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 is also published on the Oriel Theology blog.

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

Wittgenstein in Middle-School: Homily

Solute, by Julian Vadas

The prayer for homily last week was about being many and one—so, set up to motivate an appreciation of diversity in unity. Since Wittgenstein’s approach to this is one of my main philosophical interests , I figured that I’d try and give a homily that managed to communicate some of the more practically important conclusions that can be gleaned from his writing in a way that 60 middle schoolers might enjoy at 8:30 in the morning. I figured the attempt would be interesting, and at the least provide an answer to the question, ‘why should we care about conceptual analysis of theology?’ In any case, it’s basically an attempt to apply several aspects of my account of Wittgenstein’s religious philosophy. Enjoy! (The actual homily was obviously a bit different, but it stuck to the text for the main part.)

Many and one; multiplicity and Unity. One of my main philosophical interests—it was actually central to all of my papers for Divinity school this year. So, I’m going to use this gathering to run through three of the most important things about unity and diversity, and why they’re important.

How many things can be described as One? [Get answers from students.]

That’s quite a lot of different things. And the most important side of this is not just that lots of different things can be called ‘one’: it’s that each of these things is ‘one’ in a different way. A person is ‘one’ in a different way to a school. A country is ‘one’ in a different way to a school. A way of being ‘good’ is ‘one’ in a different way to one country. And so on.

So, the first thing to remember is that there are many different ways of being one. Which also means that there are many different ways of being diverse.

Now, some of you may have noticed that not only are there many different ways of being one, but that there isn’t necessarily anything in common between all these ways. Some things are closer together than others—but one trilogy of books, for example, doesn’t seem to have much in common compared to say, one banana. And this holds for other things too. Let’s take ‘good.’ Now, I hope we all know that there’s more one way of being good, or being good at something. It’s important to remember, however, that there might not be anything much in common between these ways of being good. And even where we appear to have one way of being good at something—being smart, for example—there can be different ways of being good in this one way, and they don’t have to have anything in common.

This is a really, really important thing to remember. I think we all get stressed about whether or not we’re good enough, or whether we’re good at all. And I think we all sometimes look at other people and think, ‘they’re good, and I’m not like them—this must mean that I’m not good.’ Well, however much a way of being good might be one, there are always different ways of following that one way. And they don’t have to be similar. If you start doubting yourself, then, don’t start comparing yourself to others and judging yourself according to them. Your path need not be theirs; and it might be incredibly important that your goodness is different to theirs. To take basketball, for example, there’s almost nothing in common between Zaza Pechulia and Steph curry. But they both contribute to making the Warriors look more or less unbeatable. God has made each of us different, meanwhile—but precisely in that difference, we are all of equal value to our Creator. The essential thing to remember is that the fact of difference does not mean that there is a difference in value.

So, we’ve had two things. First, there are lots of different ways of being ‘one.’ Second, these ways don’t all necessarily have to have one thing in common. I’m going to keep to third thing short, but it’s really important. When you’re a part of something, it can and should change you. We’re all a part of this school, for example, and this has changed us all in some way. And this is a part of what it means to be part of one thing—to be changed by that belonging.

But for most things, this has to work both ways. Your belonging to something shouldn’t just change you; it should also change that thing. The fact that you are a member of this school, a member of your family, a member of your community is what makes each of these things what they are. This is a key part of community—that the membership of each individual changes the whole, and so each individual also has a transformative effect on each other. If someone says, for example, that you must be a certain way in order to be American, then you can let them know that ‘American’ should mean something different to what they think, because you are who you are. And in the knowledge of this difference, you can both see each other as connected individuals, a real diversity within unity.

Anyway, I think that’s probably enough on that. Here are three things to remember: there are lots of different ways of being one and lots of different ways of being many. There doesn’t have to be anything in common between different individuals for them to still be one. And being a part of something that is ‘one’ doesn’t just have to change you—it can, and often should, change that thing as well. That’s all quite a lot of information, but the longer I’m alive, the more I’m convinced that these three things are really, really important.

Wittgenstein’s Religious Philosophy (in light of Pseudo-Denys)

IMG_4505This was one of my term papers for Spring Semester of Yale Divinity School. It’s not the kind of thing I would usually post, but the subject is close to my heart and I was really happy with the paper. So, here it is. 

The purpose of this paper is to argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein can be read as continuing and correcting Pseudo-Denys’ project in The Divine Names. I am first going to argue for an interpretation of The Divine Names as Pseudo-Denys’ attempt to facilitate our yearning for union with God by relativizing human concepts in order to render our thought transparent to divine revelation. I will argue that he fails in this, however, because the concept of ‘unity’ is not itself relativized. I will then argue that Wittgenstein can be read as continuing and correcting this attempt on the basis that he does relativize unity in a similar way and for similar religious reasons to Pseudo-Denys. I will conclude by reflecting on how this can connect with some of Sarah Coakley’s recent work on asceticism. Continue reading “Wittgenstein’s Religious Philosophy (in light of Pseudo-Denys)”

The Problem of Memory: Forgetting the Teachings of the Church

Augustine: not an American, or a Western European. (Source: Wikipedia)

I wrote this in Denver last year, but for some reason didn’t post it. It seemed like it might be important then, so figured it might still be worth posting now.

I’m writing this introduction on Tuesday, June 7th. This morning I had a conversation with a woman at the Network Coffee House on 14th and Pearl—a place of community for the homeless and impoverished, and one of the most beautiful locations in Denver. When the woman told me that her name was Grace, I remarked that this was one of the most powerful words in the English language. She agreed, adding ‘I’ve only recently started to learn what it really means. We learn a lot of words in America, but we aren’t always rightly taught what them.’ We spoke for a while longer, musing on how wonderful it is that when learning the meaning of our own names, we can also learn both who we are and who God is.

Continue reading “The Problem of Memory: Forgetting the Teachings of the Church”

Some Thoughts on the Prosperity Gospel


I can very clearly remember the day, several years ago, that one of my students came into graduate support at SMPA clutching a Joel Osteen book. My immediate reaction was general shock, and expressed as such—not least because they were one of the most thoughtful and spiritually motivated students I’ve had the privilege of working with (to say nothing of their keen intellect). My second reaction was one of puzzlement, caused by reflecting on this second truth. So I asked them why they were reading Osteen. The answer was that reading him gave the student a sense that they were and could be worth something; to God, to themselves, to their family. The book laid out clearly many of the psychological blocks to realizing this worth (both social and personal), advocated clearing them away by considering the great power of God, and promised that once these blocks were removed that power would work through them to bring this worth to light in prosperity. Continue reading “Some Thoughts on the Prosperity Gospel”

A Lesson from The Socialist Controversy at Berkeley Divinity School

The memorial bulletin for W.P.Ladd, around whom the controversy centered. (RG216, Box 2, Folder 50)

On December 2nd, 1919, an unassuming Brit by the name of Wilfred Humphries gave a talk at Berkeley Divinity School (then located in Middletown, CT, now a part of Yale Divinity School). The stated purpose of his talk was to give a first hand account of the contemporary situation in Russia, and he dedicated it to describing what he took to be some of the more positive aspects of the new Bolshevik regime. During the talk he shared a slide of the Russian flag and described how it was perceived by the Russians he had met. He also said a few complimentary words about Lenin and Trotsky.

This talk had been given at several New England colleges without provoking much of a reaction. After the talk in Middletown, CT, however, several members of the public claimed that the talk was unpatriotic communist propaganda. Newspaper editorials were written denouncing Dean W.P. Ladd and his faculty as corrupting both the Gospel and their students with socialism. A three person committee investigating the matter was formed at Ladd’s request. The provincial storm made national headlines, but Ladd was not forced to resign. It was decided that Berkeley had not propagated socialism, that Ladd himself had not sought to do so, and that the faculty were not responsible for the content of or reaction to the lecture—though the offending lecture was declared ill-advised and it was decided that it would have been Ladd’s responsibility to prevent it if he had known its content beforehand. A motion was put forward by several trustees (notably Judge Greene, who was on the above committee) requesting Ladd’s resignation in June 1920. This, however, appears to have been motivated by his combative response to the trustee’s recommendations following the committee’s report and questions over whether or not he respected the rules of Berkeley’s charter, rather than culpability for the initial affair.1 A compromise was reached where Ladd worked with an advisory committee of sorts. All in all, he weathered the assault, oversaw Berkeley’s move to Yale, and served as Dean until his death in the early 1940s, inspiring an uncommon loyalty in the student body. Continue reading “A Lesson from The Socialist Controversy at Berkeley Divinity School”

Advent and Time (SMPA Homily)

Most Fridays, I give a 5-10 minute homily for Morning Gathering at Saint Martin de Porres Academy. It’s one of the ways I’m still able to help out at the school I spent my first three years in the US working for. And it’s a great way of making sure my thought remains grounded (in some sense at least) in trying to figure out how to communicate a message worth hearing to 60 or so 10-14 year olds at 8:30 in the morning. 

Anyway, I usually just work off notes, but I wrote a full text for my homily this Friday. The actual delivery was of course pretty different to what is written here—kids clapping for the end of term, for example, followed by a call and response discussion about the desirability, or lack thereof, of perpetual termtime (turns out the kids didn’t think school year round would be a good thing!). It was also one of those ones where everyone was especially tired, plus a little antsy at the imminent prospect of the Christmas holidays. But the main body of the homily is still written here, and it’s a text I’m oddly happy with. It’s less linear than most of my homilies (partly to try and refer back to concrete memories as often as possible, to make the more abstract parts more accessible for the younger kids), but I think it works. And since I haven’t posted anything on here for a while, I thought it might be worth sharing this. Hope it’s worth reading, and Happy Advent!

Continue reading “Advent and Time (SMPA Homily)”