Study of Secularisms article

Secular, Religious Engagement beyond Power?

Can secular and religious actors engage each other beyond the discourse of power? Prof. Slavica Jakelić argued that they can in a lecture given at the University of Notre Dame on March 1, 2016. Speaking at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Jakelić recast the religious-secular binary as not merely one of contention, but also one of “enriching and chastening” exchange.

Jakelić’s lecture began with a critical rejoinder to the work of Talal Asad (Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (The Politics of Secularism in International Relations), and Markus Dressler (Writing Religion). Each of these thinkers have conceptualized the relationship between religious and secular actors as principally, if not exclusively, transacted on fields of power.

The secular, according to Asad, is neither continuous with nor a break from the religious, but the two are irreducibly connected in a process of mutual construction (See Formations of the Secular). For Asad, Shakman Hurd and Dressler, religion is marginalized and constrained by the secular, the process is active and coercive.

While Jakelić affirmed the contributions of this critical project that has unmasked the progressivist narrative of secularism, she objected to the premise that secularism is the modality of power in the modern world. Historicizing the “subtraction story” that masks the secular’s inevitability, Jakelić argued that Asad and his followers have reinstated the religious-secular binary as an oppositional power struggle. By developing their critique of secularist power within the realm of secular power they reproduce the secular as a stable opposition to religion. No where is this more clear than in their representation of secularism’s alliance with the nation in which the secular organizes politics while religion is the marginalized other, used only instrumentally if at all.

Conceptualizing the relationship between the secular and religion as moving only in the register of power fails first as a description of significant cases of secular-religious collaboration and second as a normative project.

Regarding the first, Jakelić presented two cases—Solidarność in Poland and the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa—as locations of religious-secular engagement and collaboration. Solidarność, the first independent labor union in the Soviet bloc, was populated by both secularly and religiously identified actors who were committed to collaborative work. For example, Fr. Jozef Tischner, friend of Pope John Paul II and the chaplain to Solidarność, worked with secular thinkers like Adam Michnik who argued in The Church and the Left: “Let us judge them [religious actors] by their deeds, not by their words…” (128)[1]

In complementary ways, the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa was the site of significant religious and secular collaboration. Figures like Chris Hani argued that “certain ethical values that bind us [religious-secular partners] together” but we need to continue to “openly debate our differences.”

The alliance politics of both of these movements serve as evidence for the possibility of religious-secular collaboration that neither is premised on a thin overlapping consensus or total agreement on sources of ultimate value. Nor, Jakelić argued, are these cases about strategic resistance alone. Rather, they model a pluralistic politics of religious-secular coalition.

According to Jakelić reducing religious-secular engagement to the field of power not only fails descriptively, it also limits the constructive, normative potential of our theorizing. Jakelić drew upon William Connolly’s notion of “deep pluralism” to indicate a relational politics that holds the possibility of mutual transformation of identities (See Why I Am Not a Secularist). Such transformation requires engagement on, what Connolly calls, the “visceral registers” of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, which entails not merely intellectual sparring or legislative power plays but practices like planning joint actions, or more mundanely, eating and drinking together. Such a deep pluralism allows for differences in the “final sources of morality” even as there might be the possibility of mutual learning and development of those final sources.

Jakelić’s lecture offered not only a challenge to Asad and company’s totalizing analysis of power, but also a constructive proposal to analyze the possibilities of religious-secular collaboration. The discussion after the lecture invited Jakelić to develop these ideas further. While I will not summarize that rich discussion here, two particularly critical questions emerged.

First, while Jakelić’s normative proposal allows for diversity on the final sources of morality, I wondered what sources Jakelić found operating in the cases she highlighted and beyond? What’s the nature of these moral sources? Are they principles, practices, commitments derived from history, metaphysics, sacred texts? I suspect that when digging more deeply into a genealogical account of the development of these sources, we would find surprising locations of hybridity.

Second, can this model of enriching and chastening religious-secular engagement illuminate societies that are experiencing lower levels of social turmoil? While Jakelić intends to move “beyond the discourse of power” it is not coincidental that in her two exemplary cases religious and secular actors find common cause in the very act of building oppositional power to hegemonic forces of oppression and exclusion. Are these merely strategic alliances that work when facing off against a common enemy? Or, can these models of alliance politics constructed through collaborative power travel to other contexts?


[1] Significantly, Michnik makes this commendation in order to force religious actors to offer the same charity to their secular interlocutors.

Kyle Lambelet
Kyle Lambelet, PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University's Candler School of Theology 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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