Notes from “Inside Looking In: Complicity and Critique”

Kathryn Ludwig

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously pronounced “God is Dead.” Nietzsche was not the first to make the claim nor would he be the last. In fact, debates over the status of God’s existence, and over the value and validity of religion generally, have occupied scholars for centuries. The idea that religion was waning gained footing in American popular discourse in the middle of the 20th century, despite continued widespread religious practice; Time magazine famously ran a cover in 1966 that read, “Is God Dead?” Ultimately, the assumption that religion would gradually disappear, what is referred to as the “secularization thesis,” became widely influential within academic discourse.

Some thinkers have rejected the idea that we now live in a “secular age”; others have conceded a decline in religion’s influence but argued that a return of religion has followed. In recent decades, a body of thought dubbed “postsecular” has taken up the question in new ways. The postsecular asks what we mean by the terms “religious” and “secular” and how the two might be distinguished when, for many traditions, religion is inseparable from culture. What we call a “religious/secular binary,” it turns out, can be traced in part to the sway of Protestantism in Western scholarship. With its emphasis on the conscious adoption of a belief system, this view operates according to a very narrow definition of religion and excludes a majority of the world’s religious traditions. The challenge facing scholars is how to confront long-held assumptions and facilitate a more diverse and inclusive conversation.

Interestingly, the very recognition that religious identity is more than a simple matter of choice points out the difficulty with which people can truly think outside of their own experiences and preconceptions. We may logically acknowledge another’s right to a worldview that we don’t espouse and even claim interest and sympathy with that worldview; but that’s a far cry from being capable of stepping outside of our own worldviews into a neutral space. Put simply, in our conversations about “religion” we are always situated

The reality of our own situatedness is my starting point for an examination of the status of the religious in literary studies. I argue that we must undertake conversations with religious others without the pretense of self-transcendence. We can begin by acknowledging how our religious commitments or aversions inform our thinking, what I call (following postmodern theorist, Linda Hutcheon) “complicity.” This movement of good faith with our interlocutors has the benefit of opening up space of genuine exchange. I argue that the possibilities for collaboration and confluence are modeled in contemporary works of fiction. I suggest a model for reading the religious in our age that foregrounds responsibility to others in developing discourse on religion.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Inside Looking In: Complicity and Critique,” 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.