The Western University and the Secular Compromise: Some Implications for Literature

This afternoon one of my students met with me about his next paper, which he wants to write refuting The Da Vinci Code and defending the divinity of Jesus Christ. I found myself struggling to explain to him why he can’t write such a paper to fulfill a university assignment. I tried to help him think about possible lines of argument he could pursue that would allow him to discuss his beliefs in intellectual and secular terms. It is my pleasant responsibility to help him master the norms of the university, and that means learning to speak, think, and write about religion in terms accessible to public consideration, in the terms of rational argument and empirical analysis. On the one hand, I deeply respect those terms; I’ve chosen with great joy to spend my six-day-a-week life examining the world in them. And learning to think about one’s beliefs in intellectual terms can be a vital and invigorating experience, although there are far too few spaces in the borderlands between the university and the church where believing students can bring the disparate pieces of their lives together; as a believing scholar, I long for more such spaces. But on the other hand, perhaps we secular educators (among whom I must count myself, insofar as I teach a secular subject in a secular context) sometimes rush too quickly over the losses incurred in the secular environment. The most essential expressions of religious belief are generally precluded by secular norms; in an important sense we allow every possible discussion of religion except what it most essentially is.

My fleeting acquaintance with Western intellectual history, as well as with contemporary struggles between secular Western public life and certain visions of Islam, has given me a deep appreciation for the secular compromise. In the wake of the Reformation and the ensuing centuries of blood spilled in the name of religion, it’s not hard at all difficult to understand the eighteenth-century impulse toward a secular ethics and political life. And the secular compromise is incredibly powerful; it opens a space of public discussion and negotiation and consensus in the face of our most constitutive differences. But much as I strongly favor it, it comes at the price of a deeply privatized religious life, and it’s worth pausing over that price.

The irony of negotiating the secular university is, of course, that both in its origins and in the very intellectual forms that have come to be thought of as thoroughly secular, the Western university is a deeply religious institution. My next two sisters, Lynnette and Kiskilili, are both scholars of religion, and so they experience the pleasures and frustrations of life in academic contexts in which religion is, by definition, taken seriously. Lynnette has lived and worked and studied with Catholic priests and Episcopalian divinity students, and she labors in an environment saturated with the seriousness of religious belief. Similarly, because of her field of study, many of Kiskilili’s professors have been various kinds of Jews and Christians. A passion for theology or for the Hebrew Bible is almost by definition often grounded in lifetime of religious experience. Although I don’t envy my sisters their sometimes difficult negotiations among personal devotion, religious community, and intellectual analysis, what I do envy them is the basic assumption that religious conviction–as opposed to religion as a sociological or historical phenomenon, or religion as a contextual component of literary texts or works of art–is an intellectually serious matter.

My discussion with my student this afternoon reminded me of another experience I had a couple of years ago, the first day of a literature class, on which the professor began with a lecture on respecting the subaltern and the unknowable Other, and then divided us into pairs and had us introduce each other to the class. When my partner introduced me as from Utah, the professor broke into uncontrollable laughter. Utah, it seemed, was a hilarious place in his mind, as I somehow suspect that Saudi Arabia, for example, or Iran, would not have been; for all his Other-respecting discourse, he could not conceive of Utahns, Mormons, or Christians as Others, only as Other-oppressors. In the same class the professor once mentioned casually that the hardest part of grasping the literature we were reading was understanding the significance of prayer, which, he assumed, had lost all meaning for us in our contemporary secular context. I suppressed the temptation to raise my hand and announce that I, personally, prayed every single day, although it would have been fun to proclaim myself a religious nut. (One of my absolutely favorite parts of my mission was assuming the public role of religious nut, but that’s another story.)

For much of my life as a literature scholar, I’ve read literature so saturated in religious conviction it’s really impossible to understand it apart from religion. I think of the Bible, of course, but also of the ancient Greek tragedians, of devout Roman poets, of the visionary writings of the Middle Ages, of Dante, of Piers Plowman, of Donne’s holy sonnets, of Milton, of Pascal. Even the writers we read as more secular and often value for their secular skepticism or their attraction to secular topics–Petrarch, for instance, or Montaigne, or Shakespeare–often write in a broader religious context or take up religious themes in ways I suspect we miss, neglect, or downplay. On the one hand, at least a minimal level of the secular compromise permits the very study of literature. Some kind of secular consciousness is necessary for me to bracket my own beliefs and seriously consider the religious context in which someone else writes–and the more distant that religious context from my own, the more important that secular consciousness becomes. On the other hand, just as we never seem to pause over the religious losses of the secular compromise more generally, we never seem to pause over the religious losses of considering religious literature secularly. The loss itself is inevitable, and largely historical; I simply can’t read Dante as a high medieval Catholic. But at what price to my understanding of Dante?

I’ve sometimes wondered if literary theory hasn’t become the intellectual graveyard of the West, where old theories go to die after they’ve been largely cast off by the disciplines in which they originate (psychoanalysis and Marxism spring immediately to mind). Similarly I sometimes wonder if literature is where discounted religious texts go to die, or, to put it differently, if literature is itself an aestheticizing mode of reading what we can no longer believe. Don’t get me wrong: I love the aesthetizing mode almost to distraction. But I also want to consider what we lose by attending to it at the expense of the devotional mode. In studying poetry, I’ve heard the same story over and over: an ancient text’s forward-thinking poetic and skeptical elements (often improperly aligned, and often improperly understood in terms of the Romantic model of poetic genius) exist in unreconcilable tension with its devotional ones, and our current mode of reading almost always slights the devotional as the contemporary oppressive cultural imposition which the essentially Romantic poet struggles to throw off. What this story precludes is the possibility of understanding poetry as a fundamentally devotional expression and as a devotional act.

Poetry and literature have to say something–even if what they say that is they cannot say anything, or that there is nothing to say. Why, when what they say is religious or devotional, do we posit such insuperable contradictions between form and content? Why do we consider religion oppressive to poetic expression in the works of Petrarch or Donne in a way that we would not consider the skepticism of Philip Larkin oppressive to poetic expression–however personally arid and painful?

It’s time for a far more robust theory of devotional literature.

12 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Certainly I’m no literary theorist, but I have always been bothered by the idea that “academic writing” must be purely secular and cannot touch on religious themes, no matter how well-researched and documented. Even religious history is thrown out the window.

    (Of course, in my humanities program at BYU we had liberties. And my research partner in my PhD program is heavily involved in our university’s writing program, where it seems like we’ve given our students some latitude. So maybe not all is lost.)

    I love your story about the professor who cracked up at the Utah reference. Some many of our professors today are conditioned to knee-jerk at any reference to anything that seems overtly religious, and I think their intellectual immaturity is showing.

  2. One example I saw recently: A linguistics instructor from my graduate university (public state university) made a comment at a conference that we need to revamp our freshman English program, not to offer our students more exposure to other traditions, but to eliminate exposure to anything religious and to “recondition” the mindset of our freshman to think like atheists. So rather than teaching open-mindedness and tolerance and critical thinking and broadening the experience of our freshmen, she advocates stamping out an entire class of thinking that she disagrees with. The department chair responded that if it were up to him, he’d replace all Christian literature with gay literature and have the students read that so as to gain an appreciation.

    At what point has the fear of devotion gone too far?

  3. Uh, so what is the “Secular Compromise” and who exactly is doing the compromising? The way you’ve laid things out, Eve, it appears to be a secular displacement of anything religious — a complete victory — and, from the religious side, a capitulation or defeat, not a compromise.

  4. Dave, good question. I´m using the term here quite generally and simply to refer to the existence of public secular life as a kind of compromise we all make, and to refer to the ways we all accept restraints on the expression and practice of our religious beliefs in certain public spheres (and, for that matter, the way those very restraints create those public spheres as secular). For example, I don´t open my class with a Mormon prayer, or any other kind of prayer, and I don´t preach my particular religious beliefs to my students. In return (in a sense), I expect my professors to refrain from praying, preaching, or otherwise engaging me in their religious or political practices in the classroom.

    As to the precise nature and delineation of those restrains (for example, whether prayer should occur in public schools and government fora, and if so, what kinds of prayers should be offered, and the kinds of religious rhetoric that are appropriate in public life) well, that´s the proverbial $64,000 question. My general sense is that the secular compromise has too often been used to exclude religious conviction even as other ideologies are permitted and advanced, as in the examples queuno gives above. Because it´s my particular field of study, I´m especially interested in the costs of certain forms of secularism to our understanding of literature.

    What exactly we understand the public secular sphere to consist of, what restrains we accept on religious expression in that sphere, and what expressions of religious belief and practice are appropriate and in what contexts are all excellent questions I´d love to see discussed, but I´m afraid (especially knowing as little as I do about political science) that I don´t have much to contribute to that discussion at the moment. But if you or anyone else would like to tackle such questions here, please do! I´ll read with great interest.

  5. Eve, I loved reading this post. I don’t get enough ideas like this day to day! For that, thank you.

    During the six years I’ve been teaching composition part-time at a private religious university, I’ve often struggled with students who have a hard time talking about religion, cultural assumptions, or political belief in objective terms that others can understand. Not that their convictions don’t have there place–can I say it’s an issue of genre? It’s helping them think in different ways that’s just as important as convicing others of their private convictions. Anyway, I think it’s good you helped this student in that way.

    Speaking of religious origins, I learned in grad school that tenure was once instituted at Oxford and Cambridge to protect professors who no longer conformed to the standards of religious belief. Where I teach that is no longer the case–lack of religious conviction, once confessed, will assuredly result in one losing one’s tenured faculty position. Can we blame the secularization of Western universities for that shift?

    Literary theory as a graveyard? I’ve never thought about it that way, but you may be on to something. To me, litarature is where these theories really come to life. But then I find comfort in my favorite theories. I don’t think postmodern ethics has died yet–as you pointed out, we have much to learn about respecting the Other.

    I’ll have to think about this more. Just a thought (not an intended threadjack)–what about the secularization of psychology? Since when is the science of the soul more about the mind than the spirit? I think that similarly, literature has to be about the soul, the mind, life, and everything we experience. That today’s readers are losing a sense of spiritual context in which to interpret literature is a tragedy–they won’t get the whole picture.

  6. My department is currently having a debate on whether or not to teach the Gospel of Mark in our 10th grade English classes. As I taught the Gospel of Mark for the first time in September (well, for the first time in a school, rather than in a Sunday School class), I thought a lot about what it meant to be teaching a religious text in a secular context (i.e. teaching a religious text as a literary one).

    While it was extremely challenging, it was also interesting–I found myself trying to teach secular readings while still treating the text as a religious text (asking the students to examine the text’s rhetorical choices in light of potential religious purposes while simultaneously asking them to reserve judgment on those religious purposes, for example).

    Anyway, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I know I’m not directly addressing your post, since you are thinking about how true religious belief has been divorced from religious/devotional literature. But it was my most recent experience trying to negotiate taking religion seriously in a secular context. And it was tricky.

  7. I recently completed a master’s degree from BYU and am in the process of applying to PhD programs in literature at several universities. These are questions I know I will struggle with, especially since my undergraduate and graduate literature classes were all somewhat religiously framed. At the same time, one of the challenges I saw at BYU was for students to consider other forms of religious devotion, not just their own. I study Spanish literature, and it’s very important to understand the religious context of most works. For example, in talking about mystics like Santa Teresa de Avila, Mormon students tend to take for granted the conflation of spiritual and sexual union because we don’t believe the body to be evil and base. At the same time, many articles I’ve read on Santa Teresa tend to focus on her “madness” , looking for a psychological reason for her visions. I am curious to see how other universities look at the literature I have studied, because I am used to looking at things from a religious context.

  8. I think the real problem is a student who thinks The Da Vinci Code is literature and should be taken seriously enough to write a refutation.

  9. .

    I dunno. Ignoring something that six zillion people read–even if it sucks–is exactly the sort of thing academia should not do. Such phenomena deserve to be studied and understood.

  10. The student wants to write a refutation of the book and defend the divinity of Jesus not examine a phenomenon. I still maintain that The DaVinci Code is not literature and that the project the student envisions is not literary criticism.

  11. Fascinating post. For some reason I’m reminded of my high school English teacher–whom I’m sure my siblings remember as well–who was a strong atheist. When I was in high school, this particular teacher was suing the district in an effort to get rid of prayer at graduation, and was therefore frequently accused of trying to eliminate religion from the schools. But in her class, religion came up constantly, because it was so integral to the material we read. That was really my first experience with trying to sort out just what it meant to discuss religious themes in a secular context. (Looking back, I think that encountering religious themes in that context actually gave me more respect for religious belief than anything I heard in seminary–but that’s a topic of its own.)

    But I can’t say I’ve had too much experience with this kind of thing–except for two years of grad work in history at a state university, I’ve either been at a religious school, or studying religion (or both!) So it’s interesting to hear your thoughts on this. Like you, I’m very much a fan of the secular compromise–and I would think that Mormons, as a religious minority disliked by a good chunk of the population, would be particularly sensitive to this, rather than clamoring for religion to be taught in the schools in a devotional way. But I can also see your point about how this hasn’t come without a price in terms of our ability to engage historical and literary texts. I’m thinking of my own former discipline of history, and the tendency of some scholars to discount the religious aspects of the Reformation and argue that it was “really” (for example) about economic factors, because it seemed inconceivable that anyone could take religious belief that seriously.

  12. It seems to me that the motivation for bracketing religious epistemology in the academic sphere is that it is not regarded as communally accessible or its methods replicable, whereas in the public Mormon sphere it is not excluded specifically because it is regarded as communally accessible and replicable. (At least in theory.)

    I have mixed feelings about bracketing religious experience from discussion, and the possibilites of methodological agnosticism. For the most part I think it does us a service in that it creates a space for people from diverse religious backgrounds to discuss religious texts and practices responsibly–meaning that everyone is accountable to publicly accessible information. But one effect is that it’s difficult, having studied texts academically, to even remember what it means to read devotionally. If “revelatory”/”mystical” experience is central to religion, perhaps it should be permitted in the discussion, and if it’s precluded from discussion, perhaps it becomes less central?


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