The Sacrality of the Secular
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The Sacrality of the Secular

Postmodern Philosophy of Religion

Bradley B. Onishi

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eBook - ePub

The Sacrality of the Secular

Postmodern Philosophy of Religion

Bradley B. Onishi

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Through a bold and historically rooted vision for the future of philosophy of religion, The Sacrality of the Secular maps new and compelling possibilities for a nonsecularist secularity. In recent decades, philosophers in the continental tradition have taken a notable interest in the return of religion, a departure from the supposed hegemony of the secular age that began with the Enlightenment. At the same time, anthropologists and sociologists have begun to reject the once-dominant secularization thesis, which both prescribed and described the demise of religion in modern societies.

In The Sacrality of the Secular, Bradley B. Onishi reconsiders the role of religion at a time when secularity is more tenuous than it might seem. He demonstrates that philosophy's entanglement with religion led, perhaps counterintuitively, to vibrant reconceptions of the secular well before the unraveling of the secularization thesis or the turn to religion. Through rich readings of Heidegger, Bataille, Weber, and others, Onishi rethinks what philosophy can contribute to our understanding of religion and the wider social and cultural world.

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1
DIFFERENT WORLDS
Weber, Heidegger, and the Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of life? Is there a more trite question? Although seemingly more appropriate to campfire conversations at summer camp than to academic analysis, during the early twentieth century the question of life’s meaning stood at the forefront of continental thought. In light of the advances in the theory of evolution, historicism, and biblical criticism, and then the catastrophe of World War I, philosophers, theologians, and historians sought to understand the meaning of modern life in a rapidly changing and, in the eyes of many, declining world. These were, after all, the decades in which philosophers first attempted to conceive of life’s significance in a world shaken by the death of God—moments during which Logical Positivism threatened to reduce human life to logical components. In 1895 William James delivered an obscure but timely address titled “Is Life Worth Living?” and in the following years Wilhelm Dilthey formulated a “life-philosophy” that sought to reaffirm the importance of lived reality and immediate experience. However, neither James’s address nor Dilthey’s account did much in the eyes of many of their contemporaries to combat science and scientific philosophies on their terms. What was needed was a scientific approach to knowledge that recognized the validity of the scientific method, while accounting for the meaning and significance of subjective human experience and the particularities of history. It is from within this milieu that German Neo-Kantians, particularly in the southwest of the country, attempted to articulate a rational vision of the value of human life and culture. In different ways, Max Weber and Martin Heidegger appropriated and rejected core elements of the Southwestern School of Neo-Kantianism, and in the process they developed divergent accounts of secularity.
With the threat of spoiling the story, Max Weber’s chilling wartime declaration of the disenchantment of the world encapsulates the failure of the Neo-Kantian quest to provide a rationally justifiable account of the value or meaning of human life. Weber’s understanding of the human and the world was formed through a myriad of sources—too many to account for here—but the Neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert, who, along with Wilhelm Windelband and Emil Lask, formed the Southwest (or Baden) School of Neo-Kantianism, was of particular importance to his intellectual formation. Rickert’s ambition was to overcome the Kantian divide between the empirical domain of natural laws and transcendental values. For Rickert and his colleagues, the mechanics of natural laws would prove meaningless without the values that frame the significance of human life. Thus, distinguishing the universal set of values correspondent to the universal laws of the nomothetic domain was an enterprise in staving off a positivist reduction of the meaning of life to a scientific formula. Unfortunately, Rickert could not overcome the critical Neo-Kantian impasse between reason and meaning. In its strictest form, he concluded, the meaning of human life is irrational, since it cannot be empirically founded. By 1917, Weber draws a stark conclusion from this philosophical aporia in his influential address “Science as a Vocation”: the life and death of the modern, secular human are meaningless precisely because they are irrational. The mastery of the world by calculative thinking incurs the expense of any rational justification of the meaning of human life and death. According to Weber, any meaning given to them is arbitrarily superimposed onto the world via religious, artistic, or other humanly constructed means. For Weber, the constitution of secular life by reason means that irrational forces—all forms of mystery—are banished from the world, and with them goes the grounding of life’s meaning. Without mystery, life is relegated to mastery.
Only minimal attention has been given to the relationship between Weber and Heidegger, even though Heidegger was also associated with the Southwest School of Neo-Kantians.1 Rickert supervised his dissertation; Lask remained an explicit influence on his early work; and Heidegger engages Windelband in several of his early lecture courses. Unsurprisingly, his early Freiburg lectures (1919–1923) are largely reactions to the “philosophy of worldviews” and “philosophy of values” articulated by his first academic mentor and colleagues. Unlike Weber, however, Heidegger departed from the Neo-Kantians in favor of Husserl’s phenomenology, something that disappointed Rickert. By 1919, the Southwest School had become his primary philosophical target. Much attention has been given to Heidegger’s early criticism of Neo-Kantianism and its impact on the development of his phenomenological method during the 1920s.2 However, very little attention has been given to how Heidegger’s turn to phenomenology, and specifically his discovery of worldhood, signaled the emergence of an alternative account of the meaning of life developed by Weber in conjunction with the dominant Neo-Kantian philosophy of the time. Heidegger’s alternative path enabled him to avoid Rickert’s Neo-Kantian impasse and the rational cage of Weberian disenchantment in order to give a philosophically secular account of the meaning of human life and human worlds. In other words, it is possible to read Heidegger’s early reflections on the inherent meaningfulness of “world” as an alternative to Weber’s proclamation of the disenchantment of the world.3
BETWEEN THE REAL AND THE VALUABLE: WEBER’S KANTIANISM
In order to understand the depths of Weberian disenchantment, it is necessary to understand the philosophical contours of Weber’s vision of the human and the world. Weber articulates such visions in several of his many texts, but never more clearly than in “ ‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy,” which he wrote in 1904 as an explanation of the parameters by which he would work as the editor of the enormously influential Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialoplitik. Weber’s Kantianism emerges through his discussion of the limits and role of the sciences, particularly the social sciences. Like Kant, Weber interprets the human as a rational being who perceives and understands the world in terms of rational laws that govern the natural world. He separates objective knowledge of such laws—what he elsewhere calls “facts”—from values, which are subjective, particular, and unique. In this way, Weber follows the Southwest Neo-Kantians by positing the realm of nature as nomothetic and the cultural realm of values as idiographic. This means that the natural world is governed by universal, deterministic laws that can be discovered by the rational human, whereas in the cultural realm humans superimpose rationally unjustifiable values upon the natural world in order to give human life meaning and significance. This means clear parameters for the relationship between science and values: “An empirical science cannot tell anyone what he should do—but rather what he can do—and under certain circumstances—what he wishes to do” (OSS 151/54). In a manner consistent throughout his career, Weber argues that the sciences must never attempt to validate any particular values, because such validation remains beyond the scope of rational inquiry (OSS 157/60).
The inability to empirically verify the validity of values means that they are strictly unreal. Weber’s interpretation of the unreality of values follows directly from Rickert, who argued in Die Grenzen der Naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung—a text dedicated to Weber—that values cannot be located in the empirical world:
Values as such are never real. On the contrary, they hold validity. In other words, the values themselves cannot be real, but rather only the goods in which they are realized and in which we discover them. In the same way, the meaning reality acquires with reference to a value does not itself fall within the domain of real existence. On the contrary, it obtains it only in relation to a valid value. In this sense, the meaning itself is unreal.4
Benjamin Crowe highlights the ramifications of this position in his article on Rickert’s theory of religion, published in 2010: “Meaning, on Rickert’s view, derives from a connection between ahistorical, transcendental values, on the one hand, and historical realities, on the other. Thus, the problem of world-view is the problem of how value and reality can be made to fit together.”5 Essentially, Rickert opens a Kantian cleavage between ahistorical, transcendental values and empirical reality, of which the philosophical problem is how to close the gap between the transcendental and the empirical. By contrast to Weber, who claims his goal is to articulate the value-free, scientific goals and parameters of the social sciences, the Southwest Neo-Kantians have the philosophical goal of founding reality on an a priori set of timeless, universal transcendental values. Ideally, the ordered hierarchy of values would form a transhistorical, universal Weltanschauung.
However, the cleavage between transcendental values and empirical reality proved to be an impasse, since, as Crowe summarizes helpfully, Rickert’s desire to uphold a barrier between the rational and the metaphysical contradicts the desire to unite values and reality—a desire that demands “leaving science behind and entering the domain of faith.”6 Values are not empirically verifiable, but according to Rickert and other Neo-Kantians, nonempirical entities cannot be rationally grounded, which means that values are strictly speaking a matter of faith, more akin to religion than science, and separated irrevocably from the realm of knowledge.
Weber imposes these strict limits on the social sciences because philosophically he believes that values are subjective, particular, and most importantly nonempirical. They are thus a matter of faith:
Only on assumption of belief in the validity of values is the attempt to espouse value-judgments meaningful. However, to judge the validity of such values is a matter of faith. It may perhaps be a task for the speculative interpretation of life and the universe in quest of their meaning. But it certainly does not fall within the province of an empirical science in the sense in which it is to be practiced here.
(OSS 152/55)
Weber articulates a position in the essay from 1904 that would carry through to “Science as a Vocation”: the sciences are rooted in analysis of the observable world, because beyond such analysis no other type of rational validation is possible. This means that scientific knowledge, including social-scientific knowledge, is “an unconditionally valid type of knowledge,” which signifies “the analytical ordering of empirical social reality” (OSS 160/63). Malcolm MacKinnon summarizes this lucidly in his article from 2001 on Weber’s Kantianism: “Windelband and Rickert took Kant’s advice, and so did Weber. Their mandate was to create a science that could quarter moral causality, and thereby establish Kant’s distinction between the natural and the moral sciences. For his part, Weber claims that the sociocultural sciences must recognize the autonomy of the individual morality maker, which amounts to Kant’s subjectivism and Weber’s methodological individualism.”7 Hence, for Weber the idea of the sciences finding “generally valid ultimate value-judgments” is not only impossible; such a task is “meaningless” (OSS 154/57).8
EXCURSUS: NEO-WEBERIANS AND THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF RELIGION
One response to this reading of Weber might be to claim that Weber’s stark rationalist approach to the meaning of human life in general, and religion more specifically, is outdated. One might argue that it is irrelevant to attack century-old secularisms in light of the more complex and enlightened approaches developed by contemporary scholars. This argument might be tenable if prevalent forms of Weber’s secularism did not persist in the contemporary academy, particularly in the field of religious studies.
Donald Wiebe and Russell McCutcheon have become the two most influential proponents of a scientific study of religion that distances the academic study of religion from any subjective biases, religious motivations, or theological assertions. In the preface to The Politics of Religious Studies, Wiebe claims that the university is characterized by “a search for objective knowledge of the world,” which proceeds according to “the political act of consciously attempting to exclude all values from scientific deliberation except the value called ‘objective knowledge.’ ”9 According to Wiebe, academic research can never concern itself with the “moral welfare” of the human race, since “the boundaries set by the ideal of scientific knowledge” exclude such concerns. In sum, knowledge in the true sense is defined by objectivity, and anything else is akin to faith, which has no rational legitimacy.
McCutcheon complements this approach by drawing a distinction between what he takes to be an illegitimate, “religious” approach to the study of religion and a legitimately scientific approach. He follows Weber by arguing that all “deeply personal feeling” developed through engagement with religious or humanist texts leads to “essential meanings and values, all of which is derived from experiences of God, the gods, the sacred, the wholly other, the numinous, or the mysterium.”10 McCutcheon’s worst fear is that religious studies would continue to posit an unobservable sui generis realm of the sacred that forms the origin of religious phenomena. Ideally, McCutcheon argues, the academic study of religion would be a “cross disciplinary study of how human beliefs, behaviors, and institutions construct and contest enduring social identity-talk about gods and talk about mythic origins are but two strategies for doing this.”11 For McCutcheon and Wiebe, following Weber, social-scientific methods enable the scientific study of values, meanings, and identities without implicating the researcher in them. Anything beyond this should be considered an illegitimately “religious” approach: “the former constitutes the religious study of religion—itself a religious pursuit—whereas the latter constitutes the academic study of religion.”12 McCutcheon and Wiebe manifest the type of dogmatic secularism I discussed in the introduction, wherein the researcher is envisioned as a rational observer capable of extracting objective knowledge from the realm of human culture. As a result, they seek to delegitimize humanistic approaches by labeling them “religious.”
However, as Tyler Roberts has argued, such a position rests on two highly contestable assumptions. First, along lines I discussed in the introduction, Wiebe and McCutcheon generate the category of religion based on their conception of the secular. But they do so without critically investigating the latter:
If modern conceptions of “religion” emerge with, through, and against modern conceptions of the “secular,” that is, if these concepts are mutually constitutive, and if we understand “secularism” to be a political and social project, then simply pointing out that in some way religion or theology infects the secular study of religion (or the public and political space) or arguing that the academic sphere should be secular is to invoke a host of presuppositions and categories that themselves need to be interrogated.13
This work is one attempt to interrogate the category of the secular, and thus to demonstrate the limitations and problems of Weber’s, Wiebe’s, and McCutcheon’s vision of the secular/religious binary.
Second, McCutcheon and Wiebe assume that the university’s mission is to search for universal objective knowledge of the world,...

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