Humanity now stands at a very specific juncture with respect to the struggle between Sanctuary and the Saeculum. The stalemate between these two forces which dominated the great Silk Road Era from 200 BC-1800 CE has been broken and the Saeculum has become globally hegemonic.
Breaking this stalemate was, historically, the work of one particular group of warrior tribes –the Germanic peoples, and especially the Normans– whose movement into Europe set in motion a process which, by way of the the Norman conquests, the Crusades, the Reconquista, and their prolongation into continuing through the conquest of Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia, led to the scientific and industrial revolutions, and eventually to the hegemony of Global Capital under which we live today. At first this process was legitimated as a way of advancing the sovereignty of the Christian God, and of participating in His creative activity by means of ever more advanced technology and ever more efficient exploitation of human labor. This way found its expression in the diverse forms of Protestant Christianity, and its highest expression in Puritanism and the New Divinity. We call this way theistic secularism (Weber 1920/1968). But soon humanity’s conviction of its own potential and power grew to the point that many began to believe that they could actually build God, or at least transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress and the economic development they make possible. This is the way that we are living today, the way of technocratic secularism (Tipler 1994). We are chained to this way by industrial technology and proletarianization and we live it whether we embrace it or not.
Over the course of roughly the same period the democratic impulse which had always been part of the axial tradition, but which had been eclipsed during much of the Silk Road Era by the reality of stalemate with the Saeculum began to reassert itself, especially in Europe. Peasants, emboldened by the rising value of labor power and the demographic collapse that followed the Black Death fought to liberate themselves from feudal obligations. Cities governed by guilds of artisans and merchants demanded and won self-government from the Holy Roman Empire and the Church (Anderson 1974). These movements almost always articulated their emerging understanding of what it means to be human in terms derived from the axial traditions. Joachism (de Lubac 1979/1981, Leff 1999, Reeves 1999), which proposed to replace the rule of priests and kings with a sort of monastic communism led by the spiritually most developed, and Radical Aristotelianism, which began to give political content to the ancient ideal of the philosopher king, are typical in this regard. But when these movements were repressed in the name of Divine Sovereignty they not surprisingly began to take on an increasingly secular identity, and to assert the already “divine” character of the human and even the material. What had been an axial “left” made a turn towards radical immanentism. It took 700 hundred years, but the popular messianisms of Joachim of Fiore Sabbatzi Zvi (Scholem 1973) on the one hand and the and idealist and materialist mysticisms of Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant (Dahm 1988) on the other eventually became, by way of Gersonides, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, together with countless movements of resistance and revolution by peasants, artisans, and the emerging proletariat, the dialectical and historical materialism of Marx and Engels and Lukcacs. This way we call humanistic secularism of which we will identify liberal, democratic, socialist, and populist variants.
The long epoch between the Revolutions of 1848 and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc (and secondarily the massacre at Tianamen, which put an end to any possibility of a constructive (re)engagement with either ideals or the terror of the Cultural Revolution) was dominated by two principal dynamics. On the one hand, in the metropoles, there was a struggle between technocratic and humanistic secularism. It would be easy to reduce this latter conflict to one between capitalism and socialism, given that Capital is now the principal instrument of the Saeculum and given the prominence, in the epoch between 1848 and 1989 of the socialist variant of humanism, which sought to make the working class, through the medium of the Communist Party, in to the unique subject-object of human history (Lukacs 1921/1971). But humanistic secularism has liberal and democratic and populist variants which focused less on transcending the market than on taming it –the liberal and democratic patterns– or on making the people, through the medium of the nation state, into the unique subject-object of human history –the way of a wide range of populisms from the national liberation movements on the left to fascism on the right.
This said, Lukacs (Lukacs 1953/1980) is quite correct that by 1848 it had become apparent that capitalism was incompatible with the liberal and democratic ideals, so that to the extent that humanistic secularism remained faithful to its metaphysical aspirations, it increasingly took on a socialist character. What Lukacs misses, however, are both the internal contradictions of the project and the inevitability and the horrific consequences of its alliance with technocratic secularism. Any collective political subject coherent and disciplined enough to act as the unique subject-object of human history would also, inevitably, be incompatible with meaningful individual rational autonomy (the liberal form of the humanistic ideal) or internal democracy (the democratic form) which were nonetheless integral to what humanists from Marx through Lukacs were trying to accomplish through socialism. Merely “organizing and directing the historical process,” furthermore, does not carry humanity across the boundary between contingency and necessity, especially in a universe which physics tells us will eventually become inhospitable to complex organization, life, and intelligence. It would be necessary, at the very least, to “organize and direct the entire cosmohistorical evolutionary process.” Thus the necessity of technological god-building, of the sort advocated by Bogdanov and Gorky and Lunacharsky (Rowley 1987). But once we make this move we are back on the terrain of technocratic secularism which is the terrain of univocity and terror. It should thus come as no surprise that when, after liquidating its philosophical advocates, Stalin made the strategy of technological godbuilding into his principal strategy for socialist construction, the result was a complete liquidation of socialism’s humanistic aims and transformed socialism into an Alterimperial development strategy, and ultimately, as the constraints which socialism placed on development beyond a certain point became apparent, just a regional strategy for primitive capitalist accumulation. Serious attempts to make it into something else, such as the Cultural Revolution, led to both economic disaster and a totalitarian nightmare surpassed only by NAZISM.
Fascism, which rose and fell during this epoch, should also be understood as yet another variant of humanistic secularism –as another attempt to create a political subject, in this case the people or the nation— which could carry humanity across the threshold between contingent and necessary being. Its internal contradictions were similar to those of socialism, but more intense, as the romantic, irrationalist, populism on which it was based was openly hostile rather than simply objectively in tension with liberalism and democracy. “Liberated” from socialism’s ideological commitment to rational autonomy fascism actually offered itself as an Alterimperial development strategy, (as one would expect from an ideology which was fundamentally an idolatry of the ethnos and the nation). And this meant becoming unconditionally devoted to the development of just precisely the kind of technological strategies of control which the philosophical advocates of fascism, such as Heidegger (Heidegger 1977), so decried. The results now define for humanity what it means to do wrong.
Meanwhile, on the peripheries, peasant and sometimes artisan sanctuaries resisted vigorously the penetration of capitalist relations of production into their “countrysides” and the incorporation of their homelands into rival Imperia among which the American Imperium was ultimately victorious (Hobsbawm 1958, Wolf 1969). These movements generally, though not always, articulated their aims in religious terms. Some gradually flowed together with democratic and socialist variants of humanistic secularism to produce the religious left which was so prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. Others, where social conditions and the internal dynamics of the religious traditions in question pulled in this direction, took on a fundamentalist cast.
This created the conditions for the much heralded “return of religion” which dominated the final stages of this epoch (perhaps from the Second Vatican Council on) and which persisted after its conclusion, up until the crisis of 2007-2008. But the engagement between humanistic secularism and humanity’s great axial traditions proved tactical or strategic at best and was inadequate to address either the internal contradictions of humanistic secularism or of the religious traditions in question, which were deeply compromised by patriarchy and vulnerable to pronatalist and misogynist reaction.
A more profound engagement between humanistic secularism and the axial traditions might have catalyzed an authentic self-criticism on behalf of humanistic secularism during the period when its internal contradictions were becoming apparent, allowing to it at once to reaffirm its metaphysical aspirations and to recognize their fundamentally religious character, situating the failure of the various humanistic secular projects in a broader historical context while allowing the conservation of humanism’s critical contributions: the insistence on rational autonomy, democratic participation, and the transcendence of generalized commodity production.
Most of humanity’s great spiritual traditions, on the other hand, bear deeply the mark of patriarchy, so that even when they resist the Saeculum, they often do so in a way which leaves unquestioned the “original sin” which lies at its historical roots: the drive to the achieve divinization by means of conquest (of the feminine) and sacrifice (of the human). Humanistic secularism itself came late to its critique of patriarchy, but this critique was available by the 1970s (its most complete form being the work of Mary Daly, perhaps the most important philosopher and theologian of the late twentieth century, cf Daly 1984) and could have transformed sanctuaries which were themselves deeply corrupt and oppressive into authentic liberated zones and bases for resistance to Capital and the Imperium. More broadly, humanistic secularism, because of its respect for but distance from “science,” its development of sophisticated historical-critical and hermeneutic strategies, and its historic commitment to rational autonomy could have helped the axial traditions engage the sciences constructively, effectively breaking the back of fundamentalism, and develop pastoral strategies which respected the right –and cultivate the ability– of individuals to make their own decisions regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value. Despite some creative feminist theologies (Reuther 1974, 1994: Daly 1984, 1998) and creative work in biblical criticism (Gottwald 1979) and around the relationship between religion and science (Barbour 1974, 1997, 2000; Davies 1992, Haught 1995), there was limited doctrinal and institutional transformation at best. Some religious communities, such as the liberal Protestant churches, took all these challenges seriously, but only in the way they trained their clergy. An increasingly literate laos was carefully sheltered from what was taught in theological faculties. Other communities, such as the Catholic Church, opted for engagement with the global poor in part because this allowed them to avoid engaging the question of patriarchy and the demands of a literate laos (Thibault 1971).