An updated, shortened version of this same essay can be found here. Let me introduce this essay. It's audience is the world of Academia. It is not designed to be an essay about how school should be taught in a seminary or other confessional setting. It is a call for compromise in a non-believing world.
“To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behavior.”― Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion
Not long ago a small mob of preacher men came to campus. Their sermon of damnation and salvation extended more than eight hours, the excited emotion of which awarded them front page feature on the next day’s school paper. What really caught my attention during my time standing in the crowd of students were the hateful slurs being thrown around, not by the preachers, but by the “college educated young people.” A young man standing next to me cried out above the crowd in a mocking tone, “How ‘bout if I come to your church and preach atheism! I bet you wouldn’t like that!” For a minute it sounded coherent. Then I thought to myself, “Wait, is he saying that this is the equivalent? That these guys are preaching Christianity (albeit a strange form) in an atheist church—in the free speech zone on a liberal campus?” One certainly could graduate with this mindset. But if the goal of a liberal arts education, as is boasted by the University of Montana, is to “liberate the mind”—with the implied meaning of “liberal” having nothing to do with politics and everything to do with an open mind—then why are students leaving here thinking that there is only one way to approach history or literature, religion or language? I wonder how long this system will last.
Over the next several pages I want to address the ethics of sustaining the modern secularistic approach to the humanities in the contemporary, non-sectarian, academic world. I will argue that it is not ethically sustainable and ought to be replaced by the post-postmodern approach (which I refer to as metamodern). I’m going to argue this point with much reference to biblical scholarship and historical research, as these are the two disciplines in the academic world that I enjoy most. I’m going to need working definitions of modern, postmodern, metamodern, secular and secularistic. Much of what is written below has come from years of thinking and reading on the topics at hand, and I have done my best to give credit where credit is due.
Let me begin by defining modern as it pertains to the academic world. The term “modern” is applied to a dizzying number of disciplines and beliefs; arts and architecture, science and literature, religion and philosophy, etcetera. What I’ve focused on in the current research is the term with respect to its relationship with the philosophy of ancient history. Modern philosophy of ancient history boasts that with enough research, textual evidence and good social science, we can clear away our own interpretations, as well as those of the original authors, and get down to what really happened over 2,000 years ago in, say, the Middle East. We can get direct access to the real story. Let me foreshadow a bit here; the real story is somebody’s rendition of what they saw; that somebody had preconceived ideas about the world that colored everything he/she did. So do I. We can’t get to the real story. There are a bunch of different “plausible” stories; but, not all plausible stories are equal. In the words of Dale Allison Jr., “It is time to rethink much” (Le Donne, Forward xi).
One important implication of modern philosophy (especially as is exemplified by David Hume) it its assertion that reason and rationality are to be followed at any cost, and ought to be based upon purely empirical evidence. Because you can’t test for the existence of the supernatural in a science lab, it is not empirical, and is therefore thrown out before the theorizing even begins. This overconfidence in human reason is made clear by Renes Descartes (1596-1650). As Anthony Le Donne (a secular scholar in the field of Historical Jesus Studies) points out in his new book, Historical Jesus; What can we know and how can we know it, Descartes thought that he had direct access to what happened inside of his mind. Philosopher Bertrand Russell agreed with Descartes and argued further that “a person’s relationship to his/her thoughts is direct, without error and non-perspectival, meaning that there is no barrier, filter, or lens between you and your thoughts” (Le Donne, 17). Although this seems logical, (doubtless because we in the modern university still blindly follow the methods and beliefs of the Enlightenment) we know now that there is much more going on inside the mind than some sort of direct vision, especially when social memory happens before the case is documented.
To offer up a current example from one of my favorite disciplines, historical Jesus research, modern historians often use certain “criteria of authenticity” to determine which of the statements of Jesus were spoken by the actual historical Jesus and which were later inventions for ideological purposes. An example of one such criterion is the “Criterion of Embarrassment.” Early on in the Gospel According to John, Jesus rebukes his own mother. In the Jewish shame/honor culture at the time, this would not have been looked upon well; remember that one of the Ten Commandments is “honor your father and mother.” As the criterion goes, if Jesus didn’t actually rebuke his mother, then the author certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make up this embarrassing moment and write it down (Le Donne, 45).
Let me give Le Donne a little bit of space, as he sums up the problem exquisitely.
Many previous generations of ‘modern’ historians tended to look at these criteria as a way of locating an authentic past reality—as if a core of past events could be stripped of all interpretive agendas and treated like a bedrock artifact. If these criteria are to be useful, historians must realize that history always must be about explaining how memory emerges and evolves. These criteria cannot uncover historical facts that are devoid of perception and memory (Le Donne, 51).
Modern historians continue chiseling at old evidence with bleeding hands, and, with far too much confidence, they try to reconstruct what really happened. These reconstructions are often used in biblical scholarship to make overarching claims either for the actuality of the resurrection or against it. These reconstructions are, at best, interpreted reconstructions of an already interpreted collection of memories and perceptions.
This mention of memory and perception brings me to the definition of “metamodern.” The metamodern philosophy with respect to the study of history is a reaction against that of the postmodern, which was itself born from a reaction to the modern approach. Before moving along, then, I need to clear the scum from the word, “postmodernism.” Since we know that the modern idea is undergirded by the idea that we can have direct perceptions of our thoughts, and that postmodern though was a reaction to modern thought, what did they react against?
Some time ago I read an essay about the study of “myth” by a renowned postmodern scholar of religion, Russell T. McCutcheon. Near the end of the essay McCutcheon quoted Paul Veyne, who affirmed McCutcheon in his answer to the question of truth (what is real): “truth is the most variable of all measures. It is not a transhistorical invariant but a work of the constitutive imagination…” (McCutcheon, 201). Postmodern thought sees writings within the realm of religion as ideological constructs designed to encourage a group of people to do this or that thing. Postmodern historians, for example, often see the gospels as nothing more than socio-political manifestos designed to rally the low-class Judeans into working for the expulsion of the Roman Empire. Why not invent a “Kingdom of God?” They were written for their time, relative to that setting, and only that setting.
In full-fledged postmodernism, absolutely everything is relative. The problem is that we run into what has been coined the “self-contradiction of absolute relativism.” Basically, it is an absolute statement claiming the relativity of everything, which, it would seem, would include itself.
Metamodern research reacts against this circularity. While maintaining the postmodern idea that everything is colored by perception, metamodern methods move away from absolute relativism and, with the help of psychology and the social sciences, attempt to discover what is doing the coloring and how that paint is affecting the final image we see.
This is where the terms “secular” and secularism (secularistic as an adjective) come into the picture. Calling an action or institution secular simply means that it isn’t in place for religious purposes. That is to say, when Buddhism is taught at the University of Montana, the professor doesn’t begin with a prayer and consecration of the class in session to the Buddhist religion. It’s the same with Christianity. I’m learning about Buddhism and Christianity. I’m learning what Buddhists and Christians believe about X, Y and Z. Or, as in the case of Historical Jesus Scholarship, I’m approaching the study with an open mind about what may have happened. Otherwise all that I will be doing is attempting to prove a preconceived idea. In a sense, in using secular methods I’m attempting to look through the eyes of another
Secularism, on the other hand, has its own doctrines and sets of values as well as its own particular worldview. The Oxford English Dictionary defines secularism as, “The doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or a future state” (OED, 2704. Italics added for emphasis). Notice the words “doctrine,” “morality,” and “exclusion.” Those are generally terms used with reference (often, especially the aspect of exclusivity, pejoratively) to a religious worldview. Although the difference between secular and secularism might not seem so radically different at first, the former is an open playing field for all, while the latter involves its own ethical worldview that excludes the worldviews of the vast majority of the world. A secularistic individual, then, would approach historical Jesus research having already ruled out the historicity of the gospel narratives.
Let me offer up a personal example of the way that secularism and secular approaches impact my day to day. I’m taking a course in which the study of the Bible plays a major part. The purpose of the course is to look at some classic texts that have shaped the way we think and write and live in our world today. In our investigation of the Bible, however, the professor’s main objective is to look at the Bible with a blind eye to any discussion about what the god that it presents might be like. If the topic does arise, the professor stops the discussion and reminds us that we’re not doing theology. This is modern secularism.
In another class we’re reading through Homer’s Odyssey. It’s a capstone course for the Liberal Studies Department and is taught by the director of the program. While looking closely at The Odyssey, one discussion that keeps coming up, naturally, concerns the nature of the Homeric gods and goddesses. We talk about Zeus and divine justice in Homer’s epic poetry. I can’t imagine the professor in the course dedicated to Homer’s Odyssey stopping the discussion once it turned toward the nature of the gods. There would be nearly nothing left to read if it weren’t for the place of the gods in Homer. This is secular.
I would argue that it is impossible to get any sort of feel for the Bible if one doesn’t talk about the nature of its god. I feel like I’m missing out. What’s more, the Bible is read today because people have been—and still are—influenced by what it says about its god. Granted, there are those scholars who spend their lives decoding ancient tablets that talk about the religions of dead cultures, and this same group would be doing the same thing with the Bible, had people not continued reading about its god. Don’t get me wrong, the purpose of my research is not to gain leverage against my professors, nor is it to convert my reader. My intention is to assess the ethical sustainability of modern secularism in the study of the humanities in the present-day secular university.
The secular metamodern philosophy of history holds tightly to the idea that all thinking individuals have preconceived ideas and worldviews and opinions, and that these color everything they do, including science. Metamodern historians are not saying—as the postmoderns did—that there is no objective truth. What they are saying is that there is no way to scientifically prove that objective truth in the writings of the ancient past. It all gets colored by our perceptions, which are, in turn, colored by our preconceived ideas about the way the world works. These ideas are, problematically, very different from the preconceived ideas of the ancients.
The metamodern historian doesn’t give up here though. The metamodern historian recognizes these perceptions as contributing a great deal to the way that reading works and writing happens. Thus, we study the way perception works, and, with the help of brilliant contemporary scholarship in psychology and the social sciences, we can now begin crafting reasonable arguments for the way perception worked in the ancient world of primarily oral tradition. They were homo-sapiens-sapiens too. We are therefore able, with the help of recent scholarship, to analyze and critique our own perceptions in our reading as well as the perceptions of the original author in his or her writing.
Take, for example, the literature class studying Homer’s Odyssey. A modern approach would be to remain in a strict objective discussion of, say, the literary forms, the historical accuracy, or the comparison of characters without reference to the perceptions of the students doing the reading and discussing. If, however, the students read The Odyssey and, while looking at the forms, history and characters, were also discussing why and how they, as students, have come to think as they do, as well as how the author came two write down what is before the student on paper (i.e. a study of social memory as is exemplified in Anthony Le Donne’s 2011 publication, Historical Jesus; What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?), then class could be labeled metamodern. Many classes are a blend of the two.
How should we then proceed? To perform well in the academic world, students need to identify the lenses through which they gaze, and, in the historical sense, need to know what lens the author of the history being read looked through. Otherwise, as a spider clings to a shadowy web beneath the bed and slips silently beneath the covers to inflict a fatal wound, so will our personal interpretations cling unnoticed, and later, having slipped silently beneath the assuring covers of objectivity, inflict a fatal bite. (Sorry about that last sentence if you’re afraid of spiders, I was having a little fun.)
Let me sum up where we’ve been. Secular refers to something not purposed for or against religion, while secularism refers to a specific worldview that excludes religion. The term “modern,” on the one hand, (with respect to ancient history) is associated with the belief that the real, unadulterated truth can be found with good scientific inquiry, and that we can see clearly with reasoning and rationality (The Enlightenment Twins). My critique of the postmodern approach rests primarily with its argument for absolute relativism. The metamodern view, on the other hand, generally involves the historian’s acceptance that he or she can’t get to the whole truth via the scientific method; that no matter how he or she tries, there will always be lenses over the eyes searching the documents of the past, and there will always be lenses over the eyes of the writers of that past. The best that we can do is identify our lenses and move humbly forward with a recognition of human fallibility. In the case of historical Jesus research and biblical studies, we can’t get any closer than propositions of the most plausible case; any assurance greater than plausibility necessarily falls into the category of faith, whether or not you wind up believing in the resurrection.
Now let’s look at a couple of outside arguments for and against secularism. Because the metamodern philosophy of ancient history asserts that nobody has the final say, that nobody can prove truth, at least not with objective science—that is, without the coloring of subjective (personal) perception—then the academy in the metamodern world can teach what is seen from any sound, valid viewpoint. The first argument comes from an article written by a University professor of Philosophy from the University of Kwazulu-Natal, in Durban, South Africa. This setting is important to the topic at hand in that the scars of Apartheid are still fresh. Because of the past regime’s association with a certain sect of Christianity, many academics are justifiably leery of any teaching that involves the subjective views of Christianity. Professor Patrick Giddy tells us that “There is a residual fear of any one cultural group imposing their ideas and beliefs on other groups” (Giddy, 527). This is certainly a justified fear. The metamodern academy, however, would teach from a number of perspectives, giving no particular viewpoint greater authority.
Giddy is especially interested in the philosophy of education, and, in particular, the philosophy behind the arguments for and against the study of theology—Christian, Hindu, or otherwise—in the academic world. Giddy argues that theology should be taught. His linchpin is an argument about what makes up what we consider to be “real.” This is where the metamodern argument comes in. By calling something real, we generally (according to Giddy) refer to its material reality. But Giddy claims that what is real is anything that influences the human nature (thus, our perceptions), and that if we want to “liberate the mind” with a “liberal” education, then we ought to allow for the teaching from perspectives that see through the material and consider real—thus teachable—anything that influences the human being. Giddy argues that avoiding the subjective approach is damaging; it “pushes out religion and the expressivist dimension of human living to the detriment both of the religious traditions, which [come] open to fundamentalist anti-intellectualism, and the sciences which fail to connect with the larger world of values” (Giddy, pg. 531). Now, this is not to say that everyone needs to study theology in order to attain citizenship in the metamodern world, but, if we wish to liberate our minds, then we ought to learn to see in the way that a majority of the world sees. Deep knowledge generally leads to deep respect.
So what does the other side of the argument have to say? Richard Rorty is an individual against the teaching from perspectives other than secularistic philosophical pragmatism. Rorty’s pragmatism is, basically, the belief that everything in the public square—including ideas—should exist for the building up of a secularistic society, that is, a society without religion. Therefore, Rorty claims that expressions of religious belief are to be kept out of the university and public life at large because they are, simply, the making of “one’s own private way of giving meaning to one’s own life—a way which romanticizes one’s relations to something starkly and magnificently non-human, something Ultimately True and Real—obligatory for the general public” (Rorty; Philosophy and Social Hope, 157). Because Rorty sees the world as a secularist and a pragmatist, any reference to the religious beliefs of a person should be, in his ideal world, bracketed out of any public conversation. This is not just because he disagrees with religious principles or beliefs, but because he sees religious dialogue as counterproductive toward the creation of his desired, religionless utopia. In short, he thinks that anyone who doesn't hold religious convictions is ousted from a conversation concerning religion at the outset, and that we ought to only discuss (and teach) the reality that everyone agrees on. Rorty's theory is invalid because his problem with religion is that it excludes those without religion from conversations concerning its precepts. But the people with religion are, in the same way, excluded from his conversations that are fundamentally secularistic. So either way somebody is getting excluded, which is what he is arguing to avoid. They're two separate worldviews. People need to learn both, not just one or the other.
Another approach, the one I've been arguing for, would be to educate students on the principles of various religions so that they can participate in a respectful dialogue, which, for better or worse, isn’t going anywhere. One final point before we wrap this up: I am not arguing for the protection of failed religious systems. We need critical methods. Like I said, not all plausible stories are equal, and this applies to everything; including religion.
In light of all this disagreement, what can we do? How can our education be sustained in an ethical manner that respects the views of a global population? Should we just cast out religious dialogue because we disagree with it, thus silencing more than half of the globe? Should we convert our schools back into religious institutions as originally intended at their inception a couple of centuries ago? I want to argue for a compromise. I want to argue that the metamodern university can do us a great service; that we can learn from believers and atheists, scientists and sectarians, theologians and naturalists. If the world is a blend of views and beliefs and methods, and a secular education is designed to prepare us for that world, shall we continue on as if most of our world either (a) doesn’t exist, or (b) doesn’t matter? I think not. How, then, can we move toward developing a university system that, when an angry preacher comes to “prepare ye the way of the Lord,” has prepared its students to respond with thoughtful, well-articulated questions and respect? I’ve argued that it must begin in our classrooms. It must begin with thoughtful, deliberate discussions, designed to prepare the student body for an engagement with the real world. And, again, the real world does and will always include religion.
Giddy, Patrick. “Why Theology Can and Should be Taught at Secular Universities: Lonergan on Intellectual Conversion.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 45, no. 3 (2011): 527-543.
Le Donne, Anthony. Historical Jesus; What can we know and how can we know it? Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011. Print.
McCutcheon, Russell T. Chapter 14: Myth. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, 190-208. New York: T&T Clark, Continuum Imprint, 2000.
Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.