Vincent Lloyd – The Theological Turn in Modernity Studies

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

18 September 2009

speaker_vincentlloydVincent Lloyd (Georgia State University)
The Theological Turn in Modernity Studies

In 1991, Dominique Janicaud identified a “theological turn” in French phenomenology.  Against the origins of the phenomenological project as a rigorous science, Janicaud charged that writers had begun to rely on a structure that improperly blended phenomenology and theology (for instance, Levinas’ “Other”).  I argue that recent studies of modernity in anthropology, postcolonial studies, and political theory have similarly taken a theological turn.  Classic discussions of modernity noted the importance of secularization and disenchantment as a feature of the modern world.  While this claim is not theological, recent writers have turned to religion for a glimpse of modernity’s “other.”  Some writers have held up “gods and spirits” as a means to remind secular Western scholars of the radical alterity of those they study.  Other writers have developed accounts of the ethics and epistemologies of religious “others” as political resources against perceived secular liberal hegemony.

These accounts of religious “others” parallel the problematic structure that Janicaud criticized in Levinas’ work.  Moreover, they parallel the structure of recent Christian theological critics of modernity.  Theologians such as John Milbank and William Cavanaugh claim that modernity is founded on a flawed, violent, and false ontology; an alternative, peaceful ontology is offered by the Christian tradition.  But my argument is not based on these structural parallels; it is based on aesthetic parallels.  Christian theologians understand their alternative ontology as constituted by narrative: their job as theologians is to “out-narrate” their opponents.  I argue that recent work in modernity studies has relied on an ontologizing aesthetic, a pattern of storytelling that leads to the appearance of conflict between the modern and its religious “others.”  Gnosticism returns (again) as a story of the modern, rational, systematic, logocentric world is implicitly opposed to a story of an enchanted world sensitive to affect, non-linear temporality, sound, touch, discipline.

I propose an alternative aesthetic for modernity studies, one which does not oppose certainty to equivocation but which takes equivocation to run all the way down – though not excluding the possibility of strategic and self-conscious ontologizing.

Dr Vincent Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University.  He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford University Press, forthcoming) and Law and Transcendence: On the Unfinished Project of Gillian Rose (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).  He is currently co-editing a collection of essays on “secular faith.” Lloyd received his B.A. from Princeton University and his Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley.


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