Monday, December 01, 2008

Global Spiral - The Postmodern Condition as a Religious Revival

A very interesting article from The Global Spiral (Metanexus Institute) on postmodernity as a form of religious revival. In essence, the author is arguing that Enlightenment (the philosophical movement, not the state of being) has become a religion that is failing in the postmodern context.

The article argues that religious belief corresponds to experiential metaphysical realities, a position that carries weight especially in the integral community.
The Postmodern Condition as a Religious Revival: A Critical Review of William Connolly’s Why I am Not a Secularist, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, and Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.


Much to the chagrin of skeptical philosophers from David Hume to Bertrand Russell, religion has withstood the onslaught of the Enlightenment project. Indeed, one of the benefits of Western culture’s “postmodern condition” is that it has produced a revival of religion in the academic community. Modern thought, the brainchild of the Enlightenment, failed in its promise to emancipate humanity from the fetters of metaphysics. Given the scientific “rationalization” of war, genocide, the exploitative aspects of globalization in the twentieth century, and the collision of faiths in a post-9/11 world, it’s understandable that many scholars express incredulity toward Reason’s grand narrative. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer correctly put it in Dialectics of Enlightenment, “Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized.”1 “Enlightenment” became the very thing it tried to destroy: a religion. And in the course of this (not so) surprising discovery, what intellectuals once silenced as self-alienation and wish fulfillment is now clamoring for attention: religion demands integration.

Prayer by Jeanie Tomanek

Religion is most often presented as a mere social and psychological phenomenon, offering a program whereby individuals and communities can get through the rigors of life. While these functional elements are important, there is more to religion than (literally) meets the eye. Have we forgotten that there are metaphysical realities that correspond to belief? Does God exist? Is there a specific God, one that we can identify by name? Is he active? Can Christians, for instance, truly know and have confidence in Christ’s atoning work on the cross? For many, religious beliefs are outside the boundaries of knowledge; verification is futile. When it comes to the realities of the heavenly realm, those who bow the knee to Reason cannot—or perhaps should not— make a definitive decision. God is beyond their reasonable limits.

The practice of suspending judgment when it comes to faith-based issues has unsettled many in the scholarly community. Historian Eugene Genovese, for instance, admitted his inability in Roll, Jordan, Roll to move beyond the religious functionalism set down by his own craft: “the overpowering evidence of religious faith aroused in me a skepticism about the reigning tendency in academia…to, as it were, sociologize faith out of religion—to deny the reality of spirituality.2 Criticized by a handful of his colleagues “for slighting the spiritual dimension of the slaves’ experience,” Genovese pointed to the restrictions of the historical discipline, “a deficiency of talent, not of intention.” Frustrated by his own materialism, Genovese ultimately concluded that “slaves’ successful struggle for survival,” galvanized by religion, was “more readily spiritual than physical.”3 I often wonder whether religious agnosticism among higher education professors stems from an epistemological inability or an ethical unwillingness to understand and incorporate the dynamics of faith in a particular discipline. The protean term “postmodern” invokes notions of confusion, chaos, and contradiction: epistemology is disregarded; morality is relative; and language is slippery. Reality is a social construction, and “truth” is nothing more than what our academic colleagues let us get away with. Few religious observers see any value in our current cultural, social, and intellectual state. Yet, inadvertently, postmodernism has been a boon to religion.

Overturning the errors of modern thought, a few well-respected contemporary thinkers who refuse to simply add to the dissonant clamor of critique have developed some creative ways in which to understand religion that, at first glance, seem “postmodern.” Political scientist William Connolly, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, and philosopher Alvin Plantinga have offered different conceptual and methodological approaches to the study of religion that are essentially de-centered, pluralistic, and antifoundational—all the ingredients to make a modern positivist cringe. Their work underscores the important idea that modernism has for years neglected to recognize religion as a necessary component of one’s proper understanding of the present social world.

Secularism’s Dogma

Directly challenging the hegemony of Enlightenment secularism in his book, Why I am Not a Secularist, a title that plays on Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, William Connolly underscores the importance of religion as a public phenomenon.4 Modern thought has created a false dichotomy between a supposed secular/public realm and a sacred/private one. The author defines secularism as the “wish to provide an authoritative and self-sufficient public space equipped to regulate and limit ‘religious’ disputes in public life.”5 Yet in its attempts to do so, secularism, Connolly argues, has become exactly what it initially sought to overthrow: a dogma stemming from an overconfidence—call it blind faith—in reason that excludes those who fail to abide by it. Connolly’s goal is to de-center the center, to sweep away the idea of a homogenous core in order to incorporate a plurality of ideologies.

In an odd yet illustrative way, Connolly’s project relies on the work of neurophysiologist Joseph LeDoux. For LeDoux not even the brain is, strictly speaking, “rational” or dispassionate in an “enlightened” sense. Examining the relationship between the “thought-imbued intensities” of the amygdala, “an almond-shaped brain located at the base of the cortex,” and the prefrontal cortex, the mind constantly exhibits irrational impulses. When receiving signs and stimuli, the amygdala reacts “quickly, relatively crudely, and with intense energy…below the level of conscious judgment and feeling”; the prefrontal cortex, in turn, receives such signs “more slowly, processing [them] through a sophisticated linguistic network in a more refined way and forming a more complex judgment.”6 One could say, hopefully without characterizing LeDoux’s analysis, that the amygdala manifests immediate, intense, and inexplicable “prethoughts.” Such impulses are not derived from rational deliberation, nor are they built on a series of core beliefs. With immediate vigor, they “just” happen, which then allows the prefrontal cortex to “organize conceptually sophisticated translations of these intensities and feelings.”7 Thus, an essential part of a properly functioning mind is irrationality or, to be more specific, pre-rationalism.

Each part of the brain has a specific function that works in conjunction with other parts. In this case, the cerebral (rational-making part) is dependent on the visceral: “it is for the most part a good thing the amygdala is wired to the cortex, for it imparts energy and intensity to that center needed for the latter’s formation of representations and practical decisions.” In the end, LeDoux’s point, according to Connelly, is that the “brain network is a rhizome [i.e., having multiple roots]…each with its own internal capacities, speeds, and relays with other brains.”8 The brain is multifaceted without one central core.

Removing the non-rational would not only misrepresent the rational, but it would significantly undermine our understanding of how the brain stimulates human interaction, which, according Connolly, is “always accompanied and informed…by visceral intensities of thinking, prejudice, and sensibility.” 9 In this way, the author is not far from the biblical idea that the issues of life flow from the heart and mind. Society, like the brain, is multifaceted: it is irreducibly complex:

When nervous cultural utilitarians insist that the organization of political action in concert would be impossible in a rhizomatic culture, they might learn a few things by examining how their own brains work. Micropolitics and relational self-artistry shuffle back and forth among intensities, feelings, images, smells, and concepts, modifying some of them and the relays connecting them, opening up, thereby, the possibility of new thinking and alterations of sensibility.10

To say that religion is deeply emotional or inter-subjective and that such “visceral registers of being” should be removed from the public realm for the sake of stoic, cerebral rationalism is to severely truncate a well-ordered social sphere.

Connolly, in my opinion, needs to explain further his concept of democratic pluralism, what he calls the “ethos of engagement,” whereby the multiplicity of voices contributes to an enriching social and political environment. He fails to account for the willful suppression of religious claims. Nonetheless, he certainly provides a helpful alternative to secular thinking. Challenging the hubris of secularism necessarily reintroduces the significance of religious beliefs. More importantly, the public sphere must open itself up to religious and spiritual dialogue. Is religion solely a private phenomenon? Should we leave our metaphysical beliefs at the threshold of the public arena? Connolly doesn’t think so:

[A]n overt metaphysical/religious pluralism in public life provides one key to forging a positive ethos of engagement out of the multidimensional plurality of contemporary life. In such a culture, participants are called upon neither to leave their metaphysical baggage at home when they participate in various public activities nor to adopt an overarching faith acknowledged by all parties who strive to promote the common good. Rather, a deep plurality of religious/metaphysical perspectives is incorporated into public discourse.11

Read the whole article.

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