The Postsecular and Literature

A review of scholarship.

by Paul T. Corrigan

1. Introduction

In late modernity and postmodernity, many aspects of traditional religion have become intellectually and morally untenable. Among the most pressing of these are the patriarchy, homophobia, and antisciencism that so often come with traditional religion. At the same time, however, many contemporary writers, religious and nonreligious, are doing imaginative and increasingly important work with forms and themes typically thought of as religious. “Postsecular” literature includes late modern and postmodern texts that engage constructively (and deconstructively) with matters that have traditionally been considered the domain of religion and spirituality. In postsecular literature religion, nonreligious spirituality, and secularism converge and diverge and are transformed around questions of human meaning, transcendence and immanence, pain and joy, and the reality and unreality of life in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century world. In this essay, I present a review of the scholarship on the topics of “postsecular society,” “postsecular theory,” and “postsecular literary criticism.”

2. Postsecular Society

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, theorists put forward the idea that modernization would, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart put it, cause religion to “gradually fade” from public life (3) and, for more and more people, from private life as well. Max Weber famously called this apparent inevitability the “disenchantment of the world” (155). This understanding that reason and science would supplant religion came to be known as the “secularization thesis” and held sway among Western intellectuals for many years. Jeffrey K. Hadden paraphrases this view as follows:

Once the world was filled with the sacred—in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm. (598)

Photo of Max Weber (1894).

In the early 20th century, sociologist Max Weber famously described what appeared to be an inevitable “disenchantment of the world” in his influential theory of secularization. More recently, work by Robert Wuthnow, Charles Taylor, and others suggest Weber was mistaken on this point.

Given that Hadden has the benefit of looking back in time from the other end of the twentieth century, we might sense a bit of parody in the description. But the point is that, in retrospect, the grand narrative of secularization has obviously not played out—at least not in such simple terms. Instead, as Peter L. Berger confesses, the world more or less remains “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so” (2). Cesare Merlini similarly notes, recent years “appear to have been marked by a return or revival of religion” in the world (117). Charles Taylor even proposes that “we are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching” (535). What happened? Did secularization come and go? Did it never or not yet arrive? Is it already here but looks different than expected? To address such questions theorists such as Berger, Taylor, Jose Casanova, Talal Asad, William Connolly, Jacques Derrida, and others have begun to develop more complex notions of modernization and secularization. Talk has turned from outright secular to more nuanced considerations: late secular (e.g. Baird), trans-secular (e.g. McLennan, though he does not use that term), and, most importantly, post-secular (e.g. Habermas).

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007)

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that the advent of the secular does not mean that belief fades away but that “the conditions of belief” radically change. No longer the default, religion becomes one option among others.

On one hand, secularization has not panned out the way many expected it to. In spite of industrialization, globalization, science, and pluralism, the world remains religious. On the other hand, the way in which the world is religious has certainly changed. While the secular and its attendant phenomena have not displaced religion, they have certainly shaken it up. In The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II, Robert Wuthnow documents how cultural, social, and political changes of the past half century have had enormous impacts on religion in the United States (322). To be sure, it is the case that “rationality, natural science, and the social sciences have all exercised a negative effect on traditional religious beliefs and practices” (301). But the key word here is “traditional.” Wuthnow writes that “highly diverse religious movements and countermovements . . . have characterized the nation since the 1950s” (315). Charles Taylor sees things similarly. True, “it is obvious that a decline in belief and practice has occurred” to a certain degree and among certain demographics. But the more fundamental change has not been in how many but in how people do or do not remain religious (A Secular Age, 530). While belief has not gone away, “the conditions of belief” have changed radically. To wit, we have gone “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith . . . is one human possibility among others” (3). Traditional ways of being religious no longer serve as “the default option” (12). In Taylor’s perspective, this condition of pluralism creates a “new spiritual landscape” (513).

Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven (1998)

In After Heaven, Robert Wuthnow documents changes in the way people in the United States approach the sacred. Many people begin seeing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

In the United States, several aspects of this new landscape stand out. First, more and more people report to not believe in religion. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project reports a rapidly increasing number of people identifying as atheist, agnostic, and, especially, as believing “nothing in particular” (1). Second, reactively, religious fundamentalisms are on the march. Even if sheer numbers of fundamentalists may be declining in some areas (see Jones et al.), the energy and momentum of fundamentalism has increased and seems likely to continue to do so. As Martin E. Marty notes, the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Fundamentalism Project documents in no uncertain terms that “fundamentalisms are alive and innovative” (372). Third, perhaps surprisingly given the first two trends, progressive religion seems to be enjoying a resurgence as well, particularly among younger generations. In a recent Public Religion Research Institute report, Robert P. Jones et al. describe a shift toward progressive religious orientation among younger generations at a rate and scale that matches the increase of nonreligious affiliation (34). Fourth, as Wuthnow writes in After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s, “growing numbers of Americans say they are spiritual but not religious” (2). Fifth, still other changes are also taking place that are not so easy to label. For one, as Taylor writes, “the gamut of intermediate positions greatly widens” between belief and unbelief as those terms are traditionally understood. For example, “many people drop out of active practice while still declaring themselves as belonging to some confession, or believing in God.” Inversely, “more and more people adopt what would earlier have been seen as untenable positions, e.g., they consider themselves Catholic while not accepting many crucial dogmas, or they combine Christianity with Buddhism, or they pray while not being certain they believe” (513). It appears in certain respects, as Paul Elie’s words, that the United States has become “a vast Home Depot of ‘do-it-yourself religion.’”

3. Postsecular Theory

All of the factors described above contribute to the complex religious terrain taken up in discussions of the term postsecular. But mapping out the pertinent sociological terrain only gets us started in understanding the theory. As with so many post- terms (poststructural, postmodern, postcolonial, etc.), what postsecular means stands sharply contested. In particular, I find that five questions emerge:

First, what should be made of the different and sometimes contradictory ways scholars use the term “postsecular”?

That the term does not mean only one thing escapes few scholars. As Ingolf U. Dalferth points out, the term is “used in very different ways” in different contexts and, sometimes, even within the same context (325). We might take it as a sign of the contested and conflicted nature of “postsecular” that the titles of no fewer than sixteen of the works that John E. Beckford cites in his survey of the term are written in the form of questions, such as “Beyond the Secular?” “Beyond Secularism?” “Has the Postsecular Age Begun?” and “Is the ‘Post’ in ‘Postsecular’ the ‘Post’ in ‘Postcolonial’?” Beckford recommends that we ditch the term as incoherent, going almost as far as Slavoj Žižek, who speaks of “this postsecular crap.” More sensibly, Dalferth recommends that we make sure to adequately specify what we are referring to when we use the term.

Others have found the diversity of uses to be not a problem but an internal feature of the concept and phenomena it points to. Rosi Braidotti argues that “the postsecular condition is quite diverse and internally differentiated” (10). Kristina Stoeckl adds that the postsecular condition is one of “permanent tension” and that “the meaning of the postsecular lies in the very contestedness of the term” (3, 4). Many scholars find the term postsecular useful in spite of the fact that its meaning is difficult to pin down. Some find it useful because of that. Similarly, James S. Diamond describes the postsecular as inherently “a multi-vocal term.” When “determining what the post-secular signifies,” he writes, “the beginning of wisdom is to say that one size does not fit all.” Since the postsecular “manifests itself” differently in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish societies, for instance, Diamond insists that “we must contextualize” (599). Whatever the difficulties with defining the postsecular may be, many scholars still find the term useful, some in spite of the fact that it is difficult to pin down and others because of that.

Second, does the postsecular point to some new happening in the world or to a new assessment of what has been happening all along?

For Jürgen Habermas discussions of the postsecular begin with “the impression of a worldwide ‘resurgence of religion.’” His use of the word impression has significance. On one hand, there are plenty of events that might suggest such a resurgence. Habermas cites the “missionary expansion” by certain religions, “fundamentalist radicalization” in several religions, an increasing threat of religious violence for political ends, and “trends towards de-institutionalized and new spiritual forms of religiosity” (“Notes”). As examples, Philip S. Gorski et al. list “[t]he Iranian revolution, the Moral Majority, the Pentecostal explosion, the post-socialist Buddhist revival, faith-based initiatives, communal violence, the politics of the veil, the inconclusive ‘Arab spring,’ and, of course, 9/11” (3). But the impression remains an impression. It is not clear whether we are seeing an actual resurgence in religion, however that might be defined. And it is definitely not clear that we are seeing such a resurgence on a scale that would count as “a tectonic shift in the Zeitgeist,” as “the notion of the ‘post-secular’” (with an emphasis on the post-) might imply (Gorski et al., 1).

So Gorski et al. ask, has there been “an actual shift in the social world” or just a shift in the thinking of academics (1)? Their answer is “both” (2). For them, the concept of the postsecular involves questions about “the state of religiosity in the world” and about the ways in which scholars in different disciplines “are and are not paying attention to religion” (2). Elaine Graham similarly writes that the postsecular “transcends the binary of mere religious revival or sociological revisionism.” That is, it does not merely represent an actual resurgence of religion or merely represent the recognition that religion has been here all along (236).

Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen and Douglas Jacobsen likewise suggest that both ways of understanding the term apply specifically in regards to the United States. “To say our age is postsecular,” they write, “is, in some sense, simply to point out that America remains the religion‐soaked nation that it has always been” (13). Changes in the present have prompted many scholars to reconsider not only the present but also the past. To identify the postsecular with the act of pointing out that the United States remains religious defines the postsecular as a reassessment of what has been the case all along. But Jacobsen and Jacobsen also write that what they “mean by the term postsecular is the simple fact that secularization as a theory about the future of human society seems increasingly out of touch with realities on the ground” (10). To identify the postsecular with “realities on the ground” defines the postsecular as not only a reassessment of what has been the case but as a recognition that there are changes as well. Indeed, they rightly suggest that changes in the present (whether tectonic or not) have prompted many to reconsider not only the present but also the past.

Third, how does the postsecular relate to the secular?

At first glance, the idea of the postsecular may sound positioned against the secular. The postsecular may suggest that the historical process of secularization—in which society becomes less and less religious—has turned and begun to go in reverse. In this case, the postsecular would be about de-secularization. On the other hand, the postsecular may suggest that the idea of secularism—that religion should be kept out of the public sphere—is ideologically misguided. In this case, the postsecular would be anti-secularism. While some writers use language that could be interpreted in these ways, others specifically define the postsecular differently. Massimo Rosati and Kristina Stoeckl define the postsecular as the sense that commonly-held ideas about secularization do not adequately account for religion in the present historical situation and as an argument for “more just ways of accommodating [the] religious” in society (3). In taking that position, they might be thought to be leaning toward de-secularization and anti-secularism. But they might, just as easily, be understood to be qualifying (rather than repudiating) the secular. Indeed, Stoeckl specifically argues that the postsecular should not be understood as “falling back” from or coming “after” the secular (and suggests leaving off the hyphen, i.e. postsecular vs. post-secular, to indicate as much) (3, 6).

In a related way, Gregor McLennan argues that certain postsecular ideas—the idea that religion can continue to exist in an otherwise secular society and the idea that religion should be able to come to voice in the public sphere—already fall within the secular. For this reason, those who would critique the secular on these bases should not seek to replace the secular with the postsecular but rather to improve the secular through the postsecular (11). He suggests that “it is more appropriate to regard postsecular reflexive enquiries as intra-secularist rather than anti-secularist; that is to say, they form part of the intellectual process that has been dubbed the ‘secularization of secularism’ itself, rather than straightforwardly extending the ‘revival of religion’ into the heartlands of Western theory” (4). Aleksandr Kyrlezhev sees the postsecular as secularism becoming more secular. Also invoking “[t]he secularisation of secularism,” he writes that “[a]fter the completion of the process of de-monopolisation of religion[,] it was time for the de-monopolisation of secularism” (29). Though Mike King sees a more significant break between the secular and the postsecular than McLennan and Kyrlezhev do, he points in roughly the same direction when he writes: “For most scholars, the postsecular cannot be described simply as anti-secular, de-secular, or non-secular. But it might be described as “trans-secular,” going beyond the secular without going against it or without it.To be properly ‘post’ anything, the new sensibility usually incorporates something of what it goes beyond, even if it transcends many of the defining features of its precursor” (Postsecularism, 11). For most scholars, the postsecular cannot be described simply as anti-secular, de-secular, or non-secular. But it might be described as “trans-secular,” going beyond the secular without going against or without it.

Fourth, in the postsecular, how do the secular and the religious relate to each other?

By far the most agreed upon aspect of the postsecular is that, in some way or other, it includes both the secular and the religious. But scholars differ on how the two do or should relate to each, and on whether they remain distinct. Arguments include coexistence, dialogue, indifference, blending, and blurring between the categories. The broadest view on this question defines the postsecular in terms of the coexistence of the religious and the secular. Elaine Graham takes this view when she describes the postsecular “as a paradoxical condition in which currents of disenchantment and re-enchantment co-exist” (236). Rosati and Stoeckl do as well when they write that the postsecular requires “the co-presence or co-existence within the same public space of religious and secular world-views and practices” (4). Aleksandr Morozov takes a step further. He writes, “The secular and religious will continue to coexist until the end of history, sometimes in conflict, sometimes existing in parallel, and sometimes in fruitful collaboration” (44). For him, neither the sacred age nor the secular age ever happened. At all times, there have been elements of both and the apparently postsecular moment we are experiencing now, in a resurgence of religion in the public sphere, is not the undoing of secularism but the latest swing of the “pendulum” (42).

Beyond coexistence, several argue that the postsecular calls for dialogue between religious and secular people. Jürgen Habermas stresses the importance of a “complementary learning process” between secular and religious people. Religious and secular people living side by side need to learn how to learn from one another in order to coexist peacefully in those places where they will undoubtedly continue to coexist (“Notes”). Rosati and Stoeckl add that such a complementary learning process will require reflective thinking on all parts. They suggest that “religious and secular views are called to live together, and to live differently” (4). Such a dialogue would promote a more truly inclusive and pluralist society. But dialogue is not the only way for the religious and the secular to coexist. Ingolf U. Dalferth suggests that a postsecular society be defined in terms of indifference (337). He writes that “truly post-secular societies are neither religious nor secular. They do not prescribe or privilege a religion, but neither do they actively and intentionally refrain from doing so. . . . Rather, they take no stand on this matter” (324). Similarly, but with a different tone, Aleksandr Kyrlezhev offers that in the postsecular age the “conflict between rational scientific knowledge and the transcendental mysticism of traditional religion . . . is no longer relevant,” not because they have been reconciled but because they may sit side by side without the contradiction being a bother (30). Another sort of coexistence comes through blending aspects of the secular and the religious. Mike King proposes that the postsecular contains both “the habits of critical thought which partially define secularism” and an “openness to questions of the spirit” which partially defines religion (Postsecularism, 11).

Finally, the deepest proposed relationship between the secular and the religious goes beyond coexistence and even beyond blending. Several writers envision a blurring of the lines between the two categories. Gorski et al. point out how traditional definitions of secular and religious already overlap: “an expansive definition of religion . . . will find religion everywhere, even in putatively secular and mundane activities, such as professional sports or solitary walks” and “an expansive definition of secularity . . . will find secularity everywhere, even in churches and synagogues.” They consider the postsecular to somehow occupy “the liminal space between the religious and the secular” (7). Kyrlezhev takes this a step farther. “The world can no longer be divided into religious and nonreligious. Both spheres now coincide,” he writes. “They mutually penetrate each other to the degree that they are indistinguishable. Today, nothing is intrinsically secular or religious. Everything can be sacred and everything can be profane” (26).

When we focus not on what people think but on how people live their lives—their experiences, longings, impulses, habits, etc.—the lines between religious and secular seem a lot more blurry. Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith also both work to dissolve the boundaries between the religious and the secular. They do so by focusing not on the differences between what religious and secular people believe but rather on the similarities of their “lived experience” (Taylor, A Secular Age, 13). For Taylor, all people, religious or not, have in a common “moral/spiritual life.” We understand ourselves living in relation to some source of profound “fullness” which we cannot fully attain, for which reason we also experience profound “emptiness” until we can come to “a kind of stabilized middle condition” wherein we aim to live “well” and aspire “beyond” where we are presently. The difference between believers and unbelievers is simply their understanding of where the source of fullness, goodness, human flourishing resides, whether “within” or in some transcendent reality (A Secular Age, 5-8). Smith follows Taylor in challenging common understandings of both the religious and the secular. Smith approaches the postsecular by calling calls into question the widely held “‘intellectualist’ understanding of religion,” which identifies “‘religion’ with particular beliefs and doctrines, especially beliefs and doctrines concerning gods and transcendence” (177). The traditional distinction between secular and religious has relied upon distinctions among intellectual categories, that is, “the propositional: thoughts, beliefs, ideas, doctrines” (168). But if religion has less to do with such categories than with deeper, precognitive impulses and faculties shared by all people, religious and secular, then those distinction makes less sense. If we can understand “that religion is an embodied, material, liturgical phenomenon that shapes our desire and imagination before it yields doctrines and beliefs,” then we can find it “where we don’t usually see it” (161). When we focus not on what people think but on how people live their lives—their experiences, longings, impulses, habits, etc.—the lines between religious and secular seem a lot more blurry.

Fifth, what positive contribution does the postsecular make?

So far we have seen that the postsecular offers opportunities to reconsider the secularization thesis, to complicate ideas of the religious and the secular, and to explore existing and emerging relationships between the religious and the secular. Many of those who write about the postsecular argue that the postsecular also offers something qualitatively new or renewed. Postsecular theory and postsecular phenomena help us see differently what’s already on the table but also bring something to the table. Aleksandr Kyrlezhev describes the postsecular as “a rebirth of religion, but religion of a qualitatively new kind” (22). It is not just that “religion lives” but also that it “continues to evolve” (25). Michael Reder and Josef Schmidt describe the postsecular as not just “a renewed attention to the religious” but also as the religious “in a new garb” (2). Quite a few scholars agree that even as it reshapes and revises what has come before, the postsecular also contributes in new or, as Reder and Schmidt put it, in renewed ways.

Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (2010)

In An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Habermas argues that religious people can contribute “semantic resources” of the sort that religious communities have long cultivated and that are “becoming depleted” in secular societies: “resources of meaning, solidarity, and justice.”

Habermas argues that our response to the postsecular ought to involve a “complementary learning process” between secular and religious people (“Notes”). For one, this will lead to a more inclusive society. But more than that, Habermas argues that religious people can contribute “semantic resources” of the sort that religious communities have long cultivated and that are “becoming depleted” in secular societies: “resources of meaning, solidarity, and justice” (“A Reply,” 76-77). Diamond casts the contribution that the postsecular can make similarly: it returns our attention to questions of “the inner transformation . . . in human consciousness” (584). But the postsecular does not turn to matters traditionally considered the domain of religion in the same way as traditional religion. In some cases, Aleksandr Kyrlezhev suggest, this postsecular turn may prompt fundamentalism and purism (28). But as often, he adds, the postsecular is marked by pluralism, polytheism, “variety, syncretism and the erosion of [traditional] religious notions (beliefs, images, ideas),” especially ideas about God (25-28). Moreover, this mixing and remixing takes place not just within society but within individuals, with “accepted religious notions as well as notions of nonreligious origin now coexist within an individual’s consciousness” (28).

In the postsecular, religious and nonreligious people alike can inhabit a reenchanted world, writes Charles Taylor. This is not like the originally enchanted world, wherein there lived a host of beings and forces and powers, good as well as evil, but rather one marked by such capacities as, first and foremost, wonder (including, for instance, wonder at evolution) along with awe, mystery, and some degree of faith as pertains to the unknown. More basic still, this enchantment has to do with living in a world imbued with meaning, not meaning of the narrow linguistic sort, he makes sure to clarify, but of the larger sense of which we speak when we speak of life or a relationship or experience being “meaningful” (“Disenchantment—Reenchantment,” 66-69).

For some writers, the postsecular also offers venues for progressive politics, opportunities for further critique and for further affirmation not available in traditional religion or traditional secularism. In terms of critique, Elaine Graham proposes that the postsecular allows us to consider both the “authoritarian” and the “emancipatory” aspects of the “religious and secular” and to consider “the ways both ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ might inform discourses around the construction of gender . . .” She writes that neither the secular nor the religious “provides sympathetic spaces for feminism, since one promotes reason, autonomy, individualism at the expense of lived experiences of contingency, embodiment and spirituality, while the other seeks to limit women’s freedom in the name of obedience to traditional or ‘natural’ ways of life” (245, 242). In terms of affirmation, Rosi Braidotti argues that the postsecular offers feminists particular opportunities to tap into “the deep spiritual renewal that is carried by and is implicit in the feminist cause” (7).

Religion with a Difference

Mike King seems correct to suggest that “the term ‘postsecular’ seems to capture something in the zeitgeist not reached by other terms” (“Art,” 8). What that “something” is resists being said in simple terms, particularly since it is different for different writers. Nonetheless, I propose the that the following will serve well enough as a general description: In many cases, to revise the idiom “spiritual but not religious,” we might say that the postsecular is “religious but not religious” or “spiritual but not spiritual.”  Sparked by an apparent resurgence of religion in global society and in various areas of human endeavor not anticipated by secularization theory, the postsecular represents a renewed interest in matters that have traditionally been considered the domain of religion. In sum, to borrow Steven M. Wasserstrom’s phrase, we might say that the postsecular has to do with “religion after religion” (51). Or, to borrow Zygmunt Bauman’s phrase, we might say that it has to do with “a re-enchantment of the world” (x). In many cases, to revise the idiom “spiritual but not religious,” we might say that the postsecular is “religious but not religious” or “spiritual but not spiritual.” More broadly still, we might simply say that the postsecular involves religion with a difference.

Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Saphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology

In The Blue Saphire of the Mind, Douglas E. Christie does not write about the postsecular but practices a version of it. He draws on the depths of the Christian mystical tradition while also, in seeking their relevance for a spirituality for the present, struggles over whether to use the word “God.”

While the body of work surveyed above establishes much, in considering the postsecular one should also look to works that do not directly engage with postsecular theory as such but that demonstrate and enact the characteristics it describes. I find that several themes stand out in a selection of such work: (1) resisting and revising traditional religion; (2) broad definitions of spirituality; (3) contemplative, (4) progressive, and (5) earth-centered spiritualities; and (6), poetry as a “religious” practice. All of these appear in the writing of Gloria Anzaldua, for example, and, more recently, in Douglas E. Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. They also appear, variously, in the work of Mary Frohlich, Sandra Schneiders, Dorothy Solle, Belden Lane, John F. Haught, Regina Schwartz, Martin Laird, and others. We should also include David Abram’s call to an entirely material and deeply spiritual way of being in and paying attention to the world. Though it would be a far cry to call his “earthly” cosmology enchanted in the traditional sense, it fits precisely with Taylor’s description of reenchantment. Similarly, we should include Pierre Hadot’s entirely material and deeply spiritual way of thinking about philosophy as “a way of life.” While his spiritual exercises diverge from those of Ignatius and others on many levels, especially in the absence of God, they do not diverge so much that they should somehow not be considered not spiritual exercises, especially in terms of form and lived experience. Likewise, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience remains relevant to this discussion. To James’ taxonomy, we might add the varieties of secular and postsecular experience.

To the degree that postsecular theory meaningfully describes certain aspects of the contemporary context, countless relevant sources appear in all manner of disciplines, with scholars, artists, and others picking up on parallel themes, practices, experiences, longings, trends, etc., sometimes in conversation with postsecular theory, other times not. This holds true in literature and literary studies as well as anywhere else, as the following section will demonstrate.

4. Postsecular Literary Criticism

The pluralist religious/secular landscape from which and in response to which postsecular theory emerged is the same landscape from which and in response to which postsecular literature and literary studies also emerged. To some degree, then, it makes sense that postsecular literary criticism and theory would echo postsecular theory in general. But as a locus of inquiry, literature offers something that philosophical texts and sociological data do not. To the degree that a novel cannot be postsecular or convey the postsecular in the same way that a city can, postsecular literary criticism raises distinctively literary questions about the postsecular. Introducing a forum the postsecular in the journal Religion & Literature, Michael Kaufmann observes that “there is no final consensus on how literary studies does, or should, delimit the term.” Instead, discussions turn on “questions” (68). Once again, I find that writers speak to five related ones:

First, in postsecular literature, what is the relationship between the religious and the secular?

Literary scholars writing about the postsecular rarely suggest that that postsecular represents an outright return from the secular to the religious. But they do suggest that it represents, variously, either a renewed or continued engagement with religion in an apparently increasingly or at least persistently secular culture, a third position between the religious and the secular that includes aspects of both, a dissolving of the boundaries between the categories of religious and secular, a crossing of those boundaries while leaving them intact, or a revision of the religious in light of certain secular ideas and ideals. In terms of the first of these, renewed or continued engagement with the religious, Norman Finkelstein observes that in the face of secularism and pluralism, which call into question the foundations of traditional religion, some writers still seek the “hidden life” (6). Indeed, certain contemporary poets continue to engage with “agencies of desire, meaning, truth, and yes, ‘Spirit, with that troublesome, rebarbative capital letter’” (139, 141). Kathryn Ludwig takes a similar stance but treads more lightly. While she does not see “anything so clearly cut as a return to religion,” she does offer that “religious themes, journeys of the soul, and engagements with religious tradition are becoming more noticeable in recent fiction.” But in this, she writes, “the religious is not reaffirmed so much as it is engaged” (83).

John A. McClure, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison (2007)

In Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison, the landmark work of postsecular literary criticism, John A. McClure uses the term postsecular to name that impulse “to reconcile important secular and religious intuitions” that he sees in the work of many contemporary writers.

Other writers see the postsecular not simply as attention to the religious in the midst of a secular age but rather as the development of a third position between the secular and the religious, containing aspects of both. John A. McClure uses the term postsecular to name that impulse to “reconcile important secular and religious intuitions” that he sees in the work of many contemporary writers (6). He observes that many otherwise secular people feel pulled toward that which might be called religious, even while many religious people inversely feel compelled let go of certain traditional aspects of religion. Postsecular fiction, he proposes, emerges from the tensions inherent in such hybrid positions (8-10). Ludwig similarly describes postsecular literature as “maneuvering between traditional notions of secular and sacred” (84). Alyda Faber calls J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace postsecular because it is not “religious or secular.” She writes that the tensions in the novel between secular and religious “do not settle into belief” but do “acknowledge the ‘uncanny insistence’ of religious sensibilities” (314). Manav Ratti describes the way other postcolonial novels “explore secular alternatives to secularism: ones that can gesture to the inspiring features of religious thought, without the violence that can attach itself to religion.” These texts allow “new conceptions of secularism and religion [to] emerge” (7). They take on the “paradox” of looking for something like “a non-secular secularism” and “a non-religious religion” (xx).

Some take this a step further, pitching the postsecular not as just a third position between the religious and the secular but as a deconstruction of the religious/secular binary. For Kaufmann postsecular literary criticism “unmoor[s]” “certitudes about what counts as ‘religious’ and ‘secular’” (69). For Norman W. Jones postsecular narratives break down the boundaries between sacred and secular (36). For David Harrington Watt, the postsecular serves to highlight the “capacious, quirky, malleable, and unstable” nature of the religious and the secular (124). It invites us realize “that nothing is essentially religious or secular” (125). Magdalena Mączyńska argues that the issues raised by the postsecular in considering literature transcend the limits of the term itself, which she finds problematic, among other reasons, because of “its reliance on the outdated language of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism,’ which continues to burden us with its historical baggage even as we strive to transcend the binary paradigms inherited from Western modernity” (74). She understands the postsecular to level “the sacred and the profane, bringing to light their common purposes and patterns” (80). Arguing similarly that “imaginative literature” resists “the categories of sacred and secular,” Harold Bloom simply rejects the notion “that some authentic literary art is more sacred or secular than some other” (4).

Others have a problem with literature blurring the lines between secular and religious. Denis Donoghue registers his objections somewhat indirectly by criticizing the sociologist Robert Bellah. Donoghue writes that Bellah “takes certain concepts of religion, drains off their doctrinal force to the point at which they become almost entirely secular, and then tries to endow these few concepts with an aura of political fervor, a secular version of the sacred” (105). He goes on to argue that this “can’t be a serious religion, because [it] has no time for faith, revelation, mystery, sacrament, theology, or sacrifice” (108). His objections, he makes sure to add, apply equally to literary writers who do the same thing, particularly, in his view, the poet Wallace Stevens. But if Donoghue objects to literature blurring the lines between secular and religious, he does not object it to crossing the lines. Other literary writers who are not religious do make appropriate use of religious material, he argues. Such writers “approach religion and its texts to discover there further ways of thinking and feeling . . . not appropriating the vocabularies of religion for a vulgar purpose, or . . . trying to enhance certain social habits and sentiments by calling them religious.” He offers D. H. Lawrence as an example: “When Lawrence writes of ‘the risen Lord,’ he does not think of stealing the body of Christ: he is finding yet another way of being alive, or a further degree of being alive” (110). If the postsecular must include dissolving the very terms Donoghue wants to reinforce, vulgar/sacred in this case, then we might take Donoghue to be anti-postsecular. But it seems that the postsecular is bigger than that. If dissolving boundaries is one manifestation of it, leaving them intact but crossing them is another.

All of these variations on the relationship between the religious and the secular involve some form of “religious innovation” (McClure ix) or “religious revisionism” (Finkelstein 1). Innovation and revision lie at the heart of postsecular literature, even as they might be said to lie at the heart of literature itself. Revision of religious tradition marks postsecular literature as distinctive and connects it to a larger tradition of literature and religion. Revision of religious tradition marks postsecular literature as distinctive and connects it to a larger tradition of literature and religion. Bloom writes that “[a]ll strong poets . . . must ruin the sacred truths . . . . Every sacred truth not one’s own becomes a fable, an old song that requires corrective revision” (125). While he lists Dante, Virgil, Milton, and Blake as his primary examples, he also points to literature in the present. While many poets cast off the egocentrism that drives Bloom’s theory, the phrases “ruin the sacred truths” and “corrective revision,” understood broadly, ring true in describing postsecular literature.

M. H. Abrams’ description of religious revision in literature does as well. Like Bloom, Abrams writes primarily of poets of another time, the British Romantic poets in this case, but connects his description to work of contemporary poets. What he writes about the Romantic poets applies so well to postsecular literature—once one adjusts for the specifics of historical context—that it bears quoting at length: Abrams writes that “after the rationalism and decorum of the Enlightenment,” the Romantic poets often reverted

to the stark drama and suprarational mysteries of the Christian story and doctrines and to the violent conflicts and abrupt reversals of the Christian inner life . . . . But since they lived, inescapably, after the Enlightenment, Romantic writers revived these ancient matters with a difference: they undertook to save [aspects] of their religious heritage, by reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable, as well as well as emotionally pertinent, for the time being. (66, emphasis in original)

The “resolve” of these poets was “to give up what one was convinced one had to give up of the dogmatic understructure of Christianity, yet to save what one could save of its experiential relevance and values” (68). Furthermore, Abrams adds, “the Romantic endeavor to salvage traditional experience and values by accommodating them to premises tenable to a later age has continued to be a prime concern of post-Romantic poets” such as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath (69, 420-25). Where the Romantics revised Christianity in light of the Enlightenment, postsecular writers revise that religion and others in light of the earth-shattering movements and movements that followed the Enlightenment, including but not limited to modernism, postmodernism, pluralism, secularism, contemporary science, and globalization.

Second, where should postsecular literature be located with respect to literary history?

For most scholars, the postsecular refers to a new and contemporary happening. Michael Symmons Roberts uses the term to ask, “How can contemporary poets explore religious faith and experience in a secularised language and culture?” (69). Arthur Bradley, Jo Carruthers, and Andrew Tate use it to speak of “the ‘return’ of the religious in contemporary literary studies.” They write that “it is now possible to detect a new sacred ‘turn’ or ‘return’—for better or worse—in contemporary thought and writing” (1). It entails “the resurgence of phenomena such as the sublime, awe and belief in the transcendent” along with “a new respect for mystery, the ineffable or the aporetic” and “a remarkable re-engagement” with religious tradition in certain instances (2). Devin Johnston offers that “the appeal of the occult for poets . . . constitutes a direct response to contemporary culture” (2). He writes, “The apparent anachronism of such occult models often masks deep rapprochement with pressing ideas of contemporary culture” (15). The idea of a contemporary phenomenon, a resurgence, a return, a new respect has appeal for those who see in contemporary writing something that feels new and something that they did not expect to see, having heard of the presumed dying of religion. While the postsecular is distinctively contemporary, it turns out not to be uniquely contemporary.But, as Magdalena Mączyńska perceptively notes, when writers begin to describe postsecular literature as “a new kind of contemporary writing,” they run into the problem of “demonstrat[ing] how exactly ‘postsecular’ texts differ from the work of earlier writers interested in religious questions” (75). While the postsecular is distinctively contemporary, it turns out not to be uniquely contemporary. As the passages from Bloom and Abrams quoted above indicate, contemporary postsecular writing takes part in an older tradition with which it shares many characteristics.

Kaufmann asks whether “a postsecular moment has always already been available as an option when considering the relationship between the religious and the secular regardless of any particular historical moment” (71). Bradley, Carruthers, and Tate argue that “our contemporary, postsecular situation” allows us a particular vantage point for “rethinking” earlier writing (5). Indeed, “The development, day by day, of an ever-clearer sense of this as a post-secular age, is merely a recognition, rethinking and reconfiguration of what the spiritual means in our current world” (3). It is not a new happening so much as a new understanding. Allen Dunn similarly writes that “the postsecular may be less a new phase of cultural development than it is a working through of the problems and contradictions in the secularization process itself” (92). What emerges is something of a consensus that we should understand postsecular literature in terms of both/and when it comes to locating it historically. The postsecular is both a new happening tied to certain aspects of contemporary culture and a new way of looking at an older tradition. The postsecular is less something new than a renewal of something that has never stopped in literature. Lee Morrissey nicely highlights both historical aspects of the postsecular. He argues that “re-reading . . . contemporary fiction as postsecular literature also makes possible . . . a different and chronologically more wide-ranging question: how is literary history affected by the recent turn to the postsecular?” Asking such a question will lead us, he concludes, to “a history of literature and the postsecular [that] is older than might otherwise be expected” (100).

Studies of or relevant to postsecular literature span a range of literary history. While most focus on contemporary literature, many reach further back in time. The essays in the collection edited by Carruthers and Tate attend to contemporary as well as writing from the seventeenth century. Feisal G. Mohamed puts Milton in dialogue with “the post-secular present.” Michael Ziser does the same with Emerson. Morrissey goes so far as to call Milton “our first postsecularist actually” (101). Finkelstein connects past and present, drawing within American poetry a genealogy of the “conflict between poetry and the sacred” that runs through Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson for whom “poetry brings forth religion” and through Arnold, Eliot, and Stevens for whom “poetry replaces religion” (1, 8, 15). In this “vexed tradition,” he writes, “the sacred always adheres itself to what may appear to be even the most resolutely secular poems” (1). For him, as for many other scholars, contemporary writing participates in a longer tradition.

Third, how does the postsecular represent a methodology for reading literature?

One way to understand postsecular literary criticism is as criticism about postsecular literature. Another way to understand it as criticism that is itself postsecular. Quite a few writers have pointed out that the postsecular can indicate a set of texts or a set of concerns in texts as well as a way of reading. When Morrissey offers that “‘postsecular’ literature allows us to re-read the tradition for a history of literature and the postsecular,” he points not only to a widening of the set of texts that might be considered postsecular but to the postsecular as a way of looking at texts (100). Mączyńska states more directly that perhaps the postsecular may indicate “a new kind of critical perspective” (76). Several writers suggest an analogy between postsecular criticism and feminist criticism, given that feminist criticism may include criticism of feminist texts or criticism that is feminist of any texts.Kaufmann and Ludwig likewise both stress that the term can refer to a set of texts and to a way of reading. Several writers suggest, on this point, an analogy with feminist criticism, which includes discussion of feminist texts and feminist themes in texts but also feminist discussion of a wide range of texts, often including critique of anti-feminist texts. Likewise, postsecular criticism may include discussion of postsecular texts and postsecular themes in texts as well as postsecular discussion of a wide range of texts. In this sense, one could have postsecular criticism of non-postsecular texts just as well as non-postsecular criticism of postsecular texts. But in line with the postsecular, one would not necessarily want to distinguish between the two too sharply.

Several writers suggest specific ways of reading that might be considered distinctively postsecular. Making comparisons to postcolonialism and postmodernism, Graham Huggan proposes that the postsecular involves reading secularism deconstructively and dialectically. Cheryl Walker offers quite a different tact that also qualifies as a sort of postsecular reading. She writes that she “want[s] to [read] [Elizabeth] Bishop because of the interest a religious person might take in her work” (“Reading,” 166). She further explains, “It is quite possible to give a religious reading to a text that wasn’t written to make a religious point as long as one doesn’t do violence to the conventions of informed reading, which are based primarily on the connotative and denotative possibilities of language.” Religious readings require “a certain degree of playfulness” (God, 40). Walker’s postsecular way of reading takes on a set of texts that might or might not be considered postsecular and produces interpretations that, to the degree that they represent a dialogue or a blurring of the lines between secular and the religious, are distinctively postsecular. If some postsecular writers who themselves are secular cross over into religious themes and texts to find something of value, then some postsecular readers who themselves are religious can also cross over into secular themes and texts to find something of value. As postsecular criticism develops, more variations will undoubtedly emerge, some in which the readers borrow postsecular conceptual tools and others in which they identify themselves, whether directly or indirectly, as postsecular readers and produce postsecular readings.

Fourth, what is the relationship between the postsecular and literary form?

1. Form Itself

Believers and nonbelievers in the West often think of religion residing primarily in the content of religious beliefs. To the extent that that is the case, postsecular literature can be analyzed for both religious and nonreligious content. Religion can no more be limited to content than literature can.  But religion can no more be limited to content than literature can. Informed readers of literature know to look for a relationship between form and content. Indeed, often enough, matters of form take priority over matters of content in literary studies. So it is with religion. According to Laura Levitt, an overemphasis on content and a neglect of other and often more central aspects of religion is a sign of “the ‘invisible hand’ of Protestantism” at work (107). She points out that “a kind of hegemonic notion of normative religion that is deeply inflected by Protestantism” will often foreground theological content, leaving out “other traditions” that do not foreground content (108, 110). She considers a “move away from religion as faith . . . to ritual” a better “way of thinking through what constitutes the religious,” since “within rabbinic forms of Judaism, in Islam, and among many forms of Buddhism, practice is much more important than belief” (116). Indeed, she goes on to write, “belief in God is simply not as salient an issue for those engaged in these other traditions” (116). In literature, both ritual and practice manifest as form.

Amy Hungerford, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (2010)

In Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960, Amy Hungerford distinguishes between belief and beliefs, showing how the former may appear with or without the latter in contemporary literature.

Advocating the same way of thinking about religion and literature, Amy Hungerford takes up the question of how certain “writers turn to religion to imagine the purely formal elements of language in transcendent terms” (xiii). She argues that many contemporary writers practice “belief without meaning” or “belief in meaninglessness,” that is, a sort of “belief that does not emphasize the content of doctrine” but nonetheless counts as belief through formal means (xiii, xv). The key semantic distinction is between beliefs as mental assent to specific theological doctrines and belief as religious practice, feeling, forms, and a way of living. Like Levitt, Hungerford points out that the “very notion that beliefs are at the heart of religion” is largely a Western Christian idea, whereas other traditions often put greater emphasis on other dynamics of religion, such as experience, practice, ritual, behavior, and communal participation, “often independent of theological beliefs” (21). But form and content do interact, often through “tension” (25). For Hungerford, the fullness of belief falls somewhere between content and form.

Norman Finkelstein, On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (2010)

In On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry, an analysis of long postmodern poems, Norman Finkelstein argues that all poetry is touched with the religious because poetic form “charges ordinary language with powers beyond itself.”

Finkelstein likewise makes recourse to form in order to read as sacred poems that would not immediately strike most readers as sacred. To make this point, he cites the poet Michael Palmer, the philosopher E. M. Cioran, and the Christian mystic and accused heretic Meister Eckhart. In a tangle of citation, Finkelstein quotes Palmer quoting Cioran discussing Eckhart to the following effect: Eckhart “sinned on the side of form.” That is, he sinned not in what he said but in how he said it. The poetic how of his sermons points beyond the semantic what of all language. Palmer argues that poetry works the same way (qtd. in Finkelstein 138). Finkelstein takes that idea a step further to suggest that the very “act of poesis” counts as heresy because of the nature of poetic form. Poetic form “challenges all types of orthodox discourse” because it “charges ordinary language with powers beyond itself” (139).

Just as intense a vision of the religious and postsecular function of poetic form comes through in William Franke’s discussion of “apocalypse,” a religious term meaning revealing in the original Greek. “If apocalypse really takes place,” he writes, “then, it does so not in language at all. Apocalypse is the moment when language at its limits shatters and all beings are speechlessly present and open to one another, the moment when all articulable differences are surpassed.” He has the “conviction” that such a “‘moment’ outside of and before speech” pushes back against our world’s imperialistic tendencies. But “such a speechless openness cannot be engineered by any logical process or protocol, but rather can be induced through the agency of poetry that bears language to its point of rupture.” Therefore, “we need to see how poetry by its nature opens toward what lies beyond the grasp of our language.” For Franke, the religious power of poetic form, beyond words and concepts and content, pushes us toward what can basically be described as a postsecular vision, a place where “understanding and tolerance among human beings committed to radically disparate belief systems can be fostered” (x-xi).

But if form embodies the religious reality of literature for some, it embodies the religious fiction of literature for others. Whereas Hungerford, Finkelstein, and Franke describe form as the place where religion really happens, James Wood describes form as the place where religion does not really happen. While he acknowledges that “the distinctions between literary believe and religious belief” are often blurred, he values “writers who struggle with” them anyway (xiii, xiv). He offers that “there have always been writers great enough to move between the religious impulse and the novelistic impulse, to distinguish between them and yet, miraculously, to draw on both” (xiv). What is the distinction? To put it succinctly, “Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality” (xiii). Whether Wood is correct about religion or whether it is not sometimes more like the fiction he describes, his description of literary belief offers much to a discussion of religion and form in postsecular literature. Most poignantly, he offers by way of example that for Virginia Woolf, “the novel acts religiously but performs skeptically” (xiv). James Wood sees fiction as “the place of not-quite-belief,” the place of “believing ‘as if.’”He writes, “Fiction, being the game of not quite, is the place of not-quite-belief . . . [because] even when one is believing fiction, one is ‘not quite’ believing, one is believing ‘as if.’ (One can always close the book, go outside, and kick a stone.)” (xiii). Finally, he adds, “Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. Belief in fiction is always belief ‘as if.’ Our belief is itself metaphorical—it only resembles actual belief, and is therefore never wholly belief” (xii). On the face of it, the idea that literary form allows us to believe “only” metaphorically and the idea that form (including metaphor) gets to the heart of belief appear to be opposite perspectives. Indeed, the position Wood takes differs in more than just emphasis from the others. He stakes his position as categorically different. Nonetheless, a text that (or for that matter a reader who) “acts religiously but performs skeptically” might be described as quintessentially postsecular. In this, Wood’s position comes much closer to Hungerford’s, Finkelstein’s, and Franke’s than would a more actually antithetical position which would have to suggest that literature might only represent but not actually enact any sort of religion.

2. Specific Forms

If form is crucial in postsecular literature, what specific forms does postsecular literature take? By far, most studies focus on fiction, especially contemporary novels. Most prominently, McClure describes how “religious innovation” works in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Ondaatje. Essays in the collection edited by Carruthers and Tate consider as postsecular contemporary fiction from the likes of Ian McEwan, John Updike, Douglas Coupland, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Octavia Butler, David Grossman, Susan Howatch, and Sara Maitland as well as novels by George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë. Ludwig and Mączyńska also focus on contemporary fiction. Norman W. Jones argues that the characteristic tropes of twentieth- and twenty-first-century gay and lesbian historical fiction are postsecular in that they parallel and share histories with those of Christianity, particularly including the embrace of mystery, personal transformation, and the forming of a community (36, x). Alyda Faber writes about J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace as postsecular (303). Ratti presents a range of contemporary Southeast Asian postcolonial novels as postsecular, crediting several specific aspects of novel form—the way that novels “represent a multiplicity of voices,” accept and juxtapose “contradictory and conflicting perspectives,” and “represent, imagine, and pursue a rich array of possibilities”—with the form’s potential for “undoing  . . . the ideological oppositions between secularism and religion” (xxi).

In her call for “more focus” on aspects of form, Mączyńska describes Zadie Smith’s fiction as an example (76). Mączyńska writes that Smith “takes advantage of the postmodernist writer’s license to draw freely on available cultural repertoires by referencing and appropriating elements of Judaism and Zen Buddhism—without fully committing to either tradition (81). Her “overt use of religious language and imagery allows her to play with such ideas as conversion, ritual, and blasphemy, all of which depend on a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane; rather than sustaining the distinction, however, the novel weakens and subverts it. The result is a hybrid narrative that playfully acknowledges the protean nature of religious identity and the complex entanglements of belief and practice in a contemporary global world” (81). Mączyńska concludes, “This kind of postsecular engagement with religion is the opposite of fundamentalism, valuing messiness over order and ambiguity over certainty” (81). Such examples of how the form of the novel embodies and enacts certain postsecular practices and values suggest that literary critics writing about the postsecular do well to focus on the novel.

But if narrative form offers much to the postsecular, poetry might all the more, as it is often (and often appropriately) considered more purely formal. Indeed, many have commented on the relationship between poetry and religion even in the present. Oddly, in my review of scholarship on the postsecular, I could only find one essay that discusses postsecular poetry qua postsecular. Oddly, in my review of scholarship on the postsecular, I could only find one essay that discusses postsecular poetry qua postsecular. Most of the studies that follow in this section, then, like those on poetry cited above, are relevant to studies of postsecular poetry but are not themselves explicitly studies of postsecular poetry. Many writers have taken up the matter of poetry or aspects of poetic in relationship to what might be described as the postsecular without themselves describing it as such.

Bloom finds poetry itself inherently both entangled with and separate from the religious. “Poetry and belief wander about, together and apart,” he writes (4). Abrams, Walker (“Surrealism”), Jay Ladin, Bea Opengart find that to be as true in contemporary poetry as in any other time. Mark Jarman writes not only that “the religious impulse in poetry today moves many poets who would not call themselves religious” but also that “the religious poem of a believer has a quality of conviction that still resonates with extraordinary power” (76-77). Helen Vendler, connecting her reading of contemporary poetry in the present to her singing of Psalms as a child, understands lyric “to be the voice of the soul itself” (3). In both ancient and contemporary poems, we can see or rather hear “form revealing the inner life” (6). She emphasizes both form and the inner life and understands the inner life in connection to other lives. Nick Halpern describes how such modes of writing as the meditative, mystic, visionary, and prophetic voices, associated with religious voice, operate in contemporary poetry alongside the human, ordinary, and everyday voice. This phenomenon brings together the sacred and the mundane on the level of register and voice. In doing so, it continues something already to be found in religious writing, as “the two discourses were, of course, mixed by the Bible” and by such poets as Dante and George Herbert (30-31). So “postreligious poets” will have to look to the past to learn how “to use a human voice and a more-than-human voice” well (32). Finally, Devin Johnston writes about how “the occult has offered an alternative way of thinking through form” for some contemporary poets. He writes that “poets of the occult have engaged an accretive sense of form, according to a methodology of inclusiveness; for these poets, the poem’s form develops organically as an extension of its content” (157).

These writers establish that contemporary poetry that is religiously-inflected—particularly in non-traditional ways—has much to offer to the study of the postsecular in literature. But they do not make that connection by explicitly reading the poems as postsecular or in light of the postsecular. For that we have to turn to Michael Symmons Roberts, though even he does not engage in conversation with the larger body of postsecular theory or postsecular literary criticism.

In “Poetry in a Post-Secular Age,” Roberts describes the “thinning” out of language by the loss of religious connotations as a concern for all interested in maintaining a rich language, not just religious believers. He finds “religious poetry,” “sacred poetry,” “spiritual poetry” and “metaphysical poetry” all to be inadequate terms for the present. “The opportunity is there to find new terms, new metaphors,” he writes (71). He proposes both concreteness (including the body, science, and home) and abstraction as arenas within poetry as particularly apt arenas for such consideration. Roberts focuses on form not only in relation to content but also in relation to function:

Poems are ritualistic, not read like most prose to follow a story or glean information; poetry is incantatory, thrives on repetition, is best learnt by heart. If, in this sense, poems too are liturgies, or parts of greater liturgies, then they can be liturgies of risk and profundity, reaching for truth and meaning, or empty liturgies. (74-75)

The apparent secularizing of language in the face of the continuing persistence of religion raises significant questions for Roberts, who does not attempt to answer them so much as to ask them in order to pose a problem. On one hand, he sees we have the thinning of language by the weakening of religious connotations. On the other hand, we have a continued thick experience that poets need to write about. For those who want to work out the intersection of the religious and the secular, Roberts points to postsecular poetry.

Fifth, what positive contribution does postsecular literature make?

Some writers take up the postsecular in neutral and descriptive terms. It is something that is happening “for better or worse,” write Bradley, Carruthers, and Tate, without saying which they think it may be (1). With the broadest definitions of the postsecular, such a stance is certainly desirable. One would not imagine that any or all engagements or reengagements with religion would be something to endorse. Additionally, since many academics consider religion “dangerous,” even some of those who might want to endorse certain aspects of the postsecular might nonetheless hesitate to do so, as Levitt observes (111). Nonetheless, others follow the less neutral stance that Habermas takes when he suggests that religious traditions in a postsecular society may contribute valuable “semantic resources,” “resources of meaning, solidarity, and justice” (“A Reply,” 76-77). Some scholars describe postsecular literature as just such a resource. That is to say, some scholars celebrate outright what they see as the positive contributions of paradigmatic aspects of the postsecular within literature.

For Finkelstein, postsecular literature “participate[s] in . . . ‘the symposium of the whole’” (5). For McClure, it offers “new forms of religiously inflected seeing and being,” ones that are “dramatically partial and open-ended” and involve “‘limited gift[s]’ of the spirit” (ix, 6). For Mączyńska, it “promises . . . new ways of thinking about the ineffable, beyond the compromised structures of traditional religious belief and the limiting binary language of modern secularism” (81). For Dunn, it gives us an opportunity for “critical ‘self-reflection’” (99). Ludwig writes that postsecular literature “often articulate[s] a kind of anti-religion, in which characters engage religious possibility without affirming a single system of religious thought.” In this way, postsecular literature may “enlarge our understanding of the religious in our age” (83). While Habermas refers quite broadly to the "semantic resources" that the postsecular may provide, these writers describe much more specifically what those resources may be: new and renewed ways of thinking, seeing, being, and loving. Ratti celebrates “[t]he postsecular affirmative values [of] . . . love, friendship, community, art, literature, music, nature, the migrant’s eye-view, hybridity, and ‘newness,’” along with “[f]aith, awe, wonder, and transcendence,” what he calls “the irresistible dimensions of the human experience, infusing everyday life with richness, imagination, and inspiration.” While he acknowledges that these values “might not seem . . . ‘new,’” he explains that they are made new in postsecular literature when “writers write through religion by invoking its great signifiers and great ethics, and then translate and secularize them within the contingency—and urgency—of material and historical circumstance” (xxiii, 17-18). While Habermas refers quite broadly to the “semantic resources” that the postsecular may provide, these writers describe much more specifically what those resources may be: new and renewed ways of thinking, seeing, being, and loving.

Finally, some may get at the positive contributions of the postsecular implicitly. Without outright endorsing the postsecular, Bradley, Carruthers, and Tate write that “the ‘cracks’ into which religious impulses flow in a world without religion are nothing other than the space of literature itself: literature is neither an alternative to, nor a substitute for religion, but a way in which religious experience can happen” (5). They go on to contend that “literature constitutes a privileged space in which the return of the religious can take place. Literature, like religion, has always implied a challenge to strict boundaries—between fantasy and fact, transcendence and immanence, the spiritual and the material” (3). Readers would certainly be reasonable to infer from such a passage something about the positive potential of the postsecular.

5. Conclusion

Talk of the postsecular responds to the surprising persistence, resurgence, and/or reenvisioning of the sacred, the spiritual, and/or the religious within societies, individuals, and/or works of art in the face of industrialization, globalization, science, and/or pluralism. Conceptually and stylistically messy, the shorthand and/or captures something of the spirit (and/or Spirit) of the postsecular. Conceptually and phenomenologically, the postsecular crosses and blurs the traditional boundaries between religious and secular ways of being and seeing in the world. As a result, discussing the postsecular often requires a certain degree of equivocation. We should understand the postsecular not nounally but adjectivally, used to indicate not that a certain society or text is (or is not) postsecular outright or in some essential way but rather that it has postsecular characteristics, on a continuum between trace and quintessence. I find it useful to say that the postsecular invokes That Which Has Traditionally Been Considered Religious or even That Which Might Be Considered Religious.

The scholarship on the postsecular reviewed in this essay constitutes an important and expanding focus of inquiry in a range of disciplines. The study of the postsecular in relation to literature makes distinctively literary contributions to a much larger conversation. Those contributions are not merely “literary,” however, but rather constitute one of the most direct attempts to understand and engage those “semantic resources” for living that Habermas hopes to see emerging from the postsecular. Literature that has postsecular characteristics offers readers opportunities for reflecting on and spaces for practicing important and beneficial ways of seeing and being that have traditionally been closed off by the religious/secular binary:

1. To begin with, postsecular texts create a space where secular people can transform their secular way of life through increased openness toward attributes traditionally associated with the religious, such as awe, wonder, the unknown, and so forth.

2. Inversely, postsecular texts also create a space where religious people can transform their faith (often rather than abandon it or allow it to devolve into either nominalism or fundamentalism) through increased openness toward attributes traditionally associated with the secular, such as science, reason, humanism and so forth.

3. The same texts likewise offer a fitting and affirming place for those to stand who do not know where they stand in relation to these dynamics.

4. Moreover, postsecular literature creates a space for people in and between such different positions, often considered diametrically opposed, to come together in mutually edifying ways. Whether or not two people can agree on a given theological or philosophical proposition, they can come together around a narrative, an image, a rhyme, or a metaphor, sharing an experience and sharing meaning that goes beyond the denotations and connotations of the words before and between them.

Attending to the postsecular within literature may help us navigate the present postsecular moment and to draw deeply from it, learning to live more justly with neighbors different from ourselves in a context of religious/secular pluralism, while also making use of whatever resources may be found on both sides of what is becoming for many people an increasingly permeable divide.

Sculpture Angel of the Waters by Emma Stebbins (1873); photo by Ahodges7 (2008).

Emma Stebbins’ famous sculpture at Bethesda Terrace, Angel of the Waters (1873), appears in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. In his groundbreaking book on postsecular literature, John A. McClure interprets the fountain as a major postsecular symbol in the play. (Photo by Ahodges7, 2008.)

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Posted May 17, 2015.


5 thoughts on “The Postsecular and Literature

  1. first of all, thank you. secondly, congratulations. and last, don’t stop — continue giving-willing to allow others too to be blessed by receiving and celebrating the creative, the confessional, and the critical they offer.


  2. Thanks for writing this. By the way, search for “he characteristic tropes” and change to “the characteristic tropes.”


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