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Griffioen, S.L.V.

Department of the History of Philosophy and Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

Modernity and the Problem of its Christian Past

In recent years, ‘post-secularism’ – a new perspective in academic discourse, propounded by Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and others – has criticised the dominant secularisation narrative that regards ‘modernity’ and ‘religion’ as fundamentally antagonistic concepts. Whereas post-secularism presents itself as a necessary rectification of the account of modernity’s relationship with religion, however, it remains unable to posit a single generally accepted alternative. I argue that this inability is caused by the debate’s centeredness on ‘essentially contested concepts’, especially ‘Christianity’ and ‘modernity’. The definition of these concepts is in turn determined by the incompatible normative standpoints that are occupied within the debate.

It will be argued that we can understand the protean character of post-secularism on the basis of a case study, using three similar accounts that are selected from the philosophical background of the contemporary debate, namely of Hans Blumenberg, Peter Berger and Marcel Gauchet. An analysis of these accounts, in which the authors assume that the modern disenchanted worldview should be understood in relation to Christian transcendence, shows that underneath their similar explanations lie incompatible normative beliefs that predetermine their definitions of the concepts of ‘Christianity’ and ‘modernity’.

Finally, it is argued that accounts such as these should be understood in terms of what Richard Rorty called ‘Geistesgeschichte’: speculative histories aimed at conveying a moral. It is inherent to this type of philosophy that, as each author draws his own moral, each will construct its own corresponding history. This not only applies to these three accounts, but also to the contemporary debate on secularisation. Following Rorty, I propose that such a debate on modernity and Christianity can be regarded as valuable regardless of its inconclusive character, because it is part of a hermeneutical quest towards collective self-understanding, which will, however, necessarily remain an open-ended endeavour.

Last modified:15 January 2015 2.46 p.m.