How is Biblical Literalism a Secular Phenomenon?

Mosaic from the Papal Basilica of San Paulo Florida le Mura, used as the cover to Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory.

This post can also be found on Ed’s personal blog, here.

A good while ago, I put together a post arguing for the secular nature of Biblical Literalism. I’m still fond of the post, and I stand by the argument. But one thing it lacks is an definition of what it means to be secular, beyond a crude presumption that secular phenomena originate outside of thought proceeding from God’s nature.

In any case, I just finished working through Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory. Right at the start of the text he gives an account of secularization which I think makes sense of how Biblical Literalism is a secular phenomenon, apart from my initial presumption. So, here’s a quick post describing that account and that making sense, followed by a few other thoughts. (To be clear, I’m thinking throughout of Biblical Literalism as I have encountered it in person, not as it may or may not have been worked out in the academy.)

Agamben’s goal in The Kingdom and the Glory is to analyze several features of modern power structures—especially the legitimation of governmental power through its relation to glory—by exploring how they emerged out of Patristic reasoning about the being of the Trinity and the accounts of Providence that were developed in light of this reasoning in the Medieval period. In setting up his investigation, he refers (as throughout the Homo Sacer series) to Carl Schmitt’s ‘lapidary thesis,’ that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”1 He then defines Schmitt’s use of ‘secularization’ in contradistinction to that of Max Weber:

Schmitt’s strategy is, in a certain sense, the opposite of Weber’s. While, for Weber, secularization was an aspect of the growing process of disenchantment and detheologization of the modern world, for Schmitt it shows on the contrary that, in modernity, theology continues to be present and active in an eminent way … This concerns a particular strategic relation that marks political concepts and refers them back to their theological origins.2

This strategic relation is then described in terms of ‘a signature.’ A signature here is something like the transposing, grafting, or displacing of a ‘sign or concept’ from one context to another in a way that avoids fundamentally splitting it—that is, the displacement does not “constitute a new meaning or a new concept”3—but still alters the functioning of the sign or concept. For Agamben, “secularization is not a concept but a signature.” It is the means by which theological concepts are displaced from the field of the sacred to the profane without thereby losing much of their originary character (even as they are severed from their object).

My argument for the secular nature of Biblical Literalism was that, through Barth and Wittgenstein, it could be shown to rely on a secular concept of language. In the original post, however, I more or less assumed that this concept of language was secular because it cast language as a rigid mechanism and because it had Enlightenment roots, and so expressed an idolatrous will to power. However: a) given the interconnection between theological themes and both the various aspirations and various projects of the Enlightenment, however, the latter assumption is problematic. b) Whilst I do think that a theological account of language cannot treat it as a mechanistic tool, I don’t think it is legitimate to therefore infer that to treat language as mechanical is to fall prey to secularism. And c) though an idolatrous will to power might not be befitting theology, the fact that a religious practice is driven by such a will does not definitively mark it as secular—the sphere of theological reasoning is just as human as the secular, so susceptible to the same temptations.

The account of secularization given by Agamben, however, provides a more compelling framework for the claim that Biblical Literalism is a secular phenomenon. What renders Biblical Literalism secular is not that it has these features, but that these features emerge from the transposition of a theological account of the divine mode of knowing into the sphere of human knowledge. The kind of knowledge that garden-variety Biblical Literalism seeks is a kind of knowledge that is properly reserved for the divine nature (maybe angels), but which has been severed from its proper object and used as a paradigm for human knowledge of God’s works. As such, Biblical Literalism is not secular because it relies on a mechanistic account of language with Enlightened pedigree that evinces a will to power. It is secular because each of these qualities follows from the displacement of a theological mode of being into the profane sphere (though they do not follow in such a way as to necessarily or sufficiently provide the grounds for a diagnosis of secularism).

This is cursory, as well as unsubstantiated—what I’ve outlined is a picture of how the argument could be made, as opposed to the content required for the argument itself. But it is interesting nonetheless. And I believe that it points to another feature of secularism not covered by Agamben: that just as concepts are displaced from the field of the sacred to that of the profane through secularization, it is possible for the profane to become a source of religion. That is to say, that the shape of a religious tradition can be determined more powerfully by a secularized concept encountered in the field of the profane than by its sacred origin. And I believe that the nature of profane religion in light of sacred origins—especially in so secularized a country as the USA—is probably worth getting clear about. (It should also be said that anything of sacred origin may, possibly must, also have profane roots; there cannot be a neat whittling down of theology to that which is of ‘pure’ ancestry! This should complicate the claim made just now, but not negate it.)

I’m going to end with a few brief comments. The first is that this idea of secularization lends a great deal of credence (not that credence needs to be lent!) to this post arguing for the important of studying theology, written by my former Oriel classmate Tara Isabella Burton. At least at the level of common discourse, it seems to me that weight is still afforded to the idea that the Enlightenment constituted a clean break with medieval scholasticism—rather than a mutation (something secularization) of its themes, for better and for worse. Agamben’s work in The Kingdom and the Glory itself shows the limits of this view. Whilst I think there are serious flaws in some of the particularities of his argument, the text serves as a phenomenally powerful argument for the claim that if one wants to understand the current day, one must understand the theological origins of its secular concepts. The study of theology, from Nazianzen to Aquinas, Calvin to Schleiermacher, is essential for understanding where we are today and how we got here.

The second is that if the above argument can be substantiated, then another argument can be made to claim that the separation of Church and State so central to American self-understanding has entrenched within the State a secularized concept of humanity—at least insofar as the separation is premised upon the optimism of enlightened humanism. This argument would claim that in attempting to keep Church and State separate, this edict instead transposed the locus of authority within the Church into human consciousness, then neutralized it from theological critique by severing meaningful political connections between the two spheres. Insofar as secularization involves the displacement of theological concepts into profane spheres, then far from protecting civil society from tyrannical theocracy, the separation of Church and State has instead taken the consciousness of God and written it into being of the ideal political animal, then severed this consciousness from its origin—in other words, in this process of secularization, it has rendered the ideal political animal as theocrat by another name. This could describe, I think, a cogent explanation for a) the far deeper interconnection of faith and politics in America than almost any other Western Nation, and b) a profane origin of the political-religious fronts that seem to contravene this separation, but are nonetheless nurtured within the vacuums it creates.

Finally, and thirdly, this framework of secularization provides a powerful framework within which to articulate the theological origins of modern racial categories. To take one example; in Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom, Sylvia Wynter describes how the qualitative distinction between God and humanity, mediated by the priesthood in the Middle Ages, was first dissolved with the collapse of Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology, then read into the being of humanity instead. Rather than the hierarchical difference being between God in heaven and creatures on earth, it was now between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ human beings, distinctions which were quickly inscribed as markers into darker and lighter skin. This is a massively simplified version of her account, but I believe it captures the basic movements (similar though importantly different accounts have also been developed by J. Kameron Carter in Race: A Theological Account and Willie Jennings in The Christian Imagination). And in light of the account of secularization worked through above, it provides a means of describing the creation of race as, at least in part, a process of secularization. It is, at least in part, the displacement of the category of divine transcendence over creation into a hierarchy of human being itself.

  1. Agamben, Giorgio. The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Homo Sacer II, 2). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. p.2 It is worth noting here that Schmitt was one of the most influential theorists of the Nazi State, and provided a political rationale for the power of the Führer.
  2. Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p.4
  3. Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p.4

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