TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 152 (Fall 2010): Religion and the Critique of Modernity

Enlightenment and modernity, the social formation with which it has been inextricably entwined, have had a complicated relationship with religion. Of course there have been important moments of genuine compatibility, when trust in reason converged with trust in God. A deist imagination animated the philosophers of the eighteenth century, including the leading figures of the American Revolution, who did not shy away from declaring that our inalienable rights derived from a Creator who had endowed us with them. The revolutionary act displaced the divine right of kings with the divine rights of all, and Thomas Jefferson could conclude that bold statement with “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” While such modern thinkers valued faith, we can easily identify faithful believers who were simultaneously at home in the tradition of reason: Aquinas, Maimonides, and Avicenna, or more recently, Benedict XVI, consistently claiming that faith and reason belong together.

Belong together they may, but standard narratives of modernization treat it as a process of inexorable secularization, in the course of which religion and its institutions figure solely as dogmatic enemies of all that is reason and light. Modernity justifies itself by conjuring up the lurid images of the Inquisition or poor Galileo recanting. For today’s progressive, the understanding of religion is often frozen at the Scopes Trial: religion is cast in the role of perpetual backwardness, out of step with the values of progress. For the secular imagination, a straight line links the hostility to Galileo to the resistance to evolution to the animosity to contemporary progressive cultural positions.

Yet the progressive wish that this opiate of the masses vanish has not been granted. Religion has not disappeared. Could it be that religion plays a constructive role in the lives of communities and society at large? Or does religion, precisely where it surpasses instrumental reason, provide access to dimensions of experience and knowledge that a fully enlightened world would lack? At stake here is not advocacy for any particular theology but rather the hypothesis that intellectual traditions embedded in religious paradigms remain important sources for understanding our predicaments, precisely because they point to capacities beyond the rational concept, beyond legal regulation, and beyond the state. One hardly needs to note that religion is not necessarily hostile to that enlightenment trinity—the concept, the law, the state—and religious thinkers typically (if not always) treat them with respect. There might however be more, beyond the law.

This issue of Telos turns to the critical relationship of religion toward modernity. Not surprisingly, the specific modern points of irritation, toward which religion can direct a critical examination, are otherwise familiar to social theory: bureaucratization and marketization of all social relations, with an attendant erosion of community structures (themselves frequently, if not exclusively, grounded in religious communities and their traditions), forms of commercialized popular culture, and objectifying tendencies within scientific culture that feed anxieties about the ramifications of technology. Modernity has transformed the world powerfully, and it continues to do so, often in positive ways, but with deleterious consequences as well. Religion thinks about the mess that is left behind.

David Gross opens the issue, noting the incongruousness of religion within the New Left but also the efforts by Telos to explore the topic. He provides an intellectual historical framework and a rich account specifically of the Catholic critique of modernity, with a focus on the relationship to modern mass culture. He describes how the stance of the Church has evolved over the past century, and he stakes out a fundamental distinction between total critics of modernity, who advocate a full rejection of its degraded values, and “dialogic critics,” who propose an engagement with modernity in order to change it. In the former camp, Gross places thinkers such as Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini, and James Hitchcock, and he points out how Hitchcock, the most contemporary of the group, maintains an oppositional stance toward those elements in the post–Vatican II Church who try to dilute Catholicism in order to accommodate it to modern sensibilities. Gross sums it up this way: “In general one might say that the goal of the New Class reformers and activists has been to shift the focus of the Catholic religion from the timeless to the immediate, from the symbolic to the prosaic, from the mysterious to the mundane, and from the solemn to the informal. For Hitchcock, none of these realignments can be considered positive because each radically narrows the experience of contemporary individuals, stripping them of the unique moral-spiritual-transcendental dimension they require but are most certainly not able to obtain from popular culture.” Nonetheless, for Gross, there are also powerful thinkers among the dialogists—those who advocate engagement with modernity—including both Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II), who described the conflict between cultures of life and death, and Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) and his advocacy of restoring the cohabitation of reason and faith.

Arthur Versluis turns to the cultural origins of secular modernity in the theses of Eric Voegelin and Hans Blumenberg and their critique of “gnosis,” which Versluis sees however as a continuation of the anti-gnostic discourses of late antiquity. At stake is not only the sheer deployment of power against heterodox positions (a Foucauldian reading of this process) but also the substance of the anti-gnostic campaigns, the programmatic effort to eradicate mystical tendencies and the cultural options they might elicit. “This would make secular modernity essentially the triumph of heresiophobia. Once transcendence or gnosis is driven to the margins and excluded, then one is left only with a historical horizon. If gnosis is demonized, then there remains only the flat plain of historicity, at the far end of which hovers the specter of millennium or apocalypse. It is not far, then, once one is out on this plain, to the strictly secular millennialism of modernity as reflected in various forms of twentieth-century totalitarianism.” The core logic of the suppression of mystical esotericism means the triumph of an exotericism; and, as Versluis cites Charles Péguy, the banishment of mystique means the triumph of politique. Versluis takes this one step further with the claim that the counterculture of the 1960s involved a resurgence of a religious antinomianism, the suppression of which is precisely the defining feature of secular modernity. For this reason, Versluis controversially (but refreshingly) discounts progressivist accounts of the 1960s that celebrate standard political achievements and reminds us of the counterculture and its embrace of Asian religions.

Gross and Versluis suggest alternative positionings of religion and cultural modernity: on the one hand, variously conservative Catholic rejections of mass cultural tendencies; on the other, the counterculture—for some, surely, a variant of modern mass culture—precisely as the venue of a rich antinomianism. Adrian Pabst provides a larger historical context, looking at the reconfiguration of democracy, liberalism, and modernization through the recent history of capitalism. Pabst argues that the spread of contractual relations and universal principles, the two sides of liberalism, contributes to an erosion of traditional structures, including religious institutions. The result is a “regression of civic life across the West and elsewhere.” The alternative program toward which Pabst points involves the reinvigoration of community and social bonds, including through the practices and belief structures associated with religion. Pabst’s reference here to a “gift society” means moving beyond the reified structures of both bureaucratic social democracy and commodified neo-liberalism, moving beyond the law and the recovery of the sacred.

Five essays follow that address theorists whose work has been at the crux of recent considerations of religion, modernity, and critical theory. Annabel Herzog provides a close reading of Emanuel Levinas’s “Judaism and Revolution,” a lecture delivered in Paris soon after the events of May 1968. Just as Versluis tries to limit the political progressive historiography of the 1960s in order to highlight the spirituality of the counterculture, Herzog presents Levinas as pushing back against the political state—and the political revolutionaries—in order to preserve an alternative realm: “the major concern of Levinas’s philosophy focuses on something transcending material conditions and equality, something that is fundamentally non-egalitarian and that he defines as the infinite responsibility of the subject for the other person—and that he calls ethics.” Or in Levinas’s own words: “It is not through the State and through the political advances of humanity that the person shall be fulfilled.” Ethics and religion stand outside of and opposed to the degraded political realm.

Mirko Hall draws our attention to sound in the work of Walter Benjamin and the formula of “dialectical sonority,” the capacity of sound to elicit memory that works against the evisceration of experience in modernity. As such it acquires a messianic capacity (in Benjaminian terms) to convey knowledge of emancipation, “the secret signal of what is to come.” Two essays follow exploring the work of Giorgio Agamben in quite different modalities. Agata Bielik-Robson provides a trenchant analysis of Agamben’s various and conflicting uses of the term “state of exception,” as both critical and affirmative, as both a Gnostic ambivalence (inimical to conceptual metaphysics) and as the absolutism of state sovereignty. How can it be that “[t]he oppressive state of exception, created by the capriciousness of modern bio-power, is to be converted into a positive, Benjaminian ‘real state of emergency’ where the human being will finally lead a ‘happy life’ beyond any imposed project, work, or vocation—beyond any law“? Agamben attempts to present this inversion as messianic, but—through a powerful contrast with Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption—Bielek-Robson highlights this internal flaw in Agamben’s work. Gabriel Alkon then places Agamben in a different context, reading his critique of sovereignty in relation to Herman Melville’s “Bartelby the Scrivener,” understood as an explicit rejection of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his celebration of will, choice, and potential. Finally, Dimitri Ginev takes a new look at Herbert Marcuse’s search for a new science, and he shows how the development of non-instrumental, dialogic, and erotic relations to nature, especially in contemporary ecosystems ecology, inherits Marcuse’s utopian search. We should however also ask what resonates between the hermeneutic critique of science and the hesitations on the part of religion toward the scientific worldview. Such a connection, between religion and other critiques of science, is hardly counterintuitive.

Three Notes conclude this issue with diverse accounts of European politics. Vladislav Zubok remembers the late Victor Zaslavsky, a good friend of Telos, in a touching profile, which is also a compressed account of the intellectual history of emigration from Russia. Frank Adler connects the cultural challenges of contemporary immigration in Europe with the historical and hermeneutic traditions associated with Norbert Elias, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Richard Rorty. Finally, Stefan Auer traces a deep divide among intellectuals regarding their understanding of Europe and national traditions: between the post-national rationality associated with Jürgen Habermas and models of greater diversity and national integrity, especially among Central and Eastern European thinkers, from Jan Patočka in the past to contemporary authors: Václav Havel, György Konrád, and Adam Michnik.

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