On Thinking Clearly about Secularism

8 Sep

In the latest Chronicle of Higher Education, Jacques Berlinerblau, Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, seeks to sort out secularism from muddled academic and popular accounts. In the process, he takes on Charles Taylor and James K.A. Smith. Here’s a sample of his discussion:

Because many of the things that are confounding about secularism can be traced to its premodern heritage. In medieval Latin Christendom, there existed two theoretically symbiotic—but often mutually antagonistic—sources of legitimate power. One was the ecclesiastical authority, which was deemed godly. The other was the secular ruling authority, and it was deemed godly as well. This is why an early-modern figure such as Martin Luther could describe the secular powers as having “a Christian and salutary use.”

It is misleading to treat the secular as if it sprouted, fully formed, in the Enlightenment. It is misleading to rail against “binaries,” if only because the individuals we study sometimes thought in binary terms. For centuries political philosophers understood the civil and ecclesiastical authorities to be antagonistically opposed and constituted by the same divine sanction. Their thinking was simultaneously binary and nonbinary.

For his entire essay, see here: The Crisis in Secular Studies – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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