Reading Religion in Literature: Toni Morrison, Luisah Teish, and Postsecular Theory
The postsecular turn of the late 1990’s refers to the emergence of a critical theory which challenges an important modern assumption: that secular ideologies are inherently more valid and truthful than religious ideologies. Other developments in literary theory in the latter half of the 20th century were aimed at disrupting and challenging normative assumptions, and postsecularism was no different. By disrupting the hierarchy of the knowledge/faith binary, postsecular theory provides a range of fresh opportunities for reading religion in literature. This essay examines several important underpinnings of postsecular theory and then applies the theory to the work of Toni Morrison and Luisah Teish. Morrison utilizes the psychological power of literary language to actively engage the reader with modern religious themes, and as such her novels provide rich sites for postsecular analysis. For Luisah Teish, carving out her own unique religious path allowed her to breathe spiritual life into a decidedly secular feminist movement. Engaging with postsecular theory in literary studies allows critics to see and understand how the secular and religious interact with one another. This fosters critical connections that will generate more substantial calls to action which endorse collaborative approaches to modern socio-religious issues
Religious conversations in literary studies tend to be limiting in that religion often becomes mythologized as a modality of the past, and this creates a dynamic in literary criticism where religion is considered worthy as a symbolic anchor within a text but is not given due consideration as a modern social issue. The intentionality behind this phenomenon is hardly overt, rather it arises as a specter of an unspoken agreement. The limiting nature of such literary-religious conversations and the normative force it carries can be attributed to a much broader trend in the academic world and beyond, namely secularization. Younger generations are often eschewing religion altogether, or at least refusing to associate with any religious activity they deem traditional and oppressive, which most often translates to the Judeo-Christian teachings in the Western world. In a globalized and secularized society with technological advancements that never slow down, “Religion” proper appears to have lost efficacy due to its rhetorical association with an arcane and unfamiliar past. Laura Levitt summarizes in her 2010 essay “What is Religion, Anyway?”: “In literary studies there is a great deal of suspicion surrounding engagement with any expression of religion whatsoever. Religion continues to carry the taint of abjection. It is primitive, outmoded, and dangerous” (110-111). However, scholars have begun to focus more on the negative function of stigmatizing the term religion in modern discourse, and to push for what has been termed a “postsecular” approach to reading religion in literature. This essay will examine several important underpinnings of postsecular theory and then explore the works of authors Toni Morrison and Luisah Teish as postsecular texts in order to advocate the theory’s ability to engage modern readers with religious themes and yield transformative criticism with a clear awareness of normative secular and religious biases.
The modern semantic limitations that the word religion has sustained can be traced back to the Enlightenment. Jacques Derrida’s “Faith and Knowledge” addresses the linguistic implications of secularism, “teasing out the problems in the ways Enlightenment secularism constituted itself and its religious other around the knowledge/faith binary” (Branch 96). This seed of semantic change was planted in the 17th and 18th centuries and has since grown into the deeply normative linguistic divide between perceived secular knowledge and proclaimed religious faith. This sematic weight, of course, follows religion into literary studies and has contributed greatly to the limiting literary-religious discourse and suspicion of reading religion in literature mentioned previously. A potential avenue for the affecting the dissolution of the knowledge/faith binary would be to broaden the semantic potential of the word religion itself, and to come to understand both secular and religious ideologies as different pathways toward the same destination of fulfilled selfhood. Sociologist Thomas Luckmann provides further insight:
According to Luckmann’s observation, the key to understanding religion as an important social construct in the modern world is to view secular ideologies as working toward the same essential goal that traditional religion works toward. By viewing secularism as a kind of “religion” or spiritual choice as much as any other, perhaps the linguistic and literal perception of religion in the modern world will broaden, too. This is what a postsecular approach to literary criticism can provide. Instead of allowing for a critical perspective that views religion as a tool only useful to those primitive beings of the past in that mystical and brutal old world which lives in the modern imagination, scholars can begin to “read religion in rather than out of history” (Anderson 237). Taking that a step farther, scholars can begin reading religion in rather than out of their modern environment as well through a renewed critical consideration of secular practices. Lori Branch asserts that “to view secularism as an ideology admits that it has operated as an invisible and insufficiently examined set of assumptions,” and by casting a critical gaze on both religious and secular ideologies equally the linguistic divide caused by the knowledge/faith binary can begin to dissolve (95).
Religion and language have always been closely tied to one another. The sacramentality of religious language is often what gives religious experiences their emotional weight and, indeed, it is often what pushes students of literature to sacred texts in the first place. Devorah Baum’s essay “The Return of Religion: Secularization and its Discontents” details how the “ghost” of religion can be read within contemporary literary language: “it is language, and the inherent foreignness of literary language in particular, that teaches us how to keep faith with the emancipatory promise of our various religions” (87). In Baum’s terms, the potential for meaning that lies within literary language calls upon the reader in the same way religious language calls upon those engaged with it. She urges her reader to “hear the call from beyond the grave of a past that has not found restitution, and a demand for justice that will not be laid to rest,” and this suggests that all the violence and oppression done in the name of religion are the exact reasons to call it back and to “welcome in a more peaceful religion—a religion of peace—rather than its alternative, a religion of terror—the form taken by a religion that has been denied” (Baum 86).
The notion that religion needs to be recalled and positively actualized in the modern world is problematic because it appears to invalidate a great deal of positive religious activity throughout history, and it also fosters an undesirable teleological perspective on the epistemological capabilities of human beings. But the idea at the center of Baum’s argument is nonetheless useful to the postsecular project. By comparing the power of religious language to the power of literary language, she attempts to shift the readers perspective on what constitutes “religion” and urges them to broaden that definition for themselves to see the potentiality and pervasiveness it still holds in modern society. Baum seeks to define a unique era of postsecular discourse that would accommodate what she sees as an inherent human desire for both concrete truth and for spiritual connection. By allowing secular and religious ideologies to exist as equals and to inform one another when necessary, Baum envisions a more peaceful and tolerant religious future which would be decidedly postsecular in its praxis.
Baum’s approach is indeed optimistic in that she espouses a new religion of peace which would be allowed to flourish in the postsecular age, but a more comprehensive treatment of historically established religions is ultimately unavoidable. In other words, the postsecular approach may indeed foster the development of new religions, but to start, it should be an effort to tease out of these past “religions of terror” what is inherently valuable and what is the product of misguided human judgement and corrupt institutional practices. Just as fervent secularists need to become comfortable with critically questioning their own ideologies, those on the other end of the spectrum who practice faiths with ethically problematic pasts must also learn to employ a certain level of critical distance in order for both new and old postsecular religions to truly flourish. In terms of literary studies, this kind of reflective inquiry was altogether absent until the development of critical theory in the last half of the 20th century created space for addressing new religious questions that deviated from the normative Euro-centric formula. Before the end of the 20th century, literary critics concerned with religion acted out an “endless, mechanical hunting for ‘Christ figures’ that had ‘symbolic’ resonance in texts” (Birns 294). However, certain crucial developments within English studies as well as across all the humanities disciplines in the final decades of the 20th century paved the way for new lines of inquiry to emerge, including postsecularism.
The rise of theory in the several decades at the end of the 20th century redefined the avenues of humanistic inquiry available to those studying literature. The myth of the teleological progression of man was losing steam thanks to the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and instead intellectuals were examining their own situatedness in terms of time and physical space in order to get to the root of what studying the humanities should and could look like in modernity. In 1989, “Black feminist law professor and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality…to address the complex structure of overlapping forms of discrimination” (Beliso-De Jesús 326). Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality extends into the kind of change taking place in English studies as more varieties of theory were developed, such as feminist, queer, and post-colonial or anti-racist theory.
As questioning normative forces of identity became more prominent in the study of the humanities, religion was called back into the conversation as a potential point of rich textual analysis and insight. Beliso-De Jesús affirms that “The study and theology of religion is a useful site to disrupt broader trends of understanding and constructing humanity,” and therefore it deserves serious consideration when critics are presented with a text that employs religious themes (313). These influential changes at the end of the 20th century, which included the rise of theory and an increased awareness of intersectional identities, primed the intellectual landscape of English studies for the return of religious discourse.
As can be expected, religion’s place within English studies at the turn of the century and onward is more firmly rooted in assessing how society interacts with religion rather than with upholding any notions of Judeo-Christian dominance. Religious underpinnings in the work of authors who are themselves at various intersections of identity are particularly rich and insightful as they often reveal the ways that religious ideologies have been and continue to be used to justify acts of imperialism and discrimination throughout history, and also explore the syncretism and oppressiveness necessary in negotiating diasporic religions. The many facets of religion in African American culture provide an example of how religion can be used as a tool of resilience and political action. In fact, Beliso-De Jesús states that “Black women Baptists in the early twentieth century used theology to confront American racism and white supremacist patriarchy,” and with the religiosity inherent in the work of many prominent black authors such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and the deeply religious tone of social activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is clear that religion has long been a key player for those exposing and opposing violence and oppression (315). It is no wonder, then, that “following the feminist, multicultural, queer, and post-colonial turns, [religion] extended what could be talked about in criticism” (Birns 297). Rather than defending the validity of any one religion’s moral efficacy or inherent truth over another, diasporic writers were inclined to use religion in their literature to analyze how that religion’s professed moral truth plays out in socio-political terms – what is the faith used to justify, and how does it affect individuals and communities? And thus, with the door to intersectionality left wide open by theoretical developments, more productive modes of reading religion in literature were born.
Toni Morrison’s work often employs religion as a central theme, and in fact many of her novels have religious allusions woven so evenly across the text that any thorough reading would necessitate religious considerations. In an essay titled “God’s Language” Morrison writes, “The history of African Americans that narrows or dismisses religion in both their collective and individual life…is more than incomplete – it may be fraudulent” (“God’s Language” 248). Thus her consistent engagement with the topic in her writing, perhaps most notably in her 1997 novel Paradise, which seeks to show “not just how their [African Americans in the 20th century] civic and economic impulses respond to their religious principles, but how their everyday lives were inextricably bound with these principles” (Morrison “God’s Language” 248).
In this way, Paradise becomes a useful literary tool in assessing the variety of ways religion can interact with socio-political bodies, and indeed it displays Morrison’s perceptive understanding that religion is a pervasive force upon those bodies that requires careful consideration. Morrison explores the complex ways in which African Americans sought to organize themselves both socially and politically following emancipation, her title suggesting that each person had to define what paradise meant to them and how to achieve it. The novel centers around the small town of Ruby, a tight-knit conservatively self-governed community, and the nearby former convent that is inhabited with seven women who live without the presence of men, a taboo concept for the patriarchal Ruby. All of the women found shelter at the convent following life-altering events that required them to leave behind the lives they previously led and start anew, much like the people of Ruby themselves following the social and political shifts of post-World War II United States that led them to found their own isolated community.
Morrison places these two entities, Ruby and the convent, in growing opposition to one another as the narrative progresses and in doing so she reveals the shifting dynamics of religion at the turn of the 21st century. While the plot of Paradise spans the years between 1950-1980 and a major project of the work is to explore African American life in those years, Morrison’s writing the novel in 1997 amidst what is known as “the religious turn” in various veins of academia in the mid 1990’s allows the reader to interpret the text as a manifestation of the major issues at hand during that particular moment in intellectual thought (Branch 91). The town of Ruby was founded and continues to be run by a handful of powerful men, who I will from here refer to as “the patriarchs.”
The patriarchs’ ancestors are their greatest pride, and Ruby is built in every way to replicate the town their forefathers founded as they tried to find their place in America as free men in the years following emancipation, a town called Haven: “Loving what Haven had been—the idea of it and its reach—they carried that devotion, gentling and nursing it from Bataan to Guam, from Iwo Jima to Stuttgart, and they made up their minds to do it again” (Morrison Paradise 6). The only remaining artifact from Haven is a large oven that operates as a communal gathering place for the community, and letters fastened onto it read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” or at least they used to. Thanks to an unfortunate loss of some of the letters when the oven was moved from Haven to Ruby, the oven then reads “…the Furrow of His Brow,” and a major point of tension in the text is just what to do with that blank space at the beginning of the town’s motto.
The youth of Ruby, following the guidance of a young Reverend sent there on mission named Misner, advocate for a new motto: “Be the Furrow of His Brow,” and this offends the patriarchs greatly: “’Now, you all listen to me. Real close. Nobody, I mean nobody, is going to change the Oven or call it something strange. Nobody is going to mess with a thing our grandfathers built. They made each and every brick one at a time with their own hands’” (Morrison Paradise 85). The patriarchs’ sense of how they should relate to God is inextricable from their respect for their forefathers, and they are shocked to hear the youth dare to venture that they could “Be” God in any way. God is to be obeyed, and because that’s how the forefathers of Haven practiced their faith, so it was to be for the people of Ruby. But the youth have another idea: “It’s not being Him, sir; it’s being His instrument, His justice. As a race…” (Morrison Paradise 85). Morrison evokes the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement as the youth seek to incorporate the strength of their spirituality into their social and political actions rather than allow God to occupy the same foreboding distant space that the patriarchs place him in. Morrison juxtaposes “the patriarchs' reliance on the traditions of the past to determine the course of the future” with “the young people's attempts to revise and update the words on the Oven” in order to “suggest their determination to view the past only as the foundation for the future, not its foreclosure” (Griffith 599). The vigor with which the patriarchs cling to the values and practices of the past prevents them from allowing space for change and innovation within the community, and in this way, Morrison warns against one potential pitfall of attempting to incorporate religion into intellectual discourse in more engaging ways. A certain amount of release on the nostalgia for past traditions is crucial in order for a postsecular turn to be realized, and in terms of religion this is particularly difficult to achieve due to the highly personal and foundational nature of tradition in the lives of conservative religious people.
What Morrison displays in these tense moments of confrontation between the patriarchs and the youth throughout the narrative is also a key point of tension in the broader religious turn at the end of the 20th century. How to shed the restrictive nature of past religiosity in order to redefine the way one interacts with spirituality and also leave space for awareness and respect for history and tradition is no small task, but as Reverend Misner puts it in reference to the youth’s suggestion for the oven, “Seems to me…they are respecting it. It’s because they do know the Oven’s value that they want to give it new life” (Morrison Paradise 86). In other words, the youth’s very desire to expand upon what their forefathers began is a sign of respect and a sign that they did not struggle so fiercely for a stagnant future. This can be applied also to the broader intellectual landscape of the time when Morrison was writing in 1996, suggesting that being open to changing how one interacts with religion is not a sign of abandoning faith or disrespecting what came before, but rather it is a sign of true appreciation to cultivate progress upon the foundations of one’s religious convictions. Johnny Griffith’s assertion about the nature of the youth’s motivations is also applicable to the motivations of the postsecular turn:
The way that the youth of Ruby wish to reinvigorate the religiosity of their socio-political environment is precisely the way in which postsecular theory seeks to reinvigorate religious discourse in the 21st century, refusing to concede that we have reached any “teleological dead ends” in terms of religion. Rather than accept the assumptions of the knowledge/faith binary and dismiss religion as delusion, or allow the religious turn to simply be a vehicle of invoking past rhetoric to rationalize modern practices, postsecularism would engage meaningfully with both past and future forms of diverse religions in order to foster a sense of purpose and build epistemologically flexible communities. In this way, one becomes both a “protagonist” and a “character” in the story of modern religion by always provoking new methods of interacting with religion while simultaneously recognizing and even practicing from the sacred nature of tradition and shared pasts. But nostalgia and attachments to historical narratives are powerful forces in the human imagination, and the relentlessly stubborn nature of the patriarchs is Morrison’s testament to how ingrained and rigid religious convictions can be, and thus proves one obstacle of affecting postsecular praxis.
While the patriarchs and the youth of Ruby are set in opposition, that tension is nothing compared to their perceived shared threat: the convent. Morrison writes, “There were irreconcilable differences among the congregations in town, but members from all of them merged solidly on the necessity of this action: Do what you have to. Neither the Convent nor the women in it can continue” (Paradise 9-10). What the women of the convent have done to earn the decided hatred from the people of Ruby is simply that they are women living without any men, and they have formed a spiritual sisterhood in which they bend the traditions of older faiths and mix in other ritualistic elements into their practice that are innovative and novel. The people of Ruby don’t know the details of the happenings at the convent, but all those women alone simply must be involved in something devilish. One of the women, Consolata, takes on a leadership role as she guides the other women to spiritual awakening: “’I call myself Consolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for’” (Morrison Paradise 262). The women have been living together in the convent for some time at this point, and they each come from traumatic backgrounds that continue to haunt them after they found refuge at the convent. One woman accidentally suffocated her twin babies by leaving them in the car in the summer heat, another saw a young boy get shot in the midst of a race riot, another discovered that her mother was having an affair with her partner, and so on. The women are emotionally scarred, and Consolata devises a ritual practice for them to follow so that they might release some of that pain and come to greater self-awareness and peace.
The specifics of the women’s ritual are detailed as they descend into the cellar of the convent and each take a position lying on the floor. They then use paint to create a “template” or outline of each woman’s body on the ground (Morrison Paradise 262). From here, the women begin to engage in what Morrison terms “loud dreaming.” Each of them speaks aloud aspects of their tragic stories that haunt their dreams nightly in an effort to find release, but also to find deeper connections with one another: “and it was never important to know who said the dream or whether it had meaning. In spite of or because their bodies ache, they step easily into the dreamer’s tale” (Morrison Paradise 264). Morrison then writes how each woman, without pretense of whose story it was, could inhabit that story and experience what the other woman experienced. They draw on their templates with chalk and paint both their own physical features and other artistic representations of their trauma, and “they spoke to each other about what had been dreamed and what had been drawn” (Morrison Paradise 265). These are the logistics of the women’s new spiritual interactions, and at the heart of their practice the women are successfully using ritual in order to become connected with themselves and with each other.
Consolata speaks first in a stream of consciousness fashion, explaining how her religious teachings had always emphasized the sinful nature of fleshly interaction and the blessed nature of the spirit: “’a woman who teach me my body is nothing and my spirit everything’” (Morrison Paradise 263). After an affair with a young man from Ruby in her younger years, Consolata had always felt conflicted about how much she enjoyed being with him and wondered at the spiritual aspects involved in being in intimate contact with another person. Then she realizes that it is not she who is wrong, but the religious teachings that had manipulated her into thinking her body and spirit were not one and the same: “’So I wondering where is the spirit lost in this [fleshly interaction]? It is true, like bones. It is good, like bones. One sweet, one bitter. Where is it lost? Hear me, listen. Never break them in two. Never put one over the other. Eve is Mary’s mother. Mary is the daughter of Eve’” (Morrison Paradise 263). What Consolata has done is to release herself from a religious narrative that is clearly oppressive to women’s sexual agency in order to get closer to the specifics of her own spirituality and all it entails. She does not wish to renounce Christianity altogether, rather she seeks to build a new narrative for herself about Eve and Mary and the nature of sin and virtue. As Griffith asserts, “Connie's re-vision of the biblical narratives concerning Eve and Mary…indicates the flexibility and malleability of all narratives, even religious metanarratives” (602). Following Cosolata’s lead, “like a new and revised Reverend Mother,” the women find the space to use religion both as a tool of personal development and of community engagement without succumbing to the weight of any expectations or normative practices – they have achieved a positively postsecular praxis (Morrison Paradise 265).
The women of the convent were not friendly to each other previous to these spiritual experiences. They lived together for quite some time and were frequently lashing out at one another as a result of deep-seated anger and resentment at the cruelties of their own lives. Morrison utilizes this dynamic to display how the introduction of Consolata’s postsecular teachings brought them closer together, and thus she provides one potential avenue for connection among feminists and people in general in the postsecular age. While the youth of Ruby seek to reinvigorate their religious language to empower themselves, the women of the convent reinvent their religious identities entirely to better represent and accommodate their personal circumstances. But, as Morrison is all-too aware, such drastic revision of tradition will certainly be met with opposition. Despite their differences, the people of Ruby are committed to placing blame on the women of the convent for their recent social upheaval rather than accept any responsibility for their own toxic practices, and thus the central event of the novel is nine men of Ruby, patriarchs and youth alike, ambushing the convent and massacring all of the women. While Morrison’s careful development of the women’s spirituality and the positive results of such flexible religiosity are promising in terms of understanding postsecular philosophy, she reminds the reader that religion can also breed unimaginable violence. Furthermore, the postsecular attitude of the youth in seeking new religious narratives for themselves and their community is undermined by their participation in demonizing the women for their spirituality. Morrison exposes the many facets and levels of religious conviction and of religious change, effectively communicating the complicated nature of devising innovative ways to talk about and engage with religion in the modern world.
The brutality of the massacre speaks to the seriousness with which people regard their religious beliefs, and by extension the seriousness of the lives potentially at stake when those beliefs come into conflict. Published in 1997, Morrison could not have known how relevant her religious engagement in Paradise would be after 9/11, yet still it provides evidence for the origins of the literary-religious turn which was exacerbated by the events of September 2001. Mark Eaton’s assertion about post-9/11 literature could easily be retroactively applied to the effect of Paradise: “literature after 9/11 has invited readers to practice the kinds of pliable and pluralizing mental maneuvers that are more and more common to believers and nonbelievers alike. Together these literary works suggest that religions these days are increasingly fluid, open-ended, and protean” (77). The massacre in Paradise thus becomes Morrison’s effort to warn against inflexibility and intolerance when it comes to modern religion, the youth of Ruby represent challenges facing communities who practice the same religion but are in generational disagreements about the particulars of the faith, and the women of the convent are a manifestation of the potential of postsecular religions – what they could look like and more importantly the ends they would serve.
Morrison’s situatedness as a woman and a member of the African American diaspora writing in 1996 allows for one reading of Paradise that is less concerned with the religious climate of the mid 20th century in which the novel is set, and is instead more concerned with how the religious climate at the turn of the century is reflected in her writing. As was mentioned earlier, socio-political movements and the rise of literary theory gave voice to authors and critics who found themselves at various intersections of identity. From those oppressed voices comes commentary on religion that is productive in determining what is inherently valuable about religion as well as the aspects that are deeply corrupt and intolerant. Reading Morrison’s Paradise effectively becomes an exercise in exploring the choices we are faced with in how and why we should incorporate religion into our lives in the 21st century, and in that exercise we learn valuable lessons about both the healing promise of connecting with religion meaningfully and the careful considerations that must be made in moving toward a realized postsecular society that will inevitably challenge cherished traditions of the past to a certain extent.
First published in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back is a collection of meditations and writings by women of color that communicates the urgency of the severe disconnect among women engaged in feminist projects, and the various social and cultural aspects that inhibit them from joining into a more cohesive movement. In the introduction to the final section of This Bridge entitled “El Mundo Zurdo: The Vision,” the editors lay claim to religion and spirituality as the connective tissue between women of color that can open pathways to a more unified feminist movement:
Luisah Teish, quoted by the editors in the introduction above, is a feminist black author whose life and work are heavily influenced by her spirituality. Editor Gloria Anzaldúa interviews Teish in a piece titled “O.K. Momma, Who the Hell Am I?” which explores Teish’s opinions on the religiosity of the women’s movement as it stood in 1981. Teish states that “feminist spirituality had a real problem because most revolutionary circles have considered spirituality a no-no area…the male god and the institutionalized church has been so counter-revolutionary,” and therefore religion became a catch-all term for old worn out traditions that certainly did not serve the goals of revolutionary projects (Anzaldúa 224). Teish urges against this sentiment, and for much of the interview she expresses how embracing her own spirituality has helped her “smash [the] myth” perpetuated by white patriarchy about her worth as a black woman (Anzaldúa 231). Rather than settle into the comfort of secularism’s perceived prestige or believe the “internalized” myth that “Third World people…are nobody with nothing” because “God is white therefore the all-powerful is on the side of the one who is in power,” Teish found strength in exploring diverse religious narratives (Anzaldúa 229).
Not only did Teish seek to know more about the religions of her African ancestry and her immediate spiritual surroundings in her hometown of New Orleans, she became an active practitioner of the Yoruba religious tradition: “her father was an African Methodist Episcopal and her mother was a Catholic, of Haitian, French, and Choctaw heritage. Yeye Teish is an Iyanifa and Oshun chief in Yoruba tradition. Yeye Teish is one of the most well-known Yoruba priestesses worldwide” (Teish YeyeLuisahTeish.com). The plurality of Teish’s religious influences and her active involvement in her chosen faith are the building blocks of postsecular religiosity. She states that “Most Third World people on the surface seem to have accepted the rigidity of Christianity, yet certain true things still survive. And what we’ve got to do is feed that which has survived, build on that which has survived till our god and goddesses speak” (Anzaldúa 230). Teish is describing, I argue, a decidedly postsecular approach to taking the power of ancient wisdom forward into the future and letting that wisdom nurture new ways of interacting with religion which would empower rather than oppress.
In all these ways, Teish empowered herself as a black feminist during the Civil Rights Movement and onward. Rather than becoming immobilized by the serious weight of living in a society that consistently sought to remind her of her “deficiencies,” she used religion both as a tool of resistance and of self-discovery. Her spirituality anchored her in her identity, and she went on to author works such as Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals and On Holy Ground: Commitment and Devotion to Sacred Lands that continue to inspire other feminists to harness their ancient and feminine inner power in order to agitate real change in the modern world (Anzaldúa 231). The influence of her spirituality on her work as a feminist, author, activist, and intellectual is undeniable and also undeniably positive. Teish, standing up for her position of intersectionality, infused her writing with powerful spiritual tone in her effort to use literature as a tool of activism and progress. While the more robust “return” of religion would not happen until the late 1990’s, Teish comments on the social resistance to religion in revolutionary discourse in the 1960’s-1980’s, and displays how her unwillingness to conform to that popular resistance allowed her to become a more thoughtful and active member of her community. Teish’s life and work expose a myriad of clear connections between religion and literature as well as religion and activism, and how developing those connections has the potential to bridge social and psychological gaps that appear otherwise unmanageable.
On Holy Ground was published in 2013 and, alongside her co-author Leilani Birely, Teish’s intention for the work is to provide readers with rituals, prayers, folktales, myths, personal life stories, and more in order to promote greater connection with the Earth. Cultural and spiritual divides are bridged in the work as Teish and Birely pour their decades of experience with a variety of religious traditions into a cohesive text that they hope will aid in the modern ecological crisis by giving readers tools with which to find a personal connection to the planet. Activating a spiritual experience will, the authors hope, motivate the reader in far more lasting and significant ways than simply imploring them to take action.
The text’s openness to diversity and the goal which underpins the authors’ desire to incite passion in the reader are a template for how postsecular religious literature can take shape. The authors do not wish to indoctrinate the reader under false pretenses or persuade them to invest entirely in any one spiritual practice, and their literary-religious endeavor is firmly rooted in the broader human concern of climate change. With an understanding of how religion can shape and mobilize socio-political movements, and undoubtedly with knowledge of the murky past between religion and those movements, Teish and Birely assume the responsibility of wielding that power for a worthy cause in their writing. Of course, differing opinions on what constitutes a worthy cause for appealing to the faith of others to instigate motivation and how to mediate those differences is an issue that deserves more careful attention than I can provide here. Nonetheless, Teish and Birely have successfully provided one example of how postsecular praxis can look and how the creators of literature can utilize faith to expand the perspectives of readers and critics alike on important issues.
In order for a postsecular turn to be realized, there are several important points of tension to consider. The life and work of Teish is a promising testament to the emancipatory potential of renewed religious discourse, but some more careful thought should be done about how religion can be folded back into the literary conversation and the potential pitfalls of that endeavor. Beliso-De Jesús asserts that feminist religious studies must not “replicate comparativism,” which could potentially activate the white Christian savior complex when one is confronted with religious practices that are different from their own (322). I argue that the same potential for comparativism lies in the reclamation and syncretization of religion in literature, and that authors and literary critics must understand this limitation in order to avoid comparativist interpretations of religion in texts. Further, Beliso-De Jesús warns:
The warning is poignant, and to regard religions outside of Christianity as automatically liberating or without their own traditions to be examined would be a step backward for postsecularism as a movement. Luisah Teish overcame this obstacle by being actively engaged in her religion – by experiencing it rather than just observing it. She did not wish to admire from afar the traditions that called to her but instead she immersed herself in them and became a member of the community. This is not to say, however, that one should not be acutely aware of cultural appropriation in taking a path like Teish’s, or that those who walk the line more closely to agnostic or atheist cannot engage in postsecular analysis or that doing so would not provoke meaningful thought.
To suggest a methodology which will counter the pitfalls of comparativism and celebrationism that can be utilized by the religious and non-religious alike, I will now turn to Amanda Anderson’s The Way We Argue Now. Anderson’s project is to suggest that critical debates are ineffectual in modern academia precisely because of a “prevalent skepticism about the possibility or desirability of achieving reflective distance on one’s own social or cultural positioning,” and that “the concept of critical distance has been seriously discredited” in recent intellectual history (Anderson 1). In order for more productive conversations to be had, Anderson argues that those engaged in the debate must be able to release some grip on their attachment to identity in order to distance themselves from their own normative biases and engage in “reciprocal and transformative encounters” with others (74). Anderson looks to cosmopolitan approaches to modern critical theory for support, and, quoting Paul Rainbow’s work on cosmopolitanism, she summarizes:
Religion is generally a breeding ground for the “relativized preciousness” Anderson quotes above, and whether a person is passionately religious or passionately non-religious, there is passion all the same. Anderson’s cosmopolitanism, then, is a methodology that promotes a healthy level of critical detachment and provides a sound foundation from which to read religion in literature and avoid the comparativism and celebrationism detailed by Beliso-De Jesús. Commitment to the balance between critical engagement and detachment would open avenues for religious conversations in English studies that are not defensive and reductionist, but rather intellectually stimulating and transformative. The secular world must release the notion that religion has no place in modernity, and not dismiss religious belief as inherently inferior or automatically oppressive. Indeed, “a tendency in the larger women’s and feminist movements to view religion negatively, seeing it in liberal feminist terms as a hinderance to women’s full participation in public life” is a testament to the normative stigmatization of religion as the enforcer of white male patriarchy (Whitehead 9). Conversely, those who are invested in their religious faith may feel uneasy about engaging in detachment due to the nature of belief and the centrality of their faith to the way they know and understand the world. As Branch neatly summarizes, “Epistemological humility crucially guards against fundamentalism and violence, whether religious or secular,” and it is the same epistemological humility that will cultivate a productively postsecular relationship between literature and religion (98).
The above quote is Morrison’s effort at engaging with religious language describing a version of paradise, and to quite an effective degree. This essay began on the topic of language and how religious and literary language are bound to one another, both historically and in the powerful effect each has on its audience. Literature, “if it is genuine, is the religious melody that has been lost to us. Literature gathers within it all the elements of faith: the seriousness, the internality, the melody, and the connection with the hidden aspects of the soul” (Appelfeld 115). Toni Morrison’s ability to utilize language, to manipulate it and infuse it and experiment with it, achieves such an effect that the reader cannot help but stop and react – stop and reconsider. In reflecting on the writing process of Paradise, Morrison asks herself, “Is it possible to make the experience and journey of faith fresh, as new and as linguistically unencumbered as it was to early believers, who themselves had no collection of books to rely on?” (Morrison “God’s Language” 253).
Morrison utilizes the psychological power of literary language to actively engage the reader with modern religious themes, and as such her novels are a particularly rich site for postsecular analysis. For Luisah Teish, making her own “experience and journey of faith fresh” in a tangible way allowed her to breathe religious life into a decidedly secular feminist movement. Teish urges against the sentiment that feminism and religion are incompatible, and by engaging with religion in a definitively postsecular way she was able to “smash [the] myth[s]” perpetuated by oppressive patriarchal religious environments (Anzaldúa 231). Rather than casting aside religion as outmoded in an era of dominant secularism, Morrison and Teish each consider religion within a budding postsecular framework, defining religion as a still-powerful force in modernity and treating it as such in their work. Engaging with this definition of religion more broadly in English studies allows us to see and understand how the secular and religious interact with one another and to foster deeper local and global connections that will generate more collaborative approaches to modern socio-political issues.
Anderson, Amanda. The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2006.
Anderson, Misty G. Imagining Methodism in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Enthusiasm, Belief, and the Borders of the Self. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. ProjectMUSE, doi:10.1353/book.13502.
Appelfeld, Aharon. The Story of a Life. Schocken, Kindle Ed., 2009.
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Levitt, Laura. “What is Religion, Anyway? Rereading the Postsecular From an American Jewish Perspective.” Religion & Literature, vol. 41, no. 3, 2009, pp. 107–118. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25746548. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.
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Teish, Luisah and Leilani Birely. On Holy Ground: Commitment and Devotion to Sacred Lands. Daughters of the Goddess, 2013.
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