Political theology after universalism: John Milton and the secular tradition

Jonathan Dyck

Two recent titles from Stanford UP’s excellent series Cultural Memory in the Present focus on seventeenth century English poetry in an effort to address contemporary debates over theology and secularism.

In Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism, Regina M. Schwartz credits the Protestant Reformation with providing a necessary critique of Church officials who sought to control the domain of mystery and instrumentalize the sacred. At the same time, she cautions, this upending of the sacramental tradition also enabled “a new instrumentality—not of the Eucharist by the Church, but of the sacred by the state” (29). Over the next hundred or so pages, Schwartz explores the effects of this theological-political shift through its expression in the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton. In such post-Reformation poetry, she writes, we see a lingering hunger for the divine, “a poetry that signifies more than it says . . . through image, sound, and time, in language that takes the hearer beyond each of those elements” (7). In other words, Schwartz treats seventeenth century religious verse as a form of compensation for the loss of sacred liturgy; and the effects of this loss, she argues, are still relevant for the way we understand the relationship between theology and secularism today. Continue reading

Borders: An Apology

André Forget

Borders have, in contemporary discourse, had a rather rough time of it. Perhaps, at the end of a century that saw the partition of India and Pakistan, the ruler-happy imperialist line-drawing in Africa and the Middle East, and the blood-soaked, increasingly microscopic division of the Balkans, it is simply impossible to believe that borders are anything but a sign of failure. After all, even the gentlest uses of the word suggest something to be overcome, something to be crossed, and the images most commonly associated with it – barbed wire fences, armed guards, desperate refugees, watchtowers, customs officers – are steeped in the biometric panopticism of the modern state. Even to the white middle class, perhaps the most privileged of all international travelers, the border is an ambiguous site of anxiety and potential trouble. In the academy, the border has become increasingly fashionable as a site of transgression. “Border Crossing” and “Liminality” are celebrated as ways of resisting the totalizing logic of the centre, and even those who criticize (consider, for example, Roy Miki’s excoriation of those who are drawn to the margin’s “curious exoticism”) do so from the position that the border still names a painful division. It would seem that transgression is all the border is good for in the modern world. Continue reading