The Messiah will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism of faith becomes possible—when there is no one to destroy this possibility and no one to suffer its destruction; hence the graves will open themselves.
(Franz Kafka, from “The Coming of the Messiah”1)
The two things which etiquette requires we refrain from talking about in polite company—these being politics and religion—are the two things I mean to discuss here directly.
At the outset, I feel compelled to admit that this theme emanates from a deep-seated personal obsession I have, provoked by a lifetime of immersion in religion. My time growing up was shared mainly between two institutions: the non-denominational Christian school I attended from preschool to senior year, and the big evangelical, Pentecostal church which I was actively involved in up through my freshman year of college. These experiences, as with anybody’s childhood and adolescence, impact a person, even create them. They produce peculiar assumptions and sensibilities, desires and anxieties. They ground our reaching-toward, our looking-back, our living-within, our escaping-from. And the story parallels the lives of millions of Americans, fundamentally formed by specific shapes of religion, no matter where their convictions currently lie.
For inquisitive kids with an upbringing like mine, you could probably understand why we might turn to theory and philosophy in order to find some handle on how the world works. There’s the metaphysical impulse, for sure—our stargazing and self-searching to see who really runs this whole ordeal. But, perhaps more importantly, there’s the promise theory seems to offer of comprehending, and articulating, our contingent situation in this world. How have these institutions determined our lives? What role have these communities performed in the structuring of social activity, our private and public manners of becoming? Why the continued impulse for some to seek out these communities long after Modern Man, with such bravado, has declared their irrelevance?
The more thoroughly we consider these questions, the less irrelevant it all seems, and the more complicated. The varieties of human traditions have developed concurrently for centuries—commingling, passing through particular political stagings and events and conflicts—and have morphed in the process. This is natural. Somewhat recently, theorists have begun to pay attention to the continuing public presence of religion. For many this was provoked by the rising political influence of American fundamentalist evangelicalism during the Bush administration, as well as the appearance of radical Islam.
But alongside these “public religions” several theorists have come to consider secularism as itself an institutional project, with a set of beliefs and values, that has shaped contemporary power-relations. Hent de Vries says of the phenomenon of secularism that “its implications in our conception of the political and in our formulation of policies follows a logic similar to that of political, public religions in the modern world.”2 Such an account of secularism then refuses us the possibility of condescending to religious people, thinking that their faith is merely an accessory or addendum to their lives better left for confessional booths and church socials. Religion and secularism, in all their variegated forms, compete for ground in the public marketplace as well as in the interior lives of families and individuals. Both forms of tradition are caught up in a developing and changing network of power, where the purchase on certain ideas or values shifts in political significance.
Once we relieve ourselves of the idea that religion is either a trivial accessory to be ignored or an irritating political problem to be accounted for, maybe we can begin to find positive political value in religion. In fact, Terry Eagleton notes a surprising trend among leftist theorists of radical politics who have turned to theology in looking for “a religious ‘supplement’ to the political”; among these theorists he cites Agamben, Badiou, Derrida, Habermas, and Žižek.3 Eagleton suggests that these theorists—awake to a sense of the spiritual vacuity that characterizes the liberal-capitalist order—turn disingenuously to religion as an "enabling fiction or redemptive lie”: “It can inculcate moral discipline, strengthen the social order and provide a degree of ceremonial form, aesthetic resonance and spiritual depth to otherwise shallow lives.”4 His criticism of this “intellectual duplicity” resonates with the warning St. Paul once gave to his acolyte Timothy concerning people in the “last days,” that they would maintain the form of religion yet deny its power.5
Eagleton seeks then—at the end of his book on God’s supposed deaths and resurrections throughout intellectual history—to affirm religion’s power at last. “If religious faith were to be released from the burden of furnishing social orders with a set of rationales for their existence, it might be free to rediscover its true purpose as a critique of all such politics.”6 He suspends the metaphysical questions endemic to religious discourse in order to take hold of religion’s power, essentially, to deconstruct the social order of capitalism. For Eagleton, the New Testament tells the story of a savior who, in submitting to his own martyrdom, sparked a revolutionary movement that claimed solidarity with the poor and powerless and called for a total rebirth of culture. It is as if he believes that, were we only able to read the Christian New Testament the right way, we would find our radical politics there. He offers a two-for-one sale of politics and religion by harvesting the desired political virtues from a privileged religious narrative. Under this practice, religion is only useful for its myths—no different than any work of fiction or anecdote from a history book.
It is not as simple as all that. What Eagleton has gotten right is the power of mythic narratives to supply believers with a set of virtues. As Talal Asad, in considering the use of myth throughout history, notes, “Myth was not merely a (mis)representation of the real. It was material for shaping the possibilities of action.”7 Understanding mythic narratives in this way, we can see that it does not matter whether a myth is religious or secular in nature. Neither does it matter whether the story is objectively true or false. Either way, the story matters to a particular community, and it whispers to them about some good which is worthy to perform or pursue. However, Eagleton has failed to adequately consider how these stories and their virtues are enmeshed in the mode of existence of the community which instrumentalizes them. Belief and community produce each other. You cannot separate them, and neither can you separate the pair of them from the larger social world in which they are inscribed.
But maybe this is exactly where the radical political value of religion can manifest, not merely as a critique of the standing political order but as an active force against the imposition of that order’s norms. Here, I am reflecting on the work of Foucault—the idea that every community, every institution, every individual person is located at a particular point within the shifting map of power-relations. A particular structure at any given moment is the consequence of a multitude of forces colliding into each other, resisting each other, as in a physics of sociality. The overall economy of forces inevitably settles into certain social norms. These norms govern not only the shape of institutional structures, but also individual behavior, notions of truth and epistemology, desires, and political virtues.
However, there is perhaps a chance to overturn those norms, because as Foucault says, “Power comes from below . . . One must suppose rather that the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups, and institutions, are the basis for wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social body as a whole.” Further on he adds, “Major dominations are the hegemonic effects that are sustained by all these confrontations.”8 I take this to mean that shifting power-relations at the local level will, in interacting with adjacent communities or structures, also influence the shape and movement of those neighboring entities—and so on, until everything within the system has been affected. Religious communities, bound together in their shared epistemological assumptions and communal values, might provide the sort of closed space required to generate new norms of behavior, new ways of being human together in the world. I do not consider it unthinkable that these new norms, if allowed to develop uninterrupted by larger hegemonic confluences of power (a big “if”), can affect the world at large. The eschatological end, though, is entirely unpredictable.
For some of us, the norms of thought and behavior that governed the religious communities we grew up in precisely embody that which we are running from. Maybe we no longer believe in God, or we struggle to reconcile the scriptures with our experience of living—of feeling what we feel and knowing what we know. Maybe we maintain that there is an unbreachable limit on the knowable universe: that some questions must remain valuable only in their continually being asked. I wonder, though, if despite all this we might yet carry within our bodies the messianic potential for redemption. This would require forming local communities founded on an ethic of compassionate respect for pluralism—simply, an ethic of love—as well as a refusal to bully each other with certainties regarding the future. Anytime we together enact this sort of compassion, we might say that a spark of the redemption flares up right there in the act.
1 Kafka, Franz. “The Coming of the Messiah.” Parables and Paradoxes. New York: Schocken, 1935. Print. p. 81.
2 De Vries, Hent. “Introduction: Before, Around, and Beyond the Theologico-Political.” Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. New York: Fordham UP, 2006. 1-88. Print. p. 5.
3 Eagleton, Terry. Culture and the Death of God. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Print. pp. 203-4.
4 Ibid. p. 205.
5 2 Timothy 3:5
6 Eagleton, Terry. Ibid. p. 207.
7 Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. Print. p. 29.
8 Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1978. Print. p. 94.
Images (in order of appearance):
Original image: Lincoln Capitol Building & St. Mary's Catholic Church
Flickr: "altar," Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious (edited)
Flickr: "lost in thoughts... lost in prayers," Rajarshi MITRA (edited)
Flickr: "Double Dutch Nuns," Jose Chavarry (edited)