Explorations in Post-Secular Metaphysics

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Josef Bengtson
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , April
     211 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Josef Bengtson opens Explorations in Post-Secular Metaphysics by stating his interest in exploring “how we, despite our differences, might live peacefully in pluralistic societies” (vi). Despite this overarching aim, Explorations in Post-Secular Metaphysics is less about providing practical solutions to this perennial political-ethical problem, and more about problematizing dualisms such as faith and reason, religion and the secular, and immanence and transcendence, as they have been represented in Western philosophy since the time of Plato, and solidified as benchmarks of Enlightenment thinking since Kant. Drawing on the philosophy of three influential thinkers—Charles Taylor, John Milbank, and William E. Connolly—Bengtson is ultimately concerned with what their work has to say about the status of secularism within liberal democracies, in particular the idea that it reflects a neutral and universal ground for collective reasoning. Ultimately, he wants to challenge the idea that secularism, along with scientism and naturalism, are somehow able to escape from metaphysics by reengaging the “ontological dimensions of the political” (vi).

Chapter 1, entitled, “Between Scientism and Fundamentalism,” links the long-standing Western narrative on secularization (especially since Kant) that seeks to separate religious beliefs from politics with contemporary thinkers like Robert Audi, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas, who have each, in their own way, sought to maintain strict boundaries between these supposedly separate spheres in order to uphold a neutral and universal ideal of “public reason.” The critical hinge-point that brings these thinkers together, along with other critics who fall more on the postmodern side of the ledger (e.g., Vattimo and Rorty), as well as radical thinkers like Slovoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, is a recognition of the “new visibility” of religion in the public sphere, which has been the main catalyst for the development of theories of post-secularism in the first place.

While some of these thinkers have sought to go beyond the standard Protestant concept of “religion” (as belief, inner feelings, and theoretical propositions) toward “lived, material, and political aspects” (2), Habermas remains a unique and towering figure of the old guard of Enlightenment reason. Bengtson looks to stake his ground here by challenging Habermas’s influential idea of “postmetaphysical” reason, which retains a strict separation between “belief” and “knowledge” (3-4), in search of a neutral, secular ground of shared reasoning in plural societies (5). Bengston seeks to challenge this approach with post-secular theorists who have taken up the “ontological turn” as a way to rethink the role of metaphysics in both scholarship and public life (7).

Chapter 2, entitled, “Whose Religion, Which Secular,” provides an overview of recent debates on the categories of religion and the secular, including thinkers like Timothy Fitzgerald, Daniel Dubisson, Russell McCutcheon, and Talal Asad (11-13). The first subsection (2.1 Post-secularism) looks at a variety of iterations of this concept in sociology, social and political theory, and philosophy, highlighting the wide variations in its interpretation and uses. The second subsection (2.2 Metaphysics) traces a line from Plato to Dun Scotus to Kant, while stressing Johann Georg Hamann’s critique of Kant’s idea of pure reason and his emphasis on language use (20), which, he argues, opened up a pathway toward postmodernity and the ontological turn (e.g., Zizek, Caputo, Latour) (21-23). The last subsection (2.3 Difference and Metaphysics) looks at how questions of ontology and metaphysics have played out in contemporary political theory (e.g., theories of difference, identity, and recognition), and argues that competing accounts of pluralism that have sought to contain “religion” all rely on metaphysical assumptions (25).

Chapters 3 through 5 provide an overview of the work of Taylor (three, Phenomenology and Overlapping Consensus), Milbank (four, Analogy and Corporatist Pluralism), and Connolly (five, Becoming and Rhizomatic Pluralism) respectively, detailing how each challenges universal models of pluralism in their work.

In the sixth and final chapter, Bengtson brings his own theoretical chops to bear by re-positioning the models of post-secularism discussed in chapter 3 through 5 into ideal types—Protestant Post-Secularism, French Catholic Post-Secularism, and Deleuzian Post-Secularism—which correspond to the theories of Habermas; Taylor and Milbank; and Deleuze respectively. As he writes, “what unites the French Catholic post-secularism of Milbank and Taylor with the Deleuzian post-secularism of Connolly is the rejection of a strict distinction between transcendence and immanence (that one finds in the Protestant post-secularism of which I label Habermas a representative)” (116). These first two post-secular visions, according to Bengston, have deconstructed and historicized the concepts “religion” and the “secular” in such a way that secular reason can no longer claim to be a neutral “adjudicator of religious difference” (142). Bengtson is careful not to uphold any of these approaches uncritically, however, and is more interested in the questions they raise for thinking about the “link between metaphysics (understood as an account of the basic structure of reality itself) and political morality” (155).

Bengtson’s text offers a critical and engaging look at contemporary debates on post-secularism that will be of interest to scholars in a variety of fields and sub-disciplines—philosophy and theology, political and social theory, and religious studies. To his credit, he manages the difficult feat of providing an analysis that is both critical-historical (genealogical) and political-ontological (norm-oriented), dancing a line between ethical problems and social constructionism without firmly coming down on one side.

A few points that I would have liked to have seen Bengtson develop further, either within the existing text or in an additional chapter include: a more critical engagement with the work of Johann Georg Hamann and his role in creating space for a focus on language in philosophy; a deeper engagement with critical scholarship on the categories of religion and the secular within religious studies (e.g., Fitzgerald, McCutcheon, Wiebe), which Bentston raises in spots throughout and returns to in his conclusion (156), though only in passing. Likewise, an additional chapter on the work of Habermas might have focused on his use of the “Axial Age” thesis, popularized by Karl Jaspers, and how he has attempted to rethink the genealogy on the relationship between philosophy and theology on these terms.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matt Sheedy is a Lecturer at the University of Manitoba in the department of religious studies, Winnipeg, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Josef Bengtson gained his PhD from the University of Southern Denmark and works at the intersection of philosophy of religious studies and political philosophy.


Joseph Blankholm

Thanks for such a thorough overview. I wonder which, if any, of the three post-secualarisms he sympathizes with most and how much he disentangles the genealogy of the secular-neutral and that of the secular-Epicurean (Deleuze) -- or if it's in conflating them that the secular-neutral appears impossible. Adding this to my reading list now.

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