Notes on the “post-secular”

I am interested in two things primarily: 1) an analysis of what we mean when we talk about post-secular religion in light of Charles Taylor’s distinction between the descriptive and normative senses of the word “secular”; and 2) the prospect of a post-secular study of religion, as it relates to the normative sense of the word.

What do we mean when we talk about “post-secular” religion and post-secularity in general? Do we mean those forms of religion that persist in our late modern, rationalized Western context? Are we talking about the fact that despite a long process of disenchantment that has been underway ever since the Protestant reformation, we find new forms of religion, which themselves often reflect the secularization process (such as the New Age concern over the modern, buffered Self, for example)?

If that’s the case then we’re speaking about the post-secular in a purely descriptive sense of the word. We’re talking about religion happening after the rationalization of the West. This is an age where our socially constructed imagination compels us to see ourselves as autonomous, rational agents, whose flourishing is secured through bureaucratic means. It’s late modernity, where atheist scientists, like the deistic philosophers of early modernity, seek to discern the efficient causes underlying a universe conceived of mechanistically— a universe emptied of God and telos. This is an age where meaning and order are imposed on the world by us— all in the name of human flourishing. For it’s our flourishing that matters now, this is the new common good; no longer does life point to anything beyond that. This is an age of immanence, and age of “we can do this”, we can access the truth.  We carry the torch of reason. And many thought this would be an age in which religion comes to an end.

But religion persists. It’s not on its way out, said the critics of the secularization thesis— and they were right. Now protestantism paved the way for an exclusive humanism, as Charles Taylor explains. The apologetic response to atheism reflects this, as does the atheist’s criticism of religion. God is reduced to an abstract idea, a transcendent signifier the need for which is either argued for or against, either internalized or rejected. No longer is belief understood communally, as something material, embodied, or liturgically formed. Belief is reduced to a set of abstract propositions. Within modernity, God is reduced to a mere Deus ex machina, as both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Søren Kierkegaard were aware of, with regard to the German and Danish Protestantism of their day.

Scholars have studied many contemporary forms of religion, happening within the secularized context of the west, but what about religion that is post-secular in the normative sense of the word? Are there religious imaginations that subvert the modern, secularist imagination? The Emergence Church movement in North America and the United Kingdom, for example, is an expression of such a post-modern, post-secular move beyond the modern, secularist assumptions of civil society regarding religion. What is emphasized, for a post-modern, post-secular form of Christianity, like the Emergence Church, is not belief or the need to make sense of the world, but a liturgically shaped habitus, or way of being in the world. Religion is not, as is the case with modernity, a disembodied affair, but a material one.

David Morgan is right to criticize the modernist assumptions of some scholars regarding what religion and belief are all about, but seems unaware of the fact that there are forms of Christianity happening in the West today that make a conscious effort to move beyond the modernist way of “doing” religion (which is really nothing more than a way of “thinking” about religion in so far as it doesn’t translate into a textured way of life). Scholars like Morgan along with Birgit Meyer and others, reflect a recent tendency within religious studies to direct attention towards what has been termed “lived religion”, or “material religion”. This is an analysis of religion as it plays out, not in the head, but in the embodied habitual way of life of practitioners. I am influenced by their work. However, following James K.A Smith and Peter Rollins, I think our analysis of lived religion will often mean, at least in the modern, secularist context of today, diverting out attention not towards the proclaimed beliefs of persons, but the cultural formations and habits that shape their way of being in the world. For as Kierkegaard expressed in his attack on Danish Lutheran Church, the religion of modernity often means proclaiming the gospel without bearing the weight of the cross. In other words, preachers can walk the walk without having to worry about talking the talk, because religion is analyzed in terms of discourse and beliefs, not in terms of an embodied way of life. Thus, in a secular age, we can have what Peter Rollins calls the “ironic gesture”, where we can identify as Christians while exploiting the poor and oppressed, despite the fact that Jesus stood for exactly the opposite.

The work of Morgan et al. raises methodological questions regarding how we, as religious scholars study religion. Do we reflect the normative assumptions of modernity in the way we analyze a religious movement? What then would a post-secular religious studies look like?

Since the theory was first put forward, scholars have wrote about “post-secular religion”, as those forms of religion that persist within secularized (that is, rationalized, bureaucratic, and legalistic) societies. Religion is not on the way out, say scholars of post-secular religion. This isn’t, however, to deny a rationalization process that has been underway within Western societies and other parts of the world, as famously spoken of by Max Weber. Rather, what scholars have shown is that religion persists, even within secular environments.

As Charles Taylor knew, there’s a story to be told as it relates to how we came to find ourselves living in what he calls a “secular age.” This isn’t an age where religion has disappeared, but one in which religion no longer offers the only plausibility. The transcendent and the immanent now bleed into and compete with one another, as James K. A. Smith expresses. In our secular age, we find the conditions that make it possible for there to be an exclusive humanism. This possibility to live without God is, as Taylor points out, tied up with the emergence of the modern self and the advent of social atomism.

In medieval times, the “secular” was understood in terms of the “worldly”— of mundane vocations— as distinguished from the sacred offices of priests. During this time, as Taylor explains, the world was so enchanted that it was almost impossible not to believe in God. This was a time when the human being was understood— and rightly so, I think— as vulnerable rather than autonomous. However, with modernity the “secular” came to mean something else entirely: a kind of neutral, a-religious, foundation that we’re left with once the religious layers of society have been peeled away. In France, for example, the secularization of society was seen as a sort of purification. Civil society— armed with the light of reason— rescued France from the irrationality of religious belief and the influence of the Catholic Church, or so the narrative goes. This modernist sort of secularism has its roots in the enlightenment project, with its views on the utilitarian self, as a ‘sovereign, self-possessed, dispassionate “thinking thing,”’ as the American philosopher of religion, John Caputo, describes it.

Underlying the former, medieval viewpoint, as well as the secularization thesis, is a descriptive model of society, whereas the latter mentioned Enlightenment epistemology reflects certain normative assumptions regarding the human subject’s access to the world— assumptions that are, I will argue, problematic. These secularist assumptions are still with us today, though. Tyler Roberts, for example, in his book, Encountering Religion, demonstrates the extent to which these assumptions underlie the field of religious studies today. Religions are often studied in a “top-heavy” fashion, with scholars favouring quantitative analysis. What is, in reality, a complex, material, embodied, and liturgical mode of being in the world is reduced to a worldview, to discourse and beliefs. In this way, religious studies continues to reflect the rationalism of the enlightenment tradition as well as European Protestantism. Thus, Peter Rollins can argue that secularism and fundamentalism share much in common.

Following James K. A. Smith, I want to argue not simply against quantitative analysis, or the notion of a worldview, but against the inadequacy of these for understanding a given cultural formation. What Smith calls for is radical rethinking of what we take religion to be. This means moving beyond what Tyler Roberts calls the “locativist” tendencies of many religious scholars, whereby they securely locate themselves on one side of the religious/secular divide. Smith deconstructs this divide by demonstrating that all theorizing is, in a way, “religious”. What Smith means by this is that “non-believing” religious scholars construe their world as embodied subjects shaped by a culturally informed habitus. The way a “scientific” scholar of religion analyses Christianity as compared to a continental philosopher of religion such as John Caputo, for example, has to with the background with which they are working with. This background— what Smith, following Charles Taylor calls our “social imaginary”— is culturally formed, and will determine the horizon of what we find meaningful. And this construal must be understood, says Smith, following Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in terms of an embodied, pre-reflective orientation to the world. Whether we’re Christian or Atheist, we’ll imagine things as meaningful based on the narratives and practices that shape the “background” of our theorizing.

Following Smith, I want to explore the phenomenological tradition in order to undermine the secularist epistemology of modernity as well as its views on the human subject as buffered and autonomous. Far from having direct access to the world, scientific scholars of religion, no less than Christian monks, navigate the world as embodied subjects whose predispositions to things are shaped by habit and thus mediated. Phenomenology offers a remedy to the enlightenment tradition’s disembodied view of the human subject. Yet phenomenology is here understood— as Smith is careful to point out— not in terms a supposed “essence” of all religious experience (that would be a Hegelian phenomenology, not a materialist one), but as the phenomenology of religion’s happening, material and embodied as it is (cf. Morgan and Meyer). For this reason, Smith calls his work an “anthropology of liturgy.” Religion, argues Smith, has more to do with our being in the world, with our orientation towards things. It has to do with the habit formations that shape our longings and desires. We talk about the Christian liturgy, but its due time we talk about what Smith calls “secular liturgies”.

Within the west scholars 1) find themselves in the midst of rationalized, bureaucratic societies within which they 2) acknowledge that post-secular forms of religion happen, and yet 3) analyse them in terms of a secularist framework.


Reading Levinas Contra Heidegger

Levinas’ entire project had as its aim a description of the limits of ontology and thought’s ability to disclose what can, broadly speaking, be called the “Real”. Reality is not reducible to representation, not reducible to the grasping of the “I”. Levinas will try, by means of phenomenological descriptions of the sorts of experiences that challenge, or reveal the limits of, phenomenality and the intentionality of the “I”, to approach the “Real”. Such experiences are what, according to Levinas, summon or direct us beyond the world as we know it. Such experiences transform time, even if briefly, into a relation with “God”, or Mystery.

Levinas’ conception of philosophy can be understood in terms of an escape from Being, or an approach towards the Otherwise. Indeed, his first attempt to articulate such a conception of philosophy, in an essay written just three years after his 1932 doctoral study on Heidegger’s ontology, was titled “On Escape” [De l’évasion]. Like Heidegger, whom he studied under, Levinas thought that philosophy had, up until that point, overlooked something fundamental. For Heidegger, this was the question of Being; while for Levinas, this was the question of the Other.

Western philosophers had, according to Heidegger, wasted their time trying to answer the sorts of abstract, metaphysical questions that hinged upon the kind of beings we are, without making it a point to first of all understand the more fundamental question of this existence itself— that is, of what it is to be the kind of beings for whom these sorts of questions even arise. Levinas would begin by agreeing with Heidegger, that Western philosophy had, up until that point, overlooked the more fundamental question of Being, or existence. However, for Levinas, Heidegger too had overlooked something even more fundamental: namely, the question of an Outside-of, or Otherwise-than Being. The metaphysical concepts and categories with which philosophy had, up until Heidegger, operated with, did indeed hinge upon our human mode of Being in the world (what Heidegger called “Dasein”)– the kind of beings for whom Being is ultimately a question. But our own existence, or Dasein, hinges upon an Otherwise-than-Dasein, upon that which Dasein is not. Even more fundamental than the question of my Being-here is the question of an Otherwise than my Being-here.

The difference between the two is perhaps best highlighted when it comes to their discussions of death. Whereas Heidegger spoke of death in terms of the anxiety that results when we are presented with the prospect of nothingness, or Dasein’s end, Levinas spoke of death in terms of that which brings us before that which we know not, that which is Otherwise than the categories of Being and nothingness. Death affects us by means of the trace of the Otherwise that it leaves in our lives. So whereas ontology became first philosophy for Heidegger, it was ethics for Levinas (and “ethics” can here be understood broadly as signifying our relation to the Outside– of ourselves, of the “I” that Heidegger described as having been “thrown” into the world).

Both Heidegger and Levinas look to undermine the prioritizing of representation and propositional ways of thinking within the western philosophical tradition— that is, the prioritizing of our own terms of thought, of “beings”, and for Levinas, “Being” and “nothingness”. In a way, both want to “bracket” these, both want to direct their attention to what is not apparent. Heidegger has his “ready-to-hand”, and Levinas has his “Otherwise-than-Being”.

For Heidegger, the target of his critique is “metaphysics”, which remains wedded to the language of “beings”, and which fails to turn properly to the more fundamental ontology— the modes of Being. The western philosophical tradition has failed to push thought further, towards a real study of Being, insofar as it has remained trapped within the logic and categories that are a result of Dasein’s grasping. Philosophers have, according to Heidegger, failed to direct their attention beyond these categories, toward a study of Being which acknowledges the terms of our thought as secondary to the more fundamental ontology upon which they are predicated: namely, that our Being (or Dasein, as Heidegger calls it) is the kind for which Being is itself in question. We are beings who care, who have projects, who are aware of their own finitude, and who worry about their own Being, their own future. We use language as beings for whom Being is a question. A crucial part of Heidegger’s project will be to find new ways of writing, a new language and way of doing philosophy which will enable us to finally return to the more fundamental topic of Being. This will, in the end, mean turning towards what can be considered a more “poetic” language.

One of the problems with all of this, for Levinas, was that Heidegger remained too self-ish in his analyses. Like the philosophers Heidegger accused of overlooking the question of Being, Heidegger overlooked the question of the Other. For Heidegger, I am the kind of being for whom Being is a question: what drives me is an awareness of my own finitude, a concern for my own projects. Heidegger never addressed the ways in which the Other orders us. Levinas is critical of Heidegger, in God, Death, and Time, for being too limited in his philosophy of Death, for seeing man as the kind of being who is ordered from within, by anxiety, by an awareness of his own death. But what of the Other? And what of the Other’s death? Death presents us with the prospect of an Outside, or Otherwise-than-Being, rather than a nothingness. And it is not only from within the confines of the Same that Death announces, for me, this prospect. That is, it is not only an awareness of my own finitude that affects me, and that presents me with an “I know not what”. The Death of the Other is as much a question for me as my own. Rather than speak of Death in terms of the amphibology of Being and nothingness, Levinas speaks of Death in terms of an outside: the Outside that is the Other’s, and not merely my own, death; and the Outside that is the “I know not what”, felt in the face of my own and the Other’s death.

So yes, according to Levinas, Heidegger was right to point out that philosophy has suffered a limitation, insofar as it has remained wedded to the framework of the logos and has treated as primary the terms of Dasein’s grasping. We need to take philosophy further, to push it beyond these boundaries. However, for Levinas, we have to take philosophy even further than Heidegger did: we have to push it beyond the amphibologies of Being and beings, and Dasein’s Being and the nothingness that is, for Heidegger, the prospect delivered to us in an awareness of our own mortality. Philosophy has, since Kant, Levinas says in God, Death, and Time, been a philosophy of finitude without infinity. Levinas wants to bring infinity back into the equation. That is, Levinas wants to bracket the Same— that is, the “I” with the terms of its own grasping— in order to appreciate the Other, the non-Same, or Outside-of-the-I. The point in doing this, it must be said, isn’t to know the Other, or to get at the Real-in-itself, but to prioritize the Other as primary, as that upon which the amphibology of Being and beings, as well as the logic and categories that rest upon it, rests.

Heidegger rightly saw it as a mistake to prioritize the logos, or representational thought, as primary. For this is, according to Heidegger, predicated upon Dasein’s being the kind of being for whom Being is a question. However, for Levinas, it’s not Dasein’s being the kind of being for whom Being is a question that is primary. Ontology is not, as it is in Heidegger, first philosophy. For Levinas, ethics is. Our being the kind of beings for whom Being is a question is itself predicated upon that which is truly primary, according to Levinas: namely, the Other, or the outside of the “I”. Before we are the beings Heidegger saw us to be– that is, beings for whom being is a question– we are beings facing the other. “The identity of the subject,” Levinas writes, “comes from the impossibility of escaping responsibility”.1

Levinas sought to escape Being by means of those experiences that communicate to us the limits of Being, of ontology. These are the sorts of experiences that “unhinge” us, as John Caputo puts it2; that leave us with a sense of something Other, something that can’t be articulated in terms of the ontological difference, between Being and beings. Thus, for Levinas, internal to the order of things is the trace of something Other than it. Put differently, one of the facts of Dasein is what Levinas calls the “profound need to get out of [it].”3

Yet such an “escape”, as Levinas calls it, works not to transport us out of the world, but to reorient us in it; that is, it works to draw us up out of our own life-worlds, to direct us towards what is Other-than them. The trace of the Transcendent left within the world, and the “need to get out of being” that is a fact of our Being, should be understood therefore as serving an ethical purpose, of orienting us towards the world, and towards others, in new ways.



1Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 14


2Caputo, On Religion, p. 29


3Levinas, On Escape, p. 72


The God that had to die

Back in 2012 I moved to Finland. I dropped everything to be with the person I love (and it was in love that I came to fall in love, all over again, with Jesus). I had finished by BA in Theology, having written a thesis on the role of the arts in constructing a contextual Caribbean theology. This was a decisive moment in my life. I was losing sight of the transcendent God whom I had spent so much time reading about during my first two years at Codrington College. I was beginning to re-think the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I was beginning to read Kierkegaard, Marx, Freud, Tillich, Derrida, Žižek, and Caribbean theologians. I became less and less concerned with trying to sort out what I believe. In reading Caribbean theology, I encountered a Jesus whose message was first and foremost one of liberation, not in the sense of “dying and going to heaven in a Jesus name,” as is criticized in one of Bob Marley’s songs, but in the sense of espousing the cause of the marginalized, standing alongside them in the face of oppression. For the Caribbean theologian, it’s clear where Jesus stands: on the side of the majority black population, whose history tells of the worst kind of oppression. And thus it was here, that I began to take seriously my own position, as someone who, unlike the rest of my colleagues at Codrington, got to enjoy a site of privilege— the site which Jesus stood in opposition to. I’m a white male. The sermon on the mount wasn’t directed at me, it was directed to those who, like the majority black population of Barbados, or the gully queens of Jamaica, suffer under oppressive power structures.

Only now did I begin to understand what dying to the world meant. In a way, it seemed to me that the Rastafari, in chanting down Babylon, were doing a better job at this than a lot of Christians. We tend to get so caught up in trying to bind God to language, arguing over who has the right doctrines, that we overlook the fact that, as Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite sings, “What do their deeds be? That is what concern we primary.” It seems that we tend to forget the parable told in Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

When I first met with the pastor of the small Baptist church in which I would later come to be baptized, the first thing he asked me was: “do you know, with absolute certainty, whether, if you were to die today, you would go to heaven?” Looking back on this, I see how wrong headed his approach to baptism and membership in the body of Christ really was. For him, Paul’s baptismal analogy of death and resurrection seemed to have more to do with a securing of one’s own personal salvation, rather than a dying to the world and its power structures, and the subsequent participation within a community set apart. When I read, in book of acts, the story of the early Church, I encounter a community of persons born again, not as a people concerned first and foremost with their own fate, but as a community doing things differently, a community that is political, set apart from the oppressive structures of the world, pooling together their resources, and devoting themselves to the welfare of others.

The God that I had worshipped in that small little Baptist Church, the only God I knew, having yet to encounter the more radical Jesus preached by the Caribbean theologians, was a God that had to die. By all means, it was a God that the Rastafari had already declared dead. It was the Rastafari, bearing the name of His Majesty, Haile Selassie, that Christ was declared in the Caribbean as the stumbling block and foolishness Paul knew him to be in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:23). The Rastafari are radical in their own way. They refused to conform to the logic of this world. “Our God is black, and our God is an African!” they said. In chanting “death to all white and black downpressors,” the Nyabinghi were commanding the white god’s death sentence. As for those white persons who are drawn to the movement because of reggae and ganja, yet who have trouble understanding how Emperor Selassie and Empress Menen could be proclaimed as God, this itself is a sign that they’re in the wrong place. This also goes for those who can accept the divinity of the Emperor but can’t do so for the Empress, or Emannuel Charles Edwards, or who fail to see how Selassie’s divinity can be acknowledged apart from the bible. The God praised in an up stay is a God who has entered into history, a God who stands on the side of his people, whose kingdom is enacted by his people. This isn’t the European sky god, the god who offers a “die and go to heaven in Jesus name” promise, who tells us to look to the sky and ignore the horrors of the present. Haile Selassie, the Rastafari community tells us, offered a material message: education, development, equality, justice.

As Christopher Rodkey reports the Rev. Dow Kirkpatrick declaring amidst the controversy of the so called “death of God” theological movement: “I say, the God which is worshiped so broadly these days, especially during Christmas, needs killing. The greatest affirmation faith can make is to declare in our time that He is dead … (Rodkey 2014: 16).” For this was, as the Rev. Kirkpatrick noted, a God preached in churches where black people weren’t allowed through the doors. And although most of that Baptist congregation I was a part of were black, the God was by all means white and male. This was the sort of God that allowed me to feel secure in the knowledge that I’ll go to heaven, not a God that shook things up, that inspired insurrection. That was a God yet to come for me, a God yet to die in Christ and enter the scene in the form of the Spirit, in the form of a community set apart from the world.

In the Gay Science, Nietzsche’s madman enters the marketplace and proclaims: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” But what does it mean, to say that God is dead? For some of us, God’s death can be a feeling of absence, of longing even. The death of God can be a life shattering event. It’s an experience of great loss, of that which we once held dear. As a result, we may long for its return. “If only I could still believe in you, oh God!” One may pray. “Show me a sign, anything at all, just take this doubt away from me, Lord!” It’s like the song Contact, by As Cities Burn:

Remember we used to speak?

Now I’m starting to think

That your voice was really my own,

Bouncing off the ceiling back to me.

God, this can’t be.

God, this can’t be.

God, could it be that all we see is it?

Is this it?

Is this it?

Won’t you come down, heaven?

Won’t you come down?

Won’t you cut through the clouds?

Won’t you come down?

It’s hard to pray when what one feels is God’s absence rather than her presence— an absence that pierces one’s heart, weighing it down with a sense of longing. What if the voice you were hearing was just your own, bouncing off the ceiling back to you, as Cody sings?  Yet— and we have to bear this in mind— loss is exactly what Jesus’ disciples felt, as they stood gathered around the foot of the cross, looking up at the lifeless body of their Lord. We’re not alone in our experience of God’s death. Jesus’ disciples felt this first hand— for they watched, in horror, as the flesh through which God had entered into history was ruthlessly nailed to a tree. And it’s not just the disciples. Jesus, in his last moments, both experienced and enacted the death of God. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried out as he hung from the cross, knowing that he would soon breathe his last. And we think our experience is life shattering? Try being nailed to a tree.

The experience of God’s death isn’t contrary to what Christianity is all about, despite what some Christians would have you believe. If you’ve ever doubted God, or have come to no longer believe in him, don’t worry. You didn’t do anything wrong. Rather, it could be argued that it is in such moments of doubt— those often traumatic experiences of nothingness— that we come closest to an authentic experience of the cross. Doubt lies at the very heart of Christianity. So much so that G. K. Chesterton could proclaim that, on the cross, even God became an atheist. Or, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, only an atheist can be a true Christian, and vice versa.

Thinking with Christianity

Christianity was once a big part of my life. Going to church, breaking bread, studying the bible…I did all of that. Hell, I spent three years at a theological seminary trying to figure out how to articulate my faith. I wanted to express, albeit in a prepositional sort of way, the restlessness of my heart. But I’ve come a long way. No longer can I secure myself within a Christian framework, espousing it as orthodoxy. The foundations of this frame were shaken. No longer could I take it as a given, and no longer could I lay claim to the truth. This frame, the one I used to locate myself and others, and make sense of life, has come to be seen as contingent, like any other. I went from being a confessional Christian to an uncertain wanderer. Some, such as Charles Taylor for instance, may consider the closed frame of an exclusive humanism existentially unsatisfying, but I’d say the same for the Christianity I was a part of. I was able, for some years, to keep trying to fit life’s rough edges into the Christian box, but I grew tired of this. I grew tired of the need to conform, to give Christian form to the forces I did not contrive (Lingis1996: Kindle location 100).

Throughout the course of my wanderings I came to invest my energy in new frames, take on new identities, and try making sense of life through an appeal to new referents. But as with Christianity, the foundations of these other frames were eventually shaken. I once again took up my position as a wonderer, with nowhere to rest my head. Perhaps it is that no bed is secure enough, no sheet vast enough to cover life without remainder. I’ve come to accept my own vulnerability, uncertainty, and lack. No idol, no matter how beautiful can satisfy me. I’m restless.

But here’s the thing: Christianity has, throughout all of this, come to take on a new significance for me. For it is in my wandering that I’ve come to love Jesus more and more. I guess the important thing to clarify here though is who the Jesus is that I’ve come to love. I’ve come to reclaim Christianity, as the only religious tradition I knew growing up in Barbados, and which I came to be a part of in my late teens. I want to acknowledge, without shame or denial, this aspect of my subjective heritage. No longer do I espouse any orthodoxy; but rather, I’ve come to find, within the Christian tradition, a radical kernel. Here, a truly orthodox Christianity becomes a heterodox one, a subversive one. In short, I’m saying this: Christ is queer. Jesus turned the world upside down, he initiated a new way of life, quite apart from the normative frameworks of the world. He was “drastically resistant to Rome,” as Vaughn Benjamin sings, “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).” This is my Jesus, the one I read, the one I love. And guess what? I am free to do so. I can read the gospels in this way, I can love Jesus in this way. I’m laying claim to the Christian tradition; I’m saying that I can experiment on and with it, decolonize and queer it. I’m thinking with the Christian tradition— the same one that was used to oppress the Caribbean people, give form to the force of my life, narrow my outlook, and which does little for for the marginalized LGTBQ persons in the Caribbean — as a resource for critical thinking and action.

I am by no means the first to do so. I am simply following in the footsteps of others, others who want to operate within the Christian frame without absolutizing it, without turning it into an idol. This is a Christianity that is becoming, a messiah that is always still yet to come.

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.

Is Caribbean Theology Indecent Enough?

An activist, upcoming philosopher, and dear friend of mine, Justin Holder, recently posted the following status update on Facebook:

“Watching Bajan and Caribbean people who are excited to support black rights in the States. Good on you, but I’m going to be looking for what you’re going to say when LGBT rights inevitably become a hotter issue in this region.

Want to see whose side of the fence you’re on when the second-class citizens right in your neighbourhood decide that they’ve had enough.”


This comes after a recent back-and-forth in the Barbados media, regarding B-G.L.A.D’s (Barbados – Gays, Lesbians and All-Sexuals against Discrimination) call for the Minister of the Environment, Dr Denis Lowe, to resign after stating that as a “man of faith” he’d rather step down than support gender neutral legislation regarding domestic abuse in Barbados. So basically, this man is saying that if you’re in a same sex relationship, living together with your partner, and suffer domestic abuse, it ain’t domestic abuse, and the suffering body isn’t worthy of protection under the Domestic Violence Act, because it ain’t a man beating a woman. And what do you know, but a whole lot of other “people of faith” came to Lowe’s support.

In her book, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology, Marcella Althaus-Reid criticizes Latin American liberation theology for not reaching out to the truly marginalized of society— those who don’t identify with the sort of gender roles and sexual orientations that are deemed “normal” or “decent” in patriarchal society.

Based on my own experiences, I see similar things wrong with Caribbean theology. The problem is that it tries to squeeze the messiness of life into a neat little box. What results is a closed, rather than an open, outlook on the world. Whatever doesn’t align with this outlook is “vomited” out, as Pete Rollins would say, as repugnant, or sinful in the eyes of the Lord. Also at great issue is the fact that a lot of Caribbean christians tend to imagine Jesus as being concerned, first and foremost, with sin rather than the elimination of suffering. “Saving” persons takes precedence over social outreach. The focus is on a heavenly world, somewhere beyond this one. It becomes easier to overlook the horrors in this world. What matters, according to them, isn’t that one is doing what one can to provide for and further the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, but that one has the right beliefs, thinks in the right way.

But thinking won’t get you into heaven. That, I think, is made clear in the New Testament. Jesus never called us to believe in a definite set of propositions. As I’ve heard John Caputo say before, if Jesus had been around to witness the Nicene Creed, he’d have probably wanted to know what they hell was going on. He called us to be a radical collective, to enact a whole new way of being in the world. This radical, alternative way of inhabiting the world is, for me, what Christianity is all about. This is its radical core. Christianity is about celebrating and reflecting in our day to day activities the story of openness towards the widow, orphan, and child. This has little to do with what we call “morality”. Christianity isn’t secular morality. It isn’t about blindly accepting some arbitrary right vs. wrong. It goes beyond that; Christianity goes beyond the law. Christianity is something entirely new.

In Barbados, I’ve heard persons say things like: “why should we accept the Western idea that LGTBQ persons should be accepted into society, that we should treat them as God’s own, despite their transgressions.” But this reading, that sees LGTBQ persons as transgressing God’s law, is a contingent one. It’s not a given. We’re trying to fit God into a box. In one breath, we claim God lies beyond all comprehension, yet in the other we attempt to pin him down, to words written by mortals, as read by mortals. There’s no one natural way to read the text. And furthermore, we are distracting ourselves from the real kingdom work that Jesus ushered in, of establishing a new community, set apart from the world.

In treating the bible like some law book, in relation to which we can judge persons, is to simply to accommodate the very western, secularist framework we claim to reject in our homophobic stance. When we imagine there to be one absolute truth, we get ourselves in all kinds of problems, because we are finite beings, and none of us read the bible in a neutral way. We’re all interpreters. And if we want to talk about the Spirit, why don’t we then talk about the spirit of Jesus’ words and actions, as expressed in the New Testament? Why don’t we talk about the openness of Jesus’ heart, the outstretched arms of a poor Galilean rabbi, welcoming the outcasts of society (like the woman whom the Pharisees accused of adultery, or the LGTBQ persons we accuse of sin)? The Kingdom is all about love, about forgiveness, and welcoming of the Other.

As Caputo says: “in the Kingdom, the insiders are out, have missed out, while the outsiders are in (Caputo 2001: 138)!”

Yet the bible is treated like a rule book (a dangerous approach to scripture). In modern, secularist fashion, persons imagine there to be a correct, natural, way to read the text. This reading is treated as a foundational truth rather than a contingent interpretation. Any action that falls outside of the boundaries of what is read as being permissible in the eyes of the Lord is marginalized, looked down upon, discriminated. So what matters, according to this reading, isn’t that the LGBTQ community suffers, and is marginalized (much like Jesus and his crowd were), but that they are not “saved”.

I praise the Caribbean liberation theologians for putting this world first, for putting practice before belief, the kingdom before dogma. But here is where I criticize them: they have failed to welcome the truly marginalized in Caribbean society, the subaltern, those who are lower than the proletariat, so to speak. A liberation theology that fails to speak up for those LGTBQ persons who are treated as bare, insignificant life, who aren’t recognized as members in Christ, is anything but liberating. It’s time to open up, to let the stranger in, like Jesus did. It’s time for Caribbean theology to get indecent.

Aslan on the New Atheists

I think Aslan makes some fair points.

It’s ironic, how Dawkins et al. reveal what is the confessional character of their own outlook, in saying things like religion is “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus.” This story, about religion as evil, shapes their outlook, trumping other takes on things. Their story is treated as the one story to applied in an all-encompassing sort of way, to what is a complex and plural world. That is a working definition of fundamentalism right there- to take as a given, as absolute, and all-encompassing, your own outlook, and force it on the world. So Christian fundies treat their outlook as a given, foundational truth (“because the bible says so”), and squeeze life into it. Dawkins et al. do the same with their anti-theism.
The Christian fundie fails to see that the foundation upon which their outlook rests (their reference to the bible, for example) involves a confession (faith in the bible as true word for word). But Dawkins et al. do the same thing. They fail to see that the foundation upon which their outlook rests (their reference to evolutionary biology and instances of religious violence) involves a confession (believing that transcendence is a silly, childish notion, discredited by our evolutionary history and that religion is inherently harmful).

It’s possible to analyze instances of religious violence without holding that religion is somehow inherently harmful. Likewise, just look at someone like Francis Collins of the Human Genome Research Institute for whom evolutionary biology didn’t have to be done within the confessional framework that evolution renders the notion of transcendence a silly one.

We always do research with a confessional outlook, with a take on things. Some biologists do biology with an outlook that allows for transcendence. Some study religious violence with an affirmative outlook on religion, as a force of good in much of the world. Dawkins et al are no different. They do what they do within an anti-theist confessional framework. What makes one a fundamentalist or not is how one holds this confession. We can be “self-blind” as Charles Taylor says, and take our outlook as a given, foundational truth, or we can acknowledge the confessional character of our outlook.