Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy As Love – Unblocking The Road From Athens To Jerusalem, Part 2 (Erik Meganck)

The following is the second of a three part-series. The first can be found here.

Love is not the opposite of planning; openness is not the opposite of enclosedness. Openness is not the new metaphysical principle that deals out signification among all beings. It does not replace God or Geist or Will or any other Supreme Being. It ‘undoes’ these Beings of their supremacy out of Love. It remains impossible to think openness, alterity, hospitality, the way they are meant here, in any enclosed system. There, these terms will be reduced to noncommittal concepts, categories, predicates. Metaphysics cannot deal with this openness where meaning comes in and leaks away, as a movement or event of sense. That scenario is, in the words of Leszek Kolakowksi, “metaphysical horror.”

Late-modern philosophy can be understood as intellectus quaerens fidem. This quaerens is a process, an event that carries the connotation of Love. Hope and trust reconnect planning with openness, with receptivity without expectation and without probability calculus. Thought gratefully opens up to its Christian provenance, to its religious source.[1] Again, not that there is first a religious source and then philosophy has to reconnect with it. The reconnection with a provenance is religious.[2] It has nothing to do with reconfessionalization after an allegedly dark period of secularization.


Secularization, amongst many of its meanings, held the modern promise of redemption, salvation, and emancipation. Instead, it is abused as scientific support for shallow atheism as well as for religious and philosophical indifference. Radicalizing secularization does not remedy this. It is by thinking secularization through the death of God as diagnosed by Nietzsche that the promise of redemption becomes, at least philosophically, acceptable.

Modern metaphysics is motivated by the powerful notion of a Supreme Being and by Leibniz’ grand Principle of Ground, modern heir to Aristotle’s etiology. The incubation, as Heidegger calls it, of this Principle went on for ages. It declares that everything in the world can be accounted for.[3] This intuition lives on in the conviction that science will, one day, explain everything in a Grand Unified Theory.

In as far as it allows planning to take a dominant position in thought, modern metaphysics indeed silently aims at full explanation and manipulation of the world without any reference to hope or faith. Indeed, the difference between “theological” virtues that require divine motivation, and “cardinal” virtues upon which the world literally “hinges”, disappears.[4] Whereas medieval Christianity put up the seven virtues over against the seven sins, modernity leaves this moral structure behind. There only remain virtues, and hope and faith do no longer belong to that list. As a consequence, Love is isolated from thought – to the modern mind, it becomes “soft”, irrational, female,[5] theological.[6]

Current thought is, of course, still heavily marked by modernity and metaphysics, by science and technology, and by secularization. This is the dead God’s shadow that Nietzsche pictures in his famous §108 and §125 of The Gay Science. I think this shadow aligns with what I call, following Nancy, theism. Theism is any thought configuration that generates a system that is held together by one Supreme Being determining all signification (position, status, function, etc.) of every element in the system without there being a “without.”

This recalls the onto-theo-logical structure of thought, but not necessarily with God as Supreme Being. In case God is replaced by any other modern principle, like Reason, Spirit, Matter, History or Will, the shadow takes the shape of a shallow and superficial atheism.[7] This atheism is, however, still a theism and therefore fails to think the death of God through. The “a-” that is tagged onto it has got nothing to do with Nietzsche’s nihilism. It refers to the replacement of God by another Supreme Being within exactly the same theist system. There is still a Supreme Being at work to hold the system together according to the grand Principle. This atheism needs to be led through the death of God.

Modern atheism is almost spontaneously linked to secularization. Inasmuch as secularization is the historical disappearance or removal of God from the cultural, socio-political, and intellectual discourses and systems,[8] it still belongs to theist thought and can be nothing else than a rational, theoretical, or scientific explanation. Not that there is anything wrong with that, except for its presupposed or implied claim to “objectivity.” But what is worse, if secularization does not liberate thought from its theist structure, then it cannot be the emancipating force or event modernity expected it to be. There is no redemption in just replacing God with another Absolute Principle, although this was what modernity expected.

Emancipation and redemption refer to the promise of a better world. When and how can one declare a world “better” than another, without resorting to quantification and calculation? It cannot be the world of planning, because there, a better world is a closed system determined by only a couple of established parameters that can be measured over time. Making the world better would then mean: increasing or decreasing the value of certain parameters. This becomes visible in a form of biopolitics – another term launched by Foucault – where the intrinsic meaning of life shifts to a measurable value: the so-called (and paradoxically often quantifiable) “quality” of life.

This quantification rules out the qualification “better” in the sense that I mean here. Measuring export flow, income, job employment, health security access, and educational success rates is not the way to discern the “hoped-for” world. This “better” that is meant here is not a question of knowing, but rather of hoping. One thing therefore sounds reasonably convincing: this latter world will have to be open instead of closed, to make room for the arrival of a “better” world beyond planning. Then how can we imagine ourselves an open world as different from a closed, planned one?

We should not understand this opening world as leading thought into another world. As we know, Nietzsche has closed off every philosophical access to another world. Transcendence is no longer a matter of the other than the world but rather of the other of the world, says Jean-Luc Nancy. This transcendent alterity entails at least the rejection of absolute pure immanence – the latter turning out to be an “unrealistic” philosophical project.[9] In this transcendence, desecularization persists.[10]

It shows where secularization went too far in its radicalization (see below) and at the same time did not go far enough, failing to dissolve theist structures. Desecularization is not the opposite of secularization. If we take the “de-” of deconstruction instead of the “de-” of deduction and tag it onto secularization, then we allow for the erosion of the latter, thereby also undermining the dominance or primacy of “planning” instead of rejecting planning itself. Desecularization does not abolish, reverse, or deny secularization but spells its dissolution, its decomposition into local and ephemeral processes that do not make up History as a unity, and its endless ending.

By this, I mean that secularization will not, someday, result in a completely non-religious world. Desecularization redirects secularization from God and religion to the systems and institutions that consolidate religion as well as its enemies. It leads thought beyond the pointless ‘God exists!’ – ‘No, he does not!’ polarities.[11] Desecularization drags secularization through the death of God.

Desecularization dissolves the theist frame to which secularization is still indebted. It prevents secularization from becoming the ultimate determination of history, or better: it is the mark of the seeming impossibility of anything becoming the ultimate meaning of history. Since desecularization is not a theist system but rather a “contamination” or “dissolution” thereof, it can never be the successor of secularization. In this sense, desecularization belongs to the post-secular, where it resists theism as well as radicalization of secularization. This may answer John Milbank’s poignant remark that post-modern thought has dismantled every modern ambition except secularism.[12]

I will show that a combination of world-as-opening together with desecularization as introduced above is able to understand how the “return of religion” is actually the re-attachment of thought, of philosophy to its element of hope and faith, thereby becoming a specific act of Love. This re‑attachment entails decardinalization. Decardinalization declares the Aristotelian list of virtues unable to divulge the full moral motivation of thought and the whole moral spectrum of the world.

It also rejects the theological reduction or isolation of the so-called theological virtues. Decardinalization wonders what would happen if thought, or the world, lost hope and faith altogether. It seriously doubts whether hope and faith only belong to a register other than thought, as Enlightenment would have it. It also suggests that hope and faith never really left thought but rather remain under the cultural radar for as long as planning keeps determining thought.

Before going on with the exploration, I first want to show how radicalization of secularization, i.e. the denial or rejection of desecularization, could turn out to be a philosophical cul-de-sac. I will take only one, though explicit and famous, example to illustrate how, when reason secularizes radically, this creates more problems than it pretends to solve. Vattimo is a fervent advocate of a radical secularization of thought and faith.[13] His weak thought explores the dissolution of both metaphysics and the sacred as sources of violence.

Thought is left without any transcendent instance that can declare ongoing interpretations right or wrong. Truth becomes a matter of negotiation and this is, according to weak thought, the effect of Christianity, of history as the revelation of charity. But then, Vattimo declares secularization itself exempt from secularization. He declares charity exempt from (weak) interpretation, because, he asks, who would want to weaken love? Leaving aside the question whether his nihilist charity is the ultimate meaning of Christian love, as he contends, Vattimo denies charity any meaning or sense. Since it cannot be interpreted, it finds itself cut off from thought. This implies that Vattimo posits charity beyond being and thinking, beyond a reality that has become hermeneutic plasma or flux of interpretations that never will become facts.

In its turn, this means that charity secularizes the world from outside, which is Vattimo’s very own definition of metaphysical violence. Secularization becomes a strong metaphysical historical principle at the very core of his weak thought.  Clearly Vattimo’s attempt to connect his critique of metaphysics with charity has failed. So, in as far as we may extend this conclusion to similar attempts to radicalize secularization, this does not seem a very fertile notion. But radicalization is not a necessary condition, vector, or goal of secular thought.

A much more interesting elaboration on secularization is offered by Agamben. [14] Moving as far as possible beyond the still unresolved Löwith-Blumenberg dispute, he “reduces” secularization to a hermeneutic operation. There is no (political, socio-economic, legal, etc.) “substance” (institution, relation, power, activity, etc.) that moves through time from sacred to profane – or not – or has had its theological determination removed so that only a secular one remains – again, or not. Secularization works like a signature. It refers each current signification of the forementioned “substances” back to its original theological context, in order to better understand it. Implied is the contention that science and its modern philosophical backup – the “secular” explanations – are on themselves unable to fully understand actuality, i.e. the current political, socio-economic, legal, etc. constellation. We need the theological references.

Here, I also recognize desecularization at work. A signature is not a concept, nor is it a substance. It has no content and on itself no meaning. It does not by itself add meaning to a specific term, but only refers this meaning back to its theological origin. It does not presuppose, describe, or lean on history, be it as emancipation, desacralization, or anything like that.

Modern atheism and secularization do not seem to be what actually subsists in late-modernity. Perhaps the modern project, viz. total rational explanation and control, became too ambitious after a while – if not from the very start. Planning became too self-confident when it replaced hope and faith by certainty, when thought became method, when world became technoscience. But if superficial atheism and the rejection of hope and faith are proprioceptive errors, what does that tell late-modern thought?

Late-modernity, at least in its continental differential form, rejects absolute objectivity, so those errors are not to be read as merely “wrong.” But the modern focus on method and certainty organized thought in such a way that hope and faith, the element of thought, became suspicious. Modernity has ‘enclosed’ thought around the principle of certainty. Certainty does not allow for any openness. This is why modernity is not really areligious but hyperreligious. It has petrified its belief system into an absolutely certain representation of the world.

Hyperreligious Modernity

During a debate with a known supporter of what I call shallow atheism, he exclaimed “I am convinced, I am absolutely certain that God does not exist.” The comma tells the whole story. At that time I realized that modernity is not areligious as it always pretended to be, it is actually hyperreligious. In that case, thought, philosophy has never been areligious.[15] This yields some interesting consequences.

The shift via that comma has to do with another shift, from parousia to eschatology. In the experience of an immediate second coming of the Savior, with its promise of full explanation of the meaning of life, every cognitive, political, or moral ambition becomes futile and three core virtues would suffice to make the world worthy of such an event. But this second coming is being delayed indefinitely, leaving us with the challenge of provisional and tentative management of the world. Eschatologically speaking, philosophy finds the world ontologically, epistemologically, and morally undecided, or, in short, hermeneutically open.

But modernity has lost or left the eschatological dimension. The Final Judgment that will solve the problem of moral undecidedness, the ultimate judgment of the world that bears no appeal in that the world can no longer be made “better” anymore, is suspended until further notice. This judgment will be that the world is “the best”, cannot be “better”, which is what we all hope for, after all (literally). After waiting in vain for the thief in the night for ages, humanity took ontological, epistemological and moral matters into their own hands.

The world became the field of makeability, certainty, and utility. Man became himself the author of the Grand Narratives, the creator of plans that would make the world “better” within a manageable timespan. Technology overtly supplied the new parousia, called extrapolation. As said before, thinking became planning, method. The world disenchanted, “flattened.”

Morality here does not refer to what we have to do, but how we need to think.[16] The moral question here is not: “What good do I have to do?” (Mt19:16; Mc10:17; Lc18:18) but rather: “How can thought connect with hope and faith?” Only from this connection, a “better” world becomes visible beyond what planning considers possible, manageable. But this connection is still far from being realized. In the words of Nietzsche on the death of God: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.” These men are the people on the market place, laughing at the madman. These are the atheists that have not understood the death of God, those who believe in planning and have no need for the hypothesis of God.

This, of course, reminds of Laplace’s (in)famous reply to Napoleon’s query as to why God was not even mentioned in his celestial mechanics. He claimed he did not need that “hypothesis.” What he forgot to mention is that he needed another hypothesis very badly. He needed scientific reason – i.e. the collaboration of the Cartesian imperative of certainty, of method, of measurability, of alleged objectivity, etc. – as Supreme Being instead of (a biblical) God. Natural law became Newtonian instead of Thomistic. And modern philosophy became the servant of modern science.

I would contend it is the system of objectivity that in its turn produces and supports the notions of makeability, certainty, and utility – the modern metaphysical configuration of thought. I consider this configuration “hyper”-religious. Modern philosophy is superficially atheist when it keeps a theist structure and removes God from the top (which operation is denoted by the prefix “a-”), only to replace this concept by another, like Spirit or Matter or Will or Society. It is hyper-religious in that it has calibrated secular thought so rigidly that its faith comes so near to certainty as to actually identify with it. This is not the certainty of the mystic but of the scientist. It is quite understandable how the collaboration between algebra and experiment, which makes up modern science, did much to push God from the theist throne.

First, Descartes turns God into a concept in terms of makeability, certainty, and utility[17] and then Laplace gets rid of the hypothesis. Indeed, if God guarantees certain truth if-and-only-if you apply the correct procedure, then you need only to focus on the procedure, no longer on God. And so “planning” becomes the name of that configuration.

The “return of religion” is sometimes understood to mean the dramatic reappearance of God and religion on the public stage, full of triumph and retaliation, after having been locked up during modernity. That would be the Hollywood-version. Hope and faith were not strategically or epistemologically removed from thought, they just did not make any sense to planning, the dominant feature of modern thought. There is no real comeback, the de-position of planning as dominant feature has the effect of thought sitting up and taking notice of hope and faith again.

Erik Meganck is a lecturer for FVG Antwerp (Belgium).  He is the author of Nihilistische Caritas? Secula-Risatie Bij Gianni Vattimo (Peeters, 2005) and co-author  of Philosophy and  Polytheism (Walking the Worlds 2016) as well as numerous articles in international journals.

[1] In specifying the Christian context, I certainly do not ignore or reject the historical dialogue with Jewish and Arab theology and philosophy. This context is specified only because of two reasons: the intimacy between Christianity and (Western) metaphysics, and my contingent familiarity with Christian tradition.

[2] In this, it disobeys the modern imperative to reject any authority of tradition.

[3] The Latin version, ‘Nihil est sine ratione’, nothing is without reason or ground, can also suggest that what cannot be accounted for, must be considered non-existent, without “sufficient” value or truth.

[4] Cardo is Latin for ‘hinge’.

[5] Remember what Nietzsche said in the famous fourth chapter of his Twilight of the idols about the idea: ‘it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian.’ Recently, Derrida pointed out that Levinas identified the feminine as the “other,” thereby in a way safeguarding the masculinity of the I, of the “same.”

[6] On the last page of his Short Treatise on the Great Virtues, André Comte-Sponville suggests that love renders virtues redundant; virtues only shine in the absence of love. See André Comte-Sponville, A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues. The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. London: Vintage, 2003.

[7] The utmost shallow version of atheism is the contention that ‘God does not exist’, without explaining what can be meant by ‘God’ and ‘existence’.

[8] This is not the only interpretation of secularization. To name but one: recently, Hans Joas understands it as rationalization of the sacred. Also, secularization cannot explain the persistence of the name (of) God. See Meganck, ‘World without end.’ The neglect of this persistence leads to two one-sided secularization models: one where God disappears, leaving the world; and another where God immerses in the world.

[9] I would admit: if a philosophical giant like Gilles Deleuze could not achieve this, no-one will.

[10] Erik Meganck, ‘Desecularisation. Thinking secularisation beyond metaphysics’ in M. Chabbert; N. Deketelaere (eds.), The Pulse of Sense. Encounters with Jean-Luc Nancy. London: Routledge, 2022, 185 – 201. Desecularization is not a concept that describes an event, on the contrary, it undoes the semantic aspirations of the concept ‘secularization’ by undoing its significationn, its ideological use, its attempts to make a (political) point. Desecularization turns secularization into a signature, to stay with Agamben.

[11] In Zürich, Heidegger once confessed to students that he would like to compose a theology without the word “being.”

[12] John Milbank, ‘The end of Enlightenment: Post-modern or post-secular?’ in C. Geffré, and J.-P. Jossua eds.), The Debate on Modernity. London: SCM Press, 1992, 39 – 48.

[13] Erik Meganck. ‘Philosophia Amica Theologiae: Weak Faith and Theological Difference’ Modern Theology 31, no. 3 (2015): 377 – 402.

[14] Colby Dickinson. Agamben and Theology. London/New York: T&T Clark, 2011, 130 – 137.

[15] Just as Bruno Latour claims that we have never been modern, I claim that we have never been areligious.

[16] Jean-Luc Nancy. ‘What is to be done?’ Diacritics 42 (2014) 2, 100 – 117.

[17] This is precisely what Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – the masters of suspicion, Ricoeur calls them – noticed. God became a rationally dethroned human invention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.