Sunday, October 07, 2012

Worldly wisdom

Between preparation for classes, running the First Year Program and ensuring the Buddhism and the Future of the Liberal Arts roundtable was a hit, I have been finding little bits of time to reflect on the paper I'm giving in Lisbon paper just over a fortnight hence. (!) For the last week or so it’s been in my #1 back burner space, and this weekend I was able to give it some relatively undivided attention.

I think I’ve got not only an interesting argument but a very interesting one. I proposed the idea “Leibniz’ Theodicy as a Metaphysics for Lived Religion” originally because I could rehearse my favorite past argument about Leibniz (last presented at the International Leibniz Congress in Berlin in 2001!) and because I had “lived religion” on the brain. Perhaps I also thought it might give me an occasion - that is, force me - to reflect on what the study of lived religion has to say to the theodicy crowd to which I used to belong. In any case it has, and some things have emerged which are, at least to me, new and exciting.

What I knew I would say was that Leibniz’ Theodicy is meant not as a tome of philosophical theology, intended for the life of contemplation, but as a toolkit for helping people get over philosophical doubts which threaten to scuttle their active lives of ethics. This isn’t the way most people read Theodicy and it’ll be fun to try it out again. (Reception in Berlin was pretty enthusiastic; I take my invitation to the current conference to be related to it.) The infamous claim that this is "the best of all possible worlds" (BOAPW) is not prospective or even summary, but to be used only as we pick ourselves back up again after attempts to enact what we take to be God’s antecedent will meet with failure. It has no further content, since the status quo is no indication of what the future should be like.

BOAPW engages us not at the level of the contemplative philosopher, parsing arguments, but at the level of the agent, trying to work out “in his little world” what God calls him to do - a level at which, I argued, we are not trying to track this world but imagining possible worlds of good and striving to realize them. Say I try to help someone in distress, something God surely antecedently wants, but she is swept away by a wave before I can get to her. I am not to conclude that helping people in distress is wrong, or that God has no care for those in distress (including this unfortunate), but rather that in this case, and for reasons I may never know, other goods prevailed. We all know about such difficult choices from our own lives, and so we can understand – if only in a schematic way - what it means that God cannot promote every possible good but only the best combination. Leibniz thinks this recognition allows of a "Fatum Christianum," a resilience which is not just Stoic resignation at necessity but joyful acceptance as we recall that God is a "good master," whose perfect wisdom means that the better outcome will, in fact, emerge. Théodicée for Leibniz means not the justification of God (to and by humans) but the "justice of God," a justice congruent with ours; the experience of divine justice, if only schematically, reaffirms our capacity to make right judgments, and our power and responsibility to act on them.

The BOAPW argument in this way is in fact the opposite of what most people take a theodicy to be - a final closed account of the place and nature of evil in the world. I think it's really a prophylactic against just this, refusing us that closure now (even as we may hope to glimpse it in heaven) but without slipping into claims of mystery. It does this by turning us away from judging the world as a whole. We can't do that - it's not only infinite, but its "bestness" relative to others involves comparison among infinities (I §10) - but we also don't need to. Leibniz’ genius is to see in the common claim of BOAPW (he claims it's neither new nor rare, but implied by many stances) a way of domesticating the mystery, the infinity, of God in a way which affirms our grasp of the smaller world in which we live and work.

All of that is a dozen years old. In 2001, as in the dissertation I was riffing on, my argument was all about ethics. (The diss was called "The Ethics of Leibniz' Theodicy" and the Berlin talk "The Moral Import of Possible Worlds.") Now my topic is lived religion. Is it similar enough that the same argument can be made? I was drifting away from the philosophical theodicists and ethicists already, more interested in lived theodicy and ethics. But I'm happy to report it's more than that! You’ve been hearing about lived religion in its many forms all over this blog, from the course last Fall to the ERSEH project, from my presentations on everyday religion in India and on queer Christianities to my current first year seminar, so I don't need to say much. Just one thing, well two, okay three.

First, for the lived religion scholar "religious creativity" (Robert Orsi's term) is not the monopoly of geniuses and specialists, but something in which everyone engages. (Everyone, even religious geniuses and specialists!)
Leibniz, while he was doubtless partial to princesses and emperors, was really concerned for everyone. Unlike most of Leibniz' works the Theodicy was published, and published in French, to make it accessible to a wide reading public.

Second, lived religion scholars find that people are eclectic in their religious lives, syncretic and pragmatic bricoleurs. They are unconcerned with consistency or the purity of systems. (Remember those 28% of American Catholics who reported believing in reincarnation.) This horrifies systematizers and those who make their livings running religious monopolies. To them it seems  unmoored and self-indulgent, but to lived religion scholars these feats of bricolage can come with the imprimatur of real life. (One need not define everyday life in secular terms.) It's not that anything goes, either, as - especially when understood in its social and intersubjective context - lived religion exhibits what Meredith McGuire has called a "practical coherence" (Lived Religion, 15), which is not quite what Bourdieu meant by the "logic of practice" but closer to Michel de Certeau.
Leibniz was a notorious eclectic.

Third, and this is where the dovetail with Leibniz is most exciting, lived religion is all about what Orsi calls "world-making." What makes lived religion more than just corner cutting, making do, little patches and fixes is that – at least at those moments which he calls moments of rupture – people are refashioning worlds. Worldmaking is a slippery term but fruitful. It's a little bit like what Weber in his theodicy theorizing meant by the intellectual's need to make the world a "meaningful cosmos," concerned with the "practical irrationality" of the world (you can't be an effective agent in it), but smaller of scale. The "sacred canopy" maintained by an entire society which Peter Berger made of Weber's ideas seems unnecessary; people get by with what Christian Smith has called "sacred umbrellas."  
The scene where a religious world is remade is, methinks, precisely where Leibniz thought the BOAPW argument had its place. BOAPW is not itself a picture of a livable world, but it helps us get from the ruins of one to a more promising new one. It explains that our efforts to imagine and act in worlds are well-grounded, but also why they encounter roadblocks. This is what I'm calling a metaphysics for lived religion - or shall I call it a metatheodicy?

This is plenty for a paper. It has interesting implications for reading Theodicy and for understanding Leibniz’ religion more generally, as well as his place in the history of the philosophy of religion. It shines light on an aspect of the BOAPW argument that is not often noted, and builds a bridge between "practical" and "theoretical theodicy" that is not itself - as many vindications of practical theodicy are - too general to be of practical use. In practice, consolation and encouragement are more important than explanation, and invocations of mystery are common, but this doesn't tell us a thing about what consoles or encourages in a particular case. There are best practices in practical theodicy, and theoretical concerns come to play here as well. A question I'll leave my Lisbon audience with: when and why - and how - is a religious world so shattered by calamity that people abandon theism altogether?

But there’s more, and this is the thing I wonder if I tasked myself with this topic to work my way through. I've been arguing for yonks that theodicy is a modern project, usually citing Odo Marquard, and have offered all sorts of explanations for its emergence. But only recently have I really started to come to terms with the fact that ours is now a post-theodicistic as well as a post-modern age. (Smith's sacred umbrellas were harbingers for me of this understanding.) This connects to the rise and fall of secularization theory, which I'm persuaded has something to do with the rise and fall of the nation state system. What would a sacred canopy for a pluralistic, syncretic and transnational family look like?

I recently happened on a talk by the sociologist Peter Beyer which has me thinking excited new thoughts about all of this. (I've assigned it as part of my first year seminar, a pendant to and upsetting of Weber's "Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions.") Beyer argues that the various institutions/spheres which became functionally differentiated as a result of modernization - the part of secularization theory everyone accepts - are contingent and might have taken on quite different characters. What determines the forms they take is what he calls the "mutual modeling" of different spheres, and what defines the period just ending is a mutual modeling of church and state whose emblem is the Treaty of Westphalia, birth certificate of the modern state system.

Beyer is interested in "post-Westphalian" things (now religion mutually models with media and economy, he suggests), but I'm drawn to the pre-Westphalian, too. And specifically to Leibniz, whose world was the Holy Roman Empire, a world not of self-defining states but an endless self-callibration of parts and parties. A model for what comes before the age of theodicy? BOAPW in action? Lived religion as politics? Stay tuned!

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