Study of Secularisms article

From power to the spaces of the ethical


I would like to thank Kyle Lambelet, Heather DuBois, and Cecelia Lynch for their thoughtful reflections on my lecture. I am especially grateful for their stimulating questions and critiques, which continued during the writing of my response and which allowed me to elaborate my perspective more carefully and precisely— with two specific and two more general propositions.

In my presentation and my larger project, I underscore that the considerations and critiques of the dynamics of power remain vital for our understanding of the religious, the secular, and their mutual engagements. Furthermore, in the study of religious-secular alliances that made the Solidarność in Poland and anti-apartheid in South Africa so successful, I recognize that these alliances emerged in opposition to the power of oppressive states and that they empowered the Polish and South African citizens to fight the economic, racial, and political injustices. That being said, I also contend that the analytic frameworks that focus exclusively or primarily on power, empowerment, and political strategies tend to omit, under-analyze, or misinterpret the role of ethical ideals and convictions in the political practices of the Polish and South African activists. As both the religious and secular leaders in two movements emphasize, it was what they were for rather than what they were against that accounts for their willingness to make sacrifices. What gave orientation and force to two social movements, I therefore argue, were the activists’ ideals and convictions rather than struggles against or for power.

I concur, in other words, that religious alliances in question are “not coincidental” but they “developed as the oppositional power to hegemonic forces of oppression and exclusion” (Lambelet). I also agree that in both Polish and South African cases there was a struggle to replace oppression with egalitarianism, and where there is struggle, there are power relations (Lynch). But if strategy and struggle against common foe brought the Polish and South African religious and secular leaders together, what sustained their collaborations was a recognition of the shared moral concerns and ideals of justice. My first proposition regarding Solidarność and anti-apartheid movements is therefore an invitation to shift our focus from the questions of power to the realm of ethical—to explore the ethical as it reflects the ontological commitments of individuals and communities and as it shapes platforms for their political actions.

My second proposition for the analysis of Solidarność and anti-apartheid movements is to attend to the revolutionary character of the religious-secular alliances that two movements helped engender. When our attention is fixed on the powers of the secular, which has long dominated the study of religious-secular problematic, the secular is generally reduced to matters surrounding the state or law. As a result, within this theoretical perspective, it is difficult if not impossible to uncover the complex ways in which the secular, just like the religious, is embodied and enacted by concrete individuals.

Even more importantly, within the framework of power, it is not possible to acknowledge that the religious-secular collaborations in Poland and South Africa created political spaces of joint action in which activists could take seriously what they shared and what separated them as citizens. This is the kind of religious-secular pluralism that, following William Connolly, is deep and generous in two ways. First, it is transformative for people’s identities (by indicating the interplay of religious-secular categories or, as I emphasize, by pointing to the moral proximities between religious and secular worldviews). Second, this pluralism is deep and generous because it upholds the ontological differences among citizens (by affirming, to use Connolly’s terms, the visceral character of subjectivities and intersubjectivities that give force and passions to political involvements). To answer DuBois’ question: the kind of deep pluralism that emerged in the Polish and South African contexts sustained the religious-secular binaries but also transformed the way they were practiced in the context of constructive political action by chastening their ontological absoluteness. Such dialectics, in my view, cannot be captured if the discourse of power dominates our analysis.

The observations that emerged from the exploration of the Polish and South African cases are the background for two more generalizable propositions I want to make:

First, the exclusive focus on power is problematic for how we theorize agency. Even if we expand Saba Mahmood’s insight and suggest that to inhabit norms means both embodying and resisting them, within the framework of power the understanding of agency remains constricted to the matters of assent to, or dissent from, that which is external to us. Yet, as the Polish and South African cases reveal, our capacity for agency is not just about our acquiescence to or contestation of norms; it is also about the ability to envision the new spaces of ethical, that is, the capacity to imagine and create new norms and ideals that individuals and communities seek. Theorizing agency this way, one might argue, does not require moving beyond power but keeping the focus concurrently on the realm of ethical and the dialectics of power. If this is the case, why so many of the scholars who study religious-secular problematic, especially when they explore the phenomenology of the secular, don’t develop and sustain the dual focus on power constellations and the types of ethical orientations they involve? There are a few and noteworthy exceptions in this regard, such as Cecelia Lynch’s work on the meanings of the religious and the secular in the context of humanitarianism. The fact, however, that Lynch’s approach is an unconventional one in the studies of religions and secularism only highlights the extent to which the focus on power constrains approaches to the questions of agency.

The second general proposition I want to make is an argument for the necessity to move beyond the discourse of power because it impoverishes our understanding of deep religious-secular pluralism.

Several scholars suggest that we open new spaces for a more nuanced and more contextualized appreciation of religious-secular categories by focusing on the fluidity, evasiveness, and hybrid character of identities and their interplay. I second such perspectives as I see them posited against the long-prevailing notion of religious-secular particularities as irreconcilable and unavoidably in conflict. At the same time, the choice to focus on religious-secular fluidity within the discourse of power—where it most often is examined—is a political, not merely analytical, decision. It is, moreover, a political decision accompanied by an assertion that religious-secular fluidities and hybridities are sites of greater political creativity and better models of solidarity.

That kind of focus on fluidity and hybridity raises several questions. First, should the view of hybrid religious-secular identities as more ethically inclusive than the ontologically rooted, culturally embedded identities be taken as a claim that ought to be explored empirically or as a normative ideal? If the former, our analysis can be open to various possibilities: staying close to the actual relations and negotiations of religious and secular actions can ensure that our theorizing will remain tentative rather than hegemonic. But if the assertion is that hybrid, fluid aspects of religious and secular identities are a normative ideal and, moreover, and if this assertion is developed within the discourse of power, then this line of argument impoverishes rather than enriches our understanding of deep pluralism. Instead of opening this category to further exploration and theorization, construing it as primarily religious-secular hybridities turns deep pluralism into a monolithic normative space that marginalizes other secular-religious instantiations and especially, what Connolly calls, “the final sources of morality.”

Secondly, if the focus on hybridity and fluidity marginalizes the visceral registers of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, aren’t we circumventing rather than tackling the difficult but unavoidable task of addressing the deepest differences between those holding religious and secular identities? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, does the focus on hybrid religious-secular identities within the framework of power provide an opportunity or present an obstacle for peace studies? If we are to establish the view of deep religious-secular pluralism as defined primarily by fluidities and hybridities, aren’t we missing the constructive political force of the final sources of morality—aren’t we excluding the passions and commitments that deep religious and secular identities bring into the work of social transformation or peacebuilding in various societies?

The Polish and South African cases suggest that the religious with the capital “R” and the secular with the capital “S” constituted much of the ethical motivations for activists’ political stance and practices. These categories were recognized as sources of deep differences but they also pointed toward the transformation that only deep differences can bring: they gestured toward encounters in which religious-secular distinctions were not defined by power-constellations but, in the words of the Polish philosopher and Solidarność chaplain Józef Tischner, by capacity to see oneself with the eyes of the other.

Slavica Jakelić is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College—the Honors College of Valparaiso University and for the Spring semester of 2016 a Luce Visiting Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and collective identity, the relationship of religious and secular humanisms, theories of religion and secularism, , interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. She is the author or editor of several volumes, including, most recently, Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity (2010). She is currently working on a book entitled The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms.

Kyle Lambelet
Kyle Lambelet is a PhD candidate at the University Notre Dame in Ethics and Peace Studies and a Research Associate with Contending Modernities. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, ethics, conflict, and peace with particular attention to the ethics of nonviolence.

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