Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World

Beyond Religious and Political Division

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Timothy Stacey
Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , January
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780815348160.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World is a valuable contribution to understanding religious diversity, building on postliberal social theory (à la Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank). Timothy Stacey’s core argument is that myth and transcendence are key to finding new forms of solidarity in the context of pluralism. This moves beyond the valorization of Christian myth in postliberalism, and the valorization of secularism in much of contemporary organizational policy and practice. Instead he argues for a focus on “solidarity,” achieved through “a mutual desire to uphold one another's dignity” (192). For Stacey, the key to the creation of solidarity is to establish places and practices that enable “reflexivity,” which “is simply a matter of awareness as to the way that one's transcendental ideals inform one's beliefs and actions” (189).

Chapter 1 endorses the postliberal valorization of transcendence, but it critiques the argument because they “either … revalorise solidarity rooted in Christian theology, or else … rely on the same belief-independent rationality they critique” (18). Chapter 2 provides an alternative to both postliberalism and secularism, arguing “it might be better to imagine solidarity as rooted in the sharing of myths and associated practices” (18). The remainder of the book seeks to identify examples of these practices in pluralist settings (chapter 2), the state (chapter 3) and capitalism (chapter 4). Stacey finds a model in the practice of London Citizens, and provides some illustrative anecdotes from his interviews with participants in this movement. He also interviews participants from Christians on the Left, the Faith-based Regeneration Network, and the Hackney Council for Voluntary Service. He rounds out his argument with concrete policy proposals for how the state might be a curator for such postsecular sources of solidarity (chap. 5).

There are some important and useful ideas in the book. Stacey illustrates his previously articulated argument of “performative postsecularism” that rejects the religious/secular and mythic/rational binary. Secular language and institutions do not provide a way of negotiating religious diversity unless they creatively engage with the mythic aspects of what it is to be social. To try to negotiate diversity through secular standards produces an impoverished and, in the end, ineffective form of solidarity. Stacey argues that “the role of the state is to curate spaces in which ideas of a better world can be discussed and concomitant practices developed, that is, to be a curator of post-secular performance” (140). Stacey locates “transcendence” in “ideas of a better world,” whether these be secular or religious. He suggests how we might begin to think in new ways about the role of the state in creating spaces and practices that facilitate forms of transcendence. The book is mostly an engagement with social theory, presuming a significant degree of familiarity with social theorists. Stacey creatively draws on a variety of academic genres to produce an innovative argument. This is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

Stacey’s ethnographic reporting is idiosyncratically innovative. He focuses on the theoretical significance of the ideas of one or two participants, rather than providing an ethnographic “thick description” of the group. I wanted more contextualization about the organizations he studied, the nature of the fieldwork, the number of people interviewed, and the ethics of the research. I wanted to know how he obtained consent for his participant observation, and whether he is using pseudonyms. The focus on the theoretical significance of the ideas of informants leads Stacey into some arguments that have an unfamiliar structure for ethnographers. For example, in his account of the Faith-based Regeneration Network, the Network is found wanting because it does not challenge secularism in the way that Stacey thinks it should. Specifically, Stacey observes a “lack of imagination” on the part of participants (83). Dominic, for example “failed to acknowledge a distinction between working with fellow Zoroastrians to engage in multi-faith work, and drawing on … distinctly multi-faith myths.” Stacey seems to want the Network to have a particular structure, with transcendence at its heart, long-term goals, and strong community. He sees no value in transient communities funded for a particular task. This is an interesting critique that has some correlates with critical discourse analysis. However, given that Stacey says he is doing “ethnography,” I wondered what he would have found had he provided a “thick description” of the Faith-based Regeneration Network. Why do these people of various faiths work together? What is achieved? Perhaps there is something to be observed and learned from multi-faith collaboration in action? 

Stacey’s argument retains a Christian framing, even while he seeks to move beyond the postliberal valorization of Christian myth. There are some explicit hints of this when, for example, he refers to “our Christian heritage” (69) and his choice of the term “Anglo-Saxon West” to refer to the UK, Canada, and the US. More subtly, he retains a faith in a unified transcendent domain of value, however qualified, rather than embracing the messiness of immanence that is found, for example, in the ethical thought of Greek tragedy (see Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge University Press, 1986). Stacey could be accused of having a “metaphysics of presence.” Despite a recognition of the role of performance and practice, Stacey’s focus remains on ideas, myth, and transcendence, retaining a Christian framing of preferred structures of moral action. It is this frame that informs his judgments of the practices of the groups he describes.

This is an important book that I enjoyed reading. It drew me into thinking about how we might build on the arguments and ideas that Stacey develops. The need for new forms of solidarity in the context of increasingly diverse societies will only become more pressing as climate change drives new waves of migration and rapid social change. The solutions Stacey suggests require development, but the questions he asks are worthy of sustained attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Douglas Ezzy is Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Stacey is a Postdoctoral Fellow at both the Religion and Diversity Project, University of Ottawa, Canada and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. He is interested in the role of religion and belief, or 'myth' as he prefers, in developing solidarity, with special attention to the implications for politics, public policy and practice. He has developed successful funding bids both internally and with a range of funders, including the AHRC.

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