White Papers

The RelSec Project's Tel Aviv meeting in June of 2015 set ground rules for construction of White Papers, which serve as opportunities for the various centers to “think about our thinking,” tracing the itinerary of each team’s intellectual process, including what it learned from engaging with its international partners.

The Research Institute for the Humanities, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The Themes of Our Research

Our project has two major themes: 1) the civil religion found in China/Asia, as compared   religions and secularism found in Europe/US; 2) how to unpack the sense of un-belongingness in a non-nationalistic approach as reflected by the case of Chinese diaspora worldwide.

The “RelSec” project in CUHK has invited scholars from a variety of disciplines to have an interdisciplinary and comparative academic discourse on the issue of religion and belonging in the Chinese context. During the project period, we have invited notable scholars from the field of religious studies and political and cultural studies to visit CUHK and share their research experience with our team. The project has also supported several major conferences/workshops which gathered experts not only in the field of China studies but also from other areas. With a strong emphasis in the comparative approach, the RelSec project in CUHK has created a platform allowing us to have a better and deeper understanding of not only the issues that concern RelSec in the Chinese context, but also how they are related to or different from our collaborators in the West or the Middle East.

The interaction between our team in CUHK and other collaborators in the RelSec project was fruitful and inspiring. On the theme of religion and secularism, the Chinese experience has obviously shown a distinctive humanistic landscape comparing to the paradigm of monotheistic religion. At a very early stage of its history, Chinese “religion” has undergone a civic transformation from the ancient primordial theocracy to a gradually secularized and localized belief system in the civil society. And on the other theme of belonging, we found that the rising issue of “un-belonging” in the Chinese identity a contentious issue in the Cross-Strait and Hong Kong politics. Meanwhile, Chinese diaspora also have enlightened us on the meaning and future of the dislocated.

Religion & Secularism?            

In traditional China, neither the indigenous Taoist nor the exogenous Buddhist has a religious authority or leading institute among their own religious system. While, in Europe, organized church had been an inseparable part of the political play and a fundamental social body which mediated the crowns and their subjects. With such special status, the church was able to gain a strong influence in politics, with example like Pope excommunicating secular rulers or the Prince-bishopric Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. In the early modern period, the religious institute was largely weakened by the rivalry of the Protestant faith, which was followed by tides of secular rulers trying to limit the power of the Church, with outstanding example like Henry VIII of England and his Anglican Church. Thus marked is the inception of the secularism of European religion. The development of secularism was further enhanced with the birth of modern democracy and then the communist ideology.

However, the case in China tells a very different story. Secularism, if there was ever such ideology appropriately thus named in China, has started a lot earlier than the west. Chinese government and rulers, although some might be ardent followers of Buddhism or Taoism, were to a large extent secular. As the Japanese famous writer Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido points out—the presence of a secular moral code, the teaching of samurai in Japan as for his case, had replaced the role of religion. Similarly, the mainstream Confucian political philosophy had an essential role in shaping this with its emphasis on a higher level of “Heaven” as the universal moral standard. Therefore, religion remained largely secular in its beginning.

Christian faith and similarly Judaism has shown a trend of the presence of a centralized religious institute. The absence of such centralized institute in China, however, lures us to question whether the monotheistic religion had created such difference. As early as Dec 2012, in a workshop we held at University of California, Los Angeles, entitled “Old Society, New Faith: Religious Encounter and Cultural Identity in Early Medieval China and Europe”, Prof. John Kieschnick, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, has already proposed the question in his presentation as “Does Monotheism Matter?” As a result, the comparison of Buddhism in China and Christianity in Europe has become our major focus in this inquiry.

Thematic Comparison of Buddhism and Christianity

Between the Third Century and Fifth Century CE, the cultural landscape of China underwent some fundamental changes in connection with the downfall of the Han Empire and the import of Buddhism. The new religion not only challenged and transformed the cosmological assumptions and philosophical reflections of human nature that Han intellectuals had been operating with for centuries, it also gradually infiltrated into the entire society and nurtured the growth of a new type of population that consisted of a group of professional religious specialists and their followers who provided them with material support and legal protection. Some such support came from the ruling class who might have been converted to the new faith, some from the common people who were attracted to it by its message of salvation. In the long run, Buddhist concepts, parlance, and customs were fused into Chinese mentality, language, literature, art, and became organic parts of the whole. However, did Buddhism really conquer China, as some scholars suggested?  This is a question worth pondering.  How do we define “conquest” in a cultural or religious sense? It is doubtful whether any religion could ever conquer any society or people without undergoing self-transformation. In China, for a long period of time, the teaching and practice of Buddhism—an Indian religion that grew out of a very different soil—were resisted by the majority of the Chinese, intellectuals as well as commoners, as something that had denied the bases of their cultural identity—correlative cosmology, cult of Heaven and Earth, ancestor worship, family and social ethics based on Confucian ideals, and the premier authority of the imperial government over people’s lives. To give up these seemed to be destroying the meaning of their very existence. The resistance sometimes even became outright persecution. Monasteries were closed; monks were forced to return to secular life. Some of these misgivings toward Buddhism persisted even into the modern days. Thus the issue is far more complicated than simple conquest and reception.

At about the same period, Christianity, an originally insignificant cult originated in the East, gained a foothold in the declining Roman Empire. By the beginning of the Fourth Century, after the Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313, Christianity became an officially recognized religion, and later the only legitimate religion, in the Empire.  This seeming “conquest” of Christianity of the Roman Empire was of course not an end, but the beginning of a long struggle with various local traditions, not the least the sophisticated Greek and Roman culture, with mature philosophical thinking and artistic expressions, long-held religious traditions, naturally developed family and social ethics, that were in operation for hundreds of years. How did Christianity persuade and transform the various groups of people in the vast Roman Empire and kneaded them together to form a new society that encompassed the Greco-Roman cultural core, the Germanic peoples, and the Jews?  How did the old society resist, negotiate, and reinterpreted the Christian ideas, and how did the Christian faith reacted to the resistance and transformed itself? This is a complicated process that has been the attention of many modern Western scholars.

Thus it seems that both China and Rome encountered certain kind of challenges during the period of turmoil, that is to say, both phenomena represent a type of cultural ecology in which a new seed was trying to take root in a foreign soil, and an old soil was trying to resist, to accommodate, to receive, and finally to transform an invasive species. Yet despite the fact that there have been numerous studies in each of the fields, so far little has been attempted to put the two phenomena together and study them from a comparative perspective.  For example, what kind of spiritual or material crisis and opportunities allowed the new element to take root?  What kind of mutual attraction or resistance was there between the old and new cultural values? While both had simultaneous tendencies to abandon this world and longing for a Kingdom of Heaven or a Paradise in the West on the one hand, and to participate in the secular society and try to make a difference on the other, what were the differences between Buddhism and Christianity in their early development in terms of their strategy and ability to adapt and change in a new environment?

In view of the complicated cultural phenomena that Buddhism and Christianity each crated for the history of Europe and China, a workshop/conference is conceived to compare the development of early Buddhism in China and early Christianity in Europe, in the hope that some new understanding of each tradition could be reached in such an exercise.  As this direction may lead to a variety of approaches, we begin by focusing on a specific theme, “Religious encounter and cultural identity.” By looking at issues related to cultural identity, we wish to discuss how different old societies reacted and dealt with similar problems in the process of the incursion of a new religion. Such issues could be political, i.e., how a new religious authority received recognition, accommodation, or rejection from the political authority, or philosophical, i.e., how a new cosmology gained a foothold among old philosophical traditions, or social, i.e., how a new set of social practice and ethics shock or challenged the old social norms, or, last but not least, material, i.e., how a new belief system could have altered or transformed the material life of an old society, including art and architecture, as well as daily life, and vice versa. The goal of the conference is to produce a volume of essays that would provide a trail blazing attempt at comparing two vitally important historical processes that defined and formulated the development of European and Chinese Cultures. Currently the volume has been contracted with the Oxford University.

Political Belonging

The program of “Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging” aims to investigate how religious and secular formations organize the practices of political belonging across the global. At different points in history, belonging has been linked to a fixed relationship between state, citizen and territory. It will contribute to scholarship on the changing status of secularism and religion by foregrounding their relationship to political belonging in a global era. We consider that the term “political belonging” captures the connections between political community, national citizenship and universal membership. Construed in this way, political belonging frames how one is positioned with respect to others.

As China’s achievements in global modernity become increasingly evident, how that nation and its individual citizens were to re-fashion a renewed sense of political and cultural belonging amongst themselves and along with the outside world becomes also critical to all. Namely, a few decades into the economic reform and institutional change of the most populous country of the world, the remarkable progresses made by the People’s Republic of China are witnessed as they could be measured by many measurable indices annually, monthly, and for some watching more closely perhaps daily. Historians schooled in the longer history of its nation-building since the late-nineteenth century can attest to the significance of seeing through the unlikely processes and massive character represented by this long march toward a never swerving goal of gaining an undisputable wealth and power in human history that is recognized by all.

The coordinating theme of the team in Hong Kong concerns the question of Chinese-ness and political belonging across the Chinese diaspora, with special attention to the role of core values that might or might not be construed as either religious or secular. Political belonging cannot help but be overlapping, contradictory, and associated with multiple demands that require consideration through the respective methodological insights of different disciplines. It also raises the significant question of how these scales might intersect differently at the geographically and historically distinct sites of our centers, pointing to the translocal/global perspectives on religion and secularism that this project aims to uncover.

The Issue of “Belonging”

This project begins by establishing the idea of engaging in a deliberation on “belonging” in the Chinese context. Granted that as a notion it is imbued with a softer (thus more pliable) than the idea of “identity”, thus appears more open to multiplicity and creative applications, still in the Chinese cultural-linguistic world. This whole quest for “political belonging” may again be somewhat “foreign” in its Chinese public discourse. Whereas a discussion on the question of “cultural belonging”, at the mundane, everyday, including the material, experiential, and bio-physical aspects may be much more “familiar” and thereby “discussable”.

Granted that the problem of ethno-cultural representation of regional, national traditions or situations in the US, European, or Middle Eastern can be a complicated affair as well, we should acknowledge and make it clear in the front that the “Chinese” or “China” that will be useful for this project to engage in by no means stops at the border of the PRC or involves only its majority Han population. Because for historical and cultural reasons, not only all relevant “non-Han” ethno-cultural “minorities” of the continental East Asia we refer to as China should be legitimate subjects in the discussion, it is our firm belief that related experiences and positions in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, even overseas Chinese are essential to a sophisticated academic deliberation if it were to be intellectually rewarding. Moreover, precisely for the controversial and challenging nature of the issues involved, various areas of contention and disputes of the alienated, debated, even “separatist” regions, and elements such as those related Tibet or Xinjiang would best be considered in its own right, whenever possible. For which consideration, as suggested, due examination of “sentiments” related to this issue of “belonging” of the oversea Chinese, (called it “diaspora” or not) should be taken up wherever useful, given its demographic size, and its historical and contemporary influence in the regional geo-politics and global economy.

To consider the question of political belonging as it relates to the public sphere in addition to the problem of ethnic minorities within the Chinese border, there is always the question of Taiwan and the evolving conditions of Hong Kong and to a lesser degree Macau. Looking at this issue from such a Macro-level, it becomes clear that, even though references to religious beliefs or secular traditions are not irrelevant to such a discussion, there remain areas of debate at the level of national, or international politics, as religious or secular value systems function as the sub-terrain.

At the current state of China’s fervent nation-building with all its expensive and expanding modernization project, restless pursuits of “wealth and power” defined in wherever terms is still taking clear precedence over most religious or philosophical pursuits, individually or societal wise under the umbrella of “market nationalism”. It would therefore make better sense if we were to examine the question of political belonging as a useful question in and of itself, rather than as a result of or as it relates to the developments in the religious or secular domain.

It is also from this angle that we see the usefulness in asking the question of “after wealth and power”, in a double meaning: both to further clarify and reiterate the historical mission that had taken place in China’s public sphere and in their recognized implications thereof as a commonly acknowledged shared memory, on the one hand, and to look beyond that horizon in public consciousness to see what might be the system of meaning that might continue to pull together those who see themselves as belonging to the experiences of the Chinese in the modern era, so as to make something of the wealth and power in their accomplished form in “market nationalism” that they work so long and so hard to achieve.


Centre for the Humanities, Universitat Utrecht

In this white paper we first sketch the research environment of Utrecht University’s Centre for the Humanities (CfH), i.e. the starting points from which CfH entered RelSec project. We then describe how RelSec project was of a local and global relevance for the Centre, and we conclude with a description of the effects of RelSec project. 

Background: research environment of CfH 

The activities undertaken at the Centre for the Humanities concerning religion and secularity are inspired by debates around the return of religion, debates concerning islamophobia, and concerns about the increasingly untenable normative version of Western secularity. This approach was and remains inspired by the work of the director of CfH, Rosi Braidotti, the variety of scholars who – in the years leading up to RelSec – have worked with CfH in its Postsecular Programme, as well as by the many scholars who have visited CfH. Thinkers like Engin F. Isin, Judith Butler, Joan Scott and Charles Taylor have provided the inspiration for a critical approach to religion and secularity in contemporary societies. 

Specifically, the notions of gender, citizenship and emancipation were recurring concerns. What, for instance, to paraphrase Rosi Braidotti, does it mean to be a feminist in a time when feminism is co-opted in an opposition between the secular, tolerant and feminist West, and its non-secular, non-tolerant, non-feminist religious Others? Similarly, to paraphrase an important chapter in Engin Isin’s Acts of Citizenship (Isin & Nielsen, 2008), what alternative modes of conceptualizing ‘the citizen’ are there, when the categories upon which this notion is traditionally built (a secular, geographically defined nation state) are in a process of rapid change? Finally, to build upon the field of studies opened up by Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age (2007), how are our contemporary ‘social imaginaries’ informed by a long history of religious and secular currents? Besides these fundamental questions, a recurring goal of our work was not only to contribute to a process of critique, adding to a critical rewriting of the role of religion and secularity, but also to provide a constructive contribution based on affirmative and dialogue-oriented scholarly work. 

CfH in RelSec: local and global 

On the basis of this background, Utrecht engaged with the other partners in RelSec project in order to further explore these questions. RelSec project allowed CfH to continue its role as a platform for interdisciplinary approaches to religion and secularity, and it enabled the Centre to set up and maintain a debate with scholars working at the other participating centres. All together, this created an impetus to innovate and provide new approaches that incorporate a variety of perspectives. Before discussing how these academic encounters unravelled, let us first sketch the work that was undertaken at the Centre. 

As an outline of some of the questions that were explored at the Centre for the Humanities, it can be illustrative to focus on some of the research projects that we undertook. In a series of research meetings that aimed to explore contemporary Western European controversies concerning national identity, CfH invited a thinker who played a central role in the rise of Dutch nationalist political party PVV. A dialogue with someone who was crucial for crafting a political programme allowed researchers to test their theories concerning religion and secularity against the litmus of current affairs, which are often kept out of academia, and also connect them to the local realities of the Dutch context. 

A second example is the work of many international visitors that the Centre brought in conversation with local research team. For instance, UC Berkeley’s Saba Mahmood, a recurring guest of CfH, who presented her work on the novel Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan during RelSec project. Mahmood’s earlier research focused on secularity and Islamic religious sensibilities (e.g. in the case of the Danish cartoon crisis), and her current work is aimed at applying a critical approach to literary work that discusses offenses towards the Coptic Christian dimension in Egypt. This brought together work that focuses on literary analysis, social theory concerning secularity and religiosity, as well as analysis of contemporary political controversies. 

In a similar vein, the works of CfH guests Stathis Gourgouris, Tariq Modood and Simon Critchley have created occasions to stage interdisciplinary debates concerning secularity, multiculturalism and religious dimensions of citizenship. The Utrecht team was able to engage postdoctoral researchers who could actively put these various dimensions of research to work in their own thought. Researchers such as Markus Balkenhol, Pooyan Tamimi Arab, Eva Midden and Ernst van den Hemel, who have worked respectively on colonialism, gender and nationalism, were able to respond to these scholars, thus setting up a network and exchange of thought. 

These postdoctoral researchers also worked together locally under the header of this project. CfH aimed at combining the local with international and global concerns. For instance, for the duration of RelSec project, the Utrecht team has organized an on-going series of workshops, inviting local researchers from a variety of backgrounds. Contributors to these seminars included scholars from religious studies, gender studies, anthropology, theology, sociology, philosophy as well as literary studies. 

A recurring concern was embedding scholarly work in societal concerns. The Centre has organized a number of public events, and the postdoctoral researchers have published their findings in public media outlets. This resulted in frequent radio columns, opinion pieces in newspapers and blog posts on blogs such as The Immanent Frame

In short, one of the things that RelSec project enabled locally was to provide a showcase of the surplus value of a Humanities Centre. Humanities centres in the Dutch context are relatively rare, and projects such as RelSec enabled CfH to function as a bridge between local scholars across disciplines and departments on the one hand, and connect with a global academic community on the other. In the context of religion and secularity this is a particularly useful function for two reasons. 

First of all, on the local, Dutch national level, the study of religion and secularity is quite often compartmentalized and takes place in separate departments. The Dutch system is transitioning from a system characterized by theology departments, to an approach embedded in modern universities. The downside of this situation is that quite frequently scholars who are doing work on religion/secularity do so in individual departments without working together. 

Secondly, the value of such an approach is that it also allows for a dialogue on a global level to take place. In the study of religion, secularity and political belonging, this is a particularly urgent matter. Secularity as well as religion are part of a conceptual approach to spirituality and belonging that arise against a very specific backdrop, namely a Western (and Crypto-Protestant) framework, which leads to a potential bias towards certain forms of religiosity and secularity, as shown by scholars such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood. As the results of the whole RelSec project also highlight, there is a considerable need to test the limits of this vocabulary, and this call for re-thinking of concepts was one of the main elements of RelSec’s appeal. 

Academic Encounters 

RelSec project is characterized by a critical investigation of the titular concepts: the twin concepts of religion and secularism, it seemed, simply would not do to describe, analyse and change the current predicaments in which each of these centres operates. The context of the War on Terror, with the deep roots and effects of islamophobia changing the way in which the U.S – which was never a secular country to begin with – engages with religious pluriformity, has put frequently used models of religion and secularity under pressure. Also the context in China, where, historically, Chinese religions do not fit the mould of ‘religion’ as a category, and where the nominally-secular state can function in a way that would lie closer to what can be called religion, challenges the stable binary opposition between religion and secularity. Equally problematic is the context of Israel, where deep-rooted debates concerning the religious identity of Israel and the religious dimensions of conflicts are actively in the process of being rewritten. Finally, also the contemporary context of Europe, where the role of Islam in secular societies has actively questioned and rewritten the role of many classical secular values, clearly shows that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’ do not function as neutral terrain where scholars can compare, exchange and influence each other’s work. Nonetheless, these terms are part and parcel of a discourse of power. They have influenced, in each of these various contexts, the way in which people relate to religiosity in society. The way in which ‘Jewishness’ and a secular state in Israel interact is quite different from the way in which a Judeo-Christian culture is actively excluding Islam in Western Europe. Similarly, in a way, religion and secularity are relatively recent imports in China. Historically, China stages a completely different interaction with spirituality and state regulation than in other contexts. From the beginning of the exchanges during the opening meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, there was commonality in the need to find new ways of speaking. Sharing ways in which the religion/secular divide does not cover certain dimensions was an effective starting point for the search for a shared vocabulary. 

In short, part of the work that needed to be done was to analyse and compare the ways in which these terms were critically approached and rewritten in each of the different contexts. This has led to some interesting and sometimes tense discussions. In general it has led to an appreciation of the amount of innovative work and a number of pressing questions that are waiting to be explored further. Furthermore, in the case of the Centre for the Humanities, this has also lead to a series of productive interactions. 

For example, the encounters between colleagues from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Utrecht University were particularly promising. The exchanges that took place during RelSec meeting and CHCI meeting in Hong Kong, as well as the continued exploration of shared themes and interests led to a number of productive insights. This was further enhanced by the possibility for a more long-term exchange: research fellow Ernst van den Hemel stayed at the Research Institute for the Humanities at CUHK during the summer of 2014 as a visiting fellow. Content-wise, there is a host of interesting resonances between the way in which secularism and religion are critically revisited in Europe and the way they are revisited in China. 

The Utrecht team has specifically investigated the links between secularism, capitalism and national identity. Building upon the well-known hypothesis put forward by Max Weber that the rise of capitalism should be seen against the backdrop of Protestantism and vice versa, scholars have begun to critically investigate the ways in which secularism is not merely a neutral regulation of religious differences, but also a way to regulate the role of the sacred in a society. Researchers at the CfH have been interested in analysing moments when secularism becomes dogmatic and conditions under which religiously-inspired discourse can be seen as emancipatory. 

These critical investigations resonate with work that is done on the history of religions in China, where politics and religion are intertwined in a much more complex manner than is allowed by the conceptual approach dominated by the separation between religion and secularity. As was pointed out in the lexical entry written by the Hong Kong team, many of the ‘religions’ of China hardly qualify as religions in the classical sense. Indeed, for many years China has been portrayed as essentially a non-religious country (Confucianism, for instance, is seen in this framework as a way of life, a philosophy, but not a religion). When one departs from a definition of religion based on Christianity (belief in a transcendental deity etc.), one encounters a field of societal practices (modes of belonging) that fall outside of the field of religion and secularity but that nonetheless deserve scrutiny. 

Analogously, the state itself in China can historically be seen as quite close to categories that are traditionally associated with religion (examples ranging from emperors to Mao veneration). But it resonates as well as with China’s contemporary situation in which free markets and a changing self-image give new relevance to the role of spirituality and religion in constructions of political belonging. In short, the exchange with Chinese contexts not only stimulated the exchange between scholars, it also laid bare certain biases in methodological assumptions. 

In a similar manner, the concluding meeting at Tel Aviv University showed that the socially engaged work done by Utrecht-based scholars can be contrasted in a productive and exciting manner with socially engaged work done by scholars working in the context of Israel. For both research communities, critical reflection on the heritage of modernity was a recurring framework, and both research communities are in search for a conceptualization of a renewed relevance of religion in political domains. 

A major challenge for the scholars of this project and for scholars working on this project as a whole is formed by the fact that, at least for the moment, the gains are mostly played out on a local level, and in the work of individual scholars. A challenge that the group as a whole faces is to bring the harvest together in a comprehensive manner that would broaden the impact. 

Near Future 

As CfH is entering a process of transition, and as the preparations for a continuation of RelSec project are taking shape, it is too early to state how CfH will interact with the afterlife of RelSec. However, RelSec project has made a lasting impact on the academic circumstances at Utrecht University. In particular, RelSec has enabled CfH to continue developing a community of scholars that work on religion, secularity and political belonging. Particularly, it has inspired three research fellows of the Centre to set up a research network, entitled ‘Postsecular Nationalism’, which brings together local scholars to reflect on the validity of the categories of secularism and religion to make sense of contemporary developments in society. This will lead to a number of major grant proposals, as well as to a mutually supportive network of young researchers from a variety of disciplines. The first grant proposal for seed money to sustain this academic community and to prepare research grants was awarded by Utrecht University’s research focus area ‘Cultures, Citizenship and Human Rights’ (CCHR). 


The thinking that took place at the Centre for the Humanities under the header of RelSec project is characterized by an interdisciplinary approach, which brought together scholars from a variety of backgrounds for a productive and inspiring exchange. This enabled a strengthening of academic work on this relevant field on two levels: firstly, it allowed CfH to continue being a meeting place for scholars from different disciplines at Utrecht University. Secondly, it provided a platform for Utrecht-based scholars to present and situate their work in a global context. As a result, RelSec not only strengthened the academic community in Utrecht University and enabled to showcase the proof-of-concept for the model of the Humanities Centres in the Netherlands, but also provided a promising model for global academic collaboration.


Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University

The Utrecht meeting in December 2014 was perhaps the first time since the beginning of the project when a complex spectrum of approaches to faith, secularism, and belonging became apparent to the members of the Israeli group and began to shape our understanding of the group’s particular predicament. The Utrecht group presented a project driven by a critique of secularism. This critique unveils the Christian bias of the current liberal European state, which appears multi-cultural and yet remains rooted in one set of religio-political traditions. Having done so, the critical project then seeks to expand and deepen the complexity of the European body politic endowing it with multiple frameworks for both reference and redemption. The American group presented a conceptual genealogy of political religion directed at a comprehensive historicization of the American present. For example, demonstrating the devotional and institutional roots of “fundamentalism” in a unique American setting, they were able to critically establish the political potentialities of this category within the confines of the current global condition. The Chinese group presented a holistic worldview integrating civil society and the patterns of nature, shedding light on the monotheistic locality of the American-European interchange between religious tradition and secular challenge. Having been deeply engaged with these projects for a while, the Tel Aviv group managed for the first time to crystallize its own intellectual trajectory within the broader framework of the project.

These three projects indeed illuminated the pillars of the Israeli condition. Yet in the Israeli case, liberal rhetoric does not necessarily promote liberal politics; historicization of the present leads to a realization that the Israeli present is marked by stasis; and a distinct lack of an integrative vision leads to a body politic filled with fractures and fault-lines. We thus set out to imagine a language of intellectual and social engagement which did not consider secularity as its point of origin nor as its holy grail. Since the basic discursive principles in the Israeli case differ from the three models summarized above: present Israeli secularism is an exercise in deferment, consciously repressing the theological constants shaping every interaction taking place within Israeli space. The notion of Jewish nationhood stands in stark contrast with historical traditions of Jewish religiosity as well as to enlightened demands of liberal statehood. The resulting tension creates the need for a critical language which is neither that of secularism itself nor the language devoted to the critique of secularism (the latter remaining inextricably bound to secularism as its object of desire).

An important emerging insight was that as secularism adapts to the lingering presence of religion, so does religion recast itself in response to different processes of secularization. An immediate manifestation of this insight was the understanding that in our critical agenda we should not be satisfied with the tracing of the national project’s religious contours (that is, to discuss the political theology of Zionism, and to analyze it as a pseudo-secular messianic project from its inception to  present day). We should rather shift the vantage point, and begin with Judaism itself as a religion that interprets the national project as one of its many contingent historical conditions. In this  framework, it is the national project that shapes religion to the extent that through Zionism, Jewish   theology, heritage, and devotion are being recast.

When considering the settler movement and its role in the present Israeli project, one’s attention is usually captured by the egregious aspects of Israeli “civilian” presence in the Palestinian territories. This presence is seen as an extension of the general territorial Zionist project. This approach understands the religious components of the Zionist vision to be immutable, so that the intensity of theological presence within the national vision may fluctuate, but its structural place remains fixed. Thus, the post-secular critique still takes the national as its fundament. Yet by choosing to begin our critical examination with religion, our perception of the settler movement is altered. We can see  how the settler movement subverts the Israeli national statehood principle in two complementary ways. The first strand of settlers sees the state as a weak compromise if not evasion of the divine dictate enshrined in Jewish history and law. According to this approach, the Jewish revival in the holy land cannot be justified by the maintenance of a “normal” state. Israeli Jews must strive for a realization of the divine promise and of the purification their virtuous society. They view the pseudo-liberal national project, even in its current ultra-national condition, as at most a partial reflection of the holy spirit driving the Jewish people. This worldview has recently been expressed by a wave of violent acts meant to forcefully preserve the unifying purity of Israeli Jewish society exclusively according to religious criteria. These acts include church burnings and public protest agains Jewish-non-Jewish marriage (“mixed marriage”). These acts reinforce a hierarchy subjugating Jewish nationhood to Jewish purity; they reintegrate the national project into a broader theological one.

The second strand of settler politics is engaged in a similar campaign but from a different vantage point. It seeks to appropriate statist institutional nexus in order to shape not just the grand principles and vision of the national project but also its daily Jewish life. A prominent example is the turbulent evolution of the IDF military Rabbinate. Initially providing chaplaincy services, the Rabbinate grew to become the main educational influence within the Israeli military. The IDF education corps which had been charged with providing 180-year-old recruits with an authoritative version of the secular-national narrative has been replaced with national religious visions of divine redemption and ethnic glory. The resources of the state are then taken as assets in a struggle over souls, and the souls are seen themselves as belonging to the a-historical entity called the Jewish people.

The interpellation of these political theologies into the vision and praxis of the Zionist project is carried out using an analytical language that avoids political and cultural extremities. Even the more radical settler strand, the one willing to resort to physical violence, seeks to situate itself in the core of Jewish existence rather than see itself as a periphery encroaching on the center. The language required to examine this interpellation should, therefore, attempt a similar middle ground, even if radically different in rationale and objectives. This language latches on to the open-ended, emerging aspects of a religious life at both individual and collective level. Here are some of the projects conducted in this vein at the Tel Aviv group:

1. Rethinking the convergence between nation, faith and ethnicity – The study of ethnicity within the Zionist project often focuses on the exclusion of Mizrahi (or Oriental) Jews from the hegemony exercised by Zionist socialism since the early1920s. Outside the professional circle of "Jewish Studies," the alternative political and social visions (as well as their potentialities) formulated and insinuated within observant Mizrahi circles are rarely considered as such (that is, overtly political). Yet these visions do not only challenge the conventional sociological coordinates for the research of Israeli society – the homology between the Ashkenazi population, its modern form of life, and its central-leftist political positions on the one hand and the Mizrahi population, its religious form of life, and its right-wing politics, on the other hand – and offers a more nuanced understanding of the social privileges enabling the pseudo-liberal, “peacenik” hegemonic Ashkenazi position (which, in itself, has even become less and less pseudo-liberal, and more right-wing, and overtly nationalist). These visions also challenge the religious-secular axis thorugh which the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi difference was conventionally understood. Instead of ascribing observant Mizrahis the middle place of not-quite-secular but already-not-religious, this theologico-social formation denounces the very  viability of such an axis, which in itself is an outcome of the European process of secularization (and is therefore inapplicable to Jewish communities from Arab countries). New studies of this observant-traditional position set new formulations of the relationship between belief and practice, the transcendental and the everyday, religious laws and modern life; they also create different image of Judaism – of the Jewish God, and the believers’ affective relation to Him – not entirely conditioned of European paradigms (and therefore also on anti-semitic Christian discourse and its reworkings in Jewish circles).

2. Faith – Faith has a constitutive yet suppressed concept of Zionist thought, both secular and religious. It is a nebulous entity, integrating notions of subjective sovereignty and inherited traditions. Yet it is oftentimes overshadowed by socio-anthropological concepts such as “practices” and “form of life,” due to its presumably impressionist or essentialist undertones. When it is not rejected from the analysis of religion, it is rejected within it – as an ideological position that should be accounted for in different discursive terms. In the Israeli context, Jewish faith is sometimes seen as a strategy of underprivileged Jewish-Mizrahi classes for inclusion in the privileged Jewish-Israeli community; and the patriotic faith in the nation or the state is uncovered as a negotiation between social anxieties and entitlements. But these researches, formed in the language of ideology critique, give away too easily the concept of faith and its theological and social importance. An analysis of the working of faith not only within the hegemonic discourse (of Zionism, for example) but also in the formation of marginal, resisting, and transformative social spaces is important for a thick understanding of the Israeli body politic.

3. Religion and Palestinian Politics – While considering the re-emergence of religion in Palestinian politics, our attempt would be not only to shed light on the ways in which religion is being deployed in a post-secular age, but mainly to attest for the new conception of the political formed in its entanglement with the theological. The  recent criminalization of the Islamic movement in Israel is not just yet another indication for the orchestrated campaign to ban political representation from the Palestinian population in Israel. It also reveals the anxiety such an intersection between theological, ethnic, and political positions induces in and for the nationalist project, and therefore also attests for its potentialities. The turn from a secular national Palestinian struggle in the 1960 and 70s, with important avant-guard left-wing sects, into a more Islamic-oriented struggle, definitely since the al-Aqsa intifada in the 2000s, indicates a geo-political change, to be analyzed historically; but it also invites a special theoretical attention, for a political world theologized, whose operative terms – resistance, struggle, surrender, martyrdom (shahadat), and others – bear religious signification.

4. Redemption and Culture – This is a call  for an examination of redemption narratives within popular and institutional Israeli culture. The original settler narrative, heavily influenced by the work of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, cast the nascent (at the time of writing, not-yet-existing) state of Israel as "God's throne in the world". Leaders of the Jewish national project considered it a welcome obligation to serve as "a light onto the gentiles", imagining Jewish national society as a paragon of virtue. Who is redeemed in and by the social practices of Jewish Israeli society? What might be its redeeming features? How does it view itself with regard to the outside world? Soteriology and redemption are often intimately connected. Polities of suffering (social, bio-political, ethnic, religious) are a potent nexus of discourses within the Jewish national project. How does Jewish victimhood relate to internal divisions between "haves" and "have nots"?  Who is considered repressed and who liberated within Jewish Israeli society? What is the relationship between rebirth and historical memory within Zionist collective consciousness? How are individual narratives of suffering shaped within communal soteriology?

5. Contemporary Critical Thought in Israel – This project follows a decisive change in critical thought and activity in present day Israel. Introduced in the Israeli academy at the end of the 1980s, critical thought struggled to unveil the nationalist, ethnocentrist, and particularist premises structuring even the seemingly humanistic, liberal, West-oriented tendencies of the progressive forces in the Jewish-Democratic state. More than a generation later, the stakes seem quite different: within the neo-Zionist phase of contemporary Israel, the knot between the Jewish and the Democratic is continuously undone, bringing to the fore a new configuration of military-based ultra-nationalist politics and high-tech centered neo-liberal economics, through a re-articulation of a catastrophic exceptionalist vision of the Jewish, ever more divorced from the democratic semblance. This deployment of Jewish particularism in Israeli mainstream political discourse has provoked an intensified critical and radical inquiry into the theology of the particular, where the particular is unbound from both the national and the Western-(Christian)-universal: such is the call “to decolonize the symbolic register in Judaism,” or the reconsideration of the theology of Muslim and Jewish al-Andalus, or the reinsertion of Hebrew and Arabic as horizon for research and thinking. This research asks about the critical modalities and creative potentiality of such projects, formed at the intersection of literary, artistic, and intellectual activity.

RelSec is comprised of five partner sites situated in universities around the world. The participating centers conduct parallel research projects whose exact shape reflects the distinct missions of the centers and research profiles of the teams. All will include some combination of public presentations and events, faculty workshops, and/or curricular initiatives, such as the development of team-taught courses on secularism, religion, and political belonging.
Click on the icons below to link to each partner’s individual websites.