Secularism, Pluralism, and Particularity: What Was The Question?

The following reflection, invited on the theme announced by the three terms with which it begins, originally appeared in The Anabaptist-Mennonite Scholars Network Newsletter, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 2012).  It is reproduced here with the kind permission of John Rempel, then newsletter editor and director of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre.


Secularism, pluralism, and particularity.  The three words seem to fit nicely together in the statement of a theme.  We might naturally presuppose that they “belong together.”  But do they?  Social theorists, sociologists and sometimes theologians too have tended to place them beside each other under the ominous heading of “modernity.”  This was particularly true during the 1960’s and 70’s, when Peter Berger popularized the package from the sociological side, and theologians pondered in various ways how the “death of God” might be a good thing even from a Christian point of view.

They have haunted our discourse since then in subtle and complicated ways, by my reckoning.  When I think now of the question of their “belonging together” —  especially for those of us within an “Anabaptist” intellectual orbit either in the content or in the orientation of our study — it prompts me to identify, in a provisional way, the following three clusters of questions.

First, how will “secularism” be transformed by the recent critiques of “secularization theory”?  The assumption that there is a clear secularizing trend in Western societies, largely taken for granted during the late 19th century and for much of the 20th century, has now been widely rejected among sociologists of religion, and is arguably “on the ropes” elsewhere.  It is increasingly argued that this very assumption is a manifestation of a secularism in academia that is incompatible with scientific and other perspectives striving for objectivity and rigor.  Rodney Stark has been especially notable here, but he is hardly alone.  Even Berger, arguably something like a patron saint of the idea of secularization, has moved increasingly in this general direction in his later work.  If it is not the case that the secularization of modern societies is a given, how will this change the character of perspectives that are less than friendly to religion and/or spirituality?  By extension, how might this transform conversations between faith perspectives (including those of Anabaptists) and supposedly competing perspectives that have often enjoyed an aura of legitimacy rooted at least as much in Whiggish self-confidence as in evidence, argumentation, etc.?  (I take it that the exposure of such relatively naïve Whiggishness is one of the most significant elements of recent biting criticisms of the so-called “new atheists” by other thinkers, who do not themselves embrace a theistic worldview.)

Second, how will our ineliminable awareness of pluralism — in society, yes, but especially within what we have historically taken to be unified religious communities — move beyond some of its recent and present (for lack of a better term) “epistemological” moorings?  How might our understandings of corporate authority in relation to diversity of belief and practice be allowed to shift or readjust, in light of widespread tendencies toward theorizing about knowledge, rationality, truth, etc., that oppose themselves (often forcefully) to modern emphases upon closure, finality, givenness, immediate presence, etc.?  If, as younger writers inspired by John Howard Yoder have been emphasizing, Anabaptist-Mennonite nonviolence should be an epistemic as well as a more narrowly “practical” matter, how might this transform our understanding of what it even means to hold beliefs, or to either expect or promote consensus at any level?

Third, how will Anabaptists go about retaining a sense of particularity, in a postmodern context where “particularity” often seems to amount to accentuating the supposed racial, ethnic, tribal, linguistic, social, and cultural boundaries that divide and separate as much as or more than they unify?  Can the embrace of particularity be disentangled from the violence of empire, exclusion, marginalization, and the demonization of difference?  Does acceptance of the epistemological trends alluded to above entail embracing particularity, or does it (as is suspected by some) turn in viciously upon itself, undermining the possibility of embracing anything at all?

That I make no gesture in the direction of “answering” the questions that I raise in this context is not simply a function of my constraints in time or word-count.  It is my conviction that scholars operating in Anabaptist-Mennonite regions of thought and action have not yet made much headway toward clearly and helpfully formulating the questions that lurk here.  One might easily read the prior three paragraphs, and begin formulating all sorts of potential responses.  But I wonder if we sometimes lose track of how difficult it is to formulate the questions themselves in ways that begin genuinely to solicit possible answers, as opposed to more superficial invitations to orgies of opining.

Yoder is often remembered by students for saying “That’s not the right question!”  Look at my three “clusters” of questions again.  Rather than immediately reaching for your favored possible answers, ask yourself:  Are these the right questions?

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