The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion

Article excerpt

The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. By Marcel Gauchet. Translated by Oscar Burge. New French Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. xv + 228 pp. $24.95 (cloth).

In our current age of specialization and focus on particularity, grand theories are much out of fashion. This alone makes the appearance in English of Marcel Gauchet's bold and sweeping political history of religion both refreshing and intriguing. First published in France in 1985, Gauchet's fascinating work argues that the rise of the modern state in the west cannot be understood apart from the shift from primeval religions to monotheistic ones. Indeed, Gauchet contends that the novel dispositions that arise from this shift, dispositions that are forged in response to the tensions residing at the core of Christianity (divine/human, transcendence/immanence, withdrawal/engagement, permanence/change) are themselves largely responsible for creating a way of life in which religious modes of being came to be regarded as functionally irrelevant in the political realm. Thus, on one important level, Gauchet can be read as offering a provocative secularization thesis that suggests that the structural logic of Christianity is itself responsible for its contemporary marginalized status.

Although Gauchet is not the first to offer such a thesis, the story he tells to support it, informed as it is by anthropology, sociology, and political theory, is breathtaking in its originality, breadth and complexity. In fact, part of what makes Gauchet's work so intellectually demanding and satisfying are the intricate turns the story takes: hardly a page goes by whose argument does not hinge on some structural reversal, inversion, paradox, or tension. For example, Gauchet begins his story by criticizing the normal way of narrating religious "development," insisting that from a political point of view, primeval religions were and are not inferior to the ostensibly more sublime monotheistic religions. Instead, adherents of primeval religions, with their widespread acceptance of the "givenness" of the world and their place within it, developed quite different political institutions and sensibilities, ones that left no room even to raise the questions that often preoccupy and perplex modern minds (such as, "Why me?"). That many contemporary people continue to long for such a given order, an order for which they are not ultimately responsible, suggests that such a view of the world continues to have a deep hold on even those who operate primarily with modernist assumptions. …

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