. But the method adopted, the policy of tabula rasa and permanent terror, was based on the mystical assumption taken directly from Hegel’s Gnosis that ‘negation was the moving force and creative principle of history.'”

Melleuish and Pellicani complement each other in their distinct narratives of the consequences of faith: for the former, the potentials for social solidarity; for the latter, the danger of terroristic religion. While Melleuish focuses on the capacity of the religious imagination to transform as traditional institutions lose their binding power, Pellicani emphasizes a continuous gnostic legacy that remains consistent in its messianic teleology. Other contributions to this issue of Telos explore more specific philosophical and theoretical legacies in the aftermath of faith.

In a detailed reading of texts by Walter Benjamin, Joseph Weiss explores the central category of mimesis in relationship to the historico-philosophical assumptions that define Benjamin’s work. What distinguishes Benjamin from Pellicani’s teleological history is a particular backward orientation toward “a magical and auratic period of ancient perception [that] was distinguished from our relation to nature by its more ‘powerful compulsion to become similar and to behave mimetically.’ In other words, this magical phase of perception is more prone to become absorbed in its environment. The result of this capacity is that the ancients were far more sensitive to the plethora of inter-sensory associations, the imaginative pathways that exceed simple categorization, and that, in Proustian fashion, could catch hold of a scent, a color, only to be transported into an image of the past.” That civilizational stage is over; the aura has disappeared. Modern subjectivity therefore loses its previous intimacy with the surrounding world. Yet even though “this immediate mimetic sense is no longer operative for us,” Weiss reports how for Benjamin “there remains an objective, mimetic trace, and that trace is registered, as Benjamin says, in language.” The examination of that trace may allow for a recognition of the condition of alienation and, potentially, its overcoming. It is here that the messianic—or millennial—potential enters Benjamin’s work: “Redemption, the divine violence of which we have a frail premonition, would be the expressionless moment when the reconciliation between nature and spirit is, at last, achieved.”

Robert Wyllie investigates the connection between Kierkegaard’s ontological skepticism and his “radical critique of the bourgeois public sphere.” He carefully demonstrates how aspects of Kierkegaard’s critique of modern culture for excluding religious sensibility remain productive for critical theory: “Kierkegaard attacks the emerging public in his time for masking the possibility of transcendence. Contemporary deliberative democrats like Jürgen Habermas place hope for contemporary democracy in the public’s critical resources. Kierkegaard’s overarching critique claims that the public sphere reproduces a culture (specifically a time-consciousness) that precludes religious reflection. Kierkegaard’s critique was original in the 1840s, but today it resonates with the claims of sociologists of religion, like Marcel Gauchet and Charles Taylor, that the modern public sphere displaces premodern religious social imaginaries organized around transcendent forms and ‘sacred time.’ Kierkegaard folds this sociological insight into a vehement critique of the public sphere, although he remains pessimistic (like Adorno) about the prospect of a revolution against modern political life.” Religion then figures as a vital source for any critique of the contemporary, which is also why Wyllie traces Adorno’s own complex relationship to Kierkegaard.

Discussions of religion cannot ignore the challenge of the new atheism. In his essay, Charles Devellennes proposes a “theory of atheology,” carefully parsing different modes of atheism. As much as traditional beliefs in divinity disappear, he shows how, at least in some instances, what is at stake is less a triumph of science (as which atheism often presents itself) than a metamorphosis of belief itself into new forms: ” . . . the quest of atheism can no longer be seen as neutral—as the absence of belief—but as grounded in a belief, albeit one that is thought to be more coherent than its alternatives, a belief in the non-existence of God.” Atheism rejects inherited or obligatory forms of religious identity but, at some level, shares a key category. “There is a rethinking of belief that is going on here. Belief refers to a conviction, more-or-less permanent, about something that cannot be otherwise proven with certainty. Closer to doxa (opinion) than to pistis (faith), belief recognizes the contingent nature of its belief—and atheology as belief is not immune from this.” This is particularly true in a post-Nietzschean environment of pluralistic opportunities, including a “spiritual atheism.”

Giuseppe Tassone provides a magisterial treatment of the contemporary discussion of evil that has unfolded since 9/11. “All of a sudden, the world appears to be sharply divided between perpetrators of horrible crimes and their helpless victims. Or, by way of a Hegelian speculative mirroring, between geopolitical projections of the axis of evil and anachronistic remnants of evil infidels.” Although liberal sensibility initially recoiled against the invocation of “evil,” it has become a central topic of investigation. The specifically philosophical discussion of evil is, nonetheless, striking, since the very category had previously been relegated largely to religious spheres. Tassone rejects the pragmatic fallibilistic account as insufficient for the “moral catastrophes of our world.” Instead he turns his attention to the neo-Lacanian theories of radical evil, particularly in the work of Joan Copjec and Slavoj Žižek; he also probes Terry Eagleton’s Holy Terror, with its distinctive “forays into theology and psychoanalysis.” In the end however, Tassone turns to the account of evil provided by Adorno, “who, on the one hand, casts doubt on the independence of a subject reduced to ‘damaged life’ by the ravaging mechanisms of capitalist society and, on the other hand, displays a high degree of sensitivity toward the residue left hidden in the object by the conceptual operations of the subject. Theology serves then as a necessary complement of materialism to keep open the possibility of a truth beyond the status quo.” In other words, theology rather than Lacanian psychoanalysis provides the foundation for a critique of evil. Adorno’s specific critique of the social condition—rather than the priority of the psychoanalytic constitution of the subject—distinguishes him, according to Tassone, from the other theoreticians of evil: “Does [Adorno’s] disconsolate portrayal of the reality of human suffering leave no room for the possibility of transcending it? No, because for Adorno the causes of suffering can be detected and removed. It is just that they do not reside in the recesses of the subject—an ontological fact of the human condition with which both Žižek and Eagleton, notwithstanding their attentiveness to the social nature of evil, are stuck—but in the objective mechanisms of social domination.”

Matthew Smetona carefully surveys the predominant view of Hegel’s political theory as moderate or as “centrist-reformist,” providing a defense of the rationality of the state and bourgeois society, while also endorsing the Prussian reformist agenda. Against that account, he argues that the proponents of the moderate thesis “conflate Hegel’s argument for the necessity of civil society as a market-governed realm of production and exchange with an argument for the normative goodness of that institution. The latter argument is one that Hegel clearly does not make.” Through detailed readings of the Philosophy of Right and its reception, Smetona leads us to Marx and key differences from Hegel, which he explores closely. Nonetheless, “what is striking is the fundamental identity between the logic of Hegel’s critique of civil society and the logic of Marx’s materialist justification of that critique.”

Jade Larissa Schiff looks at Leo Strauss and Jacques Derrida with regard to the theory of liberal democracy. Despite the differences between their camps, “Both were critical of the self-confidence of liberal democracy, and for both the relationship between politics and philosophy was a central theme of their work.” Both also attempted to clarify their own thinking by turning to the Greeks. Schiff puts them in productive conversation with each other, particularly with regard to their signature practices of reading texts, esotericism and deconstruction.

The issue concludes with a set of short pieces. A translation from the German of Panajotis Kondylis’s critical dissection of the notion of human rights examines both conceptual imprecision in the use of the term and its frequent political instrumentalization. Steven Knepper examines the reemergence of distributism, the program for a wide distribution of the ownership of means of production, as opposed to both state ownership and oligarchistic monopolies. He reads Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture and traces its sources through Alan Tate to Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Nicholas Drummond inquires into some of the complex consequences of multiculturalism, particularly in Europe, and Mark S. Weiner reviews two books by Paul Kahn, treating American exceptionalism, through readings of Schmitt and—to return to the theme of this issue—the consequences of faith.

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