GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 3, 2007

Incarnations of Evangelicism: Avatars of a New Modernity

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:34 pm


Plus, a brief mention here:

Secular Illusions

by Rebecca Bynum


  1. Adam,

    This is an interesting and provocative essay. You make some excellent points about faith, which I agree is a crux for the modern world. One of the central problems in America society is precisely a lack of “good faith” as the precondition for democracy. It only makes sense to obey the laws if everyone else is doing so. The newspapers inform us that government officials and corporate executives are not obeying the laws. Not a new problem of course, but made more consequential when we are threatened by Islamic terrorism. If you really can’t trust anyone, then it makes sense to join the strongest faction and try to dominate all the others, which seems to be the situation now in Iraq. But while the left is, in Eric Gans’ words, in tacit alliance with the terrorists, they are still participating in the democratic process and, in effect, voting with their feet in support of the West. This is our hope. The West is threatened both from within and without: externally by the Islamofascists, internally by “white guilt,” but also, as the Democrats rightly insist, by corruption in high places. Whether we’ve simply become more resentful, or whether our society is actually more corrupt, is certainly debatable, but the latter possibility cannot be discounted. White guilt is probably the most important internal threat, insofar as it allows terrorist regimes and factions to advance, but the corruption of the west, manifested also in our lack of resolve in the war against terrorism, is also a factor. (Political corruption is one the most important barriers to the process of democratization in many countries. Look at Russia and Mexico. We can’t rule it out as a factor in American politics as well.) Perhaps White guilt is motivated in part by an unwillingness to make any personal sacrifices in the war against terrorism, a shortsighted laziness and cowardice.

    Much of what you say about “evangelicism,” seduction, and conversion, is very familiar to someone in education; what you describe is exactly what good teachers do everyday, at least ideally. I question, however, the religious language you use. Why introduce the language of the sacred? In the modern world, the sacred arouses resentment and exists only to be iconoclastically destroyed (except of course, when it is the sacred of our enemies!). So I agree with the strategy, but not with the language. To some extent, you seem to be suggesting a return to our religious “roots”—-“Evangelicism, the dissemination of the ‘good news’ that humans are constituted so as to be capable of retrieving the sacred, even when all seems lost, pays homage to the Christian roots (and branches and leaves!) of our civilization, while abstracting from Christianity and generalizing the conversion ‘effect.’”—-and again I would take issue. Our society is built on the separation of church and state; and it was early Baptists like Roger Williams who insisted on this separation. What’s essential is precisely the process of debate and disagreement. The road to secular “diversity” is a one-way road, in my opinion. Our society is organized in terms of individual difference (religion is one way we distinguish our self, but it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, inform the larger social/political structure or political debates); the only “centers” which are still viable for us are stages for debate. The “sacred” centers about which we might congregate could only be centers for totalitarian domination.

    Your example of the diplomats arguing about the size and shape of the table is familiar to one who has sat through quite a few faculty meetings. You conclude:

    “For the evangelicist, arguing about the advantages and disadvantages for each of the parties regarding one type of table or another, speculating about some new tabular shape that might satisfy all, exchanging preferable seating arrangements for the preferred table, etc., all provide opportunities to argue about how each of us sees our relationship to each of the others, with each one’s attempt to convert the others signifying one’s own openness to the new and the truths embodied in others including those revealed in surprising ways—for the atheist, such an argument would get less and less interesting as it proceeds. After all, it’s beside the point, which is a fair and rapid disposition of whatever needs to be disposed. The evangelicist understands the force of the gesture, of the ostensive, of the alignment of positions on the scene; the atheist never can, the atheist can only declare and pronounce, which is why he will never leave his own new Dark Age. And, as for the real faith of the contemporary Left, White Guilt, organized around the cult of Palestine and the human sacrifice of the suicide bomber (testimony to the irremediable guilt of the West), evangelicism will allow us to out it as a faith, to demystify its founding traumatic events, dissect its contemptible rituals and diagnosis its disturbed anthropology.”

    The solution, then, seems to be twofold: first, to take the discussion to another level, to use our disagreements as an opportunity for anthropological reflection. Second, to recognize, in contrast with the atheist, that discussion serves its own purpose aside from making decisions. I agree with both these points. The purpose of debate is debate; for each person to express themselves and air their grievances. And the move to anthropological reflection is a powerful one, although at this point in history we seem to lack a common vocabulary for such a public discussion. The vocabulary of victimization still tends to drown out other voices. You mention that we need to “out” white guilt as “a faith.” Exactly, so why introduce the language of the sacred, about which we will never agree? The sacred never goes away, of course, but in the modern world it must circulate among us all. In practical terms, Americans will never agree about anything: all we can do is keep debating as the alternative to violence. If we’re talking ,we’re not fighting. The only way to stop debate is through fascism. The demonization of Christianity and religion now among the leftist intelligentsia is rather shortsighted and ungenerous, but ultimately the debate itself is healthy. The answer is with anthropology not any kind of return to religion or the sacred. I realize your position is not religious as such, but it seems almost quasi-religious, at least in language. Anyways, these are some offhand comments. Apologies in advance if I’ve misconstrued your argument.

    Comment by Q — July 6, 2007 @ 4:08 am

  2. I appreciate this comment very much; I think that everyone in or around GA who has responded to argument of mine (in one or another version) has resisted the introduction of the language of the sacred–I hope I’m not persisting with it out of resentment! The only way to know for sure, I suppose, is to keep explaining and debating until we’ve exhausted the question and other questions arise. (We’ll be returning to this question in Vancouver–I don’t know if that’s a warning or a promise)

    First, a smaller point: I’ve been talking less and less about White Guilt lately–barely mentioning it at all in this particular essay. This is because, while its diagnosis is extremely important and it is absolutely central to our current crisis, it is also the kind of polarizing term that makes debate more difficult: once you’ve identified someone as one of the “White Guilty” it’s easy to assume you have nothing more to say to each other. So it seems to me that it’s best to restrict the term to analytical uses within the “discipline,” i.e., for those who already accept its conceptual legitimacy; meanwhile, it’s better to keep inventing new terms to engage those with whom one disagrees, to keep re-arranging the table, so to speak, so that perhaps something new can happen.

    More broadly, my introduction of the sacred, first of all as a strictly analytical term, is aimed at describing what, exactly, makes discussion, debate and civil disagreement possible, and what makes it possible to take them to a higher level. On the analytical level we are not restricted to the public understanding of “Church and State,” any more than we are obliged to read literary texts “literally”–if the sacred is a general interdiction effected by a gesture that defers some convergence upon a central object, then this configuration applies to lots of situations we would ordinarily describe as “secular.” We do it all the time, in fact, and the description of such instances in terms of the sacred, as “conversion,” is in that case simply more accurate.

    Clearly, I’m doing more than that, though–I’m proposing modifications in public discourse, and that’s where the “danger” you are concerned with lies. On this point, our difference lies, to a great extent, in our differing assessments of today’s situation: I think the conditions of spirited, principled, and yet civil disagreement have deteriorated considerably. This has happened for some good reasons as well as the ones you note here–the victimary thinkers have a point when they say that discussion could be kept civil because it was limited to those whose stake in the system was unquestioned. The breakdown of the monopoly of political discourse, in the US, long held by the major networks, newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, and the major political parties, is ultimately a very good thing–but it means that the tacit rules which were in place are no longer effective. In fact, the status of the rules–as witnessed by the resistance of Democrats to recognizing the “legitimacy” of Fox News and talk radio–is one of the things that is contested. So, without elaborating here, I would say that the Left in particular could be said to be “debating” rather than “subverting” only with significant qualifications. (And, as I thinking you are suggesting as well, the “other” side is also quite dysfunctional)

    Even more broadly, and looking things over more generously, the fact, in a sense obvious but so easily forgotten, is that we are in a dramatically new situation and no one could be expected to know what to do with any certainty. I’m reminded of this every time someone accusing the Bush Administration of making thousands of stupid mistakes takes the next logical step and proposes an alternative–without exception, I find it pretty easy to detect not a few stupid mistakes sprouting out of the brilliant alternative. Anything we do right now will be a mixture of partial, never irrevocable, progress and a lot of mistakes. (That this is not obvious to everyone–i.e., that history doesn’t come with an instruction manual–is part of the problem)

    So, if I’m right, the very terms of debate and discussion need to be restored. I don’t see how this is possible on the secular terms of reasoning, agreeing, disagreeing, convincing, persuading, etc.–too much must already be agreed upon for those practices to work. Those terms must be–to draw upon Lincoln–re-dedicated and re-consecrated. The sacred in a narrow sense is what we disagree on, but there is a sacredness of the national community, its founding pacts and constitutive events that make it possible to live together with the various ritualistic sacralities. Phenomena like the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement can’t be understood outside of the sacred, and I don’t just mean the Christian theology involved–the whole point of civil disobedience is to “tempt” us into the sin of covering up a previous sin by committing violence against an excluded portion of the national community; we raise our hands against the civil disobedient (or we look the other way while others do), but enough members of the majority community join in (are converted) so as to make us see in our “temptation” the possibility of a general cataclysm that will engulf us all–and we hold back, exercise restraint and practice inclusion. So, racial equality is not just something we “agree” about; it is something we have “converted” to because we have seen the abyss that lies on the other side. And, of course, there was no guarantee it would work out that way–like with the originary scene, most such attempts are forgotten failures. Only “enthusiasts” try to put forward a new sign, most of them are wrong, and it’s good that we have in place barriers to a too easy conversion (both in our institutions and in our modern skepticism); once we decide that all such attempts are necessarily wrong and dangerous, all life starts to shrivel, and that’s the danger my argument is directed at.

    Well, I hope that helps us take this discussion to a higher level. Once again, thanks for the response.

    Comment by adam — July 6, 2007 @ 7:31 am

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