religion, secular, William Cavanaugh

The Argument about the Secular is Important…

… because it is really about resisting the attempt to police belief through the created, colonial category of religion:

Like Herbert, Locke thought he was uncovering the timeless essence of religion. Obscured by this rhetoric is the fact that both herbert and Locke in the seventeenth century were witnessing and contributing to the rise of a new configuration of power hitherto unknown. The advent of the modern state, with its concept of sovereignty and its absorption of many of the powers of the old ecclesiastical regime, was proving that the boundaries were anything but fixed and immovable. The relationships between church and civil authorities were complex and constantly shifting throughout the centuries of Christendom. As for the contrast between religion and civil interests, we can go further and say not only that the boundaries shifted, but that there simply was no such relevant contrast before Locke and others invented it. The very claim that the boundaries between religion and nonreligion are natural, eternal, fixed, and immutable is itself a part of the new configuration of power that comes about with the rise of the modern state. The new state’s claim to a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance within a given territory depends upon either the absorption of the church into the state or the relegation of the church to an essentially private realm. Key to this move is the contention that the church’s business is religion. Religion must appear, therefore, not as what the church is left with once it has been stripped of earthly relevance, but as the timeless and essential human endeavor to which the church’s pursuits should always have been confined.

William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 83.


13 thoughts on “The Argument about the Secular is Important…

  1. John says:

    The church’s business has always been worldly power, and thus control over the masses.

    This became inevitable when the church was coopted by the Roman state, and thus became a key integral player in the Western drive for total power and control over every one and every thing.

    And when the “official” Bible was produced by the then church “fathers”.

    The Bible was essentially a POLITICAL document the purpose of which was to consolidate the worldly institutional worldly power of these “fathers”, and all the “fathers” yet to come. And thus provide the “proof” of “god’s word” to wage war against all of the INEVITABLE “heretics”.

  2. dbarber says:

    Of course, some may say that the very idea that religion is about “belief” is itself a secular idea.

    More broadly, though, it’s worth considering (a) that the category of religion is in fact a Christian invention (thus predating the secular), and (b) the way that the secular may have much in common with the Christian epoch that is replaced/rearticulated. Which is to say that a simple opposition between Christianity and the secular is too simple.

    • Cavanaugh certainly does deal with A. After showing how religio has nothing to do with how we understand religion today, and briefly touching on saeculum, he shows that secular as we understand it today — that creates a category of religion and defines it as doctrinal propositions of belief that are transhistorical and transcultural — is part of the colonizing project. There certainly were aberrant steps by Christians (starting with Nicholas of Cusa) that lead up to secular as we see it, but ultimately, secular is a colonizing project held over from the enlightenment and the early moves of the modern nation state.

      As for B — which sounds rather Hegelian by the way (not that such a sympathy means immediate condemnation, although I am suspicious of the parts) — there is much to recognize in the secular, especially if Cavanaugh is correct when he draws on others about the “transfer of the sacred.”

  3. dbarber says:

    Sorry, I should have been clearer. What i meant by (a) was that “religion” begins with early Christianity, it is a solution to a Pauline problematic regarding “culture.” I.e. it is a “premodern” category (though of course it undergoes some very significant shifts in the modern).

    And regarding (b), when I said that there may be a great deal in common between the Christian and the secular, what i was trying to say is that perhaps what is wrong with the secular is also already wrong with Christianity.

    • I’m not sure that what we call religion can be substantively linked to what Paul meant, or the text in its historicity. Now, religion as we see it today may be linked to recent interpretations of Paul, but those are recent interpretations.

      And as for B, do you have anything specific in mind?

      • dbarber says:

        I did say religion was a “solution” to a Pauline problematic, not that it was a Pauline claim itself. But the idea that religion emerges in early Christianity, as opposed to modernity, can be found in figures such as D. Boyarin (Border Lines) and R. King (Orientalism and Religion).

        Briefly, what I think they have in common is that they both install a plane of transcendence over all other particularities, thus denying their own particular nature, and also denying their immanent relation to all other particularities. This is what is involved in the secularism of colonialism, but it is also how Christianity established itself with regard to its others. (If you actually have interest in further details here i’ve addressed this most extensively thus far in an essay in _The New Yoder_.)

      • Though I find myself in total agreement with your opening sentiment, I sniffed in Cavanaugh a disdain for keeping the so-called “sacred” and “secular” properly separated (or, rather, distant, as on a continuum). I wonder how Luther and his “emendations” to the kingdom of man/God equation factor in to Cavanaugh’s analysis?

        What I’m saying is that, yes, the church’s pursuits are, in a certain sense, confined, just as the world’s are (but I perceive not in the sense Cavanaugh articulates above—”earthly irrelevance”—i.e., concerned entirely with some kind of ahistorical, atemporal, apolitical, etc., etc., salvation). I’m okay with this tension-riddled “dualism,” in the same way that it seems St. Paul was (in Rom 13 and 1 Tim 2). I’d contend that the church’s business is “religion”—though not in the social-construct sense Cavanaugh seems to assume above—if by “religion” we mean essentially a theology of the cross that remains so until it breaks forth into glory upon the Christ’s parousia.

        Have I totally missed the point?

        • On the separation, I’m not sure there is much. This is to say, the secular works on and through the “sacred” just as much as “religion” — and religion here is a category made up by the secular move. Now, Cavanaugh certainly doesn’t want to get rid of the separation of church and state, but, and here I’m riffing off of Cavanaugh, the idea of separate spheres or kingdoms doesn’t truly exist.

  4. ken c. says:

    The belief that there aren’t separated spheres seems wrong from the perspective of operational pragmatics. Operational pragmatics (lets forget any kind of ontology talk for now) is how the policies of actual states function. Here we see No observable religious influence. Policies are made with no reference to a grounding in the transcendent. They are made on the basis of measurable outcomes – if they will work in this world – not if it adheres to some perfect transcendent ideal. I think this track shows that religion is out of bounds from the states grip (although some state interference has to be admitted, for pragmatic reasons – think of of France and the new law against head coverings).
    Modern States in the west are non theological orderings of the lusts of the flesh. Talk about the “nature” of the state seems to be not so helpful in the real world of the states operational cost/ benefit/ rational choice theory/market ideology basis. States just simply do not care for the divine when it comes to the real choices they make. There is no consideration of what it would even mean to consider the divine, The philosopher John Searle makes this point over and over, and I think it is a good one. So, if the State, in reality (pragmatic operation) doesn’t operate with a divine consideration how could there not be two spheres, especially if the Church does operate with a divine consideration. It just seems that when one denies separate spheres (Cavanaugh) all “spheres” become theological. I don’t want a Theological reason for the State I want a pragmatic one. I like where we are with the Church being it’s own thing and the State being it’s own thing for it’s own reasons. This seems like a good state of affairs for the two respected spheres.

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