John Lardas Modern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Franklin & Marshall College, His book Haunted Modernity; or, the Metaphysics of Secularism is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.
This has drawn me to writers and artists who are also interested in the relationship between technology and the way we practice our humanity: people like Herman Melville, Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Thomas Pynchon, and Ralph Ellison. They each inquire into what constitutes agency. If one takes into account technology, it’s no longer quite as clear that there is a single human actor that is determining what is in front of him or her. This doesn’t negate agency, but it definitely makes things more complicated. In the process, we find that the distinctions between the religious and the secular, or science and theology, aren’t quite as definitive as we would like them to be.
NS: This approach leads to apparent contradictions. Evangelicals, for instance, are generally thought of as promoters of a religious social order rather than a secular one. What, then, do you mean when you write of “evangelical secularism”?
JLM: My work on secularism gets at discourse, in an old Foucauldian sense: that there is a field of statements afoot in our world that determine how the concept of religion is understood, how people live it and breathe it. Obviously, you would be hard-pressed not to call evangelicals religious. But at the same time, they are at the cutting edge…of disseminating and advancing different aspects of what we understand as the secular—thinking in terms of the population, statistics, mechanical Utopias, and religion being an integral part of cognitive action and political access.
Our categories for religious and secular go back to an earlier era when being secular meant using technology and religious was the avoidance of technology. Think of the late 19th century debate over machine matzah, technology was the more modern. John Lardas Modern points out the terms are defined for an older century. He lets us understand why Chabad and its use of technology may make it a greater force of secularization than mainline Jewish denominations. He also turns us to start asking questions about agency of Jewish activities on the web, or TV. Does the greater number of Ultra Orthodox blogs than Conservative blogs make the former a greater agency of transparency and secularization than the RA which does not give non-clergy access to decisions? It also opens up the questions of how Jewish spirituality works to balance claims of authenticity and authority with technological innovation and progress.