Christian Poetics and Criticism in a Secularized Academy

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 2 Issue 2
Spring 2019

Christian Poetics and Criticism in a Secularized Academy
By Jack Dudley

In her 2014 article “The Rituals of Our Re-Secularization,” Lori Branch suggests that literary studies has today reached a roadblock, where the implications of some fields of theory seem to point toward faith as a necessary condition of literature and yet critical reason as well as the institutional forces of the research university’s commitment to “the production of knowledge” continue to exert a secularizing structural force (10). Following Branch, I offer that any contemporary Christian poetics and criticism would occur within this space of our “particular secularity,” which I expand below through three overlapping subtypes: (a) hermeneutic secularization, (b) methodological secularization, and (c) institutional secularization. These accounts of the critical conditions in which a Christian poetics occurs, negative as they might be, also point to possible ways forward in what are often already ongoing projects of (a) re-sourcing, (b) unintentional inclusion, (c) paradigm shifts in Christian theology, and (d) a related transformation of theology through poetics itself.

My first subtype, hermeneutic secuarlization, describes how, in the twentieth century, secularizing hermeneutic sources overdetermined the interpretation of literary texts in departments of English and Comparative Literature. Viewed across the late twentieth century, anthologies for theory appear to jettison religious sources and instead codify forms of critique essentially hostile to “religion,” most notably by promoting to positions of prominence Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx and their intellectual descendants. Their unified critique of both transcendence and the transcendental subject shaped a view of reality as uniquely material and purely immanent so that the ground was laid for a critique that, as no less a secularist than Simon During admits, is ill-suited to religion (876), or, as Graham Ward suggests, even “antithetical” to it (1). According to Kenneth Surrin, “The constellation formed by Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud (and their successors) shows both the transcendental subject and the ethico-political subject of action to be mere conceptual functions, lacking any substantial being” (244).

While the schemas of these three and their intellectual descendants shaped hermeneutic secularization, such a project became much more explicit in the “secular criticism” called for by Edward Said in 1983 in The World, the Text, and the Critic. Aamir R. Mufti and Bruce Robbins have argued that Said opposed the secularism in “secular criticism” to nationalism rather than religion per se, but Said’s “position … that texts are worldly, to some degree” (4), and his affirmation of “the connections between texts and the existential actualities of human life, politics, societies, and events” (5) was set against those he thought practiced criticism “to join up with a priestly caste of acolytes and dogmatic metaphysicians” (5). The World, the Text, and the Critic, after all, ends with an injunction against “Religious Criticism,” which Said claimed served “as an agent of closure, shutting off human investigation … in deference to the authority of the more-than-human, the supernatural, the other-wordly” (290). By shifting critical attention toward the immanent wordliness of a text and its conditions and by foreclosing the possibility of transcendence in the name of political transformation, Said’s secular criticism contributed to the normative materialism of a critical field already trending that way from the growing dominance of the hermeneutics of suspicion and its descendants. 

Emerging alongside and from within the hermeneutic of suspicion and secular criticism, Fredric Jameson called in The Political Unconscious (1981) for us to “Always historicize!” a methodology that posited a materialist causality where cultural shifts could best be read at the granular level in the context of what Jameson calls in Postmodernism (1991), an “effortlessly secular postmodernism” (387). Jameson’s Marxist historical materialism can be coupled with Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt who in Practicing New Historicism (2000) state that their “most consistent commitment [is] the commitment to particularity” (19) and encouraged through New Historicism reading culture as “a mutually intelligible network of signs” (7) for interpretations that were “more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial” (9). Taken together Jameson, Gallagher, and Greenblatt reveal a second form of secularization that characterizes our discipline, that is, methodological secularization. With its emphasis on materialist historical particularity, this critical mode dominates contemporary literary study in a methodological paradigm that Joseph North, in Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017), dubs “the historicist/contextualist,” where “works of literature are chiefly of interest as diagnostic instruments for determining the state of the cultures in which they were written or read” (1).

Hermeneutic and methodological secularization achieved dominance then dissemination in part through the structural, institutional, and material conditions of contemporary literary research and teaching, specifically hiring and publishing. While Lori Branch has demonstrated the separation of faith and knowledge in the constitution of the contemporary university English department, we can be even more particular in the kinds of practices that reinforce structures of such institutional secularization. As James English once said, the profession “contracts to its most conservative at the hiring point,” allowing, consciously or not, bias against religion, which is almost never among the list of de rigueur areas of interest on job ads. George Marsden suggests as much when, in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997), he cautions that “Graduate students […] are usually best advised to master their disciplines and the art of communicating with diverse audiences before parading their ‘Christian’ critiques which are supposed to revolutionize the field” (67). If this seems self-silencing, Bruce Robbins has recently argued for an explicit professional silencing of those who are religious, writing that there “exists a slow, mysterious, but more or less efficacious process whereby certain opinions are little by little dismissed as indefensible and unworthy of any time at all on our overcrowded syllabi and conference programs” (“Postsecularist” 63), religion being, to his mind, one of those things that will hopefully be “sidelined” and then “silenced” (63).

Top programs simply do not address the question of religion with any consistency—and they largely control the mechanisms of publication, prestige, and hiring, as demonstrated by the posted areas of interest from English departments at universities such as Michigan and Chicago. In the case of hiring, Aaron Clauset et al. found that “25% of [higher ed.] institutions [produce] 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty.” And Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper have recently found that for the prestigious journals PMLA, Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and Representations, “[t]he top twenty percent of institutions account for 86% of the articles, while the top ten PhD-granting institutions … account for just over half (50.6%) of all articles published.” Given the secularity of the field’s elite, their ability to shape knowledge through job placement and publishing reinforces the hermeneutic and methodological secularization described above, one that is then transported outward to increasingly define the field. In a tragic irony, the turn to a hyper-particularized literary historicism and the concomitant flight from meaning, transcendence, and the philosophical problem of foundationalism that accompanied the decline of questions of religion in literary studies has left the elites of our field unable to articulate a compelling account of the value of literary studies amid increasingly pragmatic constituencies who have a readily available source of alternative, marketable value in STEM programs, what Rita Felski summarizes as a “legitimation crisis” brought about by “a sadly depleted language of value” (Limits 5).   

Given the above entrenched secular conditions of interpretation, method, and institution, how might something like Christian poetics enter more deeply into critical conversations and even come to thrive beyond our current enclave status—often teaching-heavy religious universities, conferences like CCL (Conference on Christianity and Literature), journals like Religion & Literature, or a “transdisciplinary connection” (TC) at MLA? An important step is to admit and explore the structural problems identified above, which are also general problems with the field’s “economy of prestige,” to adapt James English’s term. More broadly a Christian poetics might help advocate for something like Christian Smith’s “structural pluralism” but in the fields of English and Comparative Literature. In Smith’s terms, “[s]tructural pluralism recognizes the existence, validity and potential civic [or, in this case, scholarly] value of diverse religious communities,” protects secularity but also includes religion within “public deliberation” (x).        

First, on the problem of hermeneutic secularization, (a) new sources or a re-sourcing and in turn new hermeneutics should be sought in Christian thinkers past and present with the challenge being to show what they bring to the task of interpretation. Readers familiar with la nouvelle théologie will recognize this call as a modification of ressourcement. Kierkegaard, who was in vogue in the 1970s, springs to mind as a ready to hand example already established within modern literary-critical history. As Derrida himself observed in “Faith and Knowledge” (1996) an “entirely different schema” than that offered by the three masters, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, “would have to be taken as one’s point of departure” if one were to “try to the think the ‘return of the religious’” (45).

A second way of proceeding, (b) unintentional inclusion, has been to bring Christian or religious content into mainstream critical discourse through often inadvertent openings in secular methodologies, which can turn out to be not so secular after all. The “Always historicize!” or “Always particularize!” of new historicism and new contextualism has allowed scholars to show how the particularities of all periods are saturated with specifically religious signs, akin to what Lori Branch calls the “particular religiousness” of a text (9). Another opening has appeared in affect theory, critique fatigue, and the “turn to religion” in critical theory, in figures such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek. While affect theory in the early work of Silvan Tomkins was stridently biological, and while it was materialist in Brian Massumi’s conception, and characteristically immanent for Deleuze and Guattari, affect’s turn to metaphors of disembodiment, beyond consciousness, wonder, and the pre-rational inadvertently open a space for considering religious meaning. As I observe in “Is the Body an Immanent Domain? On Postsecular Affects,” “[h]ow could a literary experience like ‘wonder’ be containable? Can it be delimited and taxonimized in such a way that it resonates as a contained affect, one immanent in its reach, without any implication of religious transcendence?” (34). In another, related line of inquiry, the critique fatigue that began in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Bruno Latour, and Rita Felski has sought to, in Felski’s terms in The Limits of Critique (2015), “de-essentialize the practice of suspicious reading by disinvesting it of presumptions of inherent rigor or intrinsic radicalism,” and, as a result, has freed “literary studies to embrace a wider range of affective styles and modes of arguments.” This should include the theological, even though in Uses of Literature (2008), Felski uses the term “theological” reading pejoratively (4).

These projects will be helped along in part because much of our best contemporary literature is preoccupied with questions of religion in curious, open ways, from Nobel-winning writers such as J. M. Coetzee and Toni Morrison, to Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Junot Díaz, and George Saunders. If such work might be broadly categorized as postsecular, this term has its limits. It falls short, for instance, when we realize that there has not just been a recent contemporary turn to religion in the above writers; the National Book Award in the 1960s and 1970s often went to religious writers such as Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and Isaac Bashevis Singer; W. H. Auden, H.D., and T. S. Eliot wrote throughout a large part of the century on religious ideas and themes; and modernism as a whole has recently been reexamined for its sustained engagements with a variety of religious beliefs. These are only the boldest examples. It seems relatively clear when criticism became secular; it is much less clear that literature ever was. In 2007, John A. McClure identified the term postsecular with fictions that “tell stories about new forms of religiously inflected seeing and being,” faiths that “are dramatically partial and open-ended” and “selectively dedicated to progressive ideals of social transformation and well-being” (ix). And while the postsecular promises new openings in criticism after a recognizable period of critical secularity, its uses for literature itself might be limited, it came in for immediate critique from secularists (the boundary 2 issue “Antinomies of the Postsecular,” 2013), and it has fallen into the kind of terminological debate that beset postmodernism in the 1990s and 2000s. Moreover, if postcolonialism energized critical discourse by offering a politics of emancipation and at least the rhetorical redress of injustice, it is somewhat unclear what politics or emancipation postsecularism offers. Christopher Douglas has instead productively used Charles Taylor to expand the postsecular through Taylor’s idea of a supernova of beliefs in modernity, which could include both “weak religiosity” and “strong religiosity” (18-20).    

Finally, (c) an emerging paradigm shift in Christian theology toward greater consideration of immanence and the world can be seen both in representative examples of Christian poetics and in Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), a work that should be included within any Christian re-sourcement. Taylor’s most well-known argument, that secularism is not a clear decline but a shift in the conditions of belief into our contemporary pluralistic supernova, can often distract from his sustained engagements with vital changes in Christian belief later in his book. Exploring the perennial tension between transcendence and immanence, Taylor identifies what he calls the “maximal demand,” and asks how we can “define our highest spiritual or moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn’t crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity” (640). Taylor’s challenge helps modify the narratives of secularization I previously offered in this essay because it forces Christians to confront how the secularizing bent of much modern and contemporary criticism was often in response, direct or indirect, to religious and Christian projects that were divisive, oppressive, hierarchical, and authoritarian and that abused transcendence as a means to authorize such projects, that Christianity has had—and often continues to have—a nasty tendency to “crush, mutilate and deny what is essential to our humanity” (640).

To respond to this challenge from Taylor, Christian poetics might recognize how Said’s secular criticism productively recalls us to the wordly and the immanent as the locus of meaning and authority and that it is we Christians who have fallen woefully short of the implications of creation ex nihilo and the Incarnation, the idea that God has pitched his tent not just with us, but with all created matter in its splendid particularity. Think of Seamus Heaney’s “St Kevin and the Blackbird,” where through bodily prayer human individuality forgets itself and enters into the flow of material creation, rhyming with Richard Rohr’s rescue of the patristic notion of the Trinity as perichoresis, dance, and flow: “A prayer his body makes entirely,” Heaney writes, “For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird / And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.” This example of Christian poetics both draws from the tradition and reimagines the tradition, challenging what Pope Francis rightly calls its “tyrannical anthropocentrism,” calling us back to “till and keep” rather than “dominion” (§68). Or think of how in “Agnus Dei,” Denise Levertov shifts the image of lamb from sacrifice in a violent economy of salvation to what it is, “defenceless,” a “perversely weak animal,” “a shivering God” (12-14).    

As these examples from Heaney and Levertov suggest, I see the task of Christian poetics not as what Pope Paul VI thought for artists, that they should simply “celebrate” what the Church had already decided was divine truth. (d) The task of a Christian poetics instead is to shift the emphatic positivity and dogmatism of much Christian theology into the ambiguity and uncertainty of the literary, which, in turn, should have the effect of further opening up the idea of the Christian. How can we ask secular literary studies to be open to us if what we bring to them is simply old forms of closure? Is it any surprise that, Christian history being what it is, they respond as they do to our call for openness to religious criticism or Christian poetics? Taylor speaks to our situation, and I end with his words:

Both sides need a good dose of humility, that is, realism. If the encounter between faith and humanism is carried through in this spirit, we find that both sides are fragilized; and the issue is rather reshaped in a new form: not who has the final decisive argument in its armory—must Christianity crush human flourishing? must unbelief degrade human life? Rather, it appears as a matter of who can respond most profoundly and convincingly to what are ultimately commonly felt dilemmas. (675)

Jack Dudley
Assistant Professor of English
Mount St. Mary’s University

Works Cited

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Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.