Between conservatism and secularism

I participated in a comment thread on Facebook, where a friend of mine was telling of a panel discussion held at the University of West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, between a certain priest and Donnya D. Piggott of the Barbados-GLAD team, among others. He offered the following summary of the event:

“There was an interesting panel discussion at UWI Cave Hill last night on homosexuality in the Caribbean. And by interesting I obviously mean that one of the panelist was a wonderful stereotype of the ignorant and loquacious christian pastor…”

We need theologians to ally with the LGBTQ community in the Caribbean. It’s like Latin America in a sense: liberation theology emerged as a force for good,  but these theologians neglected the other marginalized. And so the time was ripe for Marcella-Althaus Reid to land pon de scene with her Queer (or “Indecent”, as she called it) Theology. We theologians need to retort back “no, our God is a queer God.” It is to free theology from orthodoxy, to name as idolatry the authorities’ reduction of God to little more than  their own scheme of things. The caribbean theological tradition has been influenced by liberation theology, but its time it be made indecent. The movement here is to say farewell (adieu) to the “big other” god– who functions as little more than an absolute reference point for an oppressive take on things– so that we may move towards God (à dieu). In short we need a theology after the death of god.

This is what we don’t need though: another “big other” erected in its place. So we don’t want what’s so common in the caribbean today, but neither do we want a secular hegemony erected in its place– as has happened in France and other parts of Europe. What I have in mind here is when we, in name of reason, ironically ignore every kind of research done by sociologists and anthropologists into religion, and reduce it to whatever we say it is– namely something distinct from secular reason. There’re a number of problems here. Let me name two:

1) Hegemony and the swallowing up of the other: We raise our way above all others, as the way. Difference is tolerated only to the extent that the other conforms to the way. Like the Catholic authorities who “love” homosexuals… once they don’t have sex. Or like a secularist, who can respect a muslim… if she doesn’t wear a niqab.

2) We act as though our way is a given, as though it rests upon absolute foundations. We fail to see that our own secularism entails an outlook and feel for the world, as shaped by story and habit. We distinguish ourselves from the religious person on the basis of belief, all the while ignoring some of the most interesting findings in cognitive science today. It’s like Dawkins et al. can’t be scientific through and through. We shout “science!” but when we get to religion we ignore every kind of research into religion, coming from the psychology, sociology, and anthropology of religion, among other sub-disciplines. We completely overlook the fact that we all “believe”. We know, from what we know about the brain and cognition, that “belief”, or a basic sort of “take” on things, comes quite naturally to us. We all operate with a meaningful horizon. And this horizon is formed over time. Before we think, we’ve already made sense of the world in a certain way– not only as mediated by this horizon, but as the bodies we are, with the kind of brains we have.

Thus, a number of religious scholars and more materialistically/phenomenologically minded philosophers and theologians now think it better to approach religion not in terms of abstract propositions, but a basic sort of “take” on things– a vision of what the “good life” looks like, of what matters most. It is this sort of formative vision, that colours our world, that is given shape to by story and practice. Even before this we had Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher, approaching religious belief not in terms of its truth, but its effect. It’s not to say that interrogating the truth of something isn’t important, but we’ve reduced our analyses of religion to nothing more than that. We’ve completely overlooked the potential of religious and theological language, as a theoretical resource and conceptual tool, for example, able to engender new ways of thinking. We’ve ignored the way religious stories can affect us, and give rise to ethical orientations.

You know what a lot of sociologists of religion are interested in now? Research into secular “religion”. That is, those outlooks, formative practices, standards of beauty and femininity, for example, that are treated as a given and hegemonized so as to marginalize others. We have, in Nietszche’s terms, “god” all over again. Namely, a “big other”, or absolute reference point in relation to which we secure ourselves, creating the illusion of a firm foundation underlying our own take on things.

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