In this first post, I’d like to offer a brief summary of and critical reflection upon Robert Orsi’s “Snakes Alive: Religious Studies Between Heaven and Earth.” Orsi’s essay was originally selected by the U.S.-based research teams as a foundational text for RelSec because it seemed to speak directly to the research project on “currencies of the religious and the secular,” specifically on the flow of religious and secular discourses into and through one another.
Orsi’s essay criticizes what it understands to be the “liberal paradigm” of American religious studies as practiced in the academy, one that makes a normative moral distinction between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Good religion is universalizing, mature, civil-minded, usually enlightened Protestantism understood to be compatible with secular values, while “bad religion,” exemplified in the essay by snake-handling evangelicals, actually includes the “world of sects, cults, fundamentalisms, popular piety, ritualism, magic, primitive religion, millennialism, anything but ‘religion.’” (188). Religious studies in the U.S. is thus pitted always against a repugnant religious other.
Orsi draws upon the criticisms of this “liberal paradigm” mounted paradoxically by both evangelical and postcolonial critics. For the evangelical, the liberal academy only studies religions which are already “dead” or that it can “kill” in the process. For the postcolonial critics, liberal religious studies is bent on installing a hierarchy of the Christian west and the rest that authorizes the rationality of colonial power. Ultimately, however, Orsi finds both the evangelical and postcolonial criticisms of religious studies to be limited by their own moralizing self-conceptions at the expense of their respective others. Such scholarship will still “wind up where they started.” Between the “liberal paradigm” and its critics, Orsi therefore proposed a “third way” that is open to self-transformation or destabilization in the encounter with a repugnant other.
Orsi’s essay could be said to be profoundly ethical in its concerns: it asks what our responsibility is to the other and to the openness in ourselves that this responsibility entails. As I noted earlier, Orsi’s essay was chosen by the American teams because it does seem to be shaped profoundly by the unavoidable awareness of the long historical interpenetration of religion and secularism in the American context. Orsi’s tacit conception of the public stands in contrast to that of Jürgen Habermas’s in the lecture on “post-secularism” that was selected by our colleagues on the Utrecht team. For Habermas, the public sphere is a decidedly secular institution that, only now in the era of the New Europe, must engage in post-secular problems. While I find Orsi’s conception of the potential comingling of religion and secularism more open than that of Habermas, Orsi only considers our ethical stance in such a world, not on the direction of its politics. I’d be very interested therefore in pushing the insights of Orsi’s essay toward Habermas’s avowedly political concerns.
Habermas urges that we seek a more permeable membrane for the secular public sphere, one in which the discourse of religious persons can be translated into secular terms, and therefore be made audible. For him, this is a paramount issue in an era of Muslim immigration to Europe, for example. What Habermas seems unwilling to consider is under what conditions secular discourse might need to be translated into religious terms as part of its political efficacy? I assume that this is so because Habermas wants to preserve the secular rationalist intention of the public sphere, so it can accommodate but not be animated by the religious. I would submit that this secular presumption is a mistake; the entire tradition of western political theology suggests that the efficacy of state and governmental power connects to a kind of vacilliation between secular and religious framing. Without some recognition of how political theology has constituted the public sphere, Habermas would seem to be at risk of reinscribing the “good religion”/”bad religion” hierarchy addressed by Orsi. Where good religion would be distinguished by its willingness to undergo a secular translation, while bad religion would be viewed as indifferent or worse. The risk here is that one ends up inadvertently with a politics under which religion is admissible only when it renders itself servile to secular power: the state, governmentality, or the market.