Powers of Distinction: On Religion and Modernity

Powers of Distinction: On Religion and Modernity

by Nancy Levene


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In this major new work, philosopher of religion Nancy Levene examines the elemental character of religion and modernity. Deep in their operating systems, she argues, are dualisms of opposition and identity that cannot be reconciled with the forms of life they ostensibly support. These dualisms are dead ends, but they conceal a richer position—another kind of dualism constitutive of mutual relation. This dualism is difficult to distinguish and its concept of relation difficult to commit to. It risks contention and even violence. But it is also the indispensable support for modernity’s most innovative ideals: democracy, criticism, and interpretation.
In readings from Abraham to the present, Levene recovers this richer dualism in its difference from the alternatives—other dualisms, nondualism, multiplication. From Abraham we get the biblical call to give up tribal belonging for a promised land of covenantal relation. Yet modernity, inclusive of this call, is also the principle that critiques the promise when it divides self from other, us from them.

Drawing on a long tradition of thinkers and scholars even as she breaks new ground, Levene offers here nothing less than a new way of understanding modernity as an ethical claim about our world, a philosophy of the powers of distinction to include rather than to divide.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226507538
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/06/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

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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The Principle of Modernity

One is always wrong, but with two, truth begins.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?

Edward Said, Orientalism

You must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Religion and Modernity × Two

To take distinction as the organizing concept of this book is to take on the distinction that has served since antiquity to ground speculation about the nature of reality and the human task within it: the one and the many. It is an old construct, ostensibly long since replaced by more sophisticated ways of conceiving the real. Yet it persists in sinews of thinking and organizing — the embrace of plurality over fusion, the multiple over the singular, difference over sameness. It is rarer in our epoch to incline the other way, but there are always also claims for unity, similarity, singularity. What matters is that the embrace of multiplicity and unity skims over the conceptual and political challenges of the number two. Three things can be construed as equally distinct, and thus like four, or five, or six. They might also be partners in a common position, and thus like one. It is easy enough to imagine the world as multiple — so many things, so many connections, possibilities, angles. So much work to do to understand it all, and yet all part of one world. Infinite, singular.

The harder job is to divide.

It can readily be done, of course. Those who grow up with the PBS television show Sesame Street know the song, "One of these things is not like the others." One knows how to divide and isolate and categorize. Scholarship may be no more than the mandate to do so. But Sesame Street is just as conscious as scholarship that what works for pencils and suitcases and telephones is decidedly not what works for persons and societies. One does not divide and classify persons or societies without cost and thus without great delicacy. Canons may be rich sites of distinction. The social, geographic, or intellectual divisions they express are less obviously fruitful unless one leaves the moving parts as benignly distinct, different without cost (multiple), but also without fundamental — that is, human, and thus contested — relation.

One can, then, cluster anything in any way using attributes such as time, place, language, gender, religion: this one has these attributes and that one has those and everything and everyone has some attributes and it need not get political. But to look at difference at an elementary level — in concept, in history, this is less automatically upbuilding terrain. For this reason two, the basic unit of division, is the number worth obsessing over — difference of x and y, distinction between this and that, how many things there are at root, how to count beyond one and many. How, in short, to find the missing place of two. It may be that to find the place of two, of distinction, is to be pressed to rescue it from what Edward Said calls Orientalism, or what might more generally be identified as the logic of us and them. It is first, though, to know what one is looking at. Three might be the number of history, one the space of philosophy. It might be the reverse. What matters is that periodically the wheels of our multiples be checked for stability. On this score there is work to do to understand one, two, and three — in scholarship and in worlds. To continue to pitch always further into the unspecifiable multiple is to go perhaps not even as far as one.

This is a book on religion and modernity, two concepts with enormous reach. Each has seemed usable without too much precision, although each is also constantly being redefined. New projects in the humanities and social sciences regularly hinge on an author's fresh account of one or the other or both. The theological origins of modernity. The modern provenance of religion.

I argue that, while religion and modernity indeed belong together, their relation calls for conceptual scrutiny to expose the nature of their power. Such scrutiny is focused not on identifying novel concepts but on distinguishing two versions each of religion and of modernity, as well as the difference between them. These distinctions work to clarify where the power of the terms is obscured. But because there are several operative distinctions, and a refusal to take refuge in either the peace of indifferent multiplicity or the luster of a new theory, the work to unravel the plot is tough at times. The aim, however, is simple and momentous: to reorient the understanding and task of modern life.

To begin, I identify two concepts of religion. One concerns a dual relation between the natural world and a supernatural realm, in which either the supernatural provides a standard of value for a naturalism that is its reflective counterpart or the opposite — the natural provides the standard for the supernatural. In each case the terms are opposed, though they may also be identified. They are reversible. The second concept of religion advances a principle of reality inclusive of ideals, in which the standard of value is creative of what is and must continually be realized. In this case the terms — here real and ideal — are affirmed together in the mutually sustaining and mutually critical embrace of two. Each concept of religion may also be a secularism.

The second concept of religion (and the secular) is also a concept of modernity as the embrace of history and interpretation over against naturalism and supernaturalism. This modernity is an epoch distinguished in time, as modernities are. But its time encompasses biblical concepts of reality, which support and are supported by the more usually marked modernity of innovations in science, technology, politics, law, and economics.

Both religion and modernity, then, have two versions, but they are connected only through the second concept of religion. There is thus a difference between religion and modernity, as follows. In concepts of religion, it is from the standpoint of only one of the two concepts that one may observe the distinction between them. It is the second concept of religion, the principle of a reality inclusive of ideals, that "sees" that there are two concepts and invites a difference of value between itself and the contradictory logic of naturalism and supernaturalism, which one can call nonmodern. In concepts of modernity, by contrast, neither the time of modernity in biblical concepts nor the modernity of scientific and political innovation sets the standard for the other. One may observe the distinction between them from either position, and this distinction is also a fundamental continuity. Modernity is two in possessing two beginnings. But these beginnings will tend to draw apart, losing their connection. Religion in the second version is a key term enabling one to identify the nature of their relation. Once again, in connecting biblical and scientific/revolutionary modernity, religion might also be a secularism.

The point with modernity is to see that the "what" of modern innovation is in partnership with the principle of the religion of interpretation — that the truth or God exists in the world to be taken up as the human, historical task. This religion, no less a secularism, is constituted in the call to Abraham to leave his homeland for a promised land; to constitute community based not on privileges of rank, whether natural or spiritual, but on the promise to make communities of righteousness — to make home land, as I write the difference. It therefore makes no sense to identify modernity with a critique of religion unless one also recognizes that such a critique is a position of religion itself insofar as it is understood as a commitment to the realization of ideals, to truth in history. Modernity is religion × two in recognizing the difference between a religion of supernatural naturalism and a religion of reality. Religion is modernity × two in recognizing the relation of the biblical work of critique to the innovations that carry out its charge and, in turn, help us enact the work of criticism, secular and religious.

This is to contribute to debates about religion and secularism by reconstructing the question. The question here is not whether religion survives in modernity in the form of secularism — whether secularism is some transposed religion. The question is not whether or why religion survives at all, or returns, or what to do about this or that religion. The question is posed in the light of there being two principal forms of religion. In modernity the question is, Which one is at issue? But this is equally to ask about modernity itself, which has two principal times. The wager is that the distinction of the elementary ideas will identify — and enact — the power to be had in the concepts and in their worlds.

The argument requires readers to attend to two ways of thinking about "two," two dualisms. In the first dualism, which structures the first concept of religion, two terms (one and many, reason and history, soul and body) are either identified or opposed. In the second dualism, which structures the second concept of religion, the two terms are understood in mutually supportive relation, however paradoxically so. The missing distinction of modernity is the distinction between these dualisms. It is the rescue of the position of two whereby its terms are mutually engaged, mutually true. Truth and interpretation. Reason (or God) and history. Equally self and other, whose work as interpreters is to enact and augment truth in common.

This work, and this way of speaking, is familiar, but it is easy to confuse. Religion and secularism are standard forms of the confusion insofar as they assimilate the two dualisms. Either religion and the secular each express only the first dualism, despite their apparent contrast with one another, or each works from the second dualism but through its confusion with the terms of the first. In religious terms, this confusion is to place God outside of or identical to history (mastery or teleology); in secular terms it is to place truth or the good outside of or identical to history (rationalism or historicism). Critics of dualism likewise see only one "two," the perennial distinction of the one and the many, by the logic of which truth, God, essence, oneness is opposed to manyness and its cognates. It is therefore ironic that the critique of dualism, in quest of the one or (more usually) the many, merely recapitulates one of two dualisms, the dualism whose two terms, opposed or identified, can yield only one term, with the other an empty postulate to be deferred or denied.

Dualisms are products of the human mind in its confrontation with the reality of which it is part. There is no escape from the challenge of two, of doubleness, but there are two different ways to inhabit and conceive it.

Insofar as the one is not opposed to the many, that is, insofar as one takes up the charge of religion in and as modernity, we are each called to join in making values collective. This position refuses dualism as either opposition or identity, whether religious or secular. What the dualism of paradoxical relation mandates can be stated bluntly. Truth appears. Equally, God exists. What one values is not elsewhere than where one begins to think and exist, which does not mitigate but indeed engenders the challenge of making good on this beginning. Readers mindful only of the difference between truth and God, or anxious to make one the standard of the other, will miss the underlying structural question of where they appear in a system. The second dualism — religious and secular — gives us a system inclusive of critiques of it, a reality that is alive to what might enlarge and empower it. This second dualism, the second concept of religion in its relation to modernity, calls for interpretation as subjects/minds/readers are not simply opposed to their ends and to each other but are called to forge them in cooperation. One must wager for the truth and reckon with the wagers of others.

Yet this second dualism of truth and interpretation, ideal and real, God and existence also risks violence, since, once the truth or God is not elsewhere or nowhere, as in supernaturalism or naturalism, anyone can claim its mantle over against others, as against oneself. This is not to say violence is unique to the dualism of mutual relation. There is nothing more violent than the position that truth is outside what you can know, or that there is no truth but what is given. It is only by excluding the logic of identity (one) and opposition (many) that the second dualism is creative of an actual two, one that is open to others, to all. Without this work, this critique, the co-involvement of two is inconceivable. Dualism will be merely two in opposition, and thus merely one (and many).

What is notable is that the refusal of one and many, supernaturalism and naturalism, does not in itself end confusion or violence. These contradictory positions simply become the fantasies by which is abrogated the hard work of making what is true for you true for all. Once each term is constituted in and through the other, it is newly possible to polarize their distinctness from each other, replicating the structure of the first dualism by opposing the terms, refusing their intimacy and its obligations. In short, once the distinction of two is in existence and not between what exists (many) and what is the standard of existence (one), it is tempting either to reerect standards outside existence or to refuse standards altogether, both of which flee from the difficulty of enacting them together. There will be imagined nothing more supernatural than the God of history, nothing more natural than the death of this God, as thinkers and citizens struggle with what is required — with the human task.

In biblical terms, this task is to make good on the charge to Adam and Eve to take up the difference of good and evil: the difference of knowing both good and evil, which knowledge makes human beings like God, and the difference between good and evil, in the face of which human beings are enjoined to commit to the first, despite toil and pain. It can seem a solution of a kind to deny knowledge altogether in submission to a God who issues the contradictory command not to know. But as this very God acknowledges in the creation of the world, knowledge is good, and there is no going back.

It is not, then, that religion haunts modernity and secularism. It is that religion in modernity is confounded in the beginning by its own temptations, its own golden calf. Human beings, confused by their own powers in distinguishing good and evil, disavow these powers in acts of violence. God, confused by the bargain struck, drowns his grief at the terrible proximity of good and evil in acts of violence.

It might seem possible to say that, once history expresses the truth of interpretation, there can then be nothing but one interpretation advanced arbitrarily against another, a reinvestment of might makes right now pitting self against other, your truth against mine, epoch against epoch. But this work is a profanation of a principle it behooves us to continue to restate: that insofar as the truth is constituted in common, in history, it expresses the truth of history and thus the golden rule thathistory is the scene of both self and other, the interpretations of the good that can be made common. The paradox is that the temptation of the one and the many — the logic of opposition and identity — can appear only in a system that is already in critique of it. It can thus confuse only in a system that has the power to rectify the confusion.

The argument is supportive of a broadly Hegelian account of history, with a caveat. Hegel gives us history as the concept of the other, the mutually constituted, if also mutually struggling, terms of human relationship as human beings realize their being — their truths, their ideals, their otherness — in time and with one another. What Hegel made so shocking is the stipulation that this concept of history is itself historical. It requires us to found history as a site of innovation, not as a naturalism or supernaturalism that has always been in the world or that is simply coincident with thinking. This claim risks the gravest of dangers — that in marking history's parameters one will leave some positions outside history — whole civilizations, religions, cultures. Would this move not betray the very commitment to otherness that history ostensibly wagers?


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Table of Contents

1 The Principle of Modernity
2 A History of Religion
3 Artificial Populations
4 The Collective
5 Images of Truth from Anselm to Badiou
6 The Radical Enlightenment of Spinoza and Kant
7 Modernity as Ground Zero
8 Of Gods, Laws, Rabbis, and Ends


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