Reimagining the Secular Imaginary: A Theological Turn

Neil Turnbull


In this paper, I interrogate some of the key assumptions of contemporary secularism in order demonstrate the presence of a concealed sacrality within the secular. My aim is to show that what philosophers and social theorists refer to as ‘secularity’ is simply a theological mutation within the Christian theological imaginary; one that we can, in its dis-incarnational rejection of the sacrality of nature in favour of grace, following Voeglin,  position as ‘Gnostic’ (see Voegelin, 2012). In this vein, I will suggest that the sacred within the secular is fundamentally acosmic; residing beyond the realm of nature, which is now handed over to the dark fate of impersonal mechanism; as a series of causes within a larger order of causal necessity.  In its radical separation of the sacred from the comsos, I will claim that the secular relocates the sacred within the infinitude of the subject; within a realm of radical freedom, where the self no longer has any spiritual communion with things but only with other selves to the extent that politics itself takes on a spiritual dimension (see Jonas, 2001).   In making this claim, I will endeavour to show what, at first glance, appears to be the waning of sacrality of modern contexts, in reality is simply an effect of a hard-to-discern transformation: from a conception of sacrality primarily located in the outer realms of people and things, to one found in the relative immateriality of political discourse - from ‘the invisible in natural things’ to ‘the visible in political words’. 
My approach is deliberately and self-consciously ‘theoretical’. In the present era, when various forms of bland empiricism and the ideology of scientism blind us to any need for new ideas and alternative ways of imagining the social-historical, it is essential that work in the Humanities again begins to move along critical and speculative paths. For ‘facts without theories are blind’ – and it is only the vision of the theorist that is able to transform the crises of our age into something thought-worthy and, ultimately, to render our responses choice-worthy. In so doing, I willmake the theory-driven claim that in the passage to modernity the sacred was 
sublimated into a new form: abstracted and further esoterisised as it was uprooted from its cosmological groundings and rearticulated into the modern imaginaries of politics and law. My key claim will be that within modern contexts the ‘sacrality of the secular’ ultimately resides within a new type of political textuality – in the idea of a sacred constitution that manifests itself in the utopian recognition and obligation of a people with/to itself and to all other peoples. In other words, I will suggest that in modern contexts, the sacred becomes disembedded within the futurity of political symbolic orders and is therefore neither diminished nor diluted but simply relocated and rearticulated within founding political texts – texts that possess quite specific ontological, world-transforming, effects. In this way, I claim that within secular modernity the sacred emerges as a geo-political ideal of universal freedom that presents itself as necessary a priori political truth that applies universally to all peoples, all places, and for all time. It is in this sense that the modern sacred retains its link with the eschaton via its implicit connection to the ideal of an end of history, the time when the moral and political obligations of the founding political text will be fulfilled and realised for all peoples. By way of conclusion, I will suggest that recognition of this requires a new ‘theological turn’ in contemporary Philosophy and Social Theory. 


Modernity; Gnosticism; Political Constitutions; Theology; the Sacred

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Im@go. A Journal of the Social Imaginary - Biannual - Edizioni Mimesis