- Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison
If, according to Genesis 1:26, God made man in "Our image, according to our likeness," then postsecular fiction in the current age makes god in man's image, according to our distinctly American likeness: "a kind of supernatural multiculturalism" in which "all truths" and realities "are potentially true" but "no truth and no reality is exclusively true or real" (McClure 19). For in postsecular "stories about new [End Page 845] forms of religiously inflected seeing and being . . . selectively dedicated to progressive ideals of social transformation" (ix), we cannot help but recognize our current moment, embodied in Barak Obama, our avowedly Christian progressive president, and the nation's and world's pluralistic embrace of him. No presidential candidate has ever spoken so publicly, thoughtfully, and deliberately about faith, at once soliciting, in his "Call to Renewal" speech of June 28, 2006, a more substantive discussion about the role of faith in American life and eloquently discussing the importance of faith in treating "our most urgent social problems"—from the global battle against AIDS to gang warfare.
John McClure's defining and unpacking of postsecularism—"a mode of being and seeing that is at once critical of secular constructions of reality and dogmatic religiosity" (ix)—rings true in the fiction that dominates his analysis as well as in the cultural climate from which it emerges and to which it speaks. By surveying the ways in which a range of eminent contemporary novelists—from Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison to Michael Ondaatje and N. Scott Momaday—engage in a "double practice of disavowal and reaffirmation" of the religious (13), Partial Faiths newly configures the terrain of contemporary fiction in terms of tentative, open-ended faith. McClure frames his incisive study with the illustrative case of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America, a map of the broader postsecular movements of our time, and an outline of several philosophical explanations of recent forms of religious resurgence. In that Angels reveals a world "shot through" with supernatural energies and "mysterious agents," yet repudiates fundamentalism and articulates the religious with "progressive political projects," it "models the structures and themes" of the literary narratives with which McClure is primarily concerned (2). While the novelistic turn to the religious ranges from a "cautious probing" to dramatic "ontological openings" (3)—wherein people are born again, the dead arise, and miracles and divine visitations occur—postsecular conversions are always "partial": new believers are delivered not into "well-ordered systems of religious belief," but rather into spiritually affirmative, yet "confusing middle zones" (4).
It is this consistently provisional and selective religious character that makes McClure's interesting study worth reading for cultural literacy. It is not only that his theoretical sweep and close readings alike are nuanced and convincing, it is that his portrait of postsecular fiction reflects so readily the contemporary American milieu. For not only in fiction, but in the recent historic US Presidential Inauguration (to extend the example), were "scriptural traditions . . . affirmed [yet] brought into vertiginous relation with one another, so that larger claims for any one tradition's universal reach [were] denied" (5). In his inauguration speech President Obama said, "We know that our [End Page 846] patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." Obama's explicit inclusion of traditionally eastern religions as well as atheists—for the first time ever in the history of inaugural addresses—likewise brings all these belief systems, along with their skeptical counterparts, to bear on each other in a postsecular fashion.
McClure's dizzying and dense outline of several sociologists of religion and philosophers who essay to explain, in Gianni Vattimo's words, "the pervasive return of religion in contemporary culture," traces the logic of "partial belief" and provides the reader with a working vocabulary and a set of touchstones for the forthcoming analyses of the novels (10). Contemporary literature, it turns out, is less marked by Vattimo...