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On Religion, chapter 2: How the Secular World Became Post-Secular

March 23, 2007

On ReligionThis is part of a series of posts detailing my thoughts on On Religion by John Caputo, a book read in preparation for the Emergent Village Theological Philosophical Conversation.

The second chapter of On Religion moves away from Caputo’s wrestling with the description of religion to an historical overview of the philosophy of religion. The reason for this is to contextualize the discussion and to explain why he is writing on religion, and (more importantly) why this marks a break with recent philosophical tradition. In other words, it is to explain the postmodern condition, taking a few potshots at modernity along the way.

Yet such an historical overview is apt to be cried by the very postmodern position that Caputo argues from, and he is careful to state at the outset:

I solemnly warn the reader to be extremely uneasy about any such easy periodization for, hero that I am, I accept no responsibility for it.(p.38)

Such a comment at the outset should put a reader on guard, and indeed there is much to being looking out for in this chapter. As is to be expected (and was even foreshadowed), Caputo cherry-picks a history of religion and philosophy to his liking. All good history makes an argument, to be sure, but one wonders if Caputo’s claims to truth can survive a history of Western Christianity that makes no mention of the Protestant Reformation. The arguments mounted by all sides during these turbulent years provide the ammunition used by the later Enlightenment scholars that he does interact with in detail. However, an understanding of the Enlightenment as post-Reformational is counter to his overall schema and as such passes over in silence. More’s the pity on that, I would have enjoyed his reflections on Luther, Calvin, and my beloved Menno. Yet, the real problem with Caputo’s reconstruction of history isn’t the figures chosen but the very schema he adopts to tell it.

Caputo periodizes religious history into three epochs: 1) the sacral age, 2) the secular age, and 3) the post-secular age. The sacral age was pre-Copernican, an era where faith and reason had not yet been divorced, a time when there was not as yet a dichotomy of secular and sacred. The secular age extends from the Copernican revolution, through Kant and Hegel, and into the early twentieth century. It is the age of science and reason, where observable facts held sway. The post-secular age begins with the odd couple of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who both decried the systematized world of Hegel and each saw the world as a chaotic storm. Caputo sees them as the prophets of postmodernity whose unheeded message came to fruition in the genocidal angst of the twentieth century’s wars. The smashing of Reason opens up the older categories of faith, the love of God, and the impossible. However, this post-secular world takes the benefits of the secular age with it — a sense of democracy, a value in the individual, humanism in the best sense possible.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because it is. For Caputo’s grand paradigm (or meta-narrative) of history is an Hegelian dialectic! Just as the generations before, we find ourselves having the best of all ages while creating a unifying paradigm that encompasses them all! Let the reader beware.

I have no problem with the overall analysis that Caputo is giving. Postmodernity, when done right, is exactly what he claims: a molding together of the sacred and the secular, a critique of a critique. However, I find it disingenuous to speak so highly of Nietzsche’s hammer of chaos crashing the idol of Hegel’s systematization, while all the while using this same program one’s self. History is far more messy than his reading of it bears out, and I for one enjoy a history that is a bit “unhinged.”

  1. December 20, 2007 2:01 am

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  2. Climacus permalink
    September 14, 2016 12:38 am

    James, I think that there is not as much tension as you believe in Caputo championing Nietzsche’s critique of Hegel while also engaging in a bit of historical dialectic. What Caputo finds objectionable in Hegel is his view of history as an inevitable unfolding towards absolute spirit. However this does not mean that Caputo is being inconsistent when he explains the post-secular age as some sort of synthesis (though he refrains from the Hegelian language) between the sacred and secular ages.

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