Religion and Secularism Keywords: Introduction

This is the introduction to a series of lexical entries, or keywords, written by the “Religion, Secularism and Political Belonging” project. To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here.

Can research in the global humanities secure its claim to genuine globality without falling into a specious universalism? The “Religion, Secularism and Political Belonging” project (“RelSec”), a three-year research collaboration among four teams of scholars from the Netherlands, China, Israel/Palestine, and the United States, faced this question from the moment of its genesis. There is no doubt that religion and secularism’s increasingly explosive relationship to political life is one of the wicked problems of our times. Whether one is investigating the rise of Islamophobia in the West, the collapse of secular Zionism and Arab nationalism in the Middle East, or the the communist Chinese state’s growing engagement with Confucian principles for civil order, changes are afoot that could easily be called global political “climate change” if that term were not already reserved for another wicked problem. And like climate science, the picture of our global condition when painted by the palette of the religion/secularlism/politics triad looks different once one begins to scrutinize closely any one part of the canvas, at what is happening on the surface in different parts of the world.

The challenge that the RelSec project faced was not just that political terrain and conditions differs from one geographical site to the next, but also that the languages, histories and frameworks that inform scholarship across our regions also differs tremendously. To use Fredric Jameson’s Hegelian phrasing, a global humanities approach to religion, secularism and political belonging obligates us to trace both the path of the object (of inquiry) and that of the subject (the agent of inquiry). Only by pointing to both sides of the dialetic can we can begin to gauge the significance and meaning of the collisions among the incompatible perspectives that each of RelSec’s four teams brought to the overall project.

To encourage these collisions, RelSec devised methods for bringing our politico-theoretical differences into open encounters. Each team assigned the others a “foundational reading” that shaped its research agenda. In multiple face-to-face meetings, teams organized sessions or embarked their counterparts on field trips that broached topics of critical local importance. And finally, the teams each wrote lexical entries, or keyword definitions that illuminated the conceptual apparatus and concerns of their ongoing work. Those entries can be found in this collection.

In his now classic book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams assembled a lexicon of some one hundred terms that he considered “key” in two related senses. On the one hand, he judged them to be words that have “bound together certain ways of seeing culture and society.” At that the same time, however, these were words that “open up issues or problems, in the same general area, of which we all needed to be very much more conscious” (15). In important respects, the RelSec lexical entry project served the same purpose. The keywords at stake—nationalism, fundamentalism, science, faith, civil religion—were ones that all four groups at some level shared as master terms for humanistic inquiry into our shared topic. They performed a binding function. And yet, at the same time, the very different ways they were actually understood and employed raised problems that ultimately concerned that most globally humanistic of all activities, translation, in all its strangeness, limitation, and creativity. In the keywords project, each team did far more than share its own thought-process by way of its language. It also needed to listen to the discrepant languages of the other groups and to the alien thought-processes that seemed there articulated.

The most suggestive model we have for this kind of knowledge-production through alienation comes from the great German Jewish critic and thinker, Walter Benjamin in his famous essay “The Task of the Translator, ” in which he argues that translation’s purpose is not to convert the content of another language into our own, but rather to make our own words strange to us when we hear the echoes of a different language in the translated text. Benjamin explains, for example, that the German word “Brot” and the French word “pain” do not have the same “intention,” but in fact exclude each other’s meaning because bread means something different in German than it does in French. It is not only that bread itself is lived and used differently, but also that the words bear different cultural connotations and values that make them non-interchangeable.

Does that mean that the RelSec keywords are an exercise in what Emily Apter, Jacquest Lezra and Michael Wood call “untranslatables?” Not if we take seriously Benjamin’s idea that translation is precisely about enacting what is illuminated by non-interchangeability. The “nationalism” keyword entry that appears in the collection must be read as specifically Dutch and Western European in its inflection, and it will run interference with thinking about the relationship of religion to nationalism in Israel/Palestine, while the Chinese framing of the “civil religion” cannot help but startle our thinking about the relationship of religiosity to civil society in the United States.

What do we learn (and relearn) about our own relationship to another part of the world, or of the potential for our own language to echo that of another, and become strange to us, when we read these keyword entries in a translational spirit? And what do we learn, ultimately, about the agonistic relationships among different social realities and our thinking processes about them around the globe when we try to carry out the kind of exercise in the Global Humanities that RelSec represented? While these questions will be considered in the book collection that will soon be published out of the RelSec project, we invite you to consider them as you read the lexical entries shared here.