Monday, November 29, 2010
In my view, Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest living (in-English) writers, and so I was predisposed to think very highly of this thoughtful post, by Prof. Perry Dane, at ReligiousLeftLaw:
A couple of months ago, I read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," a post-apocalyptic story that manages to celebrate the possibility of goodness and the hope of redemption even in the midst of unremitting destruction and human depravity. The religious subtext in the novel is implicit but clear. One particular passage jumped out at me, though, as it has to others:
They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could.
(P. 177) McCarthy is, of course, playing here with the multiple modern meanings of the word "secular." (He uses the word again to similar effect later in the novel: "The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular." (P. 274)) "Secular" goes back to a Latin word that meant "generation," "age," "century," or "world." Its first medieval use referred to clergy and religious institutions that were "of the world" rather than monastic. That sense of "secular" as "of the world" eventually morphed into the most common modern meanings of "secular," whose range extends awkwardly between simply "non-religious" and affirmatively "anti-religious." But there is a more technical usage, drawing on the original Latin, that is used for phenomena that are non-periodic or long-term or of indefinite duration, as in "secular inflation." The plain meaning of McCarthy's use of "secular" rests on these latter usages, as if he had said: "the constant, unremitting, winds drove them in howling clouds of ash...." Yet the word is so jarring and unexpected in this context that it must also evoke the sense of "secular" as faithless and Godless. That much is obvious. What struck me, though, was this paradox: If the "secular" realm (whether "secular priests" or "secular governments") is "of time" and "of this world," as opposed to the transcendent world-without-time, then why are "secular winds" -- in their very immanence -- unbearably changeless, even timeless? Part of the answer, I guess, is that transcendent eternity is always new, always fresh, precisely in its undifferentiated unity. And we experience that eternity in flashes, as it makes fleeting contact with our immanent reality. Religious moments are just that -- moments. Divine kenosis (self-emptying) has given us mortals a world of our own, which is important, indeed essential to human dignity. But the divine presence illuminates that world every so often. And (to inject a note only apparently at odds with the general direction of my argument here) our situatedness in the world can itself also illuminate both the demands of the world-in-time and the nature of its interaction with the divine. Thus, the holy and the profane are in constant, ideally ever-restless, dialectic. Mere, unrelieved and uncompromising, secular time, by contrast, even when it appears to be in flux (as in the hustle and bustle of the world around us), is, in a deeper sense, all of one deadly piece, not all that different from the changeless winds in McCarthy's dark fable.
This is a legal and political -- and not only a religious -- blog, so there should be (I guess) a legal and political take-away. If there is, it might go something like this, however trite: The relation of religion and the secular state, and of religion and law, must navigate between two dangers. One is that religion will be co-opted, which is to say that it will become "secularized," open to being oppressed and itself oppressive. The other danger is that religion will be entirely banished from the public realm, leaving only "howling clouds of ash."