Spirituality, Fundamentalism, Liberty: Religion at the End of Modernity


Spirituality, fundamentalism, religion, postmodernism

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Postmodernity marks the end of modernity, and the Enlightenment promise of an objective understanding of the world that would enable our control of it. Modernity itself was a break with the preeminence of the medieval church as arbiter of truth and knowledge. As Enlightenment came to signify the preeminence of scientific rationality, it pushed Christianity and eventually all religion to the social and cultural margins.

Both Christianity and Enlightenment, belief and modernity, are metanarratives, to use the term coined by Jean François Lyotard - universal accounts of human nature and history that purport to be independent of time, place, culture, and other contexts. But whereas the displacement of Christianity by Enlightenment was the substitution of one metanarrative for another, the displacement of Enlightenment by postmodernism brought no new universal account in place of modernity, for postmodernism denies the possibility of any such account. The irony of religion in a postmodern age is that postmodernism re-opens the space for radical religious pluralism by denying the possibility of metanarratives, while each religion from its own particular perspective potentially understands its beliefs as precisely the metanarrative that defines how the world must be understood.

Enlightenment displaced the metanarrative of the unity of society under the umbrella ofthe one true Christian church. Today, we would call such an understanding of religion fundamentalist, based on its self-confident certainty that knowledge of Truth justifies using government power to persuade all people to submit to it. Postmodernism's rejection of metanarratives, however, means that religion may return from the margins of public life, but only as a partial, local, and unprivileged account of our place in the world, rather than the one true account of that place. This understanding of religion resonates with spirituality, an increasingly common attitude of religious self-discovery with which one seeks meaning for one's own life by adopting only those religious images and interpretations that seem relevant and important.

Contemporary Religion Clause doctrine is constituted by a dialectic between fundamentalism and spirituality. The development of religious liberty through constitutional history mirrors the displacement of belief by modernity, and modernity by post-modernity. The competing religious conceptions of spirituality and fundamentalism are currently reflected in the competing doctrinal conceptions of religious nondiscrimination and separationism. Nondiscrimination is a doctrinal response to spirituality, the quintessentially postmodern expression of belief. The instinct of spirituality is for religious liberty in its classic form, as the residuum of government absence, and not liberty in its contemporary form, as the creation of government action.

Separationism, on the other hand, is a doctrinal response to fundamentalism. Separationism responds to the risk fundamentalism could capture governmental functions and thereby use government power to endorse and to enforce a religious metanarrative. Fundamentalism generates fear and controversy precisely because it attempts to enlist the authority of the state on the side of a metanarrative, in an era in which the possibility of metanarratives has dissolved. For religious pluralism to flourish in a postmodern era, the predominant expression of belief must be spiritual, rather than fundamentalist.


54 DePaul L. Rev. 1197

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DePaul Law Review



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