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date: 20 January 2020

The Future of English Literature and Theology

Abstract and Keywords

This article hopes to offer more general observations about where one might see literature and theology, as a defined field, heading in the near future. It lays out four such general features: post-secularity, globalization, culturality, and interdisciplinarity. Collectively, they all become determinate of the space that literature and theology, either as separate enterprises or as a joint entity, seem already to be filling. The discussion describes the way literature and theology has emerged as a joint field of study within the Humanities. To this end, these categories are taken as markers of a wider state that literature and religion, from Milton to Blake to Joyce, have always heralded, if not embodied: those moments of paradigmatic shift when humans rethink the relationship to the divine.

Keywords: post-secularity, globalization, culturality, interdisciplinarity, theology, Humanities

If we try to give scope and shape to the future of literature and theology, we must remain as speculative and open-ended as any prognostications about art and ideas. New creations, we all know, resist predictability, since they depend upon uncontrollable forces—an inspiration, a catastrophic event, an instant discovery, the rare emergence of genius. One can only forecast from what one knows about the present, and even then guardedly. It is therefore not the specifics of future religious thought, nor the emergence of some new form of literature, that we would dare to anticipate. Rather, we can only hope to offer more general observations about where we might see literature and theology as a defined field heading in the near future, observations that arise from certain discernible features of our contemporary culture. The following discussion will lay out four such general features: post-secularity, globalization, culturality, and interdisciplinarity. None of these must stand alone; each will intersect with the other at some level. Collectively they all become determinate of the space that literature and theology, either as separate enterprises or as a joint entity, seem already to be filling. So what we intend to put forward here, at the end of a volume about the way literature and theology has emerged as a joint field of study within the Humanities, is not some programmatic approach to how scholarship in this field (p. 842) ought to be conducted, nor how artists interested in religion will necessarily ply their trade, nor how religions will make use of future literary productions, nor even how religion and art will once again seal their alliance. It is rather how several present phenomena or conditions will have some bearing on how we envision and practise a field that, in its very evolution, seems to be outstripping its own designations, ‘literature’ and ‘theology’. To this end, we will take our four categories as markers of a wider state for which literature and religion, from Milton to Blake to Joyce, has always heralded, if not embodied: those moments of paradigmatic shift when we humans rethink our relationship to the divine.


As the end of the last millennium came to a close, there arose talk within certain philosophical circles of a ‘return’ to religion. Derrida stated in the mid-1990s: ‘Today once again, today finally, today otherwise, the great question would still be religion and what some hastily call its “return” ’ (Derrida 1998: 39). It may seem odd that philosophy should speak of a return, as if religion had ever gone away. But we know that Western literature had been marking a slow retreat from religious expectation since the eighteenth century, so that by the fin de siècle of the following century, whether through Nietzsche or through Hardy, the death knell had been ringing for that form of Christianity which centrally informed our cultural value system and our underlying perception of reality. The twentieth century had been one of resignation to the inexorable forces of secularization, so that by the latter half, when the first noises of ‘postmodernism’ made their raucous entry, a thoroughly secularized West seemed a fait accompli. But with typical postmodern irony, religion began to creep back through the very ideas which seemed at first to seal its coffin. By the new millennium, the return seemed certain, with talk being generated well outside only philosophical circles, and, post-9/11, with society waking up to the consequences of religion's fervency. In the opening statement of his book True Religion (2003: p. vii), Graham Ward declares as the beginning of a ‘manifesto’: ‘Religion is, once more, haunting the imagination of the West’. Whether or not linked with terrorism, it has begun again to inspire thinking in ways that, only a few decades previously, seemed all but unrecoverable.

Yet one thing we can say about this religious ‘return’ of late modernity: religion no longer stands in opposition to secularity, as if in some prolonged Cold War that began some two hundred years previously. This is not because of some détente, where both sides agree to ease the strain through compromise or good will. Nor is it that religion has regained its sure-footedness in the age of post-industrialization and the information age. It is rather that secularity has lost its position as an impenetrable positivist bastion against what it saw as the thinly protected myths of religion and (p. 843) spirituality. Secularism, as an ism,1 has shown itself to be as vulnerable as it once claimed religion to be. Under the charge of a postmodern critique, secularism has proved as ideological as any religious doctrine or theology in its privileging of certain social and political realities over others, and in its dependence on categories of rationality grounded upon logocentrism, historicism, patriarchy, and stable notions of selfhood. Its claims to authority—scientific instrumentality on the one hand, individual freedom and autonomy on the other—have now been rendered questionable through various levels of sustained critique, and by bracketing out transcendence and divine possibility, it becomes nothing other than the inverse gesture of the deductive theology that begins with transcendence and divine possibility. Both positions assume stable a prioris that in their direct opposition might have once cancelled each other out, but now are equally implicated in those ideological indignities that the cultural critiques of such newer disciplines as gender studies and post-colonialism have been so eager to expose.

As one of the most far-reaching products of the Enlightenment, the antinomy of religion and irreligion has thus given way to a post-Enlightenment condition. Here, the adjective ‘post-secular’ has gained increasing use in reconsidering the various constituencies of the cultural domain: post-secular philosophy, post-secular reason, post-secular theology, post-secular social theory, post-secular art, and even, within the academy, post-secular studies (e.g. at London Metropolitan University). All these terms suggest that the young new millennium has not dispensed with religion or spirituality as something outmoded and unsustainable, but that religious or spiritual matters, whether in the form of lingering cultural vestiges or resurfaced interests, continue to influence and inform our fundamental thinking, actions, and creations.

One of the prominent effects of this post-secularity (as a state or condition, and not an ism) is that religion and art no longer bear an antagonism towards each other, as they once did within the religious/secular divide. Religion, having lost its supremacy as moral authority, can no longer expect literature to play the role of handmaiden to higher truths. Art, having lost its authority as the inviolable genius of culture, can no longer claim to be the new legislator of morality and reality. A new humility marks the post-secular age, whereby both sides understand that they are bound to one another. Theologically, we are no longer speaking about a readiness to acknowledge the importance of the language of art to describe the indescribable. Aesthetically, we are no longer speaking about a postmodern borrowing of religious relics from the past (images, symbols, concepts), to be used within an ironic mélange. Instead, we are speaking about a fundamental reconceiving of both sides, where religion, along with its theological discourse, admits it has always been party to poetics, and art, along with its aesthetic discourse, admits it has always been religiously invested. We have seen this mutuality arising out of certain discourses (p. 844) within Continental thinking about art, religion, and philosophy, whose language, particularly in its more recent phases, is already a language ‘between’—between reason and imagination, between analysis and poetics, between direction and indirection, between critique and belief (see e.g. Blond 1998). But we see a further manifestation in recent post-secular art, which has intentionally situated itself between a this-worldliness and an other-worldliness. In this between-state, it sits poised with the affirmation that the material carries a dimension of the spiritual which the creative act, acting upon the material, allows us in some degree to penetrate. This is not a religious position as such, though it may work in traditional religious imagery and thought; but neither is it not religious, in that it willingly opens itself up to what traditional religions have always sought to give voice and expression to. It may not make a confessional plea for this, but it furnishes a space for its play.

The Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy has already been mentioned in this volume in relation to matters of the body (see Alison Jasper, ‘Body and Word’). But we can also see in her stories this movement towards the post-secular, where the material and the spiritual find a renewed coexistence through the blended forces of bodily expression and religious yearning. In her novel Paradise (2004), for example, a Christlike sacrifice unfolds in fourteen chapters, each emulating a Station of the Cross. The protagonist, however, is not a hallowed figure, but rather a serious alcoholic, whose various stages of agony result from successive bouts of inebriation, sobriety, and blackout. Here the reemergence of the religious is not towards the abstract or metaphysical God who resides beyond the flesh and materiality of this world, but is through the uneasy marriage of the physical with the spiritual, as God once again is embodied in the weaknesses of the flesh, and the old abusive hierarchy of the body/soul dualism (the traditional patriarchal marriage) gives way to a new sanctification of love and identity founded on a mutual reliance.


Part of the breakdown of secularism has come from its inability to survive in other cultural contexts outside the West. And as most of the developed world now experiences present-day life on a global level, whether through media, the Internet, or travel, it has opened itself up to the influences of other views and cultural sensibilities. This outward shift has made a tremendous impact on how we understand both literature and religion. As we have pointed out many places before in this volume, the term ‘English literature’ has now become a deeply problematic term; but the notion of ‘Western religion’ also requires re-evaluation if it is to become something more than a mere historical marker.

For literature, globalization—‘a process effecting worldwide linkages, joint action and the formation and maintenance of transnational institutions, made possible by (p. 845) recent advances in electronic communications and high-speed international travel’ (Strenksi 2004: 631)—has made it increasingly difficult to define authors and their writing strictly on nationalist grounds. Post-colonial experience in particular has blurred the lines between national and cultural boundaries, and has brought both a theoretical ambiguity and a social ambivalence to the notion of the ‘indigenous’. Even beyond strict post-colonial contexts, English authors may now find their cultural, aesthetic, or ideological inspiration from well outside anything we may have formally called ‘English’. One might argue that, upon the dissolution of the British Empire, this shift was set up for us by Forster's Passage to India in 1924, and was continued mid-century with the likes of Malcolm Lowry and Graham Greene, both of whom understood the world as a shifting cultural and spiritual centre, which, as Greene constantly suggests, we ought not to consider as loss or retrogression but as an inexorable and even acceptable reality of modern life. We can see various literary responses to this shift in such works as James Fenton's collection of poetry Out of Danger, J. G. Ballard's novels of global dystopia, or Michael Ondaatje's rich stories of international passion, to name but a few.

For religion, globalization has created two divergent paths. In one direction, an expanding awareness of other traditions, together with that levelling spirit of acceptance which ideologically funds the liberal democracy standing behind and driving forward the globalizing movement, has promoted a willingness to embrace other modes of religious thinking and spiritual expression, leading to various forms of ecumenism, pluralism, and syncretism. In a second direction, increased exposure to foreign beliefs and practices has amplified the sense of the ‘foreign’ and the ‘foreigner’, to the point where any influences, accommodations, or indeed linkages with the ‘other’ are seen as an abiding threat, and conservation of one particular set of religious beliefs moves from a rigid apologetics to an ardent and at times militant fundamentalism. The divergence of these paths seems only to be widening, for as one becomes more hardline, the other becomes more reactive, in a strange dialectic of reciprocating response that allows neither to capitulate and neither to be overcome. (We saw this in the case of Salman Rushdie, where, despite the formal removal of the fatwa against him as the author of Satanic Verses, the division between Islamic fundamentalism and artistic freedom remains deep, keeping Rushdie a pariah in the circles of the one, while allowing him a certain hero's status in the circles of the other.) The re-emergence of literature and religion, or more widely of art and religion, as a mutual enterprise within the last half century or so has come about within and, one could argue, because of this religious and political bifurcation. But it has clearly done so within the context of this polarizing tendency: the democratizing nature of literature—the creative demands of producing and engaging with the text that dictate against hierarchical systems and binding authority—challenges the very conception of fundamentalism, in whatever form. The more militant religious fundamentalism becomes, then, the more literature and religion as a united front seem to arise as a counteracting force, as we saw in Margaret Atwood's seminal text The Handmaid's Tale (1985), or can see in the satirical levity of Mark Dunn's novel Ella Minnow Pea (2001).

(p. 846)

Religious pluralism might be said to go even further in drawing literature to its side. There are a myriad of options to those who, in this post-secular and post-ecclesial society, now find themselves developing a new religious sensibility more by means of elective affinity or subjective choice than through inherited tradition. Available now are all traditions, approached not through priestly channels which grant religious access according to prescribed sanctification and ritual, nor through doctrine or dogma as they underwrite cultural expectations and mores, nor through familial allegiance that demands continuity of values, but through personalized exploration in which heterogeneity defines if not the end result then certainly the manner by which it is attained. Such exploration leads less to monolithic systems of belief or practice, and increasingly to a syncretism which remains unsystematic, undefined, or highly individualized and localized. Pagan becomes mixed with Christian, Western becomes mixed with Eastern, orthodoxy becomes mixed with unorthodoxy, canonical becomes mixed with non-canonical, all because the world now becomes a kind of marketplace of traditions and ideas from which to piece together a tailor-made spirituality. Within this kind of post-secularity, literature plays a significant role, since the idea of a sacred text gives way to a certain pan-textuality in which the world becomes a textual repository rife with spiritual possibilities, influences, and energies, and in which sacredness can be rewritten in various new manifestations not bound by priestly, credal, or cultic dictates. A novel indicative of this rewriting is Yann Martel's Life of Pi, in which the main character synthesizes three main religions, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, only to find this synthesis put to the test when he is stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger. His personal account of his own story becomes a rewriting of faith, not simply for himself, but for the reader, who, against the primal backdrop of the open sea, must invest the story with more than just a willing suspension of disbelief—with the questions of truth and interpretation at the core of all faiths, and with the re-creative inspiration to see one through those questions, and to survive in the groundless plurality of our postmodern and post-postmodern worlds.

This globalizing effect will only increase as more people gain access to the means by which the world is made instantly available. The World Wide Web in particular has developed methods and attitudes fundamentally different from previous generations, and enhances the idea that the world is an intricacy of evolving networks whose centre or ground, if any exists, is indeterminable, and thus open to a continual resituating or reinventing. Reality becomes virtual, and textuality becomes de-authorized, so that truth and authority become pliable concepts, and belief turns on images and ideas free-floating in a cyberspace that takes ‘democracy’ to its most extreme incarnation. Here, any and all (i.e. of those who have access—still a key socio-economic factor) have unrestricted say in what constitutes, and what ought to constitute, the world we choose to live in. Within such cyber-democracy, literature and religion will continue to merge as a joint steering mechanism, particularly when the ‘demos’ encounter the obstacles of authoritarian and fundamentalist regimes by which ‘religion’ is dogmatically predetermined, and ‘literature’ is canonically enclosed or theocratically censured.

(p. 847) Culturality

The question of culturality is closely linked with that of globalization. We have already suggested that in late modernity a reconception of roles has taken place, whereby religion and literature become mutually inclusive. But we need now to qualify this reconception further, because the issues go beyond simply a redefinition of two narrowly defined spheres of cultural experience. In the context of a widening globalization, and of a general tendency to perceive culture as an interlinked network of multifarious forces and influences, each acting upon the other in a sometimes hidden, sometimes explicit nexus of interpenetrations and symbolizations—what Mark C. Taylor (2001: 156–71), borrowing language from information theory and evolutionary biology, has compared to as a ‘complex adaptive system’—the issues now embrace a broad spectrum of spheres, each one itself contributing to an evolving and shared totality in what we experience as ‘culture’. Hence, when we try to think of literature and religion as a unified field, or as a confluence of forces, we must increasingly think of the many other forces that play into them, and help constitute them, so that our reconception necessarily involves taking culture as an organic whole, whose elements can no longer be seen in purely separate or autonomous terms. This is what is meant by the notion of culturality: ‘spheres’ of cultural experience, of which literature and religion are simply two possible manifestations, are no longer seen as individual components of an overall aggregate, but are part of an organicism, which is open and dynamic, yet ultimately inseparable, functioning as a co-evolving, co-adapting, co-determining system. ‘Culture’, we may say, is the accretion of a people's achievements, customs, and values as they are symbolized and given meaning within a given historical period; ‘culturality’ is the dynamic interplay between various realms of experience and between the conceptualizations of those experiences as they feed into one another across a wide range of social production and theoretical circumscription. Literature and religion will be increasingly understood and practised within such a culturality.

We might conceive of this culturality further if for the moment we turn to the language of cultural theory: religious production and literary production are bound up within a cultural logic that further draws them—amid other productions—inextricably together. As Frederic Jameson (1991: 5–6) has suggested, cultural logic denotes a ‘systematic cultural norm and its reproduction’ that are inseparable from the economic structures of late capitalism and that give ‘an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation’. This kind of logic works in a comprehensive manner, whereby all inputs into the system conform to an overriding ‘determinant’, which, for Jameson, is economically rooted in Marxian terms, but which is also purely self-reflexive, the logic governed by no other rationality than its own, and leading to no other telos or truth than what it internally offers itself as a groundless, endlessly reproduced desire, image, or virtuality (a simulacrum, as Baudrillard calls it). These are helpful distinctions, yet, as we (p. 848) will see further below, we have in some sense already moved beyond this kind of postmodern assessment of our situation. We can still speak of a cultural logic, and that logic no doubt is still economically determined, even within a globalized capitalism, but the self-reflexivity of postmodern experience, and of the theory that developed both to describe and to inform that experience—an astute insight of Jameson: that the theory itself is generated and held captive by the same forces it intends to critique—has now given way to an understanding or pursuit of something outside the logical apparatus. This is precisely where religion makes its return, as a proven discourse in carrying one beyond the self-contained structures of a pure immanence, a pure solipsism, or a purely secularized rationality and self-reflexivity. Yet how religion makes this return is still very much bound to a cultural question, or to a question of culturality—the processes of production that continue to determine cultural interplay—so that religion is no longer purely an imposing of transcendence upon immanence, or of otherness upon self, or, as Niebuhr (1951) would have it, of faith upon culture. Religion is not pure in any sense, either as pure transcendence, pure otherness, or pure faith. Religion is part of a cultural hermeneutic, where ‘purity’ itself is a concept alloyed with cultural forces and investment.

This investment increasingly manifests itself in artistic and literary terms. We get a glimpse of such manifestation in Graham Ward's book True Religion (2003). In attempting to give a ‘genealogy of “religion” ’ through a cultural hermeneutics of the fourteenth to the twenty-first century, where ‘ “True religion” is disseminated across social and historical processes…the poetics and politics of cultural determination, production and transformation’, Ward (2003: 4) takes us to the literature of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), John Donne, Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Novalis, Herman Melville (Moby Dick), and Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses), amongst other philosophers, cultural theorists and films. What Ward is trying to expose, in an argument here not bound to the Radical Orthodoxy programme he has otherwise been tied to, is not only that religion has returned in force within a post-secular culture, but that its return is caught up within a matrix of other cultural systems that link it, necessarily, to certain aspects of economy, politics, and art. To understand ‘true’ religion, we must understand and properly ‘read’ these other cultural systems or spheres, in which notions of truth are rendered, shaped, manipulated, sustained, postulated, and propagated. In speaking of Melville, for instance, Ward (ibid. 112–13) writes:

The changes to the understanding of ‘religion’ represented in Moby Dick find certain correlations in the political, the economic, the aesthetic, the metaphysical and the spiritual. The momentous growth in consumer culture that began in the nineteenth century paralleled the new Smithian economics of free trade and the avaricious drive for conquest, [and] are reflected back in the fears, fascinations and figurations of ‘religion’, the turns to cosmotheism, the Romantic metaphysics of the absolute spirit, the deity who dominates, and the aesthetics of the sublime.

To understand religion here is to understand literature, as much as it is to understand nineteenth-century economics, politics, philosophy, and aesthetics. ‘True’ religion is no more truer than the cultural realities of any given period, as they are appropriated (p. 849) by and experienced through the stories we tell of them. If then we are to continue to theologize—about religion in general, or within the specific religions any one of us may confess—we must incorporate our cultural practices and our creative expressions into our reflection and our understanding of the divine, which of course will profoundly change the nature of our theological discourse and the expectations we have of it. And such changes are well under way, in what we might consider as an emerging ‘theography’.

In the writing of literature we already have examples of the way culturality integrates with theological concern as part of the ‘mode’ of fictionalizing. John Banville's earlier ‘historical’ novels (Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), and The Newton Letter (1982), which reinscribe history and historical characters in the face of science and its evolving view of reality) lead to the later novel Shroud (2003), in which Zoroastrianism, Nietzsche, Paul de Mann, Italian renaissance artists, the mythical Cassandra, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus are all wrapped up. The question of identity at the heart of the novel extends to the questionable, shifting, culture-bound ‘identity’ of religions and religious figures, such as the Shroud of Turin implies—a parchment on which (perhaps) God is rewritten. This question of religious history, and how it is ‘storied’, is also at the heart of Graham Swift's earlier Waterland (1983), where the question of God's revelation in history (or as history) figures powerfully through the narrator's wife Mary, who ‘begets’ a child from God in a rewriting of the virgin birth: she steals a baby from a supermarket because ‘God told her to’. These kinds of novels—and there are plenty of examples, including those that rescript the sacred text itself, like Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988) or Jim Crace's Quarantine (1997)—are not merely using religious or Christian imagery to freight their stories with vestiges of a once powerful and compelling past, earnestly or ironically. They are asking questions of the nature of religion itself, and rewriting religious understanding out of the cultural interchange between what has been, what is presently, and what can be in the future, an interchange which works across manifold and overlapping spheres of cultural interest and expression. Like a religious shroud, they are materializing new imprints of spiritual sensibility upon the multiform strands that make up our shared social and cultural fabric. And though this may appear to efface religion in its traditional form, it equally reinvests religion with, or as, a new form, even if yet a faint and indeterminate form. As such a theography increases—and all signs suggest that it will—this form will become more distinct, offering a new aesthetic as much as a new theological investiture.

An extension of this form can be seen in the growing state of post-colonial writing. Here, as with historiography and theography, political rewriting alters the fundamental perception of a given reality. But the politics involved here is a politics always informed by religion. Globalization, we have seen, obscures the distinction between foreign and domestic: what is produced domestically, and labelled domestic, is increasingly a product mixed with foreign parts, foreign labour, and foreign finances (including the products of art and literature). And post-colonial art certainly trades on this admixture. But post-colonial issues are far more than a product of pluralism. They arise as much, if not more, out of interplay between various levels of cultural (p. 850) determination that places some people in subjection to others. A theological hierarchy of the cosmos had governed the Western view of reality since at least the medieval scholastics, we know. As this hierarchy became married with expansionism, beginning with Columbus in the late fifteenth century and continuing until the twentieth century, global politics took with it the theological and religious ideology which gave it its justification. Post-colonial writing is an attempt to dissect the relationship between hierarchical assumptions in the air and socio-political realities on the ground. It might be argued that post-colonialism, as an ism, is more interested in the heights—that it is and will always remain theoretical in so far as it is expounded exclusively by academics and literati, and not by those struggling to live their lives between two differing yet amalgamated worlds (or more than two, as in the case of South Africa). No one marches in the streets in the name of post-colonialism. Yet it is precisely because post-colonial ‘realities’ are built upon presuppositions and assumptions—religious, political, economic, etc.—which, over time and under critique, are eventuated as a dilemma, that they do not yet find direct expression in praxis. Rather, one lives a dilemma, an ‘anxiety’, which if it is to be articulated, is articulated through forms which can expose and dismantle preconceptions of the most fundamental and far-reaching kind—religious preconceptions ultimately, those about how humankind is located within the cosmos or the universe, and what ought to inform the construction of our social formations, as much as the actions we take within them. Literature becomes a powerful medium for this articulation, because it is one of the few cultural instruments by which we can reconstruct and deconstruct interplay between cultural forces that are both indirect and direct, both abstract and concrete, both hidden and revealed.

It is for this reason that literature has been at the centre of post-colonialism's emergence from the beginning. Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978 certainly laid much of the ground for unmasking the hidden and deleterious forces at work behind the Western division of the globe into the ‘Occident’ and the ‘Orient’. But in his later collection of essays, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), he puts forward the idea of the ‘worldliness’ of texts, that texts and textuality have always been deeply inculturated phenomena: ‘It is not only that any text, if it is not immediately destroyed, is a network of often colliding forces but also that a text in its actually being a text is a being in the world’; ‘texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly’ (Said 1983: 33, 35). As a literary critic, he goes on to show, in writers that vary from Swift to Conrad to Joyce, just how ‘worldly’, how caught up in the mechanisms of cultural practice and ideology, texts are by virtue of being texts. And it is in this enmeshment that they are complicit in the privileging of one set of perspectives and priorities over another. ‘Texts are a system of forces institutionalized by the reigning culture at some human cost to its various components’ (ibid. 53). The human cost is what is central to Said's critique. And even if Said's own accounting of that cost will itself later come under critique from the likes of Homi Bhabha, it is incontrovertible that religion has contributed liberally to that sum.

(p. 851)

It is highly doubtful that post-colonial issues and post-colonial writing will go away anytime soon, even though the geopolitical and social fallout of colonization may fade in the near future with some rapidity, and the term ‘post-colonial’ may give way to something that is more relevant to globalization. What do not seem to be fading are imperialisms. Thus as literature allows us not simply to expose but to redirect the interplay of cultural forces, both benign and coercive, we will continue to see the emergence of literature, cultural criticism, and religious reflection that makes visible, like metal filings around a magnet, the lines upon which those forces operate, and that pulls them, like a counteracting charge, in different directions.


Criticism, whether literary, cultural, political, or ideological, is not primarily, if at all, an exercise in debunking. As David Klemm's chapter on German criticism in this volume has indicated (see Ch. 8, above), it is a discipline of analysis, by which judgements upon a work are brought to a meta-level. As a discipline it functions in formalized settings, which themselves are caught up in culturality. The academy, the most formal of these settings, is a deeply cultural space, with productions and consumptions that have effect in the wider community. Criticism is worldly, said Said; theory is formed by a cultural logic, said Jameson; academic disciplines, we can add, are bound up in cultural interplay. The merging of literature and religion through the interrelation of cultural forces is reflective of a shift not merely in how these spheres are experienced, but indeed in how they are studied, categorized, and formalized as fields of enquiry. As experience merges, so too do the categories and formalizations, the criticisms and the critiques. Disciplines lose their strict identity, and begin to overlap, cross-fertilize, interpenetrate. In the short history of literature and theology/religion as a combined field of study, what we have seen is a categorical confusion about where the merger ought to be situated—in the departments of literature or religion? The tension between these two disciplines has never abated; in many ways, that tension has fuelled the enquiry. But as other disciplines and fields of study have become more and more implicated in the questions and the critiques, through post-secularity, globalization, and culturality, the tension has only gained strength. Having made the first move to combine the study of literature and theology, as charted in the introductory chapter of this volume, interdisciplinary floodgates have now swung wide open, so that the dyadic term ‘literature and theology’ is now almost a cipher into which one may pour any number of disciplinary labels.

In focusing on Edward Said above, we have already drawn attention to this interdisciplinarity within the academy. Said began his career as a literary critic of comparative literature. When the 1967 Arab–Israeli war broke out, politics became an inseparable part of his life's work. His politics was informed by literature and literary (p. 852) criticism, to be sure, but also by history, philology, sociology, anthropology, contemporary philosophy, political science, art, and even music. His writings reflect all these influences, indeed begin from all these points, so that by the end of his life, one was hard-pressed to isolate Said's discipline in singular terms, and the media began resorting to such general titles as ‘public intellectual’. The development of post-colonial critique tells us that literature was too implicated in the world's social and political realities to remain within the self-contained confines of New Criticism, and that the role of the literary critic was radically changing ground. Said was no mere Renaissance man. Under the powers of Foucault's genealogies and post-structuralism's deconstruction, literature for Said transposed into textuality, the expanded grammar of cultural production and interpretation that carries one back into the material world through the critical parsing and syntactical analysis of its structures. And though he remained ‘secular’ in these textual pursuits, religion was a central and unavoidable construction in the grammar.

There are other interdisciplinarians for whom religion has been more than merely a component of a secular enterprise. One can think of such Europeans as Paul Ricœur and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek. The latter in particular has challenged our notions of what to understand as a text, bringing the visual arts, film, and popular culture into the mainstream of his wide religious, cultural, political, and philosophical discussions. In Britain, this textual expansion can be seen in David Jasper's The Sacred Desert (2004), subtitled simply ‘Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture’. Here Jasper displays an intricate fusion of written works with music, paintings, video art, and cinema. Theology, spirituality, and mysticism weave with philosophy, social commentary, and personal diary. Poetry stands alongside novels, biographies, and travel literature. In expounding the space of the desert as the ultimate sacred space, his own written text becomes a manifestation of the space he is trying to elucidate: the desert narrative behind all literature, religion, art, philosophy, etc.—behind, that is, all disciplinary gestures, the quiet, shifting landscape ‘that both kills and redeems and is absolutely indifferent and pure’, a landscape that ‘is never and always’, a place that is both all text and no text whatsoever (ibid. 169). What such interdisciplinary studies will continue to provide, then, is a critical redefining of what is text, and in turn a critical redefining of the disciplines we use to pursue the question.

Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this critical interdisciplinarity today can be found in the extensive developments of feminism. There are of course many ‘feminisms’, each with their specific agenda. But if we can use the term ‘feminism’ in a general sense here as an extended form of a critical spirit, indeed a mode of critique, then what we have seen is a complete reorientation of how to approach any one discipline, and what makes up the content of that discipline. Feminist reappraisal has exposed coercive patriarchal structures, given voices to the marginalized, challenged the priorities of our value systems, and forced us to reconsider notions of self and identity. In this respect, it may be considered part of the legacy of ‘critical theory’. But in all this it has done something yet more radical: it has caused us to shift how we conceive of reality and divinity. The issue of gender is not a war between two biological make-ups, two psychological and emotional constitutions. Ultimately, gender, as a social and cultural (p. 853) construct—this ‘Theory’ has taught us clearly—is a mode of existing in the world. Feminism, then, becomes a way of being, even, we could argue, for men. It is a way of being that takes into account, and lives out, an understanding of difference at the core of who we are. For all the philosophical and theoretical focus on difference at the end of the last century (not to mention différance), feminism appropriates difference existentially as a lived and embodied reality, not in a divisive manner, which sets differends against each other, but as a defining state of existing affirmingly within the manifold of the world, a heterophonous state that hears alterity not as clash but as a choral layering together of possibility. It works against systems of totality not because uniqueness and individuality are better, but because such systems have proved to be impoverished ways of describing and experiencing the possibility of the world (as much as any individualism has proved to be).

To this end, feminism is a metadiscipline in the highest order—though in the very opposite direction of a metaphysical order. Feminism rarely becomes its own department within the academy (though in America one can find departments of Women's Studies) because it is less an isolated field of study as it is a mode by which to approach all fields. Hence one can find a feminist appropriation of any field and discipline, from the Humanities to even the hard sciences (see e.g. Doell 1991: 121–39; and Fréchet 1991: 205–21). More importantly, it is changing our understanding of knowledge, and how we categorize and institutionalize knowledge. Not just previously marginalized knowledge that has arisen anew under the banners of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, but all knowledge. Nor all knowledge as merely a product of ideation, but all knowledge as it is socially, culturally, and institutionally enmeshed. This change directly affects our disciplines. Granted, there is still a long way to go. But feminism is succeeding, despite resistance, in changing this interplay between engendering knowledge and formalizing knowledge, and bringing us to a fuller interdisciplinarity across all our enquiries, both within the academy and without.2 More importantly, as a metadiscipline, it takes us beyond discipline as a purely intellectual sphere and activity, and forces us to the materiality, sociality, and culturality of our thinking and its differences. This is why literature has remained so central to feminist concern: it brings us out of our closets of abstraction, and shows us our material contingencies and the new possibilities that might thereby arise.


The question of discipline, and the critical discourse that emerges from disciplinary methodology, might suggest that literature and religion will remain a highly theoretical enterprise, one grounded in a certain critical or cultural theory. But the idea of (p. 854) ‘pure theory’ (as someone such as Said might have envisioned it) has itself fallen prey to the same internal critique as that of ‘pure religion’. We can see this critique in a recent turn in Britain towards a kind of thinking called ‘after theory’, as evidenced in the book titles of notable British literary critics Terry Eagleton and Valentine Cunningham: After Theory (2004) and Reading After Theory (2002) respectively.3 Both these writers understand ‘theory’ here as the cultural theory that grew up particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, as put forward by many Western intellectuals either of the French (from Lacan to Derrida), German (Habermas), American (Jameson), or British (Raymond Williams) cast. It was such cultural theory that had direct influence on literary theory and criticism as it rode the wave of postmodernism through to the new millennium. Both writers suggest that this theory has had its heyday now, and that we are moving on to something else, something as yet undefined, but certainly ‘after’ (there is a deliberate avoidance of ‘post-’ here). Yet both also admit that such theory has made its mark indelibly upon our culture, and that there is no turning back to a moment before such theory, as if it was all a serious mistake. On the contrary, both go out of their way to show the immense importance and pervading influence such theory has had, and still has. But it no longer guides our most present concerns, they suggest, because its deficiencies are now too glaring, especially in the wake of 11 September 2001. How can it address the new global narrative of capitalism and its war on terror with a theory fundamentally loath to action, asks Eagleton? If reading comes after theory, as it always does, how do we carry on reading, as we must, asks Cunningham? Eagleton curiously recasts his Marxist allegiance within a Neo-Aristotelian and Christian persuasion, while Cunningham champions the primacy of the act, and tact, of reading as an engaged, tactile—not theorized or theorizing—activity. Both emphasize moral and ethical concerns as paramount and necessary, even if problematic. And Eagleton especially returns religion to its rightful place as a world-changing possibility, even if what it is changing is religious fundamentalism. Is this move ‘after’ theory, then, any more distinct than what we have been laying out above, somewhat theoretically, in relation to literature and religion?

We can say that the theory which Eagleton and Cunningham are suggesting is behind us now is a certain kind of theory that transposed itself into literary criticism within certain confines of academic practice. But it is precisely away from such literary criticism that, we suggest, ‘literature and religion’ moves, as it encounters the forces of post-secularity, globalization, culturality, and interdisciplinarity. Though one can argue these forces are themselves highly theoretical, they do not form a self-contained field, an orthodoxy until themselves, as Eagleton and Cunningham argue ‘Theory’ (or ‘High Theory’, as Cunningham calls it) had become. Here instead we are trying to lay out the after of a theory which, if it still contains theory, contains it in a far more integrated manner, a manner in which it is impossible to separate out ‘theory’ (in a decapitalized form) with the practice of reading and, indeed, living. What we are suggesting is that ‘literature and religion’, whether in (p. 855) Britain or elsewhere—or for the very reason it is both in Britain and elsewhere simultaneously, as a global phenomenon—is forcing us to rethink our perception of theory and criticism from the ground up, so that we are as much after theory in the sense of beyond one kind of Theory, and after theory in the sense of seeking out and pursuing a new kind altogether.

What will guide this pursuit, as it has already begun to do, is an increasing concern for ethics. If we consider ‘High Theory’ within a history of ideas, one could conceivably argue that it arose from the ashes of the Shoah: the ringing indictment of Adorno's famous line, that no poetry was possible after Auschwitz, impelled a body of thought which, in effect, allowed literature to remain ‘impossible’, while theoretical strategies played around it and ‘extraneous’ factors were brought in from the outside (though, as Theory would impress upon us, the ‘extraneous’ was always intraneous). And to this end Theory remained thoroughly political, in its attempts to keep literature, and eventually religion, from ever again reaching that ‘most exquisite of art forms’, the concentration camp. What else is postmodern art and theory than a refusal to let sovereign power back into its fold? If, as Agamben (1998: 188) suggests, there ‘is no return from the camps to classical politics’, then neither, said Theory, is there a return to the classic text. And if the camp remains, at least biopolitically, ‘the hidden matrix…in which we are still living’ (ibid. 166), we ought to understand Theory as leaving us with an indispensable legacy. But with 9/11, that matrix has been inexorably altered—that is to say, it is no longer hidden. If the camp represents the ‘state of exception that has become the rule’ (ibid. 168–9), then with the War on Terror, the exceptional terrorist attack, and in particular the suicide bomber, has been made into a rule which is all too evident. Suicide bombing is the biopolitical gesture of our times, now made explicitly public, with a deep theology at its root—a biotheology. As we face what it means to live in a world where a terrorist strike can be expected to happen at any time, and anywhere, the political energy that had fuelled Theory in the wake of Adorno is now transformed, not merely into a displacement of sovereign power through deconstructive means, but into an ethical demand for responsible action in the face of competing and polarizing ideologies.

Where the voice of poetry returns, or the voice of literature as such, is within this very matrix of now open and hostile religiosity, whether that of the suicide bombers or that of the religio-political forces set out in the name of freedom and democracy to uproot their insurgence and relieve History of its antagonisms. We are only now seeing art respond to this new world of terror. Of course the best art will not be programmatic, nor tendentious, but will create possibility out of what seems impossible or reality out of what seems unreal. And in this new world we will be forced to change our approach to the study of literature, and to the rereading of the classic text. As irresponsible action continues to pervade on all sides, not least in governmental response to individual terrorists—where the name ‘Osama bin Laden’ acts as the justification for full-scale wars—responsibility will need again to be sought in or informed by those texts we once deemed impossible not only to write but to read. ‘Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettantism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of (p. 856) indifference’, writes the narrator in Middlemarch (Eliot 1965: 501). For us, the heady days of postmodern trifling are now behind us. But this does not mean we can return to the halcyon days of naive hermeneutics void of critical element, as if to read the text again in and of its own right. As the foregoing discussion has tried to show, there is no longer any such thing as ‘in and of its own right’. On the contrary, one's ‘own’ is caught up in a matrix of conditions and forces, and thus the critical element has become all the more pressing, to the point where it can no longer afford the ‘impossibility’ of playful deferment and inaction. Criticism has reached a crisis, and finding its ability to respond in this crisis will be the great ethical necessity that drives it forward beyond itself, and back to the materially grounded text where the action has always taken place. As the statue of Hermione returns to life at the end of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, so we might hear anew literature say of its own flesh-and-blood possibility: ‘her actions shall be holy as | You hear my spell is lawful’ (v. iii. 104–5; Shakespeare 1969: 1367).

If ‘literature and theology’ began as an exploration of two fields implicated in each other's concerns, ‘literature and theology’ today stands as the place where textuality is implicated in our most intense cultural conditions. At this place we have moved beyond a matter simply for ‘literature’ or ‘religion’ alone, or in even concert. We are even forced beyond the ‘now and in England’ (see Elisabeth Jay, Ch. 1 above). If the earlier Eagleton was right, that the study of English literature in the nineteenth century arose as the result of ‘the failure of religion’ (see this volume, David Jasper, Ch. 2 above), then we might venture to say that the study of the text and textual hermeneutics in the twenty-first century will continue because of a particular resurgence of religion. But this resurgence is global, bound up with the interplay of all cultural forces, and germane to all disciplines seeking out how to position humanity amid the turbulence of its own violent times. If religion is back, it is back not as the totalizing foundation and confirmation of all reality. It is back as warring and wounded sovereignties without sure domains to rule. Literature can, and must, speak to this dilemma: the broken God without a home. In doing so, it may well supply that temporary shelter in which new ministration, if not dispensation, might be found.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller‐Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Atwood, Margaret. 1985. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland‐Bantam.Find this resource:

Blond, Philip (ed.) 1998. Post‐secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Crace, Jim. 1997. Quarantine. London: Penguin.Find this resource:

Davis, Colin. 2004. After Poststructuralism: Reading, Stories and Theory. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

(p. 857) Derrida, Jacques. 1998. ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” and the Limits of Reason Alone’, in Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (eds.), Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Doell, Ruth G. 1991. ‘Whose Research Is This? Values and Biology’, in Hartman and Messer‐Davidow (1991).Find this resource:

Eliot, George. 1965. Middlemarch, ed. W. J. Harvey. London: Penguin.Find this resource:

Forster, E. M. 1979 [1924]. Passage to India, ed. Oliver Stallybrass. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Find this resource:

Fréchet, Denise. 1991. ‘Towards a Post‐Phallic Science’, in Hartman and Messer‐Davidow (1991).Find this resource:

Hartman, Joan E., and Ellen Messer‐Davidow (eds.) 1991. (En) Gendering Knowledge: Feminists in Academe. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.Find this resource:

Jameson, Frederic. 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Jasper, David. 2004. The Sacred Desert. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Martel, Yann. 2003. Life of Pi. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.Find this resource:

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row.Find this resource:

Rushdie, Salman. 1988. Satanic Verses. New York: Picador.Find this resource:

Said, Edward. 1983. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Shakespeare, William. 1969. Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Viking.Find this resource:

Strenksi, Ivan. 2004. ‘The Religion in Globalization’. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72/3: 631–52.Find this resource:

Taylor, Mark C. 2001. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago.Find this resource:

Vattimo, Gianni. 1999. Belief, trans. Luca D'Isanto and David Webb. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Ward, Graham. 2003. True Religion. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Banville, John. 2002. Shroud. London: Picador.Find this resource:

Cunningham, Valentine. 2002. Reading After Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Dunn, Mark. 2001. Ella Minnow Pea. London: Methuen.Find this resource:

Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. London: Penguin.Find this resource:

Fenton, James. 1993. Out of Danger: Poems. London: Penguin.Find this resource:

Hass, Andrew. 2003. Poetics of Critique: The Interdisciplinarity of Textuality. Aldershot: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Jasper, David. 2004. The Sacred Desert. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Robinson, Marilynne. 2005. Gilead. London: Virago.Find this resource:

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin Classics.Find this resource:

Swift, Graham. 1983. Waterland. London: Picador.Find this resource:

Ward, Graham. 2003. True Religion. Oxford: Blackwell. (p. 858) Find this resource:


(1) In distinction from Vattimo's understanding of ‘secularization’ in his notion of a ‘theology of secularization’, whereby the secularizing process in the history of the West in fact becomes the salvation of Christianity, in removing it from the natural religion of a peremptory God of violence, held in place throughout European history by metaphysics and onto-theology. See Vattimo 1999.

(2) For an excellent discussion of both the advances and obstacles of feminist critique within the academy, see Hartman and Messer-Davidow 1991.

(3) And corroborated, for example, in French Studies by Colin Davis 2004.