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Reviewed by:
  • Religion: Beyond a Concept
  • Joshua Steven Alvizu (bio)
Hent de Vries , ed., Religion: Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham UP, 2008. xiv + 1006 pages.

Religion: Beyond a Concept (RBC) picks up the torch from de Vries' and Lawrence Sullivan's previous edited volume Political Theologies: Public Relations in a Post-Secular World (Fordham UP, 2006). It surpasses its predecessor in terms of scope, interdisciplinarity, and sheer length, continuing the ambitious project of dramatically reworking and "rethinking 'religion' and 'religious studies' in a contemporary world whose institutions and publics are increasingly 'post-secular' in their outlook" (xiii). Happy tidings, then, that this impressive collection is only the first in a projected five-volume series oriented towards the academic revision and public re-envisioning of religion entitled The Future of the Religious Past: Elements and Forms for the Twenty-first Century and funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Like its predecessor volume, RBC draws its materials from diverse sources, including material from NWO colloquia, other conference proceedings, book excerpts, original essays, and previously published work.

Unlike in Political Theologies (PT), De Vries' introductory essay to RBC, "Why Still 'Religion'?" does not summarize each individual contribution in the volume. In place of such a synopsis, de Vries offers an impressive ninety-eight-page survey of the situation of religion as a troubled and troubling phenomenon, concept, and practice in critical, political, philosophical, sociological, and cultural discourse; a precise and nuanced exploration of the domain and stakes of 'beyond'; and a compellingly argued case for a new conceptual horizon adequate for approaching the troubling phenomenon of religion. Like PT, RBC is less concerned with the ideological content of religion or the "personal beliefs" religion frequently inspires, and is instead more interested in "its singular mental states, propositional attitudes, performative acts, and cultural practices" (36). As such, the volume is guided by what might be called a "cultural materialist" outlook that is concerned with "words, things, sounds, silences, smells, touches, shapes, colors, gestures, powers, affects, and effects" (an extended inventory, perhaps too often reiterated). De Vries also discusses at length and in rich detail multiple strands or idioms of contemporary philosophy and the role religion might play in them, including neo-pragmatism (Richard Rorty), post-analytic or synoptic philosophy (Wilfrid Sellars and Robert Brandom), moral perfectionism (Stanley Cavell), and immanentism [End Page 752] (Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze). Calibrating the strengths and viabilities of these vocabularies, de Vries postulates a "deep or virtual pragmatism" (71), the basis for an approach that is strategic, selective, and flexible in its treatment of religion, deployed "so as to fully appreciate and critically evaluate the total social fact of its appearances, that is to say, of its modes and moods, its motifs and motivations" (5).

Perhaps de Vries' most interesting choice is to engage the work of French philosopher and mathematician Alain Badiou by asking "What would it mean to study religion, not more geometrico . . . but more arithmetico, with numbers, classes, and sets (and not points, lines, and planes) in mind?" (19). Despite Badiou's aggressive and militant atheism, many cannot help but see a definite theological dimension to his philosophy of the event, not least in its repeated Pauline articulation. Badiou's radical ontological pronouncement proclaims the non-being of the One and affirms instead a pure or inconsistent multiplicity that antecedes all ordering, structuring, and counting, or what Badiou calls the regime of the count-as-one. Axiomatic set theory is the science of the pure multiple because the concept of a set is undefined or free, composed of a limitless number of additional sets whose members can also be limitless sets and not reducible or divisible into a defining mathematical or numerical particle. The only foundational property that belongs to a set is the empty set, or the "void," which is the non-determinable, non-derivable, supernumerary origin of all counting and presentation. Similarly, the event or the happening of a truth is a sort of shadow or echo of the void in that it constitutes a sudden break within the set or situation that includes it. Badiou claims there are only four truth-procedures, or types of event: art, science...


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