on intellectual humility; also, on how being woke is not like being saved

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a series of tweets about an essay I was working on about the similarities of being woke and being saved. I got more of a response via social media than I expected, and so I’ve been thinking about the comparison a lot.  The essay I wound up writing for the Immanent Frame’s series on American religion, humility, and democracy is not really about that: it’s more about the performativity of speech and the ways in which we can sometimes recognize others’ words as coercive even as we see our own as simply corrective, or even descriptive. There’s a lot more to say than what wound up in the essay, of course, including about how many activists are especially aware of the power of language to create worlds, which is precisely why they fight so much about the use of language. Yet even then, sometimes there’s a sense in which X description is just true and Y description is just wrong, in some final sense, rather than simply a different attempt at a way of getting at the world, a more just attempt perhaps, or a better one for any host of reasons, but nonetheless still an attempt that is ultimately contingent. The answer to that might be that we need a kind of “strategic essentialism” to get anything done politically, and that our worlds as activists are different than our worlds as politicians or as writers. And I take the point. Yet even if these are helpful analytic distinctions, they obviously bleed into each other in practice.

This is pretty straightforward poststructuralism of course. The longer version of that essay (I cut half of it, killing my darlings one by one) was more clear on the references to Foucault, Butler, and Austin, but it’s still pretty obvious who I’m drawing from. I had an interesting conversation with a friend about an earlier version of the essay, in which I realized these claims out me as a pretty big moral relativist. As such, I’m not sure any moral claim is *ultimately* descriptive, though I think Gabi Abend and other sociologists of morality do a good job of pulling from Charles Taylor (and others), to show how moral claims can be descriptive (taken for granted, obvious, like calling the sky blue) within certain “moral backgrounds.”  Anyway, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

But that brings me to two other things I wanted to say. First, I’d very much recommend the other essays in the series, which will still have a few more after mine. So far there are really interesting pieces by Anthony Petro, Grace Yukich, Amy Lawton, Ruth Braunstein, Sarah Silva, Richard Wood and Wes Markofski, with a great opening essay on “a crisis of political arrogance” by Ruth Braunstein, Korie Edwards, and Richard Wood:

The lessons these essays offer also matter beyond religious groups, as they shed light more generally on how people overcome political, moral, interpretive, and epistemic disagreements. Although the essays vary significantly in their level of optimism about Americans’ capacity to resolve the issues that currently divide them, they nonetheless offer grounded examples of how a range of groups are trying—sometimes with success—to do so.

I’m excited about the essays, and I think you will be too.

But this leaves my earlier promise to write an essay about how being woke is a lot like being saved. I changed my mind about writing the piece, and it wasn’t just because various religious conservatives have written similar essays already. First, I just don’t think the parallel works: being woke is really just about awareness, and being saved is about the assurance of salvation.

But what if awareness is the key to salvation? People mention gnosticism a lot in reference to certain kinds of contemporary activism, and it’s an interesting comparison. However, I’m still not sure I buy it. Still, some of  those conservative essays do point out interesting parallels, not really between woke and being saved (again: I’m not sure that works) but rather between certain contemporary leftist political practices and certain traditional religious practices. Here’s Joseph Bottum:

But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.

The better to gird herself for the struggle, she gave up teaching high-school students to attend the Ph.D. program in Critical Whiteness Studies at Ontario’s Brock University. But even such total immersion is not enough to wash away the stain of inherited sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body,” she testified to a teachers’ conference on white privilege this spring. “I have to choose every day to do antiracist work and think in an antiracist way.”

That’s an interesting parallel, and, frankly, possibly a genealogical one. It would not be surprising to me if a country with strong Calvinist roots winds up having secular practices with Calvinist sensibilities. Yet my problem with these sorts of stories is the way in which religion (especially Christian religion) functions as a master category.  To say that X behavior is “really” like religion strike me as just not as analytically useful as using Durkheim or other cultural sociologists to look at the practices that help to maintain group boundaries and group identity. Those can parallel religious behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re *ultimately* religious behavior.

One of my problems with a certain line of argument in both sociology of religion and theology is an insistence that X or Y is a pseudo-religion (see Tillich on ultimate concern or Rahner on anonymous Christianity).  I’m just not sure what that does for us, analytically, and I’m troubled by what it does for us normatively, as it seems to imply that meaningfulness is religion, which is a political move to preserve the role of religion in the modern world without, I think, much analytic payoff. (Talal Asad is obviously excellent on this, especially what liberal religion does for both liberals and religion).

Of course, it all depends on how you define religion, which, at least for sociologists, is not necessarily a helpful project either (or so I claim). But the main problem with the woke/saved comparison is that I worry about the way in which it reinforces a narrative that everyone is ultimately religious. That’s just bullshit, I think. Everyone is ultimately social, and Durkheim (among others) does a great job of showing how religion can help us to understand, maintain, and develop that sociality. But a lot of stuff is like religion because a lot of stuff is involved in being social, and religion is social in a lot of different ways (though even this gets into the problem of the term religion being a huge mess with huge normative implications any way you lay it down.)

So does that mean we should never compare the secular and the religious? Of course not! And I would love, at some point, to add to some of the careful genealogical studies of how certain secular practices in the United States have religious roots. For example, I’m continually fascinated by how much a “coming out story” shares structural similarities with Evangelical narratives of being saved.  But this is then a genealogical story, in much the same way Foucault traces sexual understanding back to confession. It is not a claim that one category is the master category through which the other should be understood. To return to the point of my first paragraph above, it’s worth being careful about how those comparisons are never just descriptive.  Our work, no matter how small, helps make a world as much as it helps make sense of it.


Written by jeffguhin

March 2, 2018 at 1:21 am

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

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