I have just heard that the proceedings of the launch event for my book Postsecular History will be published as a mini-symposium in the journal Political Theology, including reflections from my friend Jen Otto, my doctoral supervisor Travis Kroeker, and my postdoctoral supervisor Pamela Klassen (and my own response, titled “Beyond the Postsecular?”). I couldn’t ask for more generous engagements with my work.
I have also just received an email with the first review of Postsecular History, written by Paul Doerksen (whose dissertation was also supervised by Travis Kroeker). Paul’s review is also generous, and amidst his supportive comments he points out the structural limits of the book that I too would have noted if I were reviewing it. Postsecular History is an essay collection that collects published and unpublished graduate school essays of mine, united under the banner of a critique of the postsecular. But its unity is questionable, and my attempts to unify it were at times forced – all of which I’m happy to accept, now that the book is published, public, and being read.
But I have more thinking to do about how criticism features in scholarly book reviews, especially because in the same issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review I reviewed Layton Boyd Friesen’s new book Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace. Whereas Paul’s review of my book was almost entirely positive, my review of Friesen’s book was predominantly critical. I don’t enjoy writing critical reviews, and I don’t take pleasure in criticizing the hard work of others. Instead, I try to reserve my critical voice only for those areas of inquiry that have high stakes. For me, in this review, the stakes are high because the distinction between secularity and religion is so often used by Christian theologians to prop up caricatures of ‘bad secularity’ and ‘good religion’ without critical attention to the ambiguities of these terms and the profound limits of using the religious-secular distinction to explain things in the world. I have too often seen this distinction used as a normative and polemical means to write off entire fields of study and forms of life, and I found Layton’s approach to the distinction to be too simplistic, and potentially harmful inasmuch as it contributes to the gatekeeping and boundary maintenance that underpins Christian orthodoxy (which is so often constructed by processes of implicit and explicit demonization and heresy-making).
That said, it is disorienting to read such a generous review of my own – very limited – book, just a page after my highly critical review of another scholar’s first book, and I hope that my criticisms do not shut down, but instead open up, the discourses that I am trying to intervene in (political theology, Mennonite Studies, etc.). The theme of openness, and the difficulty of critiquing violence without repeating the violence of critique, are central to my next book, which I aim to submit to Brill by the end of the year. In Ontologies of Violence I argue that concept of violence is defined by the violation of value-laden boundaries, and that treating violence as a diagnostic concept that reflects the values of its users and critics is a helpful interpretive strategy for reading the approaches to violence taken by Jacques Derrida, Grace Jantzen, and Mennonite philosophical theologians. I see this paradigm intersecting with my work in Postsecular History because each of my main sources in Ontologies of Violence uses theological and political terms to periodize the relationship between origins, essences, and ends, as part of their critiques and metanarratives. So too with the forms of conspiratorial thinking I will attempt to delineate in my postdoctoral project, but more on that another time…