- Witness:The Sacrality of Secular Writing
Either by dint of folly, fear of boredom, or both, I now teach my introduction to religion course around the HBO series The Leftovers (2014-2017), which is adapted from Tom Perrotta's novel (2011) of the same title. It's not hard to find religious themes in a series centered on those leftover from the mysterious disappearance of 2% of the world's population. Amidst a flurry of storylines, the show poses the central question of how we react to the incalcualable and irrational—in this case, what do we do when tens of millions of people disappear from the earth without warning and in no detectable pattern? In wrenching and introspective ways, the series explores how and why some of us turn to religious explanations to make sense of the senseless and some of us don't.
Watching the series makes it easy to introduce classic terms from religious studies into the course. Words like axis mundi, hierophany, and myth practically roll off the tongue after students watch an episode from the second season in which a town that experienced no "departures" during the event is treated as an unscathed sacred space. Without knowing their names, the class intuits components from classic theorists of religion like Eliade, Durkheim and Marx. My predominantly secular students hone in on how the irreducible and unknown leads humans to tell stories, repeat rituals, and brandish symbols in order to rationalize the irrational.
Despite its pedagogical usefulness, The Leftovers is most significant for its vision of what it means to be a secular person. When I teach an upper-division course on secularity and disenchantment, I am always struck by my students' association of the secular with the mechanical, the rational, the calculable, and the controlled. It is as if Max Weber and Richard Dawkins have been filtered into their theoretical water supply, unconsciously shaping their understanding of a seeming immovable religious-secular binary.
The Leftovers tells a different, and more accurate, story about how we should approach the secular philosophically. After the Departure, various characters turn to nihilistic communities. The uncertainty and unpredictability of the future, rendered in the wake of a once-unimaginable event, leads others down a religious path. But not all of them. Some resist the explanatory power and storehouse of hope proffered by various religious cosmologies and instead live as witnesses to the irreducible and mysterious without recourse to myths of destiny, promises of resolution, or messages of eternity to help them cope.
They are witnesses, but not believers.
During my first meeting with the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, taken during a yearlong residency at L'institut catholique de Paris as a PhD student, I nervously asked him about the potential resonances between his account of saturation and Georges Bataille's rendering of excess. For Bataille, I explained, the absence of God is itself saturating—it leaves le moi passive, transformed, and most of all a witness to an excess it can never master. In Bataille's estimation, to stare into the abyss where God was meant to be is to live "without a narcotic," with no expectation of resolution. Unsurprisingly, Marion resisted the comparison. Bataille doesn't have a good name among French Catholic intellectuals, and it made sense that Marion—perhaps the most famous Catholic intellectual in the world—didn't want to be associated with a man known more for his erotic fiction than anything else. But there was more to it than worries about Bataille's proclivity for visiting Montmartre brothels. According to Marion, Bataille's experience of excess, whether through contemplating the death of God, erotic adventure, or sacrifice (Bataille had a penchant for secret societies and rituals) is like someone who climbs up to a diving platform on a beautiful summer day, basks in the warmth and pleasure of the warm air, takes a deep breath and plunges headlong into the water. Despite climbing to the summit, Marion explained, they always come down. There is no way to sustain the ecstasy.
The lesson of this vignette fits into the concept of the saturated phenomenon and accompanying philosophical approach to revelation...