Chapter 4 Working within a New Paradigm: Hans Joas’s Convergent Trajectory

In: The Post-Secular City
Paolo Costa
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Changing Atmosphere

In the debates that followed the publication of A Secular Age, Taylor himself insisted on the fact that his book was not in any sense a (presumptuous) attempt at theoretical closure, but was written with the intent of entering an (inclusive) field of inquiry into the relations between humanity’s religious past and the multiple modernities under construction today in the different corners of the globe. In a recent collection of essays, the Canadian philosopher reiterated the point by describing A Secular Age “as a first attempt to sketch out the issues and very much in need of amendment and complementation”.1

The spirit in which his mild synoptic view is offered to his readers is thus simultaneously ambitious and humble. The ambition comes from the awareness that what is at stake here is nothing less than a paradigm shift. The modesty, on the contrary, comes from experiencing such disclosure as a preliminary scouting of the field, made possible by an assiduous work of undermining and, if necessary, dismantling certain intellectual prejudices and historiographic clichés.

To sum up, the field of investigation opened up in an independent but convergent manner by authors with different agendas such as Hans Blumenberg, David Martin and Charles Taylor is characterized ex negativo by a distancing from any one-dimensional narrative which, in order to tell a story about the modern transition, follows the trail of a trans-historical substance, whose destiny is either to undergo a chain of metamorphoses or to emerge after having been repressed for millennia, depending on the circumstances.

All these stories of transmutation or enfranchisement of universal powers (Religion, Human nature or whatever) take for granted the dualism between an immanent and an otherworldly side of human life that compete for a scarce good – individual flourishing – by mortgaging it in one direction or another. In one case, it may happen, for example, that, after the breakthrough, hope in the next world appears in the newfangled garb of an unlimited progress towards the best. In the opposite scenario, it may happen that rituals that for centuries have helped to propitiate personal prosperity melt in the air overnight making room for unrivalled technical domination over nature. In both cases, the logic at work remains that of a zero-sum game: nothing (substantial) is created, nothing is destroyed. Secularization is accomplished by following its own internal dynamic: if religion is insubstantial, its dissolution is only a matter of time; if, on the other hand, it is seen as an irreplaceable source of meaning or purpose, its secular avatars will always end up being defective.

In the new horizon, in contrast, the overlapping images of a historical constellation or of a non-teleological process supplant the binary logic of zero-sum game in making sense of human development. From this point of view, the rise of secularity looks compatible with local advances and declines, genuine innovations and no less genuine breakdowns, ingenious or instrumental transpositions of the old into the new, etc. This innovative understanding of secularization has an impact on the scholarly debate comparable to an overall reconfiguration of the view of the problematic relationship between religion and modernity, the results of which are difficult to weigh up today. Once the continuist and subtractive views have been undermined, what remains is first of all a disaggregation and redistribution of the positions in the field.

The second part of the book will focus on those thinkers who, having settled on the belief that the damage inflicted by the deconstructionists on the classical thesis is insufficient to decree the end of an outlook that has shaped the philosophical understanding of the alleged Christianity’s decline since the Enlightenment, devoted themselves to an ingenious work of maintenance of the old paradigm. In this chapter and the next, my goal is to see what it may mean to investigate religion in the wake of the change of atmosphere outlined so far. The task is not easy because we are obviously still in a nascent state and my report will have to rely on clues rather than on evidence, on experimentations rather than on habits. What is certain – at least reasonably certain – is that anyone who shares the puzzlements and argumentative moves underlying the paradigm shift promoted independently by Blumenberg, Martin and Taylor, have to meet a series of challenges that are tantamount to as many axes around which alternative research programmes may revolve.

To begin with, I list three of them.

(1) Even when there is general agreement on the obsolescence of the standard view, there may remain circumstantial disagreement on the actual historical importance of what is left of the secularization process. Once it has been established that it is primarily a European, indeed a Nort Atlantic phenomenon, how much does this exceptionality count when assessed from a global point of view? In other words, can the interest in secularity survive the provincialization of Europe that results from taking a larger and non-stadial perspective on human history?2

(2) Second, the difference of opinion may concern the deeper causes of ‘secularization’, irrespective of the specific meaning given to the term. When we introduce abstract concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘secularism’, are we dealing only with ideal cultural constructs or with real asymmetrical power structures whose effects on people’s lives are material all the way down? In other words, to what extent has European colonialism turned the secular/religious dyad into an ideological and political machinery functional to conceiving and managing social life? What arguments can be deployed to contend that the secularization debate concerns something more than mere questions of power, hegemony and subordination?

(3) Third, there may be more circumscribed and qualified disagreements about the distribution, ratio, and interplay of the various elements that make up the background against which the contingent and local rise of the secular option is grasped under the new paradigm. Do all the mosaic pieces count the same? How many of them have been left in the shadows or given too much importance? And what logic should govern their treatment? Do only compelling reasons and empirical evidence matter, or do the images and metaphors used in orchestrating them also count, and to what extent?

Around the last questions revolves the intra-paradigmatic research work stricto sensu, i.e. the constructive phase to be expected after a successful deconstruction campaign. The development of this fine-tuning of the new paradigm is difficult to predict in the current state of discussion. It is impossible, in other words, to establish a priori whether the reflections of Blumenberg, Martin, Taylor, etc., will give rise to a solid research tradition and, if so, how great, lasting and fruitful that tradition will be. There are signs that something like a school of thought is already taking shape. In any case, the positive outcome seems to depend more on the actual relevance of the object under study (secularization or European modernization) than on the quality (difficult to dispute) of the overall theoretical operation. Everything depends, in other words, on whether in the future there will still be an urgent need to discuss the supposed decline of what we now agree to call ‘religion’.

Pragmatism and Creativity

One of the thinkers who best exemplifies an attitude of critical endorsement of the emerging new paradigm is the German philosopher and sociologist Hans Joas. His intellectual trajectory is interesting in many regards.3 For generational reasons, Joas, who was born in 1948 in Munich, contributed tangentially to the deconstruction of the secularization ‘theoroid’ as a privileged interlocutor of David Martin and Charles Taylor. However, the richness and originality of his scientific production go far beyond this subsidiary contribution and make it relevant in its own right.4

The most salient feature of Joas’s intellectual profile is the consistency of his thought, which has steadily unfolded around a philosophical core that has remained substantially unchanged since the 1970s. This theoretical axis has a name: pragmatism, and it gives the German sociologist’s reasoning style an unmistakable down-to-earth and affirmative flavor. In Joas’s neo-pragmatist perspective, human history appears as an open-ended experiment, where action processes always prevail over substance. Human beings are seen, that is, as embodied beings, always situated in specific contexts of action, who are never purely spontaneous or utterly helpless (except in extreme cases of destruction of the minimal conditions for personal dignity). It is against these circumstances that the effectiveness and value of human creativity may stand out.5 The latter always exceeds the repertoire of habitual actions since, in response to specific challenges, it simultaneously relies upon and encourages an increased prospective reflexivity, which is expedient to reconfigure the perception of the context of action and expand the list of the agent’s skills and motor abilities.

From a pragmatist point of view, the agent is able to produce something new not in spite of, but in virtue of its situatedness. This outcome is not teleologically guaranteed. On the contrary, it is structurally contingent, as it is the result of an experimentation and reorganization of the epistemic field stimulated by an environmental pressure that is never affectively neutral. The underlying model is that of a habitual behaviour that got stuck. The hold-up causes a condition of discomfort, to which the agent may respond creatively or uncreatively. The creative response involves an extension of the capacity for action enabled by a structural transformation of the intentional environment. Examples may range from interrupting a habitual itinerary to dealing with a misunderstanding in an emotional or professional relationship. In all cases, routine behaviour loses its fluidity and only a true innovation can re-establish a condition of aproblematic spontaneity.6

Joas’s fifty years of outstandingly productive research have been boosted by this guiding image of a recursive cycle of situated innovation and systematic reality check.7 The way in which, on a case-by-case basis, he interprets the phenomena that arouse his curiosity never disavows the pragmatist archetype of an agent endowed with (not infinite, but real) resources who always retains a margin of initiative even against the systemic forces governing human societies or the long-term trends on which historical grand narratives are based. This explains the incessant references to the concreteness of the context of action that punctuate Joas’s reasoning on general issues such as the future of Christianity or the relationship between violence and religion.8

The Fact of the Formation of Ideals: Norms and Values

This empiricist pathos is not to be confused, however, with a positivistic devaluation of the non-material and non-instrumental dimensions of experience. On the contrary, in the German sociologist’s view, values and ideals, as well as their genesis or formation, are a basic fact of the human condition. To put it concisely, people have experienced their collective existence as an intertwining of factuality and ideality since the dawn of time. Human social practices, after all, are regulated ways of doing things that, besides being instrumental for action coordination, convey an idealized image of what the community at its best should be. As Durkheim observed in the Elementary Forms of Religious Life: “The ideal society is not outside the real society; it is part of it”.9 This is precisely “das Faktum der Idealbildung” – the fact, that is, that “new ideals are always being born in the course of history, breaking with the old ones and giving new directions to actions”.10

Joas’s main goal, however, is not so much to endorse the role played by duties and norms in orienting people’s choices, as to elaborate a portrait of the human condition that rejects the image of an unbridgeable gap between the genesis of strong evaluations (i.e. the concrete situations in which moral agents operate) and their validity (which can never be totally independent of the recognition on the side of the people involved). The concept of Wertbindung (value bindingness or commitment) fulfils this bridging function in Joas’s argument. Values have and cannot but have an inherent relationship with flesh and blood people, even when they are experienced as objectively self-evident. In other words, they are (partly) perspectival goods or, to invoke a renowned expression of Max Scheler’s, they are “goods-in-itself-for-me”: goods whose desirability does not depend entirely on the fact of being desired, but which cease to be motivating once they are conceived as mere ideal contents detached from any relationship with the agent who relies on them. To evoke a formula used by Joas in a crucial passage of the Sacredness of the Person: “Werten ohne Bindungen nur Behauptungen sind aber nicht wie bloße Behauptungen behandelt werden können” – “values without commitment are mere assertions, but values with commitment cannot be dealt with in the same way as pure assertions”.11 In other words, the ability to ‘seize’ the agent, to offer itself as an intimate appeal, is part and parcel of the nature of value.

This personal and experiential linkage, however, does not play the same role for norms, the other guise under which the sui generis force of moral demands manifests itself in human affairs. In short, people’s ethical life, observed “from the actor’s perspective”, can be described as a Wechselspiel, an interplay, of desires, norms and values.12 Desires are prima facie reasons for action, which, in a social context of latent clash between conflicting aspirations, are normally bounded by external dictates that restrict the individual’s behavior on the basis of external, suprapersonal, possibly impartial compelling reasons.13 My (subjectively motivating) desire to have a life full of pleasures and satisfactions is sooner or later destined to collide with social rules and prescriptions that impose, among other things, respect for the body, property, and dignity of others and restrict individual freedom in the name of a higher general interest.

But the agent’s ethical life does not stop at the friction between rules and first-order desires. People view some of their own goals as particularly worthy of being pursued, i.e., as goods of a higher order. These are precisely the values, on which people rely in their hard choices and which depend on ‘strong’, contrastive evaluations, not on mere subjective weighing or preferences, which, when the chips are down, are little more than matter of indifference for them.14 One may understandably want to spend a quiet afternoon and much prefer it to a day spent shopping in a mall, but this desire is simply bound to vanish into thin air when faced with an unexpected visit from a loved one or a desperate plea for help from a family member. The motivating force of the two goods (cushy life and unconditional love) responds in fact to profoundly different psychological dynamics. In the second case, that exercises Joas the most, the urgency of volition is magnified by the disclosure of an ideal space that positions the first-order desire in a non-homogeneous horizon of higher values and meanings. In this sense, observes Joas, “values are necessarily reflective – they are emotionally laden standards for the reflective evaluation of our standards” of judgement.15

The ideals which impose themselves in people’s lives with subjective evidence and emotional intensity are not, strictly speaking, ‘chosen’. Rather, they ‘burst’ into daily life: they are encountered, that is, with a clarity and force which is never affectively neutral. Using a most apt neologism, one could say that people have access to values in ‘axiophanic’ experiences. In other words, values open up to people, and their manifestation involves both a sense of being ‘seized’ and a life-changing breakthrough for those who undergo such epiphanies.16

The association with first-person experience is crucial here. The binding tie with value cannot be established in a condition of detachment or disengagement. For Joas, values do not ‘convince’ people. That is, they do not merely win their reasoned assent, but function as life’s axles, as veritable centres of existential gravity. In particular, personal ideals give substance to the self as a principle of action, anchoring it to a dimension of experience that makes it something more than a minded junction of physical causes. Only in this way does that special form of moral creativity that characterizes human beings at their best become possible. Viewed in this light, the Idealbildung, the formation of the ideal, can also be thought of as the source of authentic experiences of self-transcendence.17

Hierophanies and Axiophanies

“Self-transcendence” is the key concept for understanding what Joas has in mind when he talks about the special quality of human creativity. The heart of the matter should be clear by now. First-order desires, or subjective preferences, are simple, self-contained mental phenomena. Norms, in turn, albeit relying on ideal force, do not go beyond an external limitation of individual behaviour and volition. They are accordingly unable to disclose a new field of action and judgement to the regulated subjects. Such space becomes accessible only by means of axiophanic experiences, thanks to which agents establish personally binding commitments with sources of value that act as ideal forces capable of deeply transforming the identity of persons, giving them an unprecedented capacity for action and choice.

With the genesis of new Wertbindungen people can actually have the impression of being pulled beyond themselves. They thus come into contact (individually or communally) with a good (or an evil) whose import, anomaly and intensity produces a rupture with the daily routine, arousing that feeling of being seized and driven by an unknown and unusual force that is typical of the experiences of the sacred (the “fundamental anthropological phenomenon”, according to Joas).18 In such uncommon circumstances, which at the same time absorb, destabilize and move the people involved, something is impressed on their senses, memory and imagination, leaving behind a trace, or rather a ‘pattern’ that is not immediately comprehensible and provides much food for thought (better: for articulation).

Axiophanic experiences, just like hierophanies, are neither self-interpreting nor self-authenticating. Since they are semantically and hermeneutically opaque, they are always susceptible to an individual and collective work of interpretation, which takes place not only through (theological or moral) doctrines and theories, but just as often in myths, sagas, ceremonies, rituals, mimetic performances, collective practices, cosmic and anthropological imageries. Together all these vehicles for articulation convey the power of an ideal, which is not easy to invoke and arouse in social life.

Religions and ethics are thus ways of giving a recognizable, figurative and propositional form to the characteristically human experience of strong evaluation. By this I mean the personal impact with ‘value’ in its distinctive ability to disclose worlds by sacralizing or desacralizing objects, places, people or action realms. Over the last few centuries, for example, the sacralization of (flesh and blood) people and their (ordinary) lives, in lieu of impersonal powers such as nation, clan, land, ancestors, has had a huge impact on the legal sphere (human rights), the political sphere (liberal democracy), the social sphere (individualistic egalitarianism), the existential sphere (the ethics of authenticity), etc., in the West. Anyone interested in explaining and establishing the meaning and worth of such changes must first of all shed light on their historical genesis. In other words, he or she has to understand how the relevant innovation was produced and by what kind of problems the moral creativity of people was inspired. Such accounts do not necessarily presuppose an unmasking intent. That is, they do not demand the reduction of a claim to (timeless) validity to its tangible and contingent foundation. Put otherwise, there can be an “affirmative genealogy” of values and axiophanies.19

Secularization as a Historical Innovation

Now, given the above, how does this theoretical framework shape Joas’s interpretation of a salient historical transition – or one whose salience has long been assumed – such as secularization? How can his contribution to the understanding of religion’s recent developments and future prospects be condensed in an account that, in spite of its conciseness, does justice to its originality?

From now on, to make my argument more tight-knit, I will base my account on the umbrella question to which the German sociologist seeks to give a persuasive answer: to what extent can secularization be regarded as a significant historical innovation?

Broadly speaking, the first goal of Joas’s argumentative strategy is that of rendering epistemologically plausible and operationally explicable what is left of the concept of secularization after the deconstruction of the classical thesis carried out convergently by historians, philosophers, sociologists and theologians over the last fifty years.

The major obstacle to this project is the semantic vagueness of the term. If ‘secularity’ does represent a novelty in modern history, we must be able to indicate precisely what happens (or what can be expected to happen) when something or someone becomes secularized. The word, however, notoriously has an intricate origin. It originally had a juridical meaning, denoting the passage of a person or property from an ecclesiastical jurisdiction to a worldly one (or worldlier than the former, as in the change of a cleric from regular to diocesan clergy). Only later, it takes on a double metaphorical value. Secularization then becomes synonymous, on the one hand, with the decline of the ‘transcendent’ in favour of the ‘mundane’ or, alternatively, with the reconciliation of the transcendent with the mundane, for example under the form of the end of God’s estrangement from human history. In both cases, however, the meaning of such decadence and sublation remains vague. What exactly is it that declines? The quality or quantity of belief? The participation in rituals? The social influence of religion? The claim to universality and self-sufficiency of the ‘higher’ religions?20 And, on the other hand, what is the nature of the substance that transforms itself in the sublation process? By what name should we call it: by the appellation originally given to it (e.g., Providence) or by the one earned with the benefit of hindsight (e.g., Progress)?

Since each of these questions raises controversial methodological issues and cannot count upon unequivocal empirical support (just think of the differences between Europe and America and between them and the Middle East or Africa), the lesson Joas draws from the impasse is a plea to inductive caution and theoretical parsimony. Nothing in reality and in what we know about it guarantees that secularization is a well-demarcated and unambiguous historical phenomenon. This is why Joas includes it among the “gefährliche Prozessbegriffe” – the insidious concepts of process that can “lead sociologists astray whenever they try to use them to place their analysis of the contemporary world on a historical foundation”.21

Caution, however, does not justify an underestimation of the family resemblance between the uses of the concept that have been made since its introduction without fanfare during the sixteenth-century. This is an important point and the German sociologist is adamantine about it: “it is crucial that the weakening of the secularization thesis does not cause us to lose sight of the phenomenon of secularization. […] So overcoming the thesis of secularization does not mean ignoring secularization. It means grasping its diverse forms”.22 To put it otherwise, there is a specific historical experience behind the weakening or cross-pressuredness of religious mentality and practice in some crucial areas of the planet during the last three centuries. What remains to be elucidated is how the distinctive but non-homogeneous character of this historical novelty should be understood.23

Let me get straight to the point: what might be the “innovation” that distinguishes a secularized condition from a non-secularized one? If, according to common usage, the adjective ‘secular’ is taken to be meaning the property of an object or event that is experienced as near or familiar (or, if you will, as mundane, ordinary), then the novelty brought about by a secularization process is essentially the result of a subtraction effect. Secularization, from this point of view, is above all re-appropriation and, by extension, liberation, emancipation, relief from a condition of external dependence suffered by those undergoing it. More specifically, it indicates redemption from subordination to a both historical and supra-historical power over which the actors were unable to exercise any form of control. Secularization, in a nutshell, appears then first and foremost as de-secration, dis-enchantment, de-mystification.

It must be remarked, however, that such profanation acts are not noteworthy historical innovations as such. After all, the loss of sacredness of a place, practice or institution may be a temporary diversion or mark an intermediate stage in a religious tradition. Indeed, it makes little sense to speak of merely negative or subtractive changes in the case of modern disenchantment. For the aforementioned profanation acts do not take place within an axiological field that remains unchanged. If, for example, the role of the Goddess of fortune in shaping human destiny is deflated, new stories have to be told and theories concocted about the actual causes of personal flourishing and bad luck. Stretching out the metaphor a little bit farther, we could say that the poles orienting the value gradients are reversed alongside the tentative drives towards desacralization. High and low, heaven and earth, invisible and visible, to cut a long story short, invert accordingly their function in orienting people’s life plans.

Ideally, in order to be a genuine historical innovation, secularization must hence also include the genesis of something new, in particular new values and, parallelly, new subjective experiences of the sacred with the related collective efforts to mark out areas or aspects of life previously regarded as ordinary. From this point of view, the best way to describe secularization is in terms of the emergence of a historically unprecedented spiritual opportunity: the “secular option”.24

Waves of Secularization

The rise of the secular option is indeed a novelty, and this novelty consists primarily, as Blumenberg had foreseen in the 1960s, in the massive spread of a claim to human self-assertion (and self-sufficiency) without precedent in history. In the new spiritual landscape, the psychologically mature, responsible subject, whose self-determination is accomplished by resisting both the inertial force of the emotions and the lurking temptation to intellectual submission, is acclaimed and propagated as a universal model to be imitated. And this “deep cultural transformation” is the result of the emergence of new sources of values, new secular goods-in-itself-for-me (nature, reason, authentic self, progress – depending on the situation) that reorient people’s moral topography, their sense of self as agents who are not at the mercy of the world.25

For Joas, however, bringing to light this moral background is not enough to solve the riddle of secularization. As he remarks in his meditation on the ‘waves’ of secularization,

there are two different explanatory issues that must be clearly separated from one another. First, we must explain how the secular option became available, and, second, we must explain why this option, as soon as it became available, proved so attractive to some and so repugnant to others – why in other words, this option was embraced to such different degrees by different national or regional milieus, social strata, genders, and generations.26

To wrap up, secularization is a real historical phenomenon, the precondition for which is a major cultural change (the rise of the secular option). As a matter of fact, however, there is no ‘secularization’ as such, but individual episodes of secularization, the quality and intensity of which depend on a series of (economic, political, social, intellectual, etc.) factors that act as fields of tension which systematically interpose themselves between the causes (e.g., urbanization or the Scientific Revolution) and the effects (e.g., de-Christianization). It is within these fields that the various (secularizing or counter-secularizing) agents operate, with their more or less rich material and spiritual resources, which can meet the context, alternately, either as a challenge that can be won or as a game lost from the start.

This is why it is crucial, in Joas’s view, to describe secularization as a historical innovation. In fact, from his point of view, it is futile to try to understand the fluctuating destiny of religion in recent centuries disregarding the local socio-political-cultural constellations and their contingent and open-ended nature. In this sense, fetish concepts such as ‘modernization’ or ‘modernity’ are not helpful, and may even prove detrimental to the correct interpretation of the actual processes of secularization.27 They are, in fact, “polemical concepts, into which normative contents are surreptitiously introduced […] in order to be able, at the end of the day, to affirm the historical overcoming of what is being fought”. The real alternative to this way of reasoning steeped in finalism and not immune to the allure of suprapersonal forces is to “describe the processes of social change […] without losing sight of contingency”.28

Joas’s polemic against teleological or processual views of history goes so far as to recommend an overall reorganization of the repertoire of metaphors with which scholars have tried to focus on the various patterns that emerge from a long-run bumpy historical shift such as secularization. Thus, distancing himself from the images of the ‘vector’ or the ‘nova effect’ favoured by Taylor, Joas suggests conceiving the non-random contingency of this complex phenomenon in terms of ‘waves’ which, despite their undeniable impact on the morphology of a society or an entire era, are never the last word, but are constantly followed by ebbs and flows, i.e. by “a massive movement in the opposite direction, a revitalization of faith, a modernization of doctrine and/or organizational structures, sometimes even a return to tradition, which generally make it difficult to perceive their innovative character”.29 As seen above, even the spontaneous cadence of the situated creativity of human agents resembles the swinging of a pendulum.

The Secular Option and the Axial Revolution

In conclusion, one question remains to be answered. Having established that there are compelling reasons to see secularization as a two-sided (i.e., both episodic and framing) historical innovation, how legitimate is to describe it as a major innovation?

If by ‘major’ one means ‘epochal’ or even ‘universal’, Joas’s answer appears to be conspicuously cautious. On the one hand, secularization is not a de facto universal historical phenomenon. Not all the nations of the world, in fact, are as secularized as some European countries are (e.g. Great Britain, France, Spain, the Czech Republic or the Scandinavian countries). This being said, however, it cannot be excluded that secularity, understood as an unprecedented spiritual opportunity, constitutes a ‘universalizable’ historical achievement, that is, an innovation that can be appropriated in contexts even profoundly different from the original one. In this regard, the German sociologist seems to lean towards a suspension of judgement.

A comparison with another momentous historical change examined on several occasions by Joas can help to clarify the point I would like to make. The so-called ‘Axial turn’, if one agrees with his opinion, is a crucial episode in the evolution not only of religions, but of humankind as such. The Axial age, for Karl Jaspers, who first brought it to the attention of the educated public after World War II, and if we have to rely on the opinion of that group of sociologists who since the 1970s has tried to bring it down from the heights of philosophy of history to the empirical level of historical sociology, is the era of the discovery of transcendence.30 In a relatively short period of time (the mid centuries of the first millennium BCE), the “Mythical age” came to an end as founders of new cults and lifestyles such as Socrates, Confucius, Buddha or the biblical prophets reconsidered and re-imagined through an ordering effort of titanic proportions the gap between Gods and humans, the divine and the earthly, the celestial and the mundane. As a result, a chasm opened up in human life that was as huge as that which separates the infinite from the finite. “According to the new perspective – remarks Joas – the crucial point is that, during this age, the divine is transformed into the Real, into the True, into the totally Other, compared to which what is earthly cannot but appear deficient, lacking”.31

This “articulation of a tension without historical precedent between the ideal and the real” is revolutionary in that it constitutes the precondition for launching an in principle endless campaign of desacralization of all worldly powers which proclaim themselves of sacred origin and for a repositioning of the source of sacredness that problematizes it at the root, making it ‘reflexive’ and, consequently, fostering an unequalled dynamism.32 The latter is mainly the product of the injection of a universalist impulse into the all too human tendency to pursue parochial goals. As Joas says:

with the innovations of the Axial age came a potential for the desacralization of political power that has never been quelled or eradicated since then. Hence, from the Axial period onwards, the history of the relationship between religion and politics becomes a story of endless tensions – tensions that we must reconstruct and weigh up without prejudice, taking into account all the traditions of the Axial period, but also the particularistic limitations of such developments.33

The history of human civilizations after the Axial revolution – the prototype, in Joas’s eyes, of a historical innovation of universal scope – is therefore characterized by the wavering between thrusts towards desacralization (especially of parochial claims to absolute domination) and (more or less reflexive) resacralization. In particular, after the advent of universal religions, the development of the culture of human rights represents for the German sociologist “the second great historical wave of a radical desacralization of power”.34 And this is systematically intertwined with the rise of the secular option. Modern secularity as such does not put religion out of action – that is, it does not represent the end of the Axial turn and the beginning of a new spiritual revolution of similar magnitude – but it does involve a restructuring of the field of ideal forces within which the creativity of human action unfolds. The main symptom of this change is the growing awareness that faith and religion – unlike the experience of the sacred – are not anthropological universals, but significant options offered to individual and collective initiative.

Neither religion nor irreligion represent, therefore, the destiny of humanity. What is really at stake in the new horizon disclosed by the rise and rapid success of the secular option is the effectiveness and intensity of possible antidotes to the absolutization of particularisms. From this point of view, neither post-axial religions such as Christianity nor secular ethics such as, for instance, utilitarianism offer infallible guarantees against the periodic return of barbarism in human history. Hence, for Joas,

the most important front running through moral and political disputes today is not that between believers and nonbelievers but that between universalists and anti-universalists, and both of these groups include both religious and nonreligious people. […] What worries me is not that secularization may destroy morality as such, but that a weakening of Christianity undermines one of the pillars of moral and legal universalism. If this universalism came into the world historically in association with notions of transcendence, as asserted in Karl Jaspers’s Axial age thesis, it is not certain that it will ultimately survive the loss of their original basis. But a concern is not the same as a battle cry.35

Resisting Disenchantment

To wrap up my argument, I would say that the most reliable evidence that Joas is operating within a new paradigm – apart from his recurring references to the obsolescence of the classical thesis of secularization36 – are the time and energy he devotes to the maintenance of the new framework of understanding through, depending on the circumstances, clarification of concepts and vocabulary, identification of exemplary case studies and systematic empirical check on some crucial sociological diagnoses (fragilization of beliefs, increase in the rate of conversions over a lifetime, hyperpluralism, etc.).

In the background, shoring up the solidity of the theoretical edifice and the validity of the investigative effort, lies a neo-pragmatist view of human history where the emphasis falls on the creativity of flesh and blood actors and on the contingency (not to be confused with randomness or arbitrariness) of historical events. This is all the more true when it comes to explaining a heterogeneous social and spiritual phenomenon such as the rise of the secular option and the waves of secularization regularly happened over the last 250 years. The main effect of this historical breakthrough was a drive to marking out and positioning ‘religion’, which ended up stripping it of the natural and universal character that had been attributed to it for centuries. Faith thus becomes an option by default and in the broadest sense of the term. Put succinctly, after the rise and mass spread of the secular option, even those with a strong faith are brought to recognize that religious belief is not the ‘normal’ form of human life and that “it has in principle become possible not to believe”.37

Belief and unbelief are both ideal options that call for human initiative and creativity. They are not etched in the rock of Horeb or in the biological evolution of the human race. The deeper meaning of Joas’s influential work resides precisely in his successful attempt to purify from any residual finalism the grand narratives which are still instrumental to describing the prehistory, rise and consequences of modern secularity. As he himself summed up the issue in clear-cut terms: “the break with teleological and evolutionist conceptual schemas does not […] excuse us from narrating a comprehensive history and relating it to the genesis and fate of our ideals”.38 With explicit reference to Max Weber, Joas has singled out the historiographic paradigm based on the idea of a progressive process of disenchantment (Entzauberung) or rationalization as the main sociological idol to overthrow.39 It is not surprising that a thinker who attributes a decisive role to hierophanies and axiophanies has no patience for a view of history and of the human mind that has gone so far as to dismiss the “glorious pathos of the Christian ethic” as an obstacle to the manly duty of looking “the fate of the age full in the face”.40 Resisting the allure of disenchantment is a motto that aptly summarizes Joas’s contribution to the deconstruction of the theorem of secularization.


Cf. Taylor, Charles, “A Secular Age outside Latin Christendom: Charles Taylor Responds”, in Akeel Bilgrami (ed.), Beyond the Secular West: Religion, Culture, and Public Life, New York: Columbia University Press 2016, p. 249.


Cf. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference – New Edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2008.


For a bio-bibliographical portrait of Joas, cf. Kloppenberg, James T., “Signs of the Sacred”, in: Commonweal (2/2022); see also my introduction to Joas, Hans, La fede come opzione. Possibilità di futuro per il cristianesimo, edited by Paolo Costa, Brescia: Queriniana 2013, pp. 5–12.


Of the large body of texts that make up Joas’s bibliography only those writings which more or less directly touch on the subject of this book will be examined here. For a general introduction to Joas’s work see Sabine Schößler, Der Neopragmatismus von Hans Joas. Handeln, Glaube und Erfahrung, Münster: LIT 2011. An overview of his own itinerary is given by the author himself in Hans Joas, Valori, società, religione, edited by Ugo Perone, Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier 2014 and in his recent reply to the authors: Joas, Hans, “Kritik der ‘Entzauberung’ und Theorie der Sakralisierung: Voraussetzungen und Konsequenzen”, in Magnus Schlette/Bettina Hollstein/Matthias Jung/Wolfgang Knöbl (eds.), Idealbildung, Sakralisierung, Religion. Beiträge zu Hans Joas’ ‘Die Macht des Heiligen’, pp. 493–514.


Cf. Joas, Hans, The Creativity of Action, trans. by J. Ganes/P. Keast, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996.


Cf. Joas’s reply to Hermann Deuser in Schäfer, Heinrich Wilhelm (ed.), Hans Joas in der Diskussion: Kreativität – Selbsttranszendenz – Gewalt, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag 2012, p. 53: “Im klassischen Pragmatismus […] geht es dagegen um das Wechselspiel kreativer Innovation und realstüchtigter Bewährung” (at the core of classical pragmatism is the interplay between creative innovation and reality check).


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 21: “I have the impression that I have been developing for forty years a thought that I grasped back then in an intuitive way”.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option: Possible Futures for Christianity, trans. by A. Skinner, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, ch. 8 and 9.


Cf. Durkheim, Émile, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. by C. Cosman, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001, p. 317 (quoted in Hans Joas, Valori, società, religione, p. 141).


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 140. See also Joas, Hans, The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights, trans. by A. Skinner, Washington (D.C.): Georgetown University Press 2013, pp. 102–108; Joas, Hans, “Gefährliche Prozessbegriffe. Eine Warnung vor der Rede von Differenzierung, Rationalisierung und Modernisierung“, in Karl Gabriel/Christel Gärtner/Detlef Pollack (eds.), Umstrittene Säkularisierung. Soziologische und historische Analyse zur Differenzierung von Religion und Politik, Berlin: Berlin University Press 2012, pp. 603–622; cf. now also Joas, Hans, The Power of the Sacred: An Alternative to the Narrative of Disenchantment, trans. by A. Skinner, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2021, ch. 6.


Cf. Joas, Hans, The Sacredness of the Person, p. 176.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Combining Value Pluralism and Moral Universalism: Isaiah Berlin and Beyond”, in: The Responsive Community (9/1999), pp. 24 and 26.


On the intricate interlocking of desires, norms and values in human moral life, see Lutz Wingert, “Wertbindung ohne Relativismusfalle?” and Joas’s reply, both in Heinrich Wilhelm Schäfer (ed.), Hans Joas in der Diskussion, pp. 89–117. For a helpful overview, see Joas, Hans, “Wie entstehen Werte? Wertebildung und Wertevermittlung in pluralistischen Gesellschaften“, a lecture delivered on 15 September 2006 (, date of last access: 11.04.2022).


On how values and value commitments arise, see the introductory chapter in Joas, Hans, The Genesis of Values, trans. G. Moore, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2000, pp. 1–19.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Combining Value Pluralism and Moral Universalism”, p. 22.


I discussed the epiphanic nature of moral experience in a dialogue with Stefano Cardini focused on The Sacredness of the Person. Cf. Costa, Paolo/Cardini, Stefano, “Genealogia dell’Homo sacer”, in: La società degli individui (3/2016), pp. 155–164.


On the experience of “self-transcendence” (Selbsttranszendenz), see Joas, Hans, Do We Need Religion? On the Experience of Self-transcendence, trans. by A. Skinner, Abingdon: Routledge 2016, ch. 1.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 138.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “The Emergence of Universalism. An Affirmative Genealogy”, in Peter Hedström/Björn Wittrock (eds.), Frontiers of Sociology, Leiden: Brill 2009, pp. 15–24; see also Joas, Hans, The Sacredness of the Person, ch. 4.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Society, State and Religion: Their Relationship from the Perspective of the World Religions: An Introduction”, in Hans Joas/Klaus Wiegandt (eds.), Secularization and the World Religions, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2009, p. 6 et seq.; Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, ch. 1.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Gefährliche Prozessbegriffe”, p. 603; Hans Joas, The Power of the Sacred, p. 195.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 39.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 39: “It is important to point out here that all secularized societies, to modify Tolstoy’s famous phrase at the beginning of Anna Karenina, are secularized ‘in their own way’”.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Die säkulare Option. Ihr Aufstieg und ihre Folgen“, in: Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie (57/2009), pp. 293–300; now also in an expanded and slightly revised version in Joas, Hans, Im Bannkreis der Freiheit. Religionstheorie nach Hegel und Nietzsche, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 2020, pp. 250–271.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Schiavitù e tortura in una prospettiva globale. I diritti umani e la tradizione occidentale”, trans. by D. Biondi, in: Vivens Homo (26/2015), p. 338: “A cultural transformation, in the full sense of the term, occurs when new values become subjectively self-evident and affectively intense for human beings”. On the same topic, see Joas, Hans, Sind die Menschenrechte westlich?, Munich: Kösel Verlag 2015.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 41.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 128.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 31. Contingency, ça va sans dire, is a key word in a philosophical view centered on the creativity of agents. Wrapping up the issue, Joas has significantly argued that “a theory of contingency is the macrosociological pendant to a theory of action focused on creativity” (cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 134).


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 92.


On this topic see Jaspers, Karl, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. by M. Bullock, Abingdon: Routledge 2021; Bellah, Robert N. /Joas, Hans (eds.), The Axial Age and Its Consequences, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 2011; Costa, Paolo, “La sfida teorica dell’assialità”, in: Politica & Società (4/2015), pp. 169–190.


Cf. Joas, Hans, “Come coniugare Talcott Parsons e Paul Tillich. Robert Bellah teorico dell’epoca assiale”, trans. by P. Costa, in: Politica e società (2/2015), p. 214; Joas, Hans, Was ist die Achsenzeit? Eine wissenschaftliche Debatte als Diskurs über Transzendenz, Basel: Schwabe 2014, p. 6.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 146.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 149.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 152.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 36. On the both empirical and normative question of the generalization of the values underlying the culture, practice and institutionalization of human rights, see Joas, Hans, The Sacredness of the Person, ch. 6.


Cf., among the many examples that could be given, Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 3; Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 123; Joas, Hans, “Society, State and Religion”, p. 4; Joas, Hans, Do We Need Religion?, p. 6.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. xii.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Faith as an Option, p. 77.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Valori, società, religione, p. 131: “Die Macht des Heiligen aims to offer an alternative to a historiographic model based on the idea of disenchantment. I believe that today it is important not so much to criticize the theory of secularization, which is now outdated, as to dismantle the theory of disenchantment in order to elaborate a valid alternative. Weber’s theories do not add up to a theory of secularization, but to something much more complex”. See in this regard Joas, Hans, The Power of the Sacred, p. 1: “This book is an attempt to divest of its enduring enchantment (entzaubern) one of the concepts central to the way in which modernity understands itself, namely that of disenchantment (Entzauberung)”.


Cf. Weber, Max, “Science as a Vocation”, in Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures: “Science as a Vocation” “Politics as a Vocation”, trans. by R. Livingstone, Indianapolis (IN): Hackett Publishing 2004, p. 24.

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