The Myth of Secularity

Stanley Fish has a wonderful piece in the New York Times.  Yes, I said Stanley Fish, the well-known postmodern philosopher.  And, yes, I said, even more surprisingly, the New York Times.  Fish is associated with the postmodern project of deconstruction, although he prefers to be known simply as an "anti-foundationalist."

One of the singularly refreshing features of postmodernism (of which I am not, on the whole, well-disposed) is that it does effectively put the lie to post-Enlightenment "secularity," by which I mean the supposed rational and/or empirical "mapping" of the world in a way completely free from presuppositions or religious commitments.  The idea is that public discourse must proceed on neutral, common, commitment-free foundations.  If we do not insist on this, then, as Christopher Hitchens would have it, religion comes in and "poisons everything."

Two things about Fish's piece that strike me as particularly worthy of note.  First, it represents a challenge to certain movements in Reformed evangelical circles that stress the need for a sacred/secular distinction.  No, I do not speak of fundamentalist Baptists, I speak of the increasingly popular "Two Kingdoms" approach to culture, spearheaded by various folks at Westminster Seminary California.  The idea that specifically Christian religious commitments ought not and do not yield intellectual currency in the public square strikes me not as a Reformed impulse, but rather, as Fish ably shows, an Enlightenment impulse.  I continue to be baffled at the notion, suggested by, say, Horton, VanDrunen, and now Stellman, that Christians must not speak to issues of public concern as Christians, that is, not on the basis of what is peculiar to Christians, but by what is common to all humanity.  Fish nails the result of this kind of thinking, writing that the political/intellectual "apartheid" between private/public, sacred/secular is

"[a] neat division, to be sure, which has the effect (not, I think, intended by Locke) of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs and out of sight. If the business of everyday life — commerce, science, medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. — can be assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely and properly ignored when there are “real” decisions to be made. Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems."

In other words, the sacred/secular distinction results in pietism and quietism, pure and simple, every time.  Immanuel Kant famously wanted to "make room for faith," but the room he left us was the size of a broom closet.  The Reformers were reacting against this kind of "intellectual apartheid" by opposing the Anabaptist movement (albeit in its premodern forms of spirit v. flesh, kingdom of God v. world, etc.), and I do not believe, all due respect to David VanDrunen (a man I admire and respect), that any amount of embracing the Medieval natural law tradition undermines this basic point.  

The second thing I find truly delicious in Fish's piece is his suggestion, leaning on the work of Steven Smith, that secularist discourse can only get off the ground by... wait for it... "smuggling."  Hmm.  This sounds like a suspiciously familiar concept!  Cornelius Van Til (far less famously) declared that autonomous Enlightenment man can only operate with "borrowed capital."  Both have the exact same thing in mind: nobody operates in an intellectual "neutral" zone.  Everybody has to start with basic, bedrock assumptions about life, the universe, and everything.  Those who claim to be presuppositionless can only do so because they are surreptitiously "smuggling" in (I like it!) other presuppositions under cloak of darkness.

Van Til exposed this sort of sleight-of-hand, as did Herman Bavinck before him.  And it is now refreshing to see the notion become common currency by appearing in the pages of the New York Times.

Brian Mattson