Rethinking Secularism (with Raimon Panikkar)

by Fred Dallmayr

From The Review of Politics 61.4 (Fall, 1999), published 
by the University of Notre Dame.
© 1999. Reprinted with permission.

…[It] seems appropriate and timely to reexamine the meaning of secularism and secularization and their relation to religious faith. As one should note at the outset, this examination cannot simply amount to an arid conceptual analysis. Terms like secularism and secularization are emblems of intense historical conflicts and transformations, struggles aiming in large measure at the liberation of social life from clerical tutelage and the forced imposition of dogmas. These are matters of historical record; the cultural identities of many Western—and also non-Western—societies are deeply, perhaps indelibly marked by these conflicts. The question which remains open is whether these struggles were basically antireligious in their effects, or whether they harbored perhaps an emancipatory potential for religion itself, namely, by enabling the latter to perform more properly its task: that of cultivating faith without embroilment in public power. In the following an effort will be made to explore dimensions of this question against the backdrop of the pervive secular or secularizing propensities of modernity—propensities which are steadily globalized in our time….

Secularism and secularization are not merely marginal or incidental features of modern social life; in many ways, they are central or constitutive categories defining the character of modern society as such. This fact has always been emphasized (at least until recently) by the leading practitioners of social analysis: the social scientists. All the great founding pioneers of the discipline of sociology, from Comte to Weber, insisted with varying accents on one crucial feature of social dynamics: the steady historical evolution from a religion-centered life-form to one centered on secular, especially scientific, knowledge and human self-regulation. This historical scheme was epitomized (though perhaps not inaugurated) by Auguste Comte's well-known evolutionary sequence leading from religious myth via metaphysical speculation to "positive" science—a formula curiously (and tellingly) twisted by his elevation of science to a new religion. The scheme was continued, in modified form, by subsequent social analysts like Marx and Spencer and reached a point of crisp succinctness in Durkheim's famous distinction between "mechanical" and "organic" solidarity (the first term referring to a ritually or mythically imposed, the second to a self-generated social structure). In many ways, Max Weber added further historical depth to these accounts by linking secularization with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of capitalism, developments ultimately leading to "disenchantment" in the "iron cage" of modernity. In their combination, these intellectual precedents lend ample support to Gerhard Lenski's observation, as stated in The Religious Factor, that from its inception sociology was committed to the view that religion in the modern world is merely a survival from man's primitive past, and doomed to disappear in an era of science and general enlightenment. From the positivist standpoint, religion is, basically, institutionalized ignorance and superstition.

Building on the premises of the founding pioneers, social scientists in our century have—on the whole—sought to solidify or systematize their predecessors' views. In the hands of "mainstream" practitioners, the arguments of the founders—often couched with tentativeness and surrounded by many provisos—have tended to congeal into a solid doctrine or creed: the so-called secularization thesis. As articulated especially by "functionalist" social scientists (stressing functional utility), the thesis involves the evolutionary progress of society from a holistic traditional life-form permeated by religion toward a steadily increased differentiation of social functions leading to the marginalization and even obsolescence of religion. By all accounts, the most prominent "functionalist" theorist was Talcott Parsons whose influence radiated far beyond his home discipline (sociology) and whose basic tenets were summarized by C. Wright Mills in these terms:

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, perhaps, in the private realm.

….[S]ecularization no longer enjoys the status of a firm or unassailable doctrine—although the import of the various counter-moves remains ambivalent and beset with numerous quandaries. For one thing, in the portrayal of some authors, secularization is simply erased in favor of a restoration of religion to its earlier supremacy and triumphal authority—an assessment which ignores the liberating effects of secular modernity and its contributions to human and social maturation. On the other hand, while duly paying heed to modernity, sociological adepts of "transformation" often reinscribe religion into a set of functional coordinates governed by postindustrial "systemic" needs—thereby acknowledging the continued prevalence of functionalist (Parsonian) premises.

At this point, without proceeding any further, it may be helpful to attend to some terminological clarifications—which in turn may yield some theoretical purchase. Obviously, a key term here is secular or secularity which—as many authors have noted—derives from the Latin "saeculum" meaning century or world-age (aion) or, still more broadly, temporality. Seen from this angle, attention to the "secular" implies a concern with the temporal dimension of human and social life, with the character of human experience in a given age, including experience of the sacred or divine. Some insightful comments on this score have been provided by the Turkish philosopher loanna Kuçuradi. In an essay on "Secularization and Human Rights," Kuçuradi mentions the derivation of "secular" from the Latin terms saeculum and saecularis designating a century or world-age. If this is so, she observes, then the term secularization would seem to express not necessarily a denial of religion but rather a kind of temporal change, an adjudment of religious faith to the experiences and "exigencies of an age"; what happens in secularization would then be a sort of temporalization—which in the modern age goes by the name of "modernization." Kuçuradi is at pains to differentiate secular and secularity from the French terms laïc and laïcité which received their historical edge or contours in the French Revolution. As she writes, laïcité (laïcism) is in essence "only a negative concept"; it expresses "what should not determine the structure and functioning of an institution," especially the institution of the modern state. By contrast, secularization has a more positive connotation and denotes what should legitimately permeate or influence the functioning of modern government: "these are the ideas shaped by the philosophical thought of 'the age'," that is, by the reflective seasoning of successive generations…. Kuçuradi offers a characterization of the ‘secular’ state, the state of our age at the turn of the millennium”: “secular is  the state whose law, in the broadest sense, is deduced from, and which is administered in accordance with, human rights”…

Another clarification may be in order at this point. Not every secularization is equally open to the full range of the experiences and agonies of an age. Some types of secularization may be flexible and tolerantly open to a broad spectrum of religious beliefs, while others may be more rigid and doctrinaire, thus shading over into " laïcism." Hence, some form of differentiation seems desirable which remains attentive to the great diversity of historical and cultural examples. In an essay on "Secularization and Cultural Diversity," the Canadian philosopher john Mayer has offered a suggestive distinction. In Mayer's view, it seems plausible to distinguish between secularism and secularization, by giving the first term a more pejorative, doctrinaire connotation and the latter a more tolerant meaning. As he writes, secularization implies a "turning toward this world" or toward this age, a turning which serves as an antidote to an extreme other-worldliness where the "supernatural" was given "too much priority" For Mayer, such a turning is legitimate or warranted whenever the stress on otherworldliness has led to "world-negation and world-indifference" to such an extent that ordinary "secular" life has been "undervalued and trivialized." By contrast, "secularism" pursues a more militant agenda by "denying the reality of any transcendence whatever." It may indeed be the case, he adds, "that if secularization succeeds too well, secularism will result"; but this need not be the case. Rather, "valuing the here-and-now need not negate the need to recognize and also value that 'otherness' which can be called the transcendent or supernatural." For present purposes, it may suffice to accept Mayer's plea for differentiation, but without adopting his terminological usage—which seems needlessly forced. While there is ample reason to distinguish between militant and tolerant agendas, it seems preferable to honor the customary usage of secularism/secularization and to place the distinction inside the semantic scope of both terms.

*           *           *           *

Deliberately non-exhaustive and nonsystematic, the preceding discussion was merely intended to provide some broad benchmarks or guideposts for orientation. Needless to say, secularism and secularization have been the concern not only of social scientists and social theorists but also—and importantly—of philosophers of religion and practitioners of religious studies. Among the latter, one of the most prominent figures in our time is Raimon Panikkar, for many years professor of religious studies at Santa Barbara. In many respects, Panikkar is the epitome of a multidimensional thinker, befitting the needs of a multicultural age. Of mixed (Spanish-Indian) ancestry, he has studied at various universities in Spain, Germany, Italy, and India, and acquired doctorates both in chemistry and in philosophy and theology Perhaps his most notable intellectual contributions have been in the field of inter-religious and cross-cultural studies where he has persistently criticized both a bland universalism neglectful of differences and a narrow (ethnic or religious) particularism hostile to reciprocal learning. A recurrent theme in Panikkar's writings has been the exploration of discordant concord, that is, the reconciliation of starkly opposed tendencies or perspectives—an exploration aiming not at a homogenized unity but at a correlation of diverse elements (acknowledged in their diversity). An example of this endeavor is his treatment of secularism and secularization, a topic to which he has repeatedly been attentive over the years. As he writes boldly and provocatively in one of his early books titled Worship and Secular Man: "To put forward my thesis straightaway: only worship can prevent secularization from becoming inhuman, and only secularization can save worship from being meaningless."

With this thesis, Panikkar puts himself sharply at odds both with a purely other-worldly religiosity and with a secular "worldliness" destructive of religious faith. In the encounter of worship and the world, he notes, a mutual "total risk" emerges: namely, that worship may wish to "eliminate or anathematize secularization, as being the main evil confronting man," while secularism may try to "get rid of worship as being a remnant of an age dead and gone." To make headway in this confrontation, Panikkar first of all elucidates some of the key terms employed. As he states, worship in this context means a "human action symbolizing a belief" or, more precisely, a "symbolical act arising from a particular belief" (where "symbolic" carries transcendental or ontological significance). On the other hand, secularism can be traced to the Latin saeculum denoting a particular world-age (in the sense of aion or kairos). To this extent, the term secular—as previously noted—designates the "temporal world" or the "temporal aspect of reality," and its status or worth varies with the evaluative assessment of temporality If time and temporality are viewed negatively, then saeculum will mean the "merely" secular and transient world as distinct from the sacred and eternal world; in that case, secularization will be seen as the process of "invading the realm of the sacred, the mystical, the religious." By contrast, if temporality is positively valued, then saeculum will stand as a symbol for "regaining or conquering the realm of the real, monopolized previously by the sacred and the religious"; accordingly, secularization will denote the "liberation of mankind from the grip of obscurantism," with "secular man" emerging as the "full human being" shouldering genuine responsibility in and for the world. Phrased differently, secularization will mean the "penetration of [ultimate] reality into the world, the process of making the world real" or else sacred or divine. As Panikkar writes, with characteristic verve:

Now, what is emerging in our days, and what may be a "hapax phenomenon," a unique occurrence in the history of mankind, is paradoxically—not secularism, but the sacred quality of secularism. In other words, what seems to be unique in the human constellation of the present kairos is the disruption of the equation sacred = non temporal with the positive value so far attached to it. The temporal is seen today as positive and, in a way, sacred.

The revaluation of temporality, in Panikkar's view, is linked with a reinterpretation of human existence: a shift from the traditional conception of the "animal with reason" (animal rationale) to that of a symbolic or symbolizing being (homo symbolicus) designating a distinctive mode of being-in-the-world open to, or standing out into, the meaning of reality (or Being). In a phrase deliberately patterned on Heidegger's key notion of ontological difference, Panikkar speaks of a "symbolic difference" indicating the differential entwinement between symbol and (ontological) reality—an entwinement which allows him to say that reality "discloses itself only as a symbol" with the result that "what reality is, is its symbol." With regard to human experience, symbolic difference entails that human "secular" worldliness is genuine only in an "ek-static" mode which reaches out to "the other pole, the other shore." This aspect inevitably puts pressure on secularization, revealing it as a "constitutively ambivalent" process, a process implying a change—for good or ill—in fundamental human and religious symbols: on the one hand, it can erode or destroy traditional forms of worship while, on the other, it can purify and renew them. The fruitful or promising dimension of secularization emerges only against the background of an "integral anthropology" which sees human personhood as ultimately symbolical or liturgical. The basic aim of his book, Panikkar observes, is to affirm:

the liturgical nature of man, thus considering worship to be an essential human dimension, while, at the same time, recognizing secularization to be a major phenomenon of our age, a phenomenon which, from now on, is assuredly destined to assist the growth of man's consciousness. Today, anyone who is not exposed to secularization cannot hope to realize his humanity to the full, at least not in terms o the twentieth century. On the other hand, man without worship cannot even subsist.

…What is coming into view in our age—partly as a result of secularization—is the perspective of a "theandric" or else "cosmotheandric" ontonomy which stresses the integral connection between the divine, the human, and nature (or the cosmos). What this outlook opposes above all are traditional metaphysical dualisms or dichotomies: "The field of the sacred is no longer defined in opposition to that of the secular, nor is a development of worship made at the cost of work, politics or any other human activity." Human beings in this view are considered neither as sovereign agents nor as passive victims of authority but rather as participants in the ongoing disclosure or epiphany, of "being," in the effort of a consecratio mundi pervading the deepest strands of reality. Whereas heteronomy typically views secularization as a "blasphemous" undertaking soiling the garment of hierarchical authority, and whereas autonomy greets secularization as the "grand achievement" of modernity and the "greatest victory for the liberation of man," ontonomy construes the same process in a different light: namely, as the tapping of the  hidden potential or promise of the world. In doing so, Panikkar comments, ontonomy seeks to "enlighten our vision" so as to make us realize "that the worship that matters is the worship of the secular world"—interpreting this genitive all the while as a subjective genitive: "it is the worship of (possessed by, coming from, corresponding and fitting to) this secular world."

About a decade after Worship and Secular Man Panikkar returned to the topic of secularization and the meaning of "secularity," focusing now more specifically on the relation between religion and politics. In the new text‑titled "Religion or Politics: The Western Dilemma"—the earlier notion of "symbolic difference" was modified or amplified by a further difference or differential entwinement equally opposed to both fusion and separation. According to Panikkar, the history of Western civilization has been dominated by two contrasting models: either, religion and politics have been fused or identified, leading to forms of theocracy or caesaropapism, or else they have been separated and pitted against each other "as if religion and politics were mutually incompatible and antagonistic forces." The first model gives rise to such dangers as religious opportunism, fundamentalism, and even variants of totalitarianism; in the second model, favored by agnostics and "all types of liberalisms," separation readily leads to degeneracy in politics by reducing it to a "mere application of techniques." Adopting again a secularization perspective (focusing on our saeculum), Panikkar sees our age as capable of moving beyond the "Western dilemma" of monism/dualism. As he notes, various developments in our time warrant the conclusion that "we are approaching the close of the modern Western dichotomy between religion and politics, and we are coming nearer to a nondualistic relation between the two." This rapprochement is liable to be beneficial to both sides by rescuing each from an endemic mode of pointlessness or aporia: "Religion without politics becomes uninteresting, just as politics without religion turns irrelevant."

As in his earlier text, Panikkar attends again to a clarification of terms. In his view-distantly echoing Aristotle—"politics" denotes the "sum total of principles, symbols, means, and actions" whereby humans endeavor to attain "the common good of the polis"; the term religion, on the other hand, refers to the "sum total of principles, symbols, means, and actions" whereby humans expect to reach "the summum bonum of life." Differently phrased, politics is concerned with the "realization of a human order," while religion aims at "the realization of the ultimate order"—with the two concerns highlighting the tensional polarity (though not segregation) between politics and religion. In the history of Western culture, the latter polarity has often been captured in institutional terms, for example, by opposing to each other papacy and empire, church and state; on a different level, the opposition has been between professional clergy and laity, or between private faith and public neutrality (vis-à-vis all faiths). Panikkar's aim is to challenge these and related dichotomies… All too often, he notes, it is taken for granted that religion is "only concerned with the divine, the supernatural, the eternal, the sacred," while politics is consigned to "the earthly, the natural, the profane." The task today is to move beyond these dualisms without lapsing into monistic coincidence:

God and the world are not two realities, nor are they one and the same.  Moreover, to return to our subject, politics and religion are not tow independent activities, nor are they one indiscriminate thing.  There is no politics separate from religion.  There is no religious factor that is not at the same time a political factor…The divine tabernacle is to be found among men; the earthly city is a divine happening.

To illustrate the history of religion-politics relations in the West, Panikkar offers the image of a somewhat tumultuous marriage.  While at the outset the partners promised each other "eternal fidelity," soon mutual disenchantment set in, with accusations and recriminations being levied on both sides. Eventually, accusations gave way to a legal divorce, followed finally by attempts to "declare the marriage null and void": in the view of both fundamentalists and agnostics, politics and religion should never have been married and there must have been a "misunderstanding" on both sides. In Panikkar's account, this story has played itself out over the past centuries. However, the situation we face in our time, in our saeculum, is rather a question of "legitimizing or recognizing the son [or daughter] born of this union": an offspring in which the respective natures of the parents are correlated in such a way as "to offer us today a new intuition about both politics and religion." This offspring, he adds, is not yet baptized and thus has no name; but, heeding the "signs of our times," we can already describe his/her physiognomy. For today, people speak of a "politics of engagement" and a "religion of incarnation"; in doing so, people are discovering "the sacred character of secular engagement and the political aspect of religious life." In the confines of "Christian" societies, one witnesses the growth of a faith that is "less and less ecclesiastical" and of civil and political activities that are "less and less subject to party disciplines" or ideologies. Using Augustinian vocabulary, one might say that the heavenly or celestial city is not "a second city for the elect" but rather represents, so to speak, "the channels of communication and the joy of earthly paradise constantly lost and refound." By the same token, "love of God" cannot subsist without "love of neighbor" and vice versa. With regard to the goal of salvation (or moksha) this means that "one does not enter heaven alone" but that somehow "the earth enters [or must enter] with us"; for, "those who are deaf to the cries of men are blind to the presence of God."

By referring to a concrete "politics of engagement" and its religious significance, Panikkar ultimately undercuts the institutional division of church and state, shifting attention instead to the ordinary life-world where religious and "wordly" motifs are inevitably linked. For the proverbial "man in the street," he notes, the institutional division is remote and opaque. Seen from this vantage, humans do not have "two natures, two countries, two vocations"; rather, religion is impregnated with politics and politics with religion. Using language distinctly resonating with contemporary "political theology" or "theology of liberation," Panikkar asserts that a "religion for our times" must be political in the sense that it cannot keep itself aloof of "problems of injustice, hunger, war, exploitation, the power of money, armaments, ecological questions, demographic problems." By the same token, a politics that is really concerned with the well-being of the polis and desires to be more than "a technocracy at the service of an ideology" cannot ignore the deeper religious and (perhaps) metaphysical roots of the problems beleaguering our age. For Panikkar, none of the preceding means that politics and religion can simply be fused or identified, for there always remains an excess or left-over. For believers in the "transcendent" life's aspirations can never be reduced to private whim or political manipulation; and even for non-believers life is likely to retain an "imponderable factor" or even a "mystery" Hence, politics is always "more— or other—than just 'politics'," just as religion is always "less—or other—than 'religion'." Ultimately, for Panikkar, the relation between the two domains is "non-dualistic" or "advaitic" (in the sense of Indian Advaita Vedanta):

It is an intrinsic and thus nonmanipulable relationship that distinguishes but does not separate, allows for diversity but not for rupture, does not confuse roles, but equally does not raise roles to ontological status.

*           *           *           *

 Readers of Panikkar's texts—at least readers not mired in conformism—are likely to experience a sense of invigorating zest. Lucidly and engagingly composed, his writings have the ability of unclogging intellectual arteries blocked by dogmatisms of all kinds, and thus of opening up fresh new vistas. One zestful insight is the conception of an "integral anthropology" which, by stressing the self-transcending or ekstatic character of human existence, is capable of counteracting fashionable behavioral or socio‑biological forms of reductionism.…Perhaps the most innovative contribution of Panikkar's work, however, resides in his reinterpretation of secularity, where secular temporality emerges as the gateway to a possible deepening and enrichment of faith (a faith adequate to our saeculum). In one of his as yet unpublished texts, Panikkar speaks pointedly of the prospect of "sacred secularity," a prospect which would mark our time as the privileged site of a sacred happening or disclosure.

It is precisely on the latter score that some qualms or reservations may surface. After all, our age has not been particularly hospitable to faith or the realm of the sacred; in fact, more than others, our saeculum has been overshadowed by unspeakable horrors (like genocide and ethnic cleansing) and a host of lesser afflictions (like rampant technocracy and consumerist self-indulgence)…

…Shifting attention to our contemporary social and political world, tensional secularity holds important lessons precisely for, our saeculum. Clearly, not every kind of secularism or secularization is equally conducive to the "arrival" of the divine or sacred; by the same token, not every form of religion or religiosity is equally attuned to the experiences of our age, especially to the spreading contagion of democracy averse to heteronomous domination. As John Mayer has noted (in accord with many others), secularism can assume an aggressively intolerant shape in which the saeculum is seen no longer as a shelter of expectancy but rather as a prison-house tightly controlled by ideological or technocratic guards, sometimes invoking religious symbolisms. In turn, religiosity may wish to retreat from the "world" in a radical gesture of fuga mundi, or else adopt a more militant, "fundamentalist" stance by enlisting political power in the pursuit of a renewed clerico-religious triumphalism. In the face of these perilous possibilities—not infrequently translated into realpolitik—[it] seems urgent to maintain a sober vigilance by preserving the tensional character of "sacred secularity"—that is, the cleavage or cleft operating in that phrase despite the close entwinement of its terms. In this respect, Raimon Panikkar seems to be on the mark when he speaks of a differential relation between politics and religion, insisting that politics properly understood is always more and other than realpolitik, and religion more and other than established doctrine. The same aspect of differential connectedness, or "symbolic difference," is also reflected in his comments that religion and politics are not "two independent and separate activities," but that they are "certainly not identical either." For both believers and nonbelievers, there remains an imponderable factor, always "something more.”

This "something more" is inevitably elusive—without on this count being irrational or whimsical. In Heidegger's terms, it has the character of a calling or beckoning, leading to a stance of waiting or expectancy Not long ago, Panikkar has reflected on this beckoning, in a series of essays dealing with "The Future of Religion." In these texts, Panikkar points to a religious crisis inhabiting our saeculum, namely, a growing distance between official religion and the actual religiosity of peoples. Within the orbit of Christianity, for example—he writes—it takes considerable imagination to perceive in the practices and beliefs of most denominations "an authentic expression of the spirit of the founder as stated in the Sermon on the Mount." But (lie crisis is more widespread; almost everywhere the "chasm between 'religiousness' and 'religion"' is deepening in the mind and heart of many people. To some extent, religiousness has migrated into the "world," that is, moved "from the temple to the street, from sacred rite to secular practice, from institutional obedience to the initiative of conscience." Thus, many people today perceive the pressing religious problems to be "hunger, injustice, the exploitation of man and the earth, intolerance, totalitarian movements, war, the denial of human rights, colonialism and neocolonialism." In these respects, most official religions lag far behind popular religiosity. For Panikkar, however, there is another important dimension of this lag: a dimension having to do with the emergence of the global village and the need for inter-religious cross-fertilization. As he writes, in our present situation we need "a mutual fecundation among the different human traditions of the world—including the secular and modern traditions," without lapsing into a bland syncretism. At this point, the "essentially liberating character" of the religion of the future comes into view. For, just as the global future of humankind tends toward conciliation (not uniformity), so contemporary religiosity can and should contribute to the "conciliation between persons and peoples":

It is not a matter of speaking the same language nor of practicing the same religion, but of remaining with an awake consciousness, aware that we are intoning different notes in the same symphony, and that we are walking on different paths toward the same peak. This then is faith (religio): the experience of the symphony, of catching a glimpse of the summit, while being attentive to the path we follow, and trying not to stumble on the way.



Fred Dallmayr is Packey J. Dee Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

© 1999 University of Notre Dame.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author. 
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