The Theology Blind Spot

I have always been puzzled by the fact that Charles Taylor starts his book A Secular Age with a long quote from Bede Griffith in order to describe a religious type of experience. It is the description of a scene experienced by the author as a school-boy: trees are blossoming, birds are singing, the author has the sensation that angels are present and that God is looking down on him. My question is: Why this quote? Why choose an image and a language of sunset, trees and birds in order to describe something for which the different languages of theology have worked out precise and elaborate codifications? I understand, of course, that in the context of the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor uses this quote in order to make a soft claim to the human openness to experiences of transcendental nature. He uses the rest of the eight-hundred pages of the book to explore why it has become increasingly rare and difficult in our secular age to live these kinds of experiences, let alone to look for them in the context of an organized religious tradition. Most of us, he says, live our lives in an “immanent frame” and religious belief “has become one option among many.”

London Channel 4_Flickr

Taylor’s opening, I think, reveals as much as it conceals. It reveals self-transcendence to be at the core of the religious. And it conceals that, even though religions and their theologies have, throughout the ages, spelled out the experience of self-transcendence in the world, we live in an immanent world that has become unaccustomed to that kind of language. It is, therefore, much more uncontroversial, inclusive and elegant to start a conversation about the human desire for fulfilment with a quote involving trees, birds and a God behind the sunset, than it is to start with a quote from St. John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Griffith is accessible to a secular social science readership in a way a theological quotation would not be, even though the view on human self-transcendence in the quote from Griffith and in the hypothetical excerpt from Climacus would probably not be substantially different from each other.

I have used this example from Taylor by way of introduction in order to make more tangible the argument that I intend to lay out in this post: The political and theoretical debate on religion and secularism is afflicted by a theology blind spot. The topic of religion has returned forcefully into the social sciences and into political theory as one of its sub-disciplines, but theology has been excluded from this surge. It is quite understandable that theology as a discipline has not become a part of the academic “return to religion.” Theology, after all, had nothing to return to, since it has always been there. Additionally (but already more problematically, for reasons I outline below), the social sciences claim to aspire to objectivity and impartiality and therefore have great difficulties with a discipline that is openly grounded in faith. What is not quite so clear, however, is why theology as an object of study has been virtually absent from the one field that has provided the conceptual toolkit for the current wave of social science research on religion: political theories of the relationship between religion and secular society and politics. There is so much talk about “religion,” but so little unpacking of the religious black box into the different intellectual schools, theological struggles and internally contested teachings that make up a religion.

Contributions by Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, Charles Taylor, and others have defined the field and provided the vocabulary for its discussion. However, what has not yet received sufficient attention from the side of the political theory community, it seems to me, is the fact that their notions of “religion” rely on subjective theological assumptions that are rarely made explicit. Habermas, for example, in Religion in der Öffentlichkeit bases his argument about the three modern transformations of religious consciousness (which lead to the acceptance of religious pluralism, scientific rationalism, and profane morality) on two theological sources. He quotes (in footnote 46 on page 144 of the German edition Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, Suhrkamp 2005) the German Catholic theologian Thomas M. Schmidt and the German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher as evidence that the work of “religious self-enlightenment” (“die Selbstaufklärung der Religion”) is in the hands of “the non-agnostic philosopher of religion”. His exchange with German Catholic theologians also shows Habermas’ distinct religious philosophical position. It is evident that Habermas’ far-reaching claim about the modern transformation of religion at the basis of the complementary learning process in post-secular society is based on a specific trend in Catholic and Protestant theology. Similar theological source-studies could be made for Rawls and Taylor.

Now, I think that it is neither surprising nor problematic that the persons at the intellectual forefront of our political theoretical debates about religion and the secular are steeped in specific traditions of theological (or religious philosophical) thought; but what I do consider problematic is that this fact remains mostly implicit in their political theoretical “operationalization” of religion.

On a first level, it is simply a question of comprehensive accounts. Alfred Stepan has called the assumption of “univocality” of religions one of the three great misinterpretations in the study of religion and politics. I think he is perfectly right, but I am not sure whether his call has been heeded much. I think it is important for anybody working in the field of politics and religion to open the religious black-box and untangle the multivocal phenomenon one gets confronted with.

On a second level, however, my concern is with the conceptual sharpness and normative pointedness of political theories of the secular-religious divide. There has been much discussion of whether Habermas’ reciprocal translation-requirement for religious arguments in post-secular public discourse is ridden by a “secularist bias” that puts a greater burden on the religious citizens than on secular citizens. I don’t find this the most urgent question, because for me it is apparent that the “burden of translation” is not equally distributed even among religious citizens, let alone between religious and secular citizens. Some ways of religious argumentation will find it easier to communicate with the secular world than others; liberal religious actors will have no problems interacting with secular actors on issues of common concern where conservative religious actors detect insurmountable problems. Among themselves, representatives of  the same religion holding different outlooks on the modern world may experience rear-guard battles that are far more fierce and difficult than the front-line struggles with the secular world. A political theory that is blind to the multivocality of religious traditions either runs the risk of downplaying conflicts – this, I think, happens in Habermas with his benign assumption about internal religious modernization processes – or of operating with a notion of religion that privileges those religious actors who cry out the loudest: usually the conservatives, traditionalists, fundamentalists, etc.

Let me give an example: When the Russian punk-rock group “Pussy Riot” staged a “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Christ Saviour Cathedral, Western media were quick to identify the front-lines in the ensuing trial as secular artists engaged in a struggle for freedom of expression, democracy and fair elections versus a sinister autocratic-religious alliance of Putin and Patriarch backed up by icon-bearing babushkas and “Orthodoxy or death” Nazi-skins. What passed virtually unnoticed was a debate initiated by Deacon Andrej Kuraev of the Moscow Patriarchate (not at all a marginal figure), who stressed the subversive religious message of a performance that called itself, after all, a “prayer.” Many Orthodox believers could identify with his approach, which associated the Orthodox tradition with a pluralism of opinions rather than a monolithic ideology of the Russian nation. What was at stake were contrasting political theologies, the one side wishing for an Orthodox Church independent from the Russian state, the other upholding the notion of church-state symphonia.

The example shows, I believe, that the struggle between secular critique and religious sentiments—the very same conflict we had in the Danish cartoon crisis and other freedom of speech versus moral harm-cases (see Saba Mahmood’s “Is critique secular?”)—is only on one level a struggle between secular and religious worldviews; on a second level, it is a conflict among religious actors. The same is true for all other possible secular-religious conflict situations. My thrust is that it is really this second level that is the most instructive in terms of empirical insights for further theory-building.

In order to get access to this second level, however, social sciences have to overcome the theology blind spot and have to open up to the empirical study of theological debates. In the remainder of this post I quickly want to outline what this opening-up could look like in the three approaches to the study of religion identified by Cécile Laborde in her post: Where is theology in the critical, upholding, and disaggregating perspectives?

Many scholars are critical of the terms “religion” and “secularism” as categories of inquiry because they see them as initially Christian and ultimately secular concepts whose main purpose has been to impose a specific order and knowledge regime. Their main critical tool is genealogy, applicable also to theologies (Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular). The critical approach also trains the secular observer in epistemological self-reflexivity, and therefore the main obstacle for the social scientific engagement with theology that I identified above  becomes questionable in itself (William Connolly in Why I Am Not A Secularist). All in all, therefore, maybe we could say that the critical approach is the indispensable first step for the social scientific study of theologies inasmuch as it provides the right kind of attitude and attention.

The nitty-gritty, down-to-the-text empirical studies of religions as intellectual traditions, of the kind Alfed Stepan may have had in mind when he coined the term “multivocality,” come closest to my imagining of how to overcome the theology blind spot. Examples of this are Katerina Dalacoura’s post in this exchange—the study of a text as the outcome of an internal theological struggle. My work on the Human Rights Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church also takes this approach (forthcoming 2014).

But I still see two problems with this way of upholding religion as a category of inquiry by unpacking it in terms of a multivocal intellectual tradition. The first is that, as political scientists, we tend to focus on those texts and religious utterances that appear politically relevant. We start off with good intentions to give due weight to multivocality and we end up reifying religion in the one key that best speaks to the modern world, thus transforming a theological paradigm into a trait of political culture. This is what happened to Protestantism in Max Weber (“spirit of capitalism”) and to Orthodox Christianity (“symphonia”). By reducing theology to a trait of political culture, the social scientist, who thinks that he or she has given due weight to theology, has actually deprived theology of what it is: a discourse of self-transcendence. Hence the blind spot remains.

The second problem I see with upholding religion in terms of a multivocal intellectual tradition is that of translating the insights gained into theory-building. One person who has tried to do that is Andrew March in Islam and Liberal Citizenship. His focus on a thinker like Tariq Ramadan allows him to match Islam with the Rawlsian overlapping consensus without too many problems. But March concentrates, like Habermas, on liberal expressions of Islam. My own research on Orthodox Christianity shows that the focus on liberal theological debates can be misleading and may leave us in search of an overlapping consensus where the best we can get is a modus vivendi. The nature of theological discourses is that they ultimately spell out an incommensurability between the religious and the political. A political theory that identifies what is “liberal” in a particular theological tradition fails to recognize this gap as an important part of theory-building. (Poststructuralist political philosophy has done much better in this regard—see Jean-Luc Nancy in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity or Alain Badiou in Saint Paul.) Theologians, by the way, have long been aware of this problem; see: Aristotle Papanikolaou in The Mystical as Political or Pantelis Kalaitzidis  in Orthodoxy and Political Theology.

How can the disaggregating strategy advocated by Cecile Laborde possibly help to overcome the selective scholarly gaze on the multivocal religious phenomenon and to translate insights from the study of religion as multivocal phenomenon into theory-building? I like her proposal of identifying a plurality of normative analogies for religion. In terms of theological multivocality, this strategy could translate into recognizing within a single religious tradition a plurality of normative outlooks that defy short-cut definitions such as “anti-democratic” or “anti-modern,” but also simple binary oppositions such as “pro-democratic” versus “anti-democratic” or “modern” vs. “anti-modern.” The richness of positions thus revealed is likely to stimulate our political theoretical imagination on the religious-secular divide beyond the overlapping consensus.

* I thank Olivier Roy and Cecile Laborde for their comments on an earlier draft of this text.

 

Kristina Stoeckl, University of Vienna and European University Institute, is Research Director of “Religious Traditionalisms and Politics” at the IWM.

This article was originally published as part of an exchange on the study of religion and secularism “Beyond Critique” on The Immanent Frame on February 13th, 2014.

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    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Ranabir Samaddar is the Director of the Calcutta Research Group. His research focuses on migration and refugee studies, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and post-colonial statehood in South Asia, and new regimes of technological restructuring and labour control. Among his many publications are Marginal Nation: Trans-border Migration from Bangladesh to India (1999), Politics of Dialogue: Living under …
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Bird White Housum Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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