Between the Secular and the Sacred

Fall 2005

The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory sponsors a criticism seminar each semester for interested faculty and graduate students. This non-credit seminar features discussion of theoretical readings introduced by a changing cast of guest experts.

All Monday sessions will take place on Mondays, 8-10 pm at the IPRH (805 W. Pennsylvania).  Preliminary schedule of dates and topics is below.  All the readings for the seminar will be posted on Library Electronic Reserves.  Please stay tuned for more information and detailed description.

In the wake of the 2004 US Presidential Elections, pundits claimed that “moral values” had played a defining role in the Republicans’ victory. While closer scrutiny soon revealed the unreliability of the empirical basis for such claims, there is no doubt that discourses of morality and religion hold a significant place in contemporary political culture. From debates over the definition of “life” (Terry Schiavo, abortion, stem-cell research) to the apparent rise of fundamentalisms in the US and throughout the world, the stakes of religious belief and moral vision seem as high as they have ever been. Yet, secular critical theorists, whether poststructuralist, Marxist, or feminist, have not, until recently, had much to say about the persistent value of religion and the sacred—at least, not in comparison to their importance in culture, politics, and everyday life.

During the 2005 fall semester, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory will hold a monthly faculty-graduate student criticism seminar dedicated to thinking through the question of the secular and the sacred. Although inspired in part by the contemporary concerns mentioned above, the seminar will not be focused solely on the present or on the United States. Our interdisciplinary, theoretical investigation of secularism and religion will follow a historicized, cross-cultural, multi-denominational itinerary and will be open to the research interests of participants. Basing our discussion on readings by philosophers, anthropologists, political theorists, historians, religious studies scholars, literary critics, and others, we will ask how the relationship between the secular and the sacred has been conceptualized in different traditions of thought, institutionalized in different societies, and “lived” in different cultural/historical contexts. We will ponder the absence of religion as a category from much work in cultural studies and critical theory and we will submit dominant notions of secularization and modernization to careful scrutiny. Instead of understanding religion merely as a form of false consciousness—as the “opium of the masses”—as much left theory has done and continues to do, we will take religion, spirituality, and the sacred seriously as social forms that demand understanding and potentially contain alternative forms of rationality.

During the course of the fall semester, the Unit for Criticism will sponsor other events related to this theme. On Saturday, October 8, the Unit for Criticism, in collaboration with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, will sponsor a one-day symposium entitled “Rethinking Secularism in an Age of Belief.” This symposium will feature four leading thinkers of diverse disciplinary formation and area specialization: Dwight McBride (African American Studies, Northwestern), Saba Mahmood (Anthropology, UC Berkeley), Joan Scott (Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Studies), and Michael Warner (English, Rutgers University). In the time leading up to the symposium, we will use the seminar to read and discuss the relevant work by these thinkers.

All meetings will take place on Monday evenings between 8:00-10:00 pm at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities building, 805 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Urbana

September 12: Secularization and Political Theology

  • Max Weber, “Author’s Introduction” “Chapter V: Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism,” from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  • Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (chapters 1, 3, 4)

October 3: Rethinking Secularism: Background Readings for the Conference

  • Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety (selections)
  • Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics”
  • Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the Fold (selections)
  • Dwight McBride, reading TBA

October 31: Poststructuralism, Postcolonial Studies, and Religion

  • Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge” (pp. 1-22)
  • Anouar Majid, Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World (selections)

December 5: For and Against Secularism

  • Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular (selections)
  • John Milbank, “For and Against Hegel” & “For and Against Marx,” from Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason

For further information, to be included on the seminar mailing list, or to suggest topics for future Criticism Seminars please contact the Unit's director, Michael Rothberg