Re-enchanting the World
In his fascinating recent study, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (2007), John A. McClure probes countercultural forms of religious expression that have recently taken shape in the West. His interest in the religious grew in large part out of his own personal odyssey; McClure’s life trajectory took him from a childhood as a New England Congregationalist, through an adolescence given over, thanks to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, to political activism, then later, in the 1980s, back toward the religious. At one point along this journey, he was given the opportunity to spend some time in sandanista Nicaragua, during the high point of liberation theology and activist Christianity in Central America. What he encountered there for the first time was a community of people who were both religiously devout and politically activist—“individually extraordinary and in many ways the exemplary revolutionaries.” This interfusion of religious belief with political activism honed both his personal sensibilities and his research interests around the progressive and alternative spiritualities that he calls “postsecular.”
I met up with Professor McClure in his office at Rutgers University, where he has taught for nearly three decades. His door is partially open as I arrive, and he greets me with a standing handshake and a warm smile. I pull up a chair and face him as he sits before a tall window, students strolling across the quad on this sunny day, trees swaying in the far distance.
What aspects of recent spiritual thought and practice are you trying to capture in your book Partial Faiths?
Partial Faiths is a book about unorthodox ways of being religious in the late twentieth century, and at the same time a book about postmodernist literature. What sparked it as an academic project was my sense that there was something hiding in plain sight in a great deal of the most powerful literature of the last fifty years. And that involved a set of narratives about secularized protagonists who undertake a kind of turn to the religious which is not in any simple sense a return, but rather an attempt to discover a space between dogmatic religiosity on the one hand and dogmatic secularism on the other.
In Partial Faiths, you call this “postsecular.” What do you mean with this designation?
“Postsecular” is a term which I think can be justifiably used to refer to at least two hundred years of literary and philosophical and popular reflection growing out of the dramatic challenge to religion generated by the Enlightenment. The first postsecularists in that sense, one might argue, were the Romantics, who were trying in various ways to re-enchant a world that they felt had been disenchanted by exclusively rationalistic and materialistic schools of thought.
But I also use the term more narrowly to describe a set of narratives within the literature of the last fifty years. The protagonists of these narratives first pass through a very strong moment of secularization—crises in faith, or simply a childhood lived outside the purview of the religious entirely. They then go through a kind of second crisis in which they turn back toward the religious, yet without fully rejecting certain dimensions of secularism such as a commitment to social justice and social equality They find themselves drawn finally toward religious “ontologies”—different understandings of the repertory of powers in play in the cosmos—and toward religious ethics—modes of defining and strategies for cultivating “the good life.” So for me a postsecular narrative is one which endorses elements of religiosity without surrendering its commitments to many secular ideas, and which traces the trajectory of characters who are turning back from a secular mode of being toward a religious mode.
What might be some examples?
Late twentieth-century literature is littered with them. I would point to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as maybe the urtext of postsecularism, as his hero Slothrop makes, at least by my reading, a turn from a kind of careless and hedonistic secularism toward a spiritually inflected, implicitly Franciscan ethic of responsibility for life. Characters follow similar trajectories of transformation in DeLillo novels such as White Noise, The Names, and Players; in Toni Morrison’s Paradise; in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient. And Paul Auster’s splendid little novel In the Country of Last Things tracks a character who’s on a similar path.
Toward what kind of religiosity do these characters turn?
Significantly, their movements are not back toward some kind of easily recognizable institutional religiosity, but back into modes of being that take into account a multiplicity of religious practices, powers, and postures. Susan Monk Kidd’s popular novel, The Secret Life of Bees, which has sold millions of copies, is precisely about the fashioning of a spirituality out of a number of traditions without the sense of being subjected to any one of those traditions in its dogmatic or doctrinal purity. I think one can find the postsecular all over the place. The Coen Brothers, for example….
At one moment you characterize this postsecular spirituality as a “creolized ideolect”…
[Laughing together] Oh boy, pardon me!
…of religious traditions.
What I find in a lot of these novels is the characters themselves, and behind them the novelist, drawing in somewhat promiscuous fashion on a whole range of traditions—fragments of traditions. This is fully characteristic of postmodernist practice as defined by people like Jean-Francois Lyotard, who says that we no longer live within any single one of the great master narratives of the past—among which certainly the great religious traditions would count—but in a cloud produced by the collapse and ruination of those traditions, cobbling together as best we can ways of being that draw upon several of them.
Would you say that the postsecular represents the future of American religion?
I have no idea whether the postsecular represents the future of American religion or whether it represents what one might say it has represented for a good two hundred years: a space for thought and practice between the organized faith traditions and the secular community. There may be something too fragile and too transient about the forms of belief and practice that I’m calling postsecular for them ever to be anything more than a minority tradition. It may be that it takes precisely the stability and power of an institutionalized religiosity for it to endure. It’s just my intuition that the power it takes to carry a tradition through—to reproduce a tradition across generations—may require institutionalization, doctrine, etc.
Certainly, I would say that there has been a minoritarian postsecular literary spirituality at play in American literature ever since the Transcendentalists. Thoreau and Emerson were busy getting access to and indeed publishing fragments of Eastern religious texts that were just emerging—in what’s been called the Oriental Renaissance in European letters—in the nineteenth century. And they were fashioning and refashioning their own unorthodox spirituality around ideas that were Buddhist and Vedantic, as well as Christian, as well as spiritualist. Transcendentalism never becomes “the future of American religion,” but it becomes a part of the American religious tradition accessible largely to an educated minority of readers. It may be the fate of the kind spirituality that’s interesting to me to live on in that way: through the vessel of the arts. I can’t imagine how else it could reproduce itself.
What kind of community emerges from postsecular modes of being and thought?
Every instance of a kind of postsecular exploration or transformation in these novels culminates in the construction of fragile and perhaps transient communities of either self-declared or socially declared “outsiders” in the name of a kind of solidarity which is pre-political—but which implies the possibility of larger, stronger, more focused movements in the name of social justice. But I guess I’d have to emphasize the word “pre-political”: these are communities of retreat and healing; they’re communities of reflection; they’re face-to-face communities. They’re fragile. What we’re seeing at best is some very early anticipatory moment in the crystallization of larger communities and maybe a new politics.
In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, as you teach it, Hannah is a sort of Marian figure who cares for the ailing, and at the end of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” a tiny but committed community of care surrounds the play’s AIDS-afflicted protagonist.
And similarly, the overpass community in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, or the billboard community in Underworld, model both a new and old way of being human together. You might call it communitarian. You might call it a kind of worldly monasticism—
As you quote Toni Morrison in your book, this is an “unordained, unrobed, untonsured” monasticism.
Yes! And now we’re with the novel Beloved, in the Clearing with Baby Suggs, who is holy but “unchurched,” and whose community only lasts for a while and then is violently dissolved, remaining only as a memory. We’re dealing with a different notion of historical continuity and discontinuity here. Many of these novelists are deeply pessimistic about the Enlightenment notion of history as Progress with a capital “P.” And what they substitute for that notion is a notion of a history without guarantees and perhaps without any overriding telos, but in which progress with a small “p” is still possible and struggle is still therefore necessary and rational.
So it would make sense that more tentative modes of knowing and being would arise in a century that saw the culmination of self-assured Enlightenment “Progress” in two horrific wars and two devastating bombs.
Speaking of self-assured knowledge: dogmatic forms of fundamentalism—from that of the Crusades, to that of Stalin, to that of the Markets—have historically sought nothing less than the conquest of the world. Are humans incorrigibly “fundamentalist” in this way?
Some very interesting theorists of fundamentalism see it as a reaction to extraordinary moments of instability and deprivation, as a kind of pathological variant on forms of religiosity and of secular politics which are not so absolutist or dogmatic. According to these readings, the more unsettled and unsuccessful life becomes, the greater the fundamentalist impulse. So I’m not at all sure that fundamentalism is an intrinsic tendency of humans or the default position of the human mind.
But we do know, at least I think I know from 30 years of teaching, is that we tend to think in black-and-white dogmatic terms before we think in more nuanced ways. Under the pressure to formulate, it seems to me, we go to almost inevitably reductive and often polarized forms of formulation. So it makes sense to me that in our civilization there’s always been a struggle between more nuanced and flexible modes of thought, and more rigid and intolerant modes of thought. And I don’t see any immediate signs on the historical horizon that that’s going to change. La lucha continúa (“the struggle continues”)….
Related to this, in your book you invoke Gianni Vattimo’s idea of “weak religion.” Might you say a little more about this?
As I understand it, Vattimo sees “weak thought” as closely affiliated with what one might call the deconstructive impulse—with a suspicion of dogmatic master narratives and an impulse to train oneself to be at peace with less-than-certain thought or beliefs, less-than-certain convictions. This deconstructive impulse does not paralyze us with its lack of certainty—one no longer expects certainty because it’s no longer on the menu of possibility for whole ranges of human thought; rather, it moves us to operate making decisions and taking actions in the full knowledge that one acts without the guarantee of certain, positive knowledge, and therefore with greater caution and compassion that one might otherwise have.
What are practices that we as humans can engage in to foster the salutary weakening of our own beliefs?
Ah, that’s a great question. I would say: think, think, think. We can think our way into deep thought—that’s one way to look at it.
But there are also whole secular and spiritual pedagogies, whole systems of personal formation that foster it. I’m tempted here to reference a set of practices which are clearly crucial for a great number of contemporary writers. And those are Buddhist practices having to do with the weakening of our inclinations toward grasping, clinging, and aversion and with the cultivation of simple modes of living, appreciation, and care. I guess I would argue that the single most effective set of practices designed to encourage weak thought are the practices identified with Buddhist mediation. There are surely others in other traditions—I know I’m ignoring them—but Buddhism identifies the problem and addresses it in a very powerful and systematic way. And that’s one of the reasons why if America has a literary religion, that literary religion is Buddhism. You’ll find it subtly shaping thought and story in a whole range of works where its presence can easily be missed. I’m thinking again of Paul Auster’s little fable In the Country of Last Things, a post-apocalyptic study in the arts of dispossession and detachment: the Buddhist terms “grasping” and “clinging” occur like little flashes now and then, and so, in another context, does a statue of the Buddha. And yet, in characteristic postsecular fashion, Auster both appropriates aspects of Buddhist thought and warns against the tendency of certain ascetic traditions in Buddhism to take detachment too far. So that once again, even with Buddhism, we find ourselves in that space of negotiation and “partial faith” as regards traditional spirituality.
This has been a fascinating discussion; thank you for your time.
Enjoyable indeed; thank you.
Erick Sierra is a professor of English at Trinity Christian College. He splits his time between Chicago and New York City.