Addenda

What We're Reading

12 Apr

Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans. Oscar Burge (Princeton University Press, 1997)

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 04/12/06

On Volume 57 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, sociologist Steve Bruce discussed his book God Is Dead: Secularization in the West; he asserted that while many people believe in some sort of religion, religion no longer shapes the body politic. His understanding of secularization is one supported by French author Marcel Gauchet, who was interviewed for the daily Le Monde in March, 2006. In the interview Gauchet comments on what the violent response to the caricatures of Mohammed demonstrate about how globalization is affecting Islamic nations, why those nations feel threatened by the West, and why Europeans cannot understand such hostility. . . .

On Volume 57 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, sociologist Steve Bruce discussed his book God Is Dead: Secularization in the West; he asserted that while many people believe in some sort of religion, religion no longer shapes the body politic. His understanding of secularization is one supported by French author Marcel Gauchet, who was interviewed for the daily Le Monde in March, 2006. In the interview Gauchet comments on what the violent response to the caricatures of Mohammed demonstrate about how globalization is affecting Islamic nations, why those nations feel threatened by the West, and why Europeans cannot understand such hostility.

Gauchet explains that globalization, propagated by the West, destroys "the existing social order" in Islamic states, in which faith is a way of life, "disaggregate[ing] the traditional family and violently chang[ing] the relationship between men and women and between generations." He states, "Europeans' problem is that they can no longer understand what religion means in societies where it still maintains a structural power. . . . For them, religion has become a system of individual and private beliefs."

Gauchet examined the Western world's modern understanding of religion in his 1985 book (published in English by Princeton University Press in 1997), The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. His concern in the book was ". . . to reconstruct Jewish monotheism from the circumstances surrounding its first appearance to the development of its long-term consequences; and then, to follow its development from where Christianity takes over to the point where the seeds of terrestrial autonomy contained within it come to fruition. This is the point where, thanks to religion, a society with no further need for religion arises." In it he studies the relationship between heaven and earth, between the divine and humanity, and how humanity's understanding of itself and the divine has changed during the course of history.

Religion first arose, he states, because ancient peoples were looking for a way to explain the existence of the world and their own being and acting in it. The development of specific religions, particularly Christianity, introduced ways of understanding God, the world, and humanity that eventually allowed people to give up religion and the divine as necessary to their explanations and understandings. Gauchet notes that the religious still affects individuals and their interior lives, but that societies no longer depend on it for their structure. His characterization of secularization is different from others that define it as the disappearance of all religious observance, public and private. He writes: "I cannot overemphasize that when I say 'end of religion' I am referring to a quite specific phenomenon: the end of the principle of dependency structuring social space in all known societies prior to our own." His more nuanced construction explains the unusual occurrence of public institutions increasingly hostile to religion's influence even while individual belief and church attendance remains high, an occurrence illustrated in the United States. "The United States shows us how spiritual and cultural influence was preserved by denominational membership within a society whose workings, orientations, and values were just as far removed from the structure of dependency toward the other as the older, superficially more de-Christianized or laicized, European societies," writes Gauchet.

One stateside review of Gauchet's work put his distinction between public and private religion thus: ". . . the characteristic social phenomena of our time . . . sees some people turn to religious conversion as a response to the disequilibrating experience of freedom in a pluralist world. This is where Gauchet's distinction between religion as personal faith and religion as the ideological creator and designer of society stands him in brilliant stead. The two things—faith and religion—are not the same . . . . Individual pockets of faith may indeed postdate the decline of religion as a major social player. In Gauchet's words: 'We can imagine the extreme of a society comprised entirely of believers, yet beyond the religious.'" The article, written by Steven Englund and titled "Converting to religion after its demise: thoughts on Marcel Gauchet and his American reception," was published in Cross Currents, the journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. In addition to the aforementioned quote it offers this pithy explanation of the modern world's relationship to religion: ". . . the world, for all that it may be reverential toward religion, is no longer referential to religion in its social organization." A second review, written by Brian C. Anderson and published in the June/July 1998 issue of First Things, offers the following about Gauchet's portrayal of secularization: "But the Enlightenment project of human autonomy proves illusory, Gauchet admits. Instead of obeying the other outside of us, as in the era of religion, we rediscover it within, in the unconscious, rendering our own identity opaque."

The authors of both reviews, when commenting on Gauchet's understanding of Christianity and its role in the secularization of the West, concur with Charles Taylor in his foreword to Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World. Therein Taylor writes: "But can the new departures in faith, of Buddha, of Jesus, or for that matter of St. Francis or St. Teresa, be understood simply in terms of the hunger for meaning? If the basic aim is just to make sense of it all, why is it that karuna or agape are so central to these traditions? . . . But perhaps these mutations can only be explained by supposing that something like what they relate to—God, Nirvana—really exists. In that case, a purely cultural account of religion would be like Hamlet without the Prince.

"While I opt for this second view, and hence cannot accept Gauchet's fundamental characterization of religion, this book is the living proof—if we still needed one—that you do not have to be ultimately right to make clear some truly profound and important features of our religious history, nor to open tremendously fruitful and exciting vistas for further explanation. No one interested in clarifying our thought about religion and the secular can afford to ignore this remarkable and original book."

Englund, the first of the two reviewers mentioned, reminds his readers that Gauchet is not questioning the validity of religious experience, but its function in society. He maintains that treating religion as merely a way to order society and explain meaning misses the mark. But many are so relieved that Gauchet is acknowledging the major role religion and Christianity has played in the development of the West that they overlook how explaining it in utilitarian terms—as a means of ordering society—marginalizes the depth of the modern crisis of religion.

Anderson, the second of the two, criticizes Gauchet for underestimating how radically men shaped modernity from its beginning (as opposed to it unfolding on its own, due to natural structures). He also notes that the Frenchman never considers "that Christianity might be true." Which means, writes Anderson, that Gauchet "neglects another possibility: that there might be an answer to our current discontents on the far side of modernity, and one that involves not post-religious man but a post-secular world. A post-secular world would not be a return to some enchanted, primordial dispossession, but it may well be a world after liberalism."

The Disenchantment of the World is divided in two parts. Part one—which comprises four chapters—is titled "The Metamorphosis of the Divine: The Origin, Meaning, and Development of the Religious." It demonstrates that the religious has reached the end of its life in the modern world, in spite of what the presence of churches and the faith of individuals indicates. Part two—two chapters long—is titled "The Apogee and Death of God: Christianity and Western Development." It claims that the West is radically original because it has reincorporated the sacral element that used to exist in the world into the heart of human relationships and activities. The book concludes with notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Gauchet's work is one of the volumes in the New French Thought Series published by Princeton University Press, edited by Thomas Pavell and Mark Lilla. The books in the series cover a wide range of topics, comprising religion, European history, political science and international relations, world history, comparative history, art and architecture, philosophy, political philosophy, comparative literature, cognitive science, biological sciences, psychology, sociology, and British literature. Other titles include Pierre Manent's The City of Man (whose foreword is written by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a guest on several issues of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal). A complete list of titles is available on-line. [Posted April 2006, ALG]

12 Apr

Celebrating Mozart

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/12/06

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, and Volume 80 of the Journal will feature an interview which explores the nature of the attractiveness in Mozart's music, especially among certain theologians. Meanwhile, whether you know Mozart's music well or not at all, you will learn a great deal (and delight a great deal) in listening to insightful discussions of Mozart's music on the BBC's Discovering Music program (or, to be more culturally sensitive, "programme"). . . .

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, and Volume 80 of the Journal will feature an interview which explores the nature of the attractiveness in Mozart's music, especially among certain theologians. Meanwhile, whether you know Mozart's music well or not at all, you will learn a great deal (and delight a great deal) in listening to insightful discussions of Mozart's music on the BBC's Discovering Music program (or, to be more culturally sensitive, "programme"). These may be heard (in streaming audio) here. Each program (so much for sensitivity) contains an illustrated lecture/performance which demonstrates how the music works, how its power is delivered. Among the Mozart works discussed are the Clarinet Concerto, several of the Piano Concertos, three of the symphonies, a string quintet, and The Magic Flute. There are dozens of other works by other composers discussed on other programs. Discovering Music is a treasure; American listeners should be grateful for English federal funding of the arts. [Posted April 2006, KAM]

12 Mar

"Wardrobe Accessories"

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/12/06

On Volume 77 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Peter Schakel and Alan Jacobs discussed their recent works on C. S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. Of course theirs are not the only works published lately on the subject, as a review in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity demonstrates. . . .

On Volume 77 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Peter Schakel and Alan Jacobs discussed their recent works on C. S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. Of course theirs are not the only works published lately on the subject, as a review in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity demonstrates. In "Wardrobe Accessories," Donald T. Williams reviews three commentaries on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, two of which are written by former guests on the Journal.

All three of the works—whose authors are Bruce Edwards, Devin Brown, and Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead—"rise above the sea of commercial mediocrity," writes Williams, and have their own unique organization, emphasis, and focus in discussing the first book of the Chronicles. Their titles are (order listed corresponds with order of authors above): Further Up and Further In: Understanding C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and A Reader's Guide Through the Wardrobe: Exploring C. S. Lewis's Classic Story. Williams describes what each does best and notes to which audience each is particularly suited.

Through the years the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal has featured several interviews about Lewis and his work; to see a complete listing of them, click here. [Posted March 2006, ALG]

12 Mar

John Henry Newman

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/12/06

On Volume 52 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, guest Ian Ker discussed his book The Achievement of John Henry Newman. Those who took a particular interest in this interview will be pleased to know about the "Newman Reader" web page, a veritable treasure trove of links to articles by and information about Newman. The dozens of resources available include biographies and bibliographies of both primary and secondary works. [Posted March 2006, ALG]

On Volume 52 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, guest Ian Ker discussed his book The Achievement of John Henry Newman. Those who took a particular interest in this interview will be pleased to know about the "Newman Reader" web page, a veritable treasure trove of links to articles by and information about Newman. The dozens of resources available include biographies and bibliographies of both primary and secondary works. [Posted March 2006, ALG]

12 Jan

Christianity and Science in the Beginning

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/12/06

It is widely affirmed that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is a pivotal figure in Western cultural history. Bacon was a champion and publicist for what became known as the "scientific method," sometimes referred to (in honor of his singular role in promoting its legitimacy) as the Baconian method. The central assertion of this new way of knowing and explaining the world was that empirical and inductive practices could lead to experimentally verified (and repeatedly verifiable) set of conclusions about how things happen. Classical forms of knowledge of the world proceeded by deducing conclusions in the abstract from an array of more fundamental propositions. . . .

It is widely affirmed that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is a pivotal figure in Western cultural history. Bacon was a champion and publicist for what became known as the "scientific method," sometimes referred to (in honor of his singular role in promoting its legitimacy) as the Baconian method. The central assertion of this new way of knowing and explaining the world was that empirical and inductive practices could lead to experimentally verified (and repeatedly verifiable) set of conclusions about how things happen. Classical forms of knowledge of the world proceeded by deducing conclusions in the abstract from an array of more fundamental propositions.

While figures like Galileo (1564-1642), Kepler (1571-1630), and Newton (1643-1727) are often regarded as pioneering scientists whose work had widespread influence, Bacon might be better seen as the first philosopher or theorist of science. Bacon is not known for scientific discoveries, but for outlining and defending a new approach to the world which included techniques and habits of thought. Bacon introduced a mindset into the Western world that has become its dominant identifying feature. In his characterization of what underlies Western cultural life, theologian and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin observes that the most important cultural effect of the rise of the Baconian method was to impart to the West a sense of mastery over the world, and a loss of concern for questions of purpose. "To have discovered [through inductive techniques] the cause of something is to have explained it. There is no need to invoke purpose or design as an explanation. There is no place for miracles or divine intervention in providence as categories of explanation." (Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 24)

In time, this new mentality evoked the sense that dealing with Nature (with the goal of mastery) was a more suitable preoccupation for a society than dealing with God (from a standpoint of submission and obedience). And so science is credited with having a secularizing influence in Western culture. This has led many cultural historians to argue that Francis Bacon himself was a pioneer of secularization. Even though Bacon used religious language and ideas to defend the new science (e.g., framing the project of practical social improvement, "the relief of man's estate," through the acquisition of practical knowledge as a way of undoing some of the effects of the Fall), these historians have argued that Bacon was fundamentally interested in purely social and political concerns, not in anything religious, transcendent, or eternal.

Historian Stephen A. McKnight has written a new book, The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought (University of Missouri Press) which argues that Bacon did not employ religious ideas with cynical and manipulative intent, but with the utmost sincerity. Rather "Bacon's program of utopian reform, as presented in the 'New Atlantis,' is grounded in genuinely and deeply felt religious convictions, which serve as the foundation for his program of political and social prosperity through the advancement of learning."

An excerpt from McKnight's book was published in the Fall 2005 issue of the journal The New Atlantis (now you know where the title comes from!), and is available online. If all goes well, Stephen A. KcKnight will appear on volume 79 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, during which time questions will be raised about whether Bacon's religious ideas were theologically sound as well as sincere. [Posted January 2006, KAM]

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