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Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory — Carl Raschke


The ongoing riots and demonstrations throughout the Muslim world to protest a onetime obscure and amateurish movie made in Los Angeles have impressed on the Western secular mind that religious fervor, even if its expressions are frightening, is  a growing planetary force to be reckoned with.

What Derrida in 1993, miming Freud approximately two decades ago during the run-up to 9/11, dubbed “the return of religion” is a reality with which secular liberalism has had a hard time reckoning.  The rapid and ironic passage of the Arab Spring, in which secularists and Western democrats rejoiced, into the systematic empowerment of Muslim militants from Cairo to Islamabad is only the more visible signature of this deep-reaching, global trend.

Since the Second World War the question of religion in Western academic circles, if taken seriously at all, has been embedded in the broader concern for democratic tolerance, cultural pluralism, and the maintenance of civic virtue – so far as it was understood in the post-Enlightenment context.  Such a focus has likewise enfranchised within the academic world a new breed of scholars with myriad methodological preferences who seek to enlighten students and the public about the importance of religion as an important “phenomenon” within today’s globalized cosmopolis.  These scholars are for the most part non-confessional, although they obviously have axes to grind, usually against the exceptionalism and triumphalism of committed believers of all stripes.   The unspoken code of such scholarship is that religion should be taken seriously, but not too seriously – that is, up until the point people will go to extremes, whether of proclamation or practice, for their convictions.

At the same time, the exploding spectrum of religious symptoms and significations in what many scholars regard as a post-secular age is mirrored in a growing industry of specialists who can account, even if only among themselves, for what is happening around them.  Such a hypertrophy of specialties and sub-specialties, differentiated according to what both mass and social media in the era of instant global communications are forever singling out as proliferating items in the New Curiosity Shop of religious oddities or outrages, has paradoxically led to a loss of academic interest in what religion actually is overall.  Such a lack of interest in the broader question of the why and wherefore, as opposed to the specific details, of religion has spread – paradoxically – while “the religious” is becoming an irrepressible dynamic reshaping values, politics, and policies among the world’s emergent societies.  The theory of religion has increasingly languished, when all along it has desperately needed to be revitalized.

While religious scholars in concert with the punditocracy that feeds off of them have tended to avoid any grander theory of religion, the most fashionable European philosophers, especially political philosophers, have been busy for the last two decades forging one.  Derrida’s “prophetic”, but jumbled and esoteric, diagnosis of religion was coming back as an “auto-immune” reaction to secularity within secularity was the first harbinger of such a movement. After 9/11 Derrrida elaborated on this theory of autoimmunity by, in effect, explaining the “suicidal” momentum of auto-immunized religiosity that constantly “iterates” itself through the very processes of secularization-communications technology and the pseudo-scientific language of empirical certainty.  Its other key method of iteration is of course its politicization, the path taken by all so-called contemporary “fundamentalisms.”

A “political theology” that accounts for this latter iteration is the task of my almost completed manuscript for a forthcoming book tentatively entitled Force of God:  Behind the Global Crisis of Liberal Democracy.  But in this current, just published work entitled Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory (University of Virginia Press, Oct. 2012)  I lay the groundwork for a general, and purposefully paradigm-busting, exploration of how the religious is iterated in the post-secular epoch.  I  trace carefully, and expand greatly on, the manner in which the religious has been redescribed in a truly radical and revolutionary manner in the writings of  the post-structuralists, or “postmodernist” philosophers, from Bataille through Deleuze, Badiou, and Žižek.

Rather than flogging the dead horse of deconstruction, I show how the grist for a truly revolutionary, future theory of religion can be identified as a central strand of this now familiar family tree for Continental philosophy that its popularizers and routine camp-followers in the English-speaking provinces have either chosen to overlook, or have shrunk from because of the chronic American addiction to idealist forms of fluff.  That is the semiotic vein of Continental thought – what I term the “revolution of the sign”.

This vein flows directly out of Derrida’s assault on Husserl in the 1960s and becomes even more pronounced as we move to present day intellectual favorites such as Badiou and  Žižek.  Such thinkers are routinely misread as closet theologians, but they are in fact profound precursors of an emerging theory of religion that religious theorists have not dared yet to appropriate.  Their sophisticated command of the protocols of analysis concerning signs and sign-functions is fortified even further through their more recent discussions, originally inspired by Deleuze, of what they term the “singularity”, in a word, the pure event.

We live in a world, as in the most recent outbreak of religious violence, that is dominated by singularities and events that can barely be assessed, even after they have happened.  In my book I argue that the religion does not belong to the order of phenomena, but of events.  However, the “eventuality” of the religious is even more confounding than the discourse of signs can possibly imagine.

I use the well-known theory in astrophysics of singularities, or “black holes”, to analogize what exactly is going on with the religious event.  The singularity, or black hole, works as what physicists call an “event-horizon”, an impenetrable space of the strictly virtual, from which the powerful and unexpected often happens.  The “signs of the times” – the distinctive, signifying peculiarities we witness everyday – circulate around this event-horizon.  They are in themselves completely indecipherable, unless we recognize the singularity of the religious as the engine of both the historically unpredictable and the transformative.  Note: I deliberately try to avoid the generic term “religion” because it is a noun-substantive that misses the dynamic and generative force of the religious.

The book is not an easy text for political junkies, or even political theology junkies.  But it is a penetrating prolegomenon to the theory behind any viable future political theology in the twilight of the Western saeculum.

Wait for the next offering.


Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.  He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. His latest book, entitled The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012) , looks at the ways in which major trends in Continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion” in general.  His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008)  and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) –  examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity.  He is co-founder and senior editor of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

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