“Perhaps if we scholars of religion stopped viewing theology and the religious heritage of the study of religion with embarrassment, as the relic of a past we must overcome so that we can start doing what we think our colleagues in other fields are doing, we might in the spirit of such experimentation come to see this heritage as a resource that can help us think differently and creatively…” Tyler Roberts
How can I, a religious scholar, approach what I do as a formative project, whereby I can critically reflect on my own practices, and the environment in which I live? This is a concern that I consider worthy of investing time and energy into. What resources can I find in traditions of religious thought?
In religious studies, religion is often reduced to an object of study, to be analyzed historically, sociologically, or psychologically. Religious scholars tend to do a lot of thinking about, but not much thinking with— philosophically, speculatively. I want to open up space for this.
Religious studies, as a sort of “moral inquiry” as Tyler Roberts calls it, can bring us into contact with people and voices that can challenge us, contest our world. It can enable critical reflection on the habitats that we live from, the liturgies we navigate, and that shape us. It can encourage us to experiment with new stories, new practices. Religious studies can force us to rethink the simplest of things. For even the cultural forms we consume, that we live from, nourish certain outlooks, and give form to certain desires. Culture is never just entertainment; it is formative. The question we have to ask ourselves, as religious scholars, is what kind of scholars are we being shaped to be?
Simon Critchley seems to think of continental philosophy as a sort of bastion for philosophy’s emancipatory potential. A radical philosophy would, in his eyes, push up against “the effect of the professionalization of philosophy [which] is the sense that it does not and should not matter to the conduct of one’s life….” In what way can religious studies too be approached as a critical project? Can we, as Roberts thinks, approach religious traditions and theologies as resources for critical thinking and action? Can we approach religious studies from the perspective of liturgical navigation— of engaging with stories and practices, allowing them to impact us, to challenge us, and help us to find our own voices, so that we ourselves may have something to offer?
Before we think of religious studies in such a way, though, we have to show, first of all, that religion isn’t anything special, that secularism is itself, in a sense, a confession. It turns out that we’re always navigating the world liturgically, journeying through life as embodied, desiring beings, whose concerns are reflected in and shaped by story and practice. To be postsecular, in the normative sense of the word (cf. Smith ), is, as I understand it, to protest against the sort of normative consensus that favours disinterested analysis in the academy. It is to protest against the view that there is a secular, autonomous space, where religious/cultural formation does not happen. It is a protest against the idea that secularism is a sort of default outlook on the world, and that religion is something that gets in the way of reason— as if we could strip away all the religious layers of society in order to find the secular.
In phenomenological terms, we are intentional creatures, whose perception is always against a meaningful backdrop. Our imagination is shaped by liturgies, by stories that have been habitually reinforced for us, that sink deep into our bones over time, that are formative of a certain kind of being-in-the-world. We give form to the forces of life and we get those forms from others (Lingis). This is an Augustinian sort of reading of religion, understood as having to do, first and foremost, with our outlook on and feel for the world, with what ultimately matters to us. Religion is not, on this reading, primarily about believing (“belief” in the sense of intellectual assent) in a set of dogmatic propositions. It has more to do with one’s embodied outlook and desires, one’s image of the good life, as shaped by a story that has sunk deep into one’s bones, through hearing it in over and over, via the media or pulpit, or as celebrated, habitually, through ritual, in the church or mall.
In France, the niqab was banned. But, as Jennifer A. Selby and Mayanthi L. Fernando (2014) have pointed out, this ban takes place within a normative framework regarding what constitutes femininity— underlying it is the expectation that all women in the public sphere adopt to secular modes of dress. It is taken for granted that this ban is part of a confessional outlook, that “like forms of religiosity, secularity too includes a range of ethical, social, and physical dispositions (Selby & Mayanthi 2014)”. Thus, “model of femininity is naturalized”, as Selby and Fernando put it. What results is a “secular hegemony”, as Roberts (2008: 303) calls it. As Talal Asad expresses, this “imperializing orthodoxy, this doctrine demands of us a universal way of ‘being human’— which is really a singular way of articulating desire, discourse, and gesture in the body’s economy (Asad 1993: 121).”
In his impressive, thought provoking work, A Secular Age, the philosopher, Charles Taylor, points out how scientific materialism is, today, often seen as a “stance of maturity, or courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.” Or, as Saba Mahmood excellently says, in an essay to which Taylor himself responded to, over at The Immanent Frame, entitled “Is Critique Secular”:
“I think the “feeling good” part of the secular story cannot be belittled. It should in fact be studied in all seriousness so as to apprehend the visceral force secular discourses and practices command in our world today. While it is common to ascribe passion to religion, it would behoove us to pay attention to the thick texture of affinities, prejudices, and attachments that tie us (cosmopolitan intellectuals and critics) to what is loosely described as a secular worldview.”
Underlying our research practices are stories about what we do, assumptions about the kind of creatures we are, and what sort of research is worthy of funding. These are stories that we tell ourselves over and over, that are reflected in our practices, which direct us towards certain ends. Yet in so far as they’re not a given, they’re open to criticism. Like Roberts, I think it’s possible to treat other traditions of religious thought as “methodological resources for the study of religion and for cultural criticism (Roberts 2013: 20).” Of course, as he explains, such a normative project:
“departs from the modern academic ideal of disinterested inquiry. Instead, it involves disciplines of experimentation in which we reflect on what the lives of others have to teach us about ourselves, testing ourselves in terms of their beliefs and imperatives, practices and hopes (ibid).”
I’m looking at things with a different sort of “philosophical anthropology”, as Smith (following Paul Ricœur) calls it, to that of modernity. By “philosophical anthropology” Smith means “a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons— about the kinds of creatures we are (Smith 2009: 27).” I would want to think religious studies in such a way as to challenge some of the assumptions operative within the field, regarding what good research should look like. Thinking with religion in a postsecular frame entails responsiveness, a testing of ourselves, as Roberts says. This is a process whereby we try to find our own voice. Religious studies becomes a sort of moral inquiry, whereby we listen to the other, allow the other to impact us, challenge us, call into question the stories we tell ourselves. This is the kind of criticism Roberts considers the best sort, a form of experimentation in which we “work on ourselves” (Roberts 2013: 82). For Roberts, we have “much to learn from theology, and religion more generally, about questions of location, criticism, and power (Roberts 2013:17).” I agree. As viewed from within a postsecularist frame, traditions of religious thought can be approached as potential methodological and theoretical resources for critical thinking.
The sort of “self-blindness”, as Charles Taylor calls it— whereby it is treated as a given that the disinterested, scientific study of religion, is what constitutes good research— reveals the “confession”, or the formative narrative, of the secular academy.
Hélène Cixous once wrote of women coming to writing that:
“When the “repressed” of their culture and their society returns, it’s an explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions (“The Laugh of the Medussa”, 886).”
I too am talking about a sort of return of the repressed, whose mouths have been gagged, their wind knocked out of them (p. 878) by what Tyler Roberts notes as the “normalizing consensus in the university, one tied up with broader cultural norms that favor technology, method, and quantification, as well as the “excellence” and “accountability” (Roberts 2013: 81).”
As religious scholars, we can find, in our day to day lives, something worth reflecting on. The question is: what tools does religious studies provide us for doing so? First of all, as Tyler Roberts suggests, we have to approach religious traditions a bit differently, as providing theoretical resources and conceptual tools. Even philosophers such as Bruno Latour (2013) and Gilles Deleuze (cf. Ramey 2012) recognized something transformative about belief, of religious thought, as having the potential to engender new lines of flight. What matters, for Latour and Deleuze, isn’t so much the object of belief, or whether or not it’s “true”, but its effect. “What matters in an idea,” Ramey tells us, on behalf of Deleuze, “is /…/ the range of experimental possibility it opens onto (Ramey 2012: 16-17).”
Talking about some forms of popular culture, in an interview with Angie Martinez on Power 105.1, hip-hop artist J. Cole recounts how:
“I don’t really watch much TV —I don’t really get the time to watch much TV— but if it’s on like I will catch myself, like “ohh”, like you know what I mean? Like “ohh”. But at the same time I recognize this is trash, this is corrupting people. And people thinking like, you know what I mean? They don’t even realize. They like, “oh it’s on TV, it’s just entertainment.” It’s like, ok… but where is the balance? Where’s the other ones? You know what I mean? What other shows do you watch, or do they— not even do you watch, because I don’t want to put it on you— what other shows do they show you…that can counter this? You know what I mean? Or is this all that you get? Is this the majority? It’s like the music. What other music can counter this right now (Martinez & Cole 2014)?”
In the same interview, Angie Martinez, in talking to J. Cole about his recent performance on David Letterman, remarks how powerful music can be when used in that way. J. Cole responded by pointing out that, “it’s even just as powerful when they don’t use it. It’s just the wrong type of power.” Angie asks Cole if that scares him. “Absolutely,” he says. “I’m sick”. We live from culture, as J. Cole expresses; yet some forms of culture can make us “sick”. We need a counter to this. Likewise, Lord Jamar, another member of the hip-hop community, when asked about Chief Keef’s prison sentence, and the gang culture associated with his music, comments:
“[A]ll that shit that’s going on /…/ there has to be that contrast. You see what I’m saying? If he represents that and all the wild shit that’s going on in Chicago, well I know damn well there’s youth that’s trying to counteract what’s going on in Chicago. But we’re not hearing people like that (Lord Jamar 2013).”
On Smith’s account, worship— much like the hip-hop that Lord Jamar refers to, as being able to counter act the gang culture of Chicago— can be understood as a form of counter-culture. Even the liturgical calendar, Smith tells us, “already constitutes a formative matrix that functions as counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture (Smith 2009: Kindle location 2655 of 5490).” Christianity, with its stories and practices, orients us towards an impossible future, pushes us beyond ourselves, beyond the present. It reinforces, in us, a sense of the world’s brokenness (ibid: Kindle location 2676), and makes us hopeful, impatient, for the end of the world as we know it. The Christian liturgy habituates a “waiting, a longing, hoping, calling, praying for /…/ the advent of justice, and the in-breaking of shalom (ibid: Kindle location 2666).”
This hope— that “thy kingdom come”— need not be equated with an overlooking of the present. Eschatology doesn’t necessarily mean complacency. Such a criticism has, of course, been made before— and for good reasons. But we can’t overlook the extent to which it has been this prayer, this restlessness— for the in-breaking of peace, for the coming of God’s kingdom— that has inspired persons, throughout history, to action. Indeed, as Smith expresses, it is a “presentist complacency” that the Christian liturgy seeks to shake us out of (ibid: Kindle location 2669). The real complacency comes, not from looking to the future, but from failing to do so.
And it’s not just worship— prayer too deserves more phenomenological consideration. As Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, explains, in a dialogue with Charles Taylor, the Hebrew word for prayer means “to judge yourself”. Prayer has more to do, Sacks tells us, “with openness to otherness”. Drawing on Iris Murdoch, he refers to it as “a sustained act of un-selfing (Sacks 2012).” It is “opening our eyes to wonder.” The French phenomenologist, Jean-Louis Chrétien refers to prayers as “dispossessing us of our egocentrism (Chrétien, quoted in Simmons & Benson 2013: Kindle location 1270).” Prayer is, for Chrétien a “wounded word”. In prayer are unhinged, opened up to the weight of the world.
We have to ask ourselves: are our practices, our habits, making us complacent? Have we isolated ourselves from the weight of the world, created our own little comfort zones? The television we watch, the parties we attend, the magazines we read… how are they shaping us? How are our practices organizing time? Are they pushing us beyond ourselves, enabling us to understand and feel what others are going through? Is our ignorance our bliss? Are we restless, for something more, for the end of the world as we know it? Or are we happy for it to continue as it is? These are questions worth asking ourselves.
Related to our daily habits is the question of responsibility, of what vision of human flourishing, what happiness or suffering, do our practices give rise to, or implicate us in.
There’s a moral impetus behind wanting to move beyond secularism. This has to do with the effects of secular culture, as a socially atomized culture, where the image of the “good life” is one of consumption, self-fulfillment. It’s the religion of “I”, the market’s the new god. Late capitalist, consumer culture isn’t— and I here paraphrase Žižek’s lighthearted way of putting it— just the eating of hamburgers. As Graham Ward expresses, in The Politics of Discipleship, the global city contains “a new class of somnambulist, surfeited by shopping and anesthetized with entertainment, cultivating their own lifestyles, and profoundly forgetful of civic responsibilities and the proliferating needs of the disadvantaged (Ward 2009: 220).”
It is exactly this that Ward sought to address in Cities of God. Here, Ward offers an in-depth analysis of the secular city, as the city of “endless desire” and “eternal aspiration”. Secular desire feeds, says Ward, like a vampire. “The babylon system is the vampire,” as Bob Marley once sung, “suckin’ the blood of the sufferers.” Indeed, secular desire “preys on others for its own satisfaction,” as Ward (2000: 77) says. He manages to bring out, in a lucid manner, the destructive impact of a socially atomized, secular culture, where superficiality— or what he, following Jean Baudrillard, refers to as the “simulacra effect” (Ward 2000: 54)— reigns. Culture imitates culture, endlessly. The new industries are, as Ward tells us:
“the leisure industries thriving in and fostering a culture of seduction, a culture of euphoric grasping of the present in order to forget the present, submerging in a wet dream or a massive surge of adrenaline (ibid: 68).”
However, whereas Smith prescribes, for our cultural sickness, the formative practices of Christianity, Alphonso Lingis also encourages us to travel, to venture outside of the familiar— to open ourselves up to what is other, what is strange— so that we may be shaken up, out of our complacency. “Lingis’s is a work,” David Farrell Krell tells us, “that gently encourages us to go farther, to head elsewhere, to take a risk (Krell 2003: Kindle location 608 of 4890).” For as Lingis explains, with regard to Levinas’ philosophy: the other is experienced as “a contestation of my appropriation of the world, as a disturbance in the play of the world, a break in its cohesion (Lingis 2008: xxix).” Lingis follows Levinas on this point—indeed, he goes further than him. So while Graham Ward’s point, regarding secular culture and the spectacle, remains valid, it must be remembered that the spectacle is not only, “a popular and social event that somehow overstimulates one or more of the senses,” as Krell makes clear:
It also stimulates one’s own beliefs and attitudes. Many spectacles invite or challenge one to a kind of transformation. This transformation, however, is full of uncertainty, surprise, and chance (Krell 2003: Kindle Locations 98-100).”
With Lingis, it becomes possible to think of another way of being unhinged, of opening ourselves up, out of our egos, and out of our worlds— namely, “travel”.
Terrence Mckenna, in Food of the Gods, reflects on the failure of anthropologists and other academics, to open themselves up to such experimentation, and first-hand reflection, referring to it as the “queasy illogic that overtakes the academic mentality in the presence of questions revolving around self-induced changes in consciousness (McKenna 1992: 109)”. Having moved beyond secularism, on what grounds are we to discourage experimental research, whereby persons investigate, first-hand, what McKenna calls “the Wholly Other rupture of the mundane plane (McKenna 1992: 61)”?
There are scholars who want to move beyond the “immanent frame” of this secular age, as Taylor calls it. They have come to contest the closing off of ourselves from transcendence. A purely immanent frame, to them, is, in the end, existentially unsatisfying. Questions such as “why are we here?” and “how are we to live?” are more satisfactorily answered when asked within a transcendent frame of reference. Religion won’t go away because it provides what a purely immanent frame cannot. So the move is to open ourselves up to something more.
I’d concede, up to a point. For me, a purely immanent frame is unsatisfying. However, while it can certainly be argued to be unsatisfying on existential grounds, I would want to do so on ontological ones. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas, I would want to rethink immanence as already participating in, and constituted by, transcendence. We have to admit to levels of reality that bleed off into infinity, into a darkness beyond the light of reason. Beyond the coherency of the world as we experience it, as illuminated by conscious grasp, there is darkness, mystery. There are levels of reality that transcend normal sense awareness. Even theoretical physicists today speak of deeper, subatomic levels, in terms of strangeness and paradox.
In Katherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible, she reconsiders Moses’ assent up the mountain, in light of what we know today, thanks to a new breed of physics, making any crude materialism or notion of separate, autonomous individuals impossible. The mystical move, up the mountain, isn’t a move away from the material universe; rather, it is immanent to it. “The physicists are the new mystics”, as James Oroc says. Reality is far stranger than we could ever imagine. The ascent up the mountain is a move away from the disenchanted, mechanical Newtonian universe, with its separate, machine like bodies. We emerge within this world, and it is in this world, atop the mountain, that we find a cloud of unknowing, something mysterious. Disenchantment was a betrayal of this world, rather than a clearer picture of it.
We find ourselves in God in our relations with others. It is in relation to the other that we are constituted, and it is this entanglement, this being-for the other, that we find something more, something transcendently immanent or immanently transcendent—something that exceeds our grasp, slips through the cracks in our schemes of things. Standing on the mountain, looking up at this cloud, our schemes of things break down. Totalizing discourses, stable identities, egocentrism—these things crumble. We realize we are one small part of an infinitely monstrous entanglement.
There’s always going to be that which exceeds conscious grasp. Despite what various “philosophers of the light” would have us think, about the autonomy of reason, for example, there’s always going to be a darkness, as Levinas reminds us— an otherness that can never be reduced to the same. Mystery won’t go away. Indeed, as persons such as Catherine Keller (2015) or Timothy Morton (2013) have shown, quantum physics seems to confirm this. “Right in the midst of the unsurpassed success of quantum calculations,” Keller tells us:
“physicists variously emit a language of apophatic affect: darkness, cloud, weirdness, impossibility, spookiness, mystery, unknowability. Indeed, as we shall see, the varieties of apophasis /…/ come into play: epistemic uncertainty, ontological indeterminacy, rational contradiction, repressive unspeakability, unknowable infinity (Keller 2015: 133).”
Knowledge is not, as Bruno Latour says, a matter of “double-click” communication. This idea, of “immediate and costless access, this conveyance that appears to demand no transformation,” has, Latour says, “itself become, for our contemporaries, the model of all possible communication, the ideal, the metric standard of all movement, the judge of all faithfulness, the guarantee of all truth (Latour 2013: 22).” There’s no truth without distortion, without translation. As a species, we occupy no privileged position among others; our knowledge doesn’t come from a place of transcendence, our view isn’t a view from nowhere. This is the point of phenomenology, as articulated by Merleau-Ponty— namely, that the world is always intended as such, against a meaningful backdrop, and as mediated by a bodily schema. What Latour is trying to do, in his book Rejoicing, is to undermine the view of science as distinguished from religion in its ability to access the truth. Persons tend to think of science as objective in the sense of it being a “double click” communication; but empirical science isn’t purely descriptive. There’s a performative dimension to it. Likewise, contrary to the religious fundamentalist, Latour is saying religion offers no immediate access to what Caputo calls “the secret”. This “double-click” assumption is common to both atheists and Christians alike.
So I want to rethink what it is to inhabit an immanent frame. It’s not to close ourselves off from transcendence, but to come to the realization that what we are learning, more and more each day, is how little we actually understand about the universe. The universe is a very strange place. Darkness is an apt metaphor, not only for those aspects of physical existence that remain a mystery to us, such as “dark energy” and dark matter”, but for the way in which reality remains irreducible to our scheme of things, to the light of reason. There’s always an excess beyond conscious grasp, a darkness that escapes us. Like Deleuze and Levinas— each in their own way— I think we can “break-through”, beyond the world as we have come to know it, in accordance with certain taken for granted presuppositions.
The problem with some “post-secularists” is that they read the Weberian narrative that traces secularization’s beginnings back to Judaism and Christianity as a good thing—as though religion is better off without magic, without enchantment. This is a postseculasism that remains bound to secular logic. The Jew who reads the prohibition against sorcery in such a way as to praise the disenchantment process, overlooks a whole component of his or her own tradition— namely, as it relates to Jewish magic and mysticism. Of course, they overlook it because they think Judaism is better off without it. But this betrays the secular-rationalist, enlightenment logic with which they are operating.
The idea of the infinite is, as Joshua Ramey says, “a limit of sensation or cognition, /…/ a force that disrupts the faculties, defies categories, and destroys the framework of representation (ibid: Kindle location 252).” Deleuze, Ramey explains, “challenged to construe that which cannot be comprehended (Ramey 2012: Kindle location 256).” And Levinas’ Otherwise than Being, Graham Harman explains, “is an attempt to escape the world, to allow for extraworldly communication between different segments of reality (Harman 2012: para. 19).” This idea of escape, of exodus out of the world as we know it, is something that interests me. Exit secular reason, exit secular culture.
Deleuze, above all others, in the whole western philosophical tradition, I think, knew the value of occult philosophy and practice (cf. Ramey 2012). For here we had a genuinely experimental tradition of philosophy, of persons willing to test the body, to open themselves up to new “lines of flight”.
For Deleuze, philosophy was supposed to be something productive, something that can generate new ways of thinking. And it is for this reason that he says, in What is Philosophy? that “[to] think is always to follow the witch’s flight.” The immanent plane presents us with a challenge insofar as life is, in a certain sense, unthinkable. Life, in all its potentiality and vitality, exceeds conceptual thinking. Lingis, in his book The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, speaks of what he calls the “rational community”. This is the sort of community where persons share in common a language, laws, norms, contractual agreements, and where they work on common projects, towards common goals. We give form to the forces of life, as Lingis says in Sensation, and we get the forms from others. We try to make sense of life, we order it according to rational systems, concepts and norms. Now, for Deleuze— and Lingis is himself very inspired by Deleuze’s work— that is not it. There is excess, beyond the rational community. Lingis, in his travels— to the far reaches of the globe, to those places global tourism wants to know nothing of— finds what he has referred to as “the limit situation”.
“Our most important conversations,” Lingis tells us in Dangerous Emotions, “are with prostitutes, criminals, gravediggers. We seek to be freed from the carapace of ourselves.” At the limit situation, at the outer-zone, one is able to experience a different kind of humanity, a different kind of contact, beneath the contractual community. This is what Lingis refers to as the other community, the community of those who share nothing in common. Here Lingis finds real communication, beyond common language. Here he finds real trust, between two persons who share nothing in common. Here Lingis finds lust, violations, and splendour. Here Lingis finds “lines of flight”. Here he is able to explore the plane of immanence in new ways, test the body, experience life anew. And this is only possible, both Deleuze and Lingis teach us, by taking risks. Indeed, Lingis has wrote before that Deleuze’s own suicide by defenestration, by hurling himself out of his window, can teach us something about the philosophical method. To philosophize in the way Deleuze calls for, Lingis says, is to throw one’s self into the world, into the limit situation. It is to take risks, to test one’s self. It is to philosophize with bloodshot eyes. In a sense, Lingis does what Deleuze did not. For Lingis throws himself into the world in a way Deleuze never did. Lingis’ philosophical method is one of “travel”. (And isn’t this something that the witch, the psychonaut, and the shaman is already doing?)
The immanent plane is so much more than what the rational community makes of it. There is so much more to the world, to the body, than as it has come to be “territorialized” to be, within the contractual society. Deleuze explains, in What is Philosophy?:
“Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable, rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes, esoteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess. We head for the horizon, on the plane of immanence, and we return with bloodshot eyes, yet they are the eyes of the mind. Even Descartes had his dream.”
So this idea, of an outside, of an excess, far beyond the world as we experience it within the rational community, as “territorialized” by it; and of the possibility of “deterritorialization”, of the in-breaking of otherness, of the shattering of the horizon, and of a thinking with bloodshot eyes, is, for me, an important one. That there is an outside opens up space, in philosophy, in religious studies, for speculation, for experimentation. It is, for me, reason enough to want to embark on an unorthodox sort of “philosophical autoethnography”.
I want to explore different ways of “mapping” the body’s— my body’s— immersion in other, strange, environments; different ways of sharing the subject matter of my experiences. Like Lingis, I want to map reality otherwise, having opened myself up to it otherwise (cf. Casey 2003). Religious concepts and art (music, drawings, and poetry, for example) are some of the tools with which I can map my own bodily immersions, and reflect philosophically from them.
Bibliography (haven’t got around to this yet! Sorry)