The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age

By Dawn Coleman

Twenty years ago, “secular studies” barely existed as a scholarly field. Now that it is strong and growing, the role of literary study within it should give us pause. Sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, and religious studies scholars dominate the field, while literary scholars mill about the sidelines. We write books and articles for each other, but who else is paying attention? And why should they?

Scholars outside of literature have authored nearly all the touchstone books in secular studies. Think Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, Jacques Berlinerblau, or Phil Zuckerman. The field has also found a certain consolidation and public presence in the online forum The Immanent Frame, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. Of course, those craning their necks to spot the literary scholars in the secular studies meeting hall will pick out John McClure, Michael Warner, Tracy Fessenden (who was trained in and teaches in a Religious Studies department), and a few others. But the Oxford Handbook of Secularism (2017) provides an unnerving snapshot: not a single contributor teaches in an English or foreign language department.

If we literary scholars are to do more than linger on the edges of debate—or worse, nurse resentments from afar—how do we justify our worth? How should we participate in a conversation that has no need at this point of our merely deconstructive insights, such as the falsity of religion/secular binaries or the speciousness of teleological historical narratives?

On the occasion of Christianity & Literature’s special issue on “The Secular and the Literary,” I wish to offer a daring answer. It is that literature provides us with the most emotionally resonant and intellectually profound language we have for describing the subjective experience of secularity, in which meaning is indeterminate. What literature offers the study of secularity are the unpredictable plots, mesmerizing characters, gut-punch diction, and lightning-strike metaphors that capture the texture of living in a secular age. Such texts voice experiences at odds with received language and cannot be reduced to creed or anti-creed. Hence our endless pondering of them.

Literary scholarship makes sense of this language, translating it from art into knowledge. We draw on the theories and schema of other disciplines but rarely echo them. The multivocality of novels and drama, the ambiguity of poems: such complexities disrupt attempts to read literature as functions of church doctrine or political ideology or sociological theory or even authorial belief. It hardly matters whether a chosen text might qualify as the supposed “best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold had it, or is a piece of racist, sexist, imperialist schlock fetched from the ash bin of history by an intrepid doctoral student wearing Discipline and Punish like a hazmat suit. Indeed, one reader might judge a literary work a jewel of Western civilization while another deems it a symbol of our collective moral depravity. Either way, literature takes us into the tangle of human feeling, behavior, and value creation that accompanies secularity. It thus gives us fascinating, meaningful profiles of spirituality.

Spirituality is a charged word, one I use gingerly yet deliberately. Though it is a notoriously fuzzy concept, Boaz Huss’s recent essay gives it a useful precision. After tracing the term’s evolution from antiquity, Huss points to two important moments of modern redefinition. At the end of the nineteenth century, spirituality came to be understood as the opposite of the secular. It implied “the religious, metaphysical, moral, subjective, private, and experiential realms of life,” over against “the physical, material, public, social, economic, and political arenas.” We can recognize the arbitrariness of this dichotomy in part because of the term’s second shift, in the middle of the twentieth century, when the spirituality/corporeality binary began to dissolve and a distinction between spirituality and religion emerged. Drawing on a range of theorists of spirituality, Huss clarifies that it now entails an individualistic pursuit of self-knowledge and a sense of connectedness between oneself and the larger world. In previous eras, one was supposed to renounce and subdue the body; now, the body is integral to spirituality. Yoga, hiking, even gardening are all examples of this new mindset. Huss’s most important point may be that these various forms of contemporary spirituality are intimately connected to late capitalism and to our networked, hybridized, globalized culture.

I agree. Yet I would submit that the post-Protestant spirituality Huss describes can be found in literature from at least the mid-nineteenth-century forward. Many nineteenth-century literary texts reveal the same cultural hybridization, critique of institutional religion, and interest in mind-body integration that Huss regards as symptomatic of contemporary capitalism. Writers like Margaret Fuller and Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, Frances Harper and Edith Wharton all represent the challenges of living amid the competing discourses and affective structures of a secular age. Their work describes the visceral connection between the ‘‘spirit’’ and the ‘‘flesh,’’ incorporates the perspectives of non-Christian persons and texts, and dramatizes heterodox views. Even the most seemingly religious writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, articulate a spirituality that values the body, that contends with the economic logic of capitalism, and that exceeds or defies the boundaries of a single religious perspective. Especially in the US, a country defined by religious voluntarism and replete with Protestant faiths already hybridized and secularized, living in a secular age has meant negotiating difference for some time now.

One also finds spirituality, more or less as Huss defines it, in the work of those writers whose spiritual identities have typically been framed in terms of negation: un-believers, a-theists, a-gnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and the simply indifferent. If we set aside the idea that spirituality requires a belief in spirits or essences or deities of any sort—if we recognize that the ‘‘spirit’’ of spirituality might be a metaphor without a metaphysical referent—then ‘‘spirituality’’ equalizes otherwise ‘‘secular’’ or ‘‘religious’’ persons and short-circuits any notion that people of faith have richer inner lives than their non-religious counterparts. As the philosopher André Comte-Sponville writes in The Little Atheist Book of Spirituality, ‘‘Being an atheist by no means implies that I should castrate my soul! The human spirit…is our noblest part, or rather our highest function.’’

Once we recognize that countless texts mediate spirituality (not just those with obvious religious or spiritual themes), we can speak more precisely about the authority that literature claims for itself in the modern West—and so the leverage we literary scholars can have in secular studies. It may be tempting to think that literature seeks religious or moral or cultural authority; I have used these terms myself. But I now find it more useful to regard literature of the nineteenth century and beyond as seeking to exercise spiritual authority, or the power to define how individuals can and should know themselves and relate to the larger world, when that world is characterized by the capitalist strictures and ideological cacophony of modern secularity.

To call the authority of literature spiritual is to foreground how literature represents both recognizably religious and moral questions, such as the existence of God, the ethics of sacrifice, or the claims of justice, and those that seem at first entirely secular, such as the machinery of the marketplace or the application of the law, but whose more complete investigation often demands knowledge of the deep structures of Protestantism or other historic faiths. Texts engage in these representations with varying degrees of self-reflexivity, provisionality, and prescription. The premise that literature seeks spiritual authority acknowledges both the rivalry between literature and religion, in that religion has traditionally claimed dominion over the spiritual, and the oblique relationship between literary texts and religion within secularity. It also frees the study of literature and religion from a narrow historicism, opening us to a powerful dialogue with the past that reorients us to our personal and collective present.

For historians, as literary scholar Eric Slauter has written, “contexts are always larger, never smaller.” That is, the panorama of history matters more than the miniature of a single text. Yet those of us who live with literature know that a text can be more important, more suggestive of human possibilities, simply larger, than our narratives about its historical context. Set Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America next to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Excellent as it is, Dolin’s book does not and will not inspire the passionate response that Melville’s has in the form of scholarly attention, classroom study, visual interpretation, and dramatic adaptation. Readers care about Melville’s novel because they care about the nuances of its characters’ thoughts and experiences: perhaps, above all, these characters’ spiritual perplexity when confronted with the mysteries of the natural world. Put differently, readers care about Melville’s intense and uniquely imagined response to a secular age.

One of the primary sources of literature’s spiritual authority is its ability to represent subjectivity in ways that reveal the inadequacy of creeds or theories. Literature gives us spirituality’s loops and turns, its contradictions and ambiguities, its shifting moods. Its power lies in its specificity, its ability to offer exempla of modern spirituality. It proffers maxims and affirms doctrines only to undercut them on the next page or in the next stanza. The contradictory spiritual ideas coiled within literary texts mean that literary scholarship can parse the struggles and ironies of spirituality as other forms of knowledge production cannot. Careful interpretation of a literary work’s claims to spiritual authority gives insight into human experience as surely as careful historical reconstruction of actual persons and events or sociological questionnaires and interviews. Especially in seeking to map the spiritual lives of past generations, scholars in non-literary disciplines would be remiss to ignore imaginative literature’s intricate representations of spirituality. They will find that by staying close to the weft and warp of experience, literature makes visible the illiberal and non-rational aspects of modern spirituality—the feelings beyond reason, the contingencies that defy theory, the exceptions and specificities of individual lives.

Those who take literature seriously will find that it can unsettle the received wisdom of secular studies. Significantly, literary study reveals that despite the ubiquitous rhetoric of choice in religious and secular studies, people do not always feel in charge of their spiritual lives. Sometimes literature presents a moment of moral clarity: for instance, Huck Finn’s famous declaration, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” when he decides to buck slaveholding Christianity by not informing Jim’s owner of his location. Just as often, characters’ spiritual lives seem to be shaped by mysterious, powerful forces they do not understand, as when Ahab, seemingly irrevocably committed to the hunt, cries out, “Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”

A final thought. Scholars of secular studies are not the only ones who stand to gain from examining the spiritual claims of literary texts. Undergraduates across the disciplines can also learn a great deal about secularity—and about themselves—from literary study. In The American University in a Secular Age, Larry Braskamp discusses the religious and spiritual journeys of college students. He reports that today’s students say they would like more help in defining their spirituality. Nearly half say that college gave them no “opportunities for religious/spiritual reflection.” Might it be that students are not reading enough literature, or not reading it with an eye to its claims to spiritual authority? One can imagine a role for literature in any number of courses on religion and secularity across the disciplines. Those of us who regularly teach literature could also be more deliberate in inviting students to define their spirituality through and against literary texts. Such instruction would call students to engage not only in the critical thinking so often touted as the goal of humanities education but also in the creative introspection essential to authentic, richly imagined spiritual lives.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Spiritual Authority of Literature in a Secular Age,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.3 (June 2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.