In Britain and throughout much of Europe, the “age of austerity” persists. Likewise in America the economic future remains enveloped in political turmoil and fiscal uncertainty. It appears that the western world has begrudgingly entered a new economic age. The ever-changing predictions of economic advisers and politicians have in many cases proven to be little more than fruitless surmising. Like Samuel Beckett’s Estragon, who removes his boot anticipating some hidden object to appear from the emptiness within, politicians in Britain and America have desperately sought to relieve themselves of the collective weight of national deficits and public spending only to find that despite these efforts—“There is nothing to show.” As difficult economic decisions are contentiously deferred in the hope of better times to come, it is perhaps worth considering the possibility that like Godot the economic stability we long for is not destined to arrive. Notwithstanding our present difficulties, now is not the time to adopt a position of economic apocalypticism.
While political factions in Britain and America struggle to reassert the social and economic hierarchies of the past, scholars from numerous disciplines have begun to vigorously investigate alternatives to the prevailing ideologies which have underwritten western society’s approaches to managing the costs of existence. If scholars working in the humanities have something to say about cultural production and the values of contemporary society, then it seems more than reasonable that they may be capable of making important contributions to current economic debates. Critical Religion may be able to offer certain intellectual resources for critiquing the political and economic models which are currently being outstripped. But in order to open up the field of economics to alternative modes of discourse, it is necessary to challenge the intellectual and disciplinary boundaries which have historically served to distance modern socio-economic theory from other forms of intellectual inquiry.
In an essay entitled “Knowing Our Limits” (2010), Rowan Williams suggests that executing a theological incursion into the field of economics entails a critical investigation of the language and epistemological assumptions which constitute the study of economics:
In asking whether economics and theology represent two different worlds, we need to be aware of the fact that a lot of contemporary economic language and habit doesn’t only claim a privileged status for economics on the grounds that it works by innate laws to which other considerations are irrelevant. It threatens to reduce other sorts of discourse to its own terms—to make a bid for one world in which everything reduces to one set of questions (2010, p.20).
Williams’ assessment of the totalizing force of economic discourse may just as easily be applied to his own discipline of theology—formerly known as the “The Queen of the Sciences”. To avoid a mere inversion of the relationship between economics and theology, the notion of Critical Religion provides a vital starting point for examining the heterogeneity that exists between seemingly disparate modes of secular and religious discourse. One way of challenging the privileged status of economic theory is to excavate the theological and religious principles upon which this supposedly secular science has been established. In doing so it may be possible to uncover the ways that religion and secularity are at times complicit in western society’s efforts to construct and justify social and economic hierarchies.
It is not coincidental that the field of Critical Religion has emerged during a time of religious as well as economic crisis. Times of crisis have the potential to instigate positive cultural and intellectual transformations. Presently, the absolute triumph of so-called secular reason over religious faith has not only failed to come to pass in western society; religion and secularity have found themselves in a common state of disarray. Over the past decade, the secularization thesis has not been proven false because religious thinkers and secularists have somehow made peace with one another; instead, the economic and political foundations underlying the conflict between these mimetic foes have shifted dramatically.
Influential thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas and numerous others have already begun to explore the notion of post-secularity as a way of describing not simply the historical epoch which has followed postmodernity, but rather the specific challenges that religious and secular institutions currently face as they renegotiate their claims to moral truth and political authority. Noting the frustration which many theorists, critics, philosophers, and economists experience when faced with the problem of religion’s survival, Hent de Vries argues, “The post-secular condition and its corresponding intellectual stance consist precisely in acknowledging this ‘living-on’ of religion beyond its prematurely announced and celebrated deaths” (2006, p.7). Because religion survives within contemporary society in increasingly spectral forms, De Vries suggests that “In order to track its movements, new methodological tools and sensibilities are needed” (2006, p.7). In his recent book On the Sacred (2012), Gordon Lynch takes up the task of elaborating a new approach to detecting the continuing presence of religion in society. Lynch reconfigures the traditional opposition between religion and secularity by arguing that various manifestations of the sacred form the basis of all social life. The sacred, according to Lynch, may be defined “by what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities that exert unquestionable moral claims over the meaning and conduct of their lives” (2012, p.32). He argues that human rights, the responsibility of caring for children, and nationalism, may all be considered sacred forms which are common to both religious and secular life.
However, the category of the sacred does not simply represent that which society seeks to protect or preserve—as the work of René Girard has so effectively evinced, the sacred also represents that which is unquestionably sacrificable. In a sacrificial economy, the individuals who are most likely to suffer at the expense of prevailing notions of the sacred are those who exist on the margins of society. The practice of Critical Religion not only offers certain intellectual benefits which comes from exploring the boundaries between various disciplines; but it also offers an opportunity to respond to a pressing social responsibility to critically question the strategies by which religious and secular communities have sought to secure for themselves a tomorrow which is less than certain for many. By acknowledging the heterogeneity of religion and the ambivalence of so many cultural manifestations of the sacred, Critical Religion is capable of bringing to light the myths and rituals which underwrite our most problematic forms of economic decision-making.
In his contemplation of the future of religious poetry in a post-secular age, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts suggests that the intellectual relativism that characterized much of the literary and academic discourse of postmodernism has declined in recent years—“Politically and financially the world is a volatile place, and relativism will no longer do. Above all, perhaps, our exit from the hall of mirrors is driven by ecological concerns. Relativism simply collapses in this context” (2008, p.71). Moral and intellectual relativism is of course not the solitary contribution of those various strands of cultural and critical theory which have come to represent postmodernism. However, Roberts’ larger point remains important: the most significant epistemological questions of our time are inspired by all too real ontological challenges. In this regard, the field of Critical Religion is uniquely positioned to apply the modes of critique and cultural analysis, which are the legacy of postmodern discourse, to the task of elaborating alternative ways of inhabiting a world where existence costs.