Europe was long thought to have undergone a process of “secularization” in the modern era, beginning roughly with the sixteenth century and becoming largely unstoppable by the nineteenth. According to this narrative, “God” was supposed to have slowly disappeared from the political, social, and cultural arenas; the supernatural, the divine, and the sacred were supposed to have receded from daily life; and the European world was supposed to have found itself “disenchanted.” More recently, however, historians and critical theorists have begun to reassess this story, finding instead mutually-evolving processes of disenchantment and re-enchantment, as new formations of the divine and the sacred appeared on the intellectual and emotive landscape. Some theorists now talk about “varieties of secularism” at play in the modern world, while others have resuscitated a language of “political theology” to discuss the ever-complicated relationship between the state, sovereignty, power, and the sacred or divine.
This course will introduce students to key themes and methodologies of intellectual history and social theory by exploring the dueling approaches to secularization and sacralization in modern European thought. In the first two weeks, we will read recent theoretical works on the sacred and the secular (essays from Peter Berger, Simon Critchley, Charles Taylor, and others). With theoretical tools in hand, we will turn to the period between 1800 and 1945 to read classic works in philosophy and social theory that thematize the sacred and the secular. Drawing on founding works in social and human sciences (from sociology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and beyond), we will investigate related sub-themes of violence, sacrifice, ritual, redemption, the sublime, and transcendence. We will also discuss select artworks from the Romantic period through Surrealism as a means to enhance our discussion of these themes.
Central to our concerns will be the sacred and secular formations of modern ethics. We will observe on the one hand how modern thinkers have sought to establish ethical systems on purely immanent and secular grounds, even as they intentionally or unintentionally retained notions of the divine and the sacred (e.g., Immanuel Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone). On the other hand, we will grapple with explicitly religious works that nonetheless establish ethics on what might seem like secular-humanist foundations (e.g., Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). We will read works that seek to explicate the structure of religions and their guidelines for comportment according to social categories of the sacred and profane or the taboo (Émile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religion; Roger Caillois’s Man and the Sacred; Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo); and we will read works that seek to rediscover and/or re-insert the sacred into the modern and profane world (e.g., George Bataille’s Theory of Religion; Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” and “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption).
The course lends itself naturally to the requirements of the Flag in Ethics and Global Leadership. Our readings themselves concentrate on the question of the secular and sacred foundations of ethical systems and decisions. As a final project, worth 35% of the grade, students will be asked to identify and analyze a sacred, secular, or taboo function that governs moral presuppositions. They may find such a function represented in a film, a novel, an artwork, a legal decision, a U.N. declaration, etc. Their task will not be to assess whether or not the practice is “right” or “good” or “ethical,” but rather to analyze the practice in terms of its (usually unstated) sacred, secular, taboo, or ritual context. They will be asked to ground their analysis in one or more of our core readings.
Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (excerpt)
G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History (excerpt from the introduction)
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality (Books I and II) (but may substitute The Gay
Science, Book IV)
Émile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religion (selections)
Roger Caillois, Man and the Sacred (selections)
George Bataille, Theory of Religion (selections)
Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (selections)
—, “The Uncanny”
Franz Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption (selections)
Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless (selections)
Peter Berger, Desecularization of the World (introduction)
Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornell West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere
Short Essay 1 20%
Short Essay 2 20%
Final Essay 35%
Class Participation 15%