Over at The Immanent Frame:
NS: What makes modern sociological terms like “secularism” and “secularization” useful for interpreting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature? Is there a danger of falling into misleading anachronism?
CJ: There’s always that danger when we use a term from one historical period to describe aspects of another one. “Secularism” first emerges in Victorian England as a self-description, a way to avoid being labeled an atheist, and it has a long history within Christianity before that, as the secular, or worldly, time before the Second Coming. “Secularization” is a bit trickier, since it aims to describe a process and to give that process the aura of scientific neutrality, like the weather. I think the danger is not so much anachronism—which, frankly, I don’t think is a bad thing anyway—but rather forgetting that terms are never merely descriptive. So, I use the term, and I try to be reflexive about it. It’s comforting for many people to see themselves as living on the far side of a secularization process, and it’s that sense of comfort that I’d like to disrupt a bit.
NS: What does it mean for you to be reflexive?
CJ: What I mean by “reflexivity” is really just a critical consciousness that whenever you invoke a term, you are also invoking its history—the conditions under which it was forged and the uses to which it has been subsequently put. At the same time, we need these terms: something has changed over the course of modernity, for instance, and I’m comfortable with calling that change “secularization,” as long as it’s defined very carefully and I know what the stakes are in a given definition. Reflexivity is just my shorthand for the process, which I take to be central to serious intellectual practice, anyway—to strike the balance between using a term or concept or idea and simultaneously being aware of what you’re doing when you use it. It’s a mental habit of disembedding from the stuff you really care about—which, appropriately enough, is a pretty good definition of the secular!