Secularism, a failed theology

The theological roots of modernity are taken for granted, but Blumenberg argues that the secular notions which define modernity are not secularized theological concepts, but rather secular attempts to answer theological questions.

Secularism, a failed theology
"Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" by Miroslaw Trochanowski (2019, acrylic on wood)

I dashed off this piece a few days ago when my mind sensed that what I had been reading lately needed to come to the surface.

I've got a lot of projects going on right now, including an upcoming presentation looking at the concept of lament through the work of Hegel and Lacan, but writing for this newsletter still feels like the gravitational core of my work.

I hope this piece sparks some new ideas for you!

A failed theology

"Progress is just secular eschatology."

"Whiteness is just secular original sin."

"Scientists are just secular priests."

You've probably heard ideas like this before, and I've made similar statements which attempt to demonstrate that some modern or secular notion actually has its roots in a theological concept which has been stripped of God and the Christian story (while losing nothing of its religious urgency!).

Someone recently recommended the work of Hans Blumenberg to me, and I'm glad that they did, because Blumenberg's book The Legitimacy of the Modern World advances a contrarian argument which challenges this "secularization thesis," thus forcing us to re-evaluate the validity of this commonplace notion.

Progress is not a secularized Christian eschatology

Today, the theological roots of modernity are taken for granted, but Blumenberg wants to complicate this picture. He argues that the secular notions which define modernity are not secularized theological concepts, but rather secular attempts to answer theological questions. With the collapse of the Neo-scholastic consensus, the old theological answers to questions about infinity, evil, and other things became no longer viable, but the questions nonetheless remained.

Thus, Blumenberg argues, many of today's secular notions, such as "progress," are "re-occupied positions" he calls them, that is, attempts of secular modernity to answer the theological questions which it unconsciously inherited from the Christian tradition at its height of intellectual sophistication in the Scholastics.

This process which Blumenberg describes differs from the secularization thesis in which modernity simply borrows theological concepts from the Church and strips them of their reference to God or the transcendence. As Blumenberg points out, the idea of progress which operates today actually possesses some stark differences from Christian eschatology, such that, despite Karl Löwith's famous characterization of progress as a secularized Christian eschatology, Blumenberg argues that one cannot really be conceived as a version of the other.

Progress is conceived as an immanent movement of the world and human creativity from within time and space, rather than a radical disjunct in which God breaks into history. Progress emphasizes a hopeful and optimistic orientation towards the future which encourages sacrifice in the now to invest in the future, but the apocalyptic eschatology of Christianity is built on a fear of impending doom and the urgent demand to convert to avoid the coming judgment of God.

Blumenberg's analysis of eschatology and progress is particularly interesting on this point, because he notes that while the original Christian vision of the last days is antithetical to current views of progress, it was actually the early Church's re-theorizing of eschatology in light of Christ's unexpected delay which ultimately created the space for the modern notion of progress to appear.

Judging by the writings of the New Testament, the early Church clearly had an intense expectation of Christ's imminent return – likely within a generation, and probably centered around the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, when Christ did not return as expected, the Church had to reckon with this reality by shifting its reading of Jesus' and the Apostles' teachings.

This need to move away from the radical millenarian disjunct of early Christianity brought about a new conception of the world as a realm sustained and cared for by God under providence (from a preterist view to an amillenial view, in theological terms) thus lending the world a dignity, regularity, and distinctness which it had not possessed previously. It was this new world, ruled and guided by providence, which created the possibility of secularism's theory of progress to emerge. But again, this genealogy is not describing a straightforward "secularization" process, but rather something more complicated and historically specific.

As an interesting side note, Blumenberg also suggests that early humanist philosophers may have experienced a similar dynamic of expectation, disappointment, and re-theorization during the early stages of the emergence of the modern notion of progress. He points out that these thinkers were incredibly optimistic about modern philosophy and science unencumbered by the church, with many being convinced that most of the big theoretical problems would be effectively solved within a generation or two at most. When this didn't happen, and frustration at the pace of progress set in, they had to re-theorize progress as this gradual movement in which each generation must build upon the last's achievements in this imminent movement towards a higher stage of flourishing.

Concluding Thoughts

I'm planning to continue to read Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern World, and I promise to share any new or interesting insights with you. However, I think that this text is especially interesting to me right now because of my ongoing reflections (which I haven't necessarily been sharing here) on how to understand Christianity's unique contributions to history.

What, if anything, new entered into history with the life of Jesus and the emergence of the early Church?

I'm interested in this question not only from the angle of being able to make an argument about the unique value which Christianity possesses (which is implicitly an apologetic argument for why one should consider becoming a follower of Jesus), but also to understand how Christianity's distinct achievements are also an integral part of the mess in which we currently find ourselves.

What hand did Christianity have in creating our contemporary global situation as humans?

There are some obvious answers, such as Christianity's creation of the hospital and the university or its underwriting of European colonialism, and there are some less obvious answers, such as Rene Girard's argument that Christianity solves the mimetic problem of vengeance.

While some of the supposedly obvious answers are becoming less obvious to most people by the day, I still find myself drawn to investigating the more obscure lines of thought such as the one that Girard developed in his work.

Right now, I'm most focused on the question of "Love" – did Christianity introduce into human history and consciousness a new form of Love and its practice? In what ways can we see our contemporary political situation as the seeping of love into society and its perversion from a practice of hospitality into a governmental protocol of care (as Ivan Illich portrays it in his essay "Gospel")?

Blumenberg complicates and challenges my line of inquiry in crucial ways, so I think that my reflection will be strengthened through a prolonged engagement with his work. He's trying to argue that, in some ways, secularism can be conceived as a failed theology, not a secularized theology.

The attempts of modernity to answer the inherited theological questions with its new non-theological resources are, presumably, doomed at the outset, and thus bound to produce a parade of antinomies and monstrosities. Blumenberg's work then is quite radical in that it serves as a call to arms for the Enlightenment thinker to realize not that they've been working with the wrong tools, but that they've been trying to answer the wrong questions.

Don't miss the latest episode of Samsara Audio, which I released this past week, in which I sat down with Mark Gerard Murphy to discuss his recent book which brings Lacanian psychoanalysis into the practice of spiritual direction.

We delve into the question of how to bring contemporary psychological insight into Christian discipleship while also sustaining the power which Christianity possesses to stand over and against our modern drive towards the optimization and commodification of our experiences (including the religious and the spiritual!).

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