Powers of Distinction

On Religion and Modernity

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Nancy Levene
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nancy Levene’s Powers of Distinction: On Religion and Modernity is an ambitious and challenging attempt to think anew about some of the basic categories underlying not only philosophy of religion and religious studies, but also the humanities in general. Notable not only for its conceptual scope, but also for its formally experimental writing—a writing that enacts its thinking rather than simply recording its results—Powers of Distinction asks us to reconsider what we mean by modernity and by religion, and what kinds of distinctions we make when we employ such terms. To do so, Levene brings together a diverse array of sources: Wallace Stevens finds himself beside Pascal and Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor; Durkheim and Said are read together as part of a methodological intervention into the study of religion; Anselm, Descartes, and Kant are all explored as inheritors of Abraham. As even these few examples suggest, Levene’s book, while impossible to summarize, is an ideal object to think with and ruminate on.

At the heart of the book stands a complex, multidimensional proposition on the status of modernity. One figure in particular, rather surprisingly, stands in for the logic of modernity: Abraham. Levene reads God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12—the call to leave “his kin and clan, his land” for another land (100)—as exemplary of the principle of modernity. This call articulates the rejection of exclusionary communities based on natural relations (such as kinship, blood, ethnos) and promises a collective life articulated otherwise, a covenant oriented towards inclusion and freedom. This exilic call to abandon the natural ties of enclosed particularities is, significantly, not a move from the natural plane to a supernatural one or into a realm of abstraction. Rather it suggests, against the otherworldliness of Plato (whose dualism, in Levene’s narrative, serves as the anti-modern correlate for Abraham’s modernity), that, as Levene puts it, the truth is not merely beyond the world, but what appears in it. Truth necessarily appears and, insofar as it appears, becomes the very stuff of which history is made. At stake in modernity is the historical appearance of truth, the appearance of truth as history, or, phrased in a different register: “Modernity is the name for the challenges of holding together time and concept” (218).

Modernity, in Levene’s account, is a refusal of supernaturalism, not for a naturalism, but rather as the affirmation of the realm of history and its ethical demands for the collective work of interpretation and inclusion. Or, as she puts it in her reading of Spinoza: “This third position, neither nature nor supernature, is the realm of the modern: of ethics, striving, achievement, and failure. It is a human realm divided from other beings not by (super)nature but by work—work to understand, to relieve oneself of illusion, to join with others in common projects, to teach and share” (195). More than his radical materialism, it is this articulation of reality and life held in common, as made and therefore as fallible, along with the corollate ethical exigency of practicing freedom and solidarity, that for Levene is Spinoza’s contribution to modernity. 

Powers of Distinction seeks to decouple modernity from its Enlightenment associations as essentially anti-religious and anti-theological. It does so not by tracing the religious origins of modernity or offering a secularization thesis, but by thinking of modernity “as what begins in biblical critique and is recapitulated in the critiques of supernaturalism that we dub secular … [as the] commitment to the creative work of collective life in history” (221). The principle of modernity, in its commitment to critique, interpretation, and history, is neither essentially secular nor essentially religious; rather, it precedes and exceeds this distinction. Indeed, “religion and secularism can express either the model or what it refuses” (103). To replace the polemics between the religious and the secular, Levene proposes a complex distinction between either transcendent supernaturalism or a naturalism, on the one hand, and “a principle of reality inclusive of ideals” (3) centering on history and a collective ethical commitment to freedom and inclusion, on the other. Power of Distinction affirms the latter, but in the process it proliferates diverse operations, distinctions, and analytical frames that complicate the polemical boundaries erected between the religious and the secular.

But if modernity marks a break and a promise, it also entails the necessary possibility of failure. The question that the text poses is whether modernity can be saved despite repeatedly failing its own promise by falling into “misuse” and violence. For Levene, the answer is urgently and definitively affirmative. Hence: “Modernity is in need not of refusal, but of rehabilitation” (17). What this requires is a commitment to collective work, “to ground the good in the midst of its betrayals” (109). Rather than rejecting the principle of modernity, Levene insists on the necessity of resisting the temptation inherent in it—“this temptation of modernity—equally biblical and psychoanalytic, equally secular and religious” (107)—the temptation to dominate and dispossess the other, to erect exclusionary collectives, to betray its promise of inclusion and equality, to render its universality a violent imposition. And yet, one wonders whether the moral logic of temptation and sin is sufficient to purify the principle from the incessant violence that it causes: are the violence and “betrayals” of modernity merely a temptation given into, or an intrinsic feature?

What is lost when our definition of modernity no longer essentially and explicitly grapples with capitalist exploitation and accumulation, the formation of modern states, and, most significantly, the violent realities of coloniality and the transatlantic slave trade? Do we not lose something of the force of the critique if these become mere temptations and failures, separable from the ethically purer promises of modernity? As one reads Powers of Distinction, another question lingers as well: How can we ensure, in thought and in practice, that the collective we imagine as inclusive and universal is not merely a mechanism of exclusion, one that will fail, repent, and then continue its path of dispossession elsewhere, under the cover of a promise (to do better)? One wonders, for example, what would happen to the theoretical framework of Powers of Distinction if it engaged with the forced kinlessness that defines the figure of the slave—a kinlessness at the heart of modernity, resulting not from an ethical and exilic call, but from violent dispossession. Moreover, theoretically interrogating the collective freedom practices of those who pushed modernity to its most radically universal and inclusive (at rare, incandescent moments such as the Haitian Revolution) may be necessary to ensure that modernity’s claims to freedom and inclusion, its promise of ethical universality, are not surreptitiously replaced with their colonial doubles. Those pursuing such questions and trajectories may be less sanguine about the rehabilitation of modernity. Even so, they would do well to engage this rich and rewarding contribution to postsecular philosophy of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Dubilet is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nancy Levene is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Spinoza’s Revelation: Religion, Democracy, and Reason.



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