Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's all Nominalism's Fault???

Part of my dissertation preparation is to read as many books on the "theological" origins of modernity like the recent books by Michael Allen Gillespie and Joshua Mitchell.  In other words, to look at books and essays that note how important religious issues were at the beginning of modernity until the present.  Even the Enlightenment itself was a contest of competing religious options and not simply the triumph of science and rationality over superstition (even though it was probably the French that popularized this particular narrative).

I guess in some cases of popular wisdom, religion has ceased to be a major factor in the continual quest of Western societies quest for modernization.  However, research has shown that the narrative that says religion will be passed by because of growing secularization is a myth.

Now the more and more I read about this issue, the more and more I come to the conclusion that 1) religion is here to stay because it is adaptable (much like many other things in society-see Giddens post on tradition) and 2) in many cases, the religious element has learned to correspond with the secular elements quite well.  In short, it is a very complex relationship between the secular and religious forces.

The problem with books by theorists like Gillespie and others is the need to boil down this complexity to a single, overarching problem.  He claims that it was the Nominalism of Ockham, later inherited by Luther, that led Western society into secularization.  Now Gillespie joins a host of other thinkers (not typically historians, I might add) like Milbank and the RO, who lay blame for modernization at Nominalism.

A recent discussion with George Hunsinger led me to see this move toward the Nominalist bogeyman to be a traditionalist account of modernization.  In other words, when one pulls out the Nominalist card it usually is a catchword for "Catholic" defense of religious traditionalism where the Church is still the controlling center of society (I detect even some of this in Protestant thinkers like Pannenberg).  The fact that modernization and secularization has decreased religious influence in society is frowned upon by many of this group, but I think otherwise.  There is still religious influence in society, sometimes it crosses over the church/state borders, but again, I think that is due to its complexity and in a democratic society with competing structures, it is up to its subjects to work the messiness out.

Finally, of course Nominalism had a part to play in the beginning of modernity, but I do not think it had the central part.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Giddens and Tradition

As I get closer to actually writing my dissertation, I have really tried to look at all the possible ways to analyze "my" actual methodology.  Because of my experience in studying historiography, I have lately developed a sort of love affair with sociology.  Mind you, this is not a "Christianized" sociology, much like I don't like to talk about a "Christianized" history.  Since I will be teaching Historiography in the Fall, I will be dedicating much of my summer time to exploring important sociologist with regards to modernity.

A couple of sociologists I have warmed up to are Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens.  What makes both of these figures special is that they fall somewhere in the middle with regards to the structure and agency argument.   Being the Barth guy that I am, I believe that Barth is also somewhere in the middle of the two; one can see his late work on Christian witness as an effect in light of the Spirit's previous work in giving humans real agency but without losing the focus of our place in societies structures.

I have only read a little from Giddens; I have just purchased his Consequences of Modernity and just read his short book Runaway World.  One thing that stood out to me is his important words about traditions and the Enlightenment:

"In my view, it is entirely rational to recognise that traditions are needed in society.  We shouldn't accept the Enlightenment idea that the world should rid itself of tradition altogether.  Traditions are needed, and will always persist, because they give continuity and form to life." (62-3)

The valuable point Giddens makes is that traditions will never cease to exist, yet, in the globalized world, traditions will find it difficult not to change, adapt and reinvent themselves in order to survive.  In fact, tradtions have historically always adapted to their environment.  One of the mistakes that the "secular" Enlightenment made were to make superstition and ignorance synonymous with tradition.