One of the defining features of our particular historical moment is the very idea of its being freshly broken from the past. Across many fields of endeavor—history, the arts, philosophy, politics, and so on—this is perhaps the defining feature of modernism: To be modern is to be aware of oneself, to be reflective about oneself, as standing at the end of a tradition, and as breaking from that tradition precisely by coming to awareness of it. Political modernity began, it is said, with the late-eighteenth-century French, American, and Haitian revolutions that ushered in the age of democratic self-determination. Artistic modernity began as writers and painters shifted focus from the world to the writerly and painterly process of representation itself. At a certain point of industrial development, modernity was born, as the bourgeois representatives of capital become the chief agents of history, spawning a world market and deliberately remaking the surface of the earth in their own image. Modern spirituality emerged along with a new experience of “secularity” as a self-reflective, pluralistic stance enabled by the retreat of hegemonic, organized religions.
We tell many stories about modernity. And the basic assumptions that underpin these stories are probably true—more or less. Yet as they reveal their particular images of modernity, these assumptions leave other facets obscure. For example, in many of the most influential stories, we become modern through a process of conversion. While this goes unremarked, we are, as it were, converted to modernity. We narrate the birth of modernity as a rebirth, telling stories about the passage from premodern naiveté through a crisis of that condition, to a rebirth within a reflective modernity. These are conversion stories, and they resonate deeply with key metaphors of the Enlightenment and the New Testament. Without acknowledgment, one enters and inhabits modernity as through a religious conversion. This may happen because we inhabit a broadly Protestantized culture in which identity is understood and lived in terms of conversion. It may be because any narrative of self-identity requires this kind of structure (within which, the thinking goes, one can produce the space necessary to look back and relate one’s story only by taking a step away from the former self one wishes to narrate). While it may seem obvious that modernity is constituted as what breaks from past tradition, it is much less obvious that this break is narrated and experienced as a process of conversion. There are many ways to be converted, of course, but there is nonetheless a pronounced tendency to overlook the process of conversion that underlies modern secularity, and thus also a pronounced tendency to construe the experience of modern secularity too narrowly.11xIn this essay, my argument is broader and more impressionistic than a similar argument about secularity as a process of conversion made in my book Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
It is particularly difficult to see how modern secularity is produced by a process of conversion, because of the deeply entrenched assumption that “the modern” and “the secular” are the opposite of “the religious”—or, if they are not the opposite of the religious, that they are nonetheless categorically distinct from it. An ironic blind spot emerges from this: Modern secularity is grounded upon, but must not acknowledge, the process of conversion that sustains it. Conversion seems to require the production of a simplifying narrative that posits a rupture with the past. One dies and is born again. But conversion also exceeds the simple narrative of an instantaneous break: One acquires new habits, new ways of valuing the world, new communities of affiliation, for example. All of those changes take time and are consolidated gradually. What's more, despite the notion that one has died and been born again, a great deal of one’s former self persists within the new. Modern secularity, I will suggest, is just like this: It presents a stark and simple surface of a freestanding, self-reflective rationality, but this surface conceals contradictory depths, including persistent attachments to an unacknowledged but inescapable religious past.
In many parts of the world today, it is difficult to ignore the conflicts and apparent contradictions between two of the key facets of modernity, that is, between democracy and secularity. This is true of the collisions around the “separation of church and state” and “religious freedom” in the United States and also of the evolving challenges to France’s laïcité, as its stricter regime of separation is called. It is true as well of contests over the proper place of Islam and Islamic parties that are playing out differently in, for example, Turkey and Egypt. There are profound differences between each of these cases, but considered together they remind us at least that politics in modern democracies is not secular in the sense of freeing itself from religion; politics and religion instead have remained intricately entwined in the modern world.
If this suggests that one of modernity’s simplest conversion narratives, in which a secular democracy is born from the death of a traditional, religious order, is difficult to apply anywhere in the world, there are nonetheless subtler and more promising stories to be told about democracy, secularity, and conversion. If modernity emerges neither as the conversion to the post-metaphysical politics proposed by secularist sloganeers nor as the counter-conversion to a radical orthodoxy professed by their opposite numbers, secularity might nevertheless come into focus as a tentative, conflicted, and complex process of conversion irreducible to either of those poles. To make that out more clearly, I will consider one of modernity’s most infamous slogans, Friedrich Nietzsche’s announcement that “God is dead.” Beneath the simple surface of that statement lies the kernel of an argument about modern secularity as conversion.
The “Death of God”
Nietzsche is widely known as the archetypical modern nihilist who announced “The Death of God.” However, his less-remembered but clearly related remarks about “secularization” make that pungent little pronunciamento a much more ambiguous, complicated, and apt response to the modern condition than it may at first seem. About the same time that Nietzsche was writing about the death of God, he was also developing a sophisticated stance toward the politics surrounding secularization—although he consigned those remarks to notebooks that were long left unpublished. Read with an eye to the problem of conversion, they shed new light on the death of God and perhaps, more importantly, on our contemporary predicament.
Nietzsche’s apparent proclamation of the demise of the Deity is grounded in section 125 of The Gay Science (first published as Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft in 1882).22xDigitale Kritische Gesamtausgabe Werke und Briefe (eKGWB), a critical edition of Nietzsche’s works and letters in the original German, based on the critical text of Colli and Montinari, can be accessed at http://nietzschesource.org. This key section is too long to quote in full here, but I can offer a paraphrase: A “mad man” enters the marketplace bearing a lantern at midday and calling out that he seeks God; he is mocked by onlookers who do not believe in God; he calls out not simply that God is dead but that “we have killed him,—you and I!” Carrying on about our inability to properly conceive, let alone cope with, what we have done, he sings requiems for the Deity in a variety of churches, which he calls “tombs and monuments of God.” As this briefest of paraphrases might suggest, it is a wonder that Nietzsche’s remarks here could ever have been so compacted, so reduced, to the idea that “God is dead.” While books have been written about the curious receptions of Nietzsche’s works, it’s important for our purposes here to consider how elusive his remarks on God actually are.
To begin with, Nietzsche could not have meant to tell us that God is dead, or that the world around us has been disenchanted, in any straightforward sense. He certainly would have known that there was nothing new in the idea of God’s death: When Hegel pondered the fate of religion at the conclusion of his book Faith and Knowledge, published eighty years before Nietzsche’s Gay Science, he wrote of “the feeling that ‘God himself is dead,’ upon which the religion of more recent times rests.” Hegel also had the grace to note that Pascal had already expressed that same recognition about modern religion nearly 150 years earlier in his Pensées. If Nietzsche could not have intended this announcement of the death of God as news, what was he saying, and why might it matter to us now?
Nietzsche himself offered his own interpretation in a later section of The Gay Science: “The greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe” (section 343). Martin Heidegger would build on that interpretation in what has become the baseline for scholarly engagement with Nietzsche’s text:
From this sentence, it is clear that Nietzsche’s pronouncement concerning the death of God means the Christian god. But it is no less certain, and it is to be considered in advance, that the terms “God” and “Christian God” in Nietzsche’s thinking are used to designate the suprasensory world in general. God is the name for the realm of Ideas and ideals. This realm of the suprasensory has been considered since Plato, or more strictly speaking, since the late Greek and Christian interpretation of Platonic philosophy, to be the true and genuinely real world.… The pronouncement “God is dead” means: The suprasensory world is without effective power. It bestows no life. Metaphysics, i.e., for Nietzsche Western philosophy understood as Platonism, is at an end.33xMartin Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead,’” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977), 61.
According to Heidegger, Nietzsche’s real concern is with the philosophical tradition rather than the sociology of religion, and while he writes about the death of God, what he really means is the end of metaphysics. Heidegger’s claims about Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics are not wrong, but it is worth thinking a bit about what Heidegger leaves out of his story.
The philosophical anthropologist René Girard has usefully taken Heidegger to task for avoiding essential existential questions by substituting “the God of Being” for “the Christian God.” In Girard’s biting phrase, that substitution “is a little ludicrous really and unworthy of Heidegger.”44xRené Girard, “Dionysus versus the Crucified” MLN 99, no. 4 (1984): 821. Girard points out that Heidegger bypasses Nietzsche’s intense interest in the problems of violence, sacrifice, and redemption that are central to the Christian Gospels, section 125 of The Gay Science, and Nietzsche’s oeuvre more generally. And Girard is right: It is amazing that Heidegger glides by that section’s emphasis on God’s murder and our culpability.
One could go on for quite some time with the commentary, but as is the case with much of Nietzsche’s best writing, the interpretive difficulties presented by section 125 cannot be easily resolved. I want to turn now to Nietzsche’s notes to suggest that section 125 does not so much announce a shift in the status of God or the nature of enchantment, but, rather, that, it serves to alert Nietzsche’s readers to their own implication in a process of conversion they have as yet failed to grasp.
I picture Nietzsche smiling as he wrote about the death of God. Sometime in the fall of 1881, during the composition of The Gay Science, Nietzsche made a note that should change the way we think about the critical passage and, perhaps more important, the way we think about secularity and enchantment. Here is the key part of his note:
The political madness, at which I smile just as my contemporaries smile at the religious madness of earlier times, is above all SECULARIZATION, the belief in the world and the rejection of a world “beyond” and “behind.”55xNietzsche, eKGWB/NF-1881,11; my translation.
In the next sentences, he depicts socialism as the “fruit” of secularization. Behind this characterization are Nietzsche’s misgivings about the rise of mass democracy—and what he saw as the disastrous consequences of this emerging political form for European culture and society. Because individuals had come to conceive of themselves as fleeting beings rather than as bearers of eternal souls, they were seeking their happiness in the here and now through the means of socialism instead of waiting for happiness in the hereafter. In the next sentence of his note, he sketches an alternative response to the transiency of the individual and the absence of an afterlife, invoking both the idea of the eternal return and the love of fate, in the teaching that “the task is to live such that you must wish to live this way again—you will in any case!”
The connection of secularization with madness in Nietzsche’s note places the “mad man” of section 125 in a distinct light. Nietzsche smiles at secularization as a “political madness” that he glosses as a “rejection” of regnant ideas about a world beyond this one. More specifically, he smiles at the secularization craze in precisely the same way his contemporaries were smiling at the religious crazes of earlier times. Nietzsche’s smile is thus similar to that of his contemporaries, but heightened, as he claims a historical perspective upon his own moment—insofar, in other words, as he knows himself to be smiling.
Significantly, Nietzsche’s smile—which anticipates the cheer and high spirits of The Gay Science—is directed neither at a religious phenomenon nor simply at the phenomenon of secularization, but rather at the political madness, at the craze, that accompanies both phenomena. It is not the newfound worldly orientation of his contemporaries that amuses Nietzsche, for as Heidegger emphasizes, Nietzsche also seeks to do away with the idea of a world beyond this one (Jenseits) or beneath it (Hinterwelt). Rather, the intense arousal his contemporaries experience in contemplating the apparent transformation of religion, the craze that accompanies the transposition of redemption from another world to this world, the wave of feeling that accompanies the movement from salvation to socialism, is what elicits Nietzsche’s smile. Nietzsche was often a biting critic of democracy and democratic culture. (Many contemporary theorists continue to find his analyses insightful despite disagreeing with his assessment of democracy.) And his response to the political madness of his time should be seen against the larger background of the democratization of nineteenth-century Europe. However, Nietzsche’s smile entails more than simple mockery of the culture of mass democracy. Nietzsche’s grin might also welcome the arrival of a new faith in the world, a faith that is no less a political madness than the religious madness of earlier times. Nietzsche himself was absorbed with the prospect of reconceiving a faith in the world—and while he cannot bring himself to share in the particular faith projected by his contemporaries, he nonetheless seems to be moved by the spectacle their striving produces—not merely disapproving.
What would it mean to smile as Nietzsche does here? For his own part, he generally sought to resist urges to repair the world, to correct or redeem its errors. His smile is not intended to transcend the religious and secular madnesses of his time. Immediately before smiling on secularization, Nietzsche notes that for any degree of consciousness to be possible, a world of error is necessary, that error is a requisite for life just as the drive to knowledge is premised upon an erroneous faith. He proposes that “we must love and care for error, it is the womb of knowledge,” and suggests that “art as the care of madness” will be “our religion.” A few notes later he promises to “teach a higher form of art,” namely, “the invention of festivals/celebrations.” His smile suggests that Nietzsche is embroiled in his historical moment, but, all the same, distant enough from it to establish another perspective.
In my reading, Nietzsche does not so much announce the death of God—which is old news—as direct our attention to the irrational frenzy that marks responses to the gradual transformation of religion, which resonates with the upheavals that accompanied the introduction of mass democracy. In a world of becoming, such as Nietzsche envisions, such transformations are inevitable. Secularity, he suggests, is neither more nor less than the particular form taken today by our confused responses to the necessary, continuous, concrete transformations of political and religious life. Nietzsche’s remarks on the “death of God” and the “craze for secularization,” then, are directed less at the shifts in the formation of European Christianity (i.e., secularization or disenchantment writ large) and more at the responses, confusions, and exaggerations they provoke.
These responses—affective, narrative, fictive, erroneous, artful, even “mad”—to a large scale, long-term, open-ended process of secularization have themselves become phenomena worthy of attention in their own right. I would argue, further, that this new wrinkle in the incorporation of tradition can be thought of in terms of conversion: A simplifying narrative posits a rupture with the past that feeds into and motivates a continuous process of transformation that underlies and, in turn, sustains it. Nietzsche is himself working to incorporate the truth of his new doctrine of “the eternal return of all things,” a doctrine that he believes has radically changed his life. His craze for this idea pushes him along to propose new festivals and a new art worthy of its conception and sufficient for its sustenance. He smiles, I think, without the contempt his contemporaries were directing toward those who got caught up in the religious crazes of old. He smiles at those caught up in the craze for secularization because he recognizes in them the frenzied madness of a new experiment, of a new experience of conversion. If there is a glimmer of disapproval or sadness in this gaze, it may be because he sees too few of us smiling back at him.
Religion and Politics in Secular Modernity
The idea of secularity as conversion might seem a bit richer if it can be applied to some of the questions that interest us today. As an example, I will offer a closer consideration here of the relationship between religion and politics that provokes Nietzsche’s smile. Religion and politics have been tightly entwined in the theory and practice of what we think of as the Western tradition and in contemporary scholarship. However, there is much disagreement about the nature of that relationship. Early in the twentieth century, for example, Carl Schmitt and Ernst Kantorowicz articulated two general and powerful theses that continue to orient contemporary work on the topic of political theology (the rubric under which theorists consider this relationship). They are not necessarily compatible theses.
The first thesis is that modern politics grows directly from medieval religion. Schmitt frames the process of secularization as one of inheritance in a famous passage from his text Political Theology, asserting that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development…but also because of their systematic structure.”66xCarl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985), 36. This is the simpler and more influential thesis: Modern politics is “secularized” religion. The second thesis frames the transfer from religion to politics differently, emphasizing that both fields have continuously borrowed from or contaminated one another. Kantorowicz outlines this different notion of secularization in a tour de force passage in The King’s Two Bodies:
Infinite cross-relations between Church and State, active in every century of the Middle Ages, produced hybrids in either camp. Mutual borrowings and exchanges of insignia, political symbols, prerogatives, and rights of honor had been carried on perpetually between the spiritual and secular leaders of Christian society. The pope adorned his tiara with a golden crown, donned the imperial purple, and was preceded by the imperial banners when riding in solemn procession through the streets of Rome. The emperor wore under his crown a mitre, donned the pontifical shoes and other clerical raiments, and received, like a bishop, the ring at his coronation. These borrowings affected, in the earlier Middle Ages, chiefly the ruling individuals, both spiritual and secular, until finally the sacerdotium had an imperial appearance and the regnum a clerical touch.77xErnst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 193.
In Schmitt’s view, there is a linear and progressive transfer from religion to politics; in Kantorowicz’s, there is a series of relays between these fields. In both views, however, there is the recognition that modern politics is in some essential sense not merely political but necessarily theologico-political. The point for both is that politics and religion are inescapably entwined. However, the nature (including the temporality, causality, and trajectory) of that relationship is the subject of deep disagreement.
Insofar as the modern age is understood as a secular age in which religion has either receded or been contained, the notion that political theology is ineliminable causes a certain amount of anxiety and confusion. As Schmitt and Kantorowicz were keenly aware, if a political theology sustained kings and emperors from antiquity through the medieval world, this political theology would have to be revised as kings gave way to representative democracies at the cusp of modernity. In his recent book The Royal Remains, Eric Santner traces precisely that problem. He argues that the displacement of sovereignty from the body of “The King” to the collective body of “The People” produces strange, unexpected, and often profoundly uncomfortable consequences. Following Kantorowicz’s conceptualization of the ineliminable excess that was once uneasily grafted onto the body of the king—his thesis of the king’s two bodies—Santner argues that this excess becomes the “flesh” of the people in the age of popular sovereignty. Far from being a triumphal rendering in which the people inherit the power of the king, Santner’s view is that the sovereign people inherit and find themselves subjected to a wounded flesh.88xEric Santner, The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011), xvii.
I am only scratching the surface of Santner’s argument, which is itself only one representative of a broad and timely conversation about the meaning of political theology in modern democratic societies. But I want to return to the idea of conversion, and to Nietzsche’s smile, to suggest that our moment may come into sharper focus if these debates are given a different twist. Santner aims to track “a single structural shift that marks the threshold of modernity: the relocation of the dimension of the flesh from the body of the king to that of the people,” a trajectory that posits modernity as an epochal break constituted through the rejection of royal transcendence in favor of democratic immanence.99xIbid., 100. The argument posits the death of the royal sovereign and seeks to trace the birth of its heir: popular sovereignty. It is a powerful, tidy, and compelling narrative that implicitly pictures modernity as emerging through a process of conversion that rends it from the past. Taking Nietzsche’s cue, however, I want to probe that secularization narrative and suggest that our condition may come into focus more clearly when the underlying continuities are acknowledged along with the surface disjunctions.
Portraying the death of the king (which stands for the end of medieval sovereignty) in different words, Schmitt, Kantorowicz, and Santner nonetheless echo Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God. Nietzsche did not mean for us to take the death of God quite so seriously, however. In overlooking Nietzsche’s smile, what do these stories about the transformation of political theology miss about the process of conversion that they would record? What, by extension, do they leave out about the modern experience of secularity? Schmitt, Kantorowicz, and Santner favor conceptions of political theology in which religion and politics are imagined as two related but fundamentally distinct fields. They also favor similar conceptions of modernity as related to the medieval order but fundamentally distinct from it. But what if our transition to modernity is far from complete? Furthermore, what if politics and theology were never two distinct fields in the first place? What I am getting at here is a simple but nonetheless important dimension: This is a story of political theology as a ground continually contested by overlapping religious and political fields that are constituted and sustained in a close struggle through which each continually remakes the other. While this continual process of mutual production and transformation may be punctuated by spectacular disjunctions (e.g., the Protestant Reformation), those are underpinned by profound continuities (e.g., the persistence of Roman Catholicism, and of its forms within Protestantism). Modern secularity emerges through an ongoing process of conversion comprising crazes of conversion to religion, crazes for secularization, and intermittent crazes about the end times. Enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment, in such a view, are not stages in a linear progression, but instead coexisting layers of a crystalline present. Experimental crazes and the stark narratives that accompany them punctuate the surface of our discourses and our ideas about religion and social order—all while various underlying layers of commitment, habit, drive, and need are entangled, mutually constitutive, and slowly, continuously becoming otherwise. While we tend to see modernity as supremely self-reflective, it might also be defined as a distinct un-reflectiveness about those underlying layers.
Nietzsche’s Conversion, and Egypt’s
In the summer of 1881, Nietzsche took up residence in Sils-Maria, Switzerland. One day, walking around a nearby lake, he tells us, he was struck by an “inspiration” that we should understand as his own conversion experience. The idea that so moved him was that of the eternal return of all things—a perspective on “eternity” within the time of this one and only world of becoming—and it was this idea that presented Nietzsche with a satisfactory alternative to the Christian concept of redemption. It was in this frame of mind—having made what he viewed as a discovery of world-historical consequence, an idea that he expected to spend the rest of his life expounding—that Nietzsche contemplated the craze for secularization and democratization taking place around him.
Nietzsche wrote about this conversion experience in his notebooks, in letters to friends, and in his autobiographical work Ecce Homo. In the published account, he writes of being “reborn” in an instant while listening to music with his friend Peter Gast. Nietzsche describes his inspiration as a
revelation in the sense of something suddenly becoming visible and audible with unspeakable assurance and subtlety, something that throws you down and leaves you deeply shaken.… You listen, you do not look for anything, you take, you do not ask who is there; a thought lights up in a flash, with necessity, without hesitation as to its form,—I never had any choice. A delight whose incredible tension sometimes triggers a burst of tears.… All of this is involuntary to the highest degree, but takes place as if in a storm of feelings of freedom, of unrestricted activity, of power, of divinity.… The most remarkable thing is the involuntary nature of the image, the metaphor; you do not know what an image, a metaphor, is any more, everything offers itself up as the closest, simplest, most fitting expression.1010xFriedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 126–27.
While this conversion is portrayed here as instantaneous, Nietzsche describes it elsewhere as a protracted, eighteen-month-long “pregnancy.” In Ecce Homo, he suggests that his inspiration occurred as he walked around Silvaplana Lake in 1881, but also that it may have struck him on a walk around the bay at Portofino in 1886, or perhaps in a process that extended over the five intervening years. Like Augustine’s retrospective account of his conversion in the Confessions, Nietzsche’s published account was written many years after the event, and it is not clear when the moment of inspiration he recounts occurred, or indeed even if such a moment ever did occur.1111xMatthew Scherer, “Authorized Narrative and Crystalline Structure: Conversion in Augustine’s Confessions,” in Beyond Church and State, 30–70. “We have no reason to doubt the details of his description of inspiration,” Rüdiger Safranski, one of Nietzsche’s biographers, writes. “Still it is very difficult to imagine that this insight came to him so abruptly, since there is evidence to indicate that the idea was already quite familiar to him.”1212xRüdiger Safranksi, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, trans. Shelley Frisch (New York, NY: Norton, 2002), 223. Conversion, as Nietzsche must have discovered, is a rich and complex process; it might easily be flavored by a touch of madness and require a great deal of art to sustain.
Nietzsche’s smile, in my last estimation at any rate, is directed toward his contemporaries’ and his own experiments in secularity. By putting the words of section 125 in the mouth of a madman, Nietzsche seems to suggest that the death of God is greatly exaggerated, but in thematizing madness as he does, he also seems to suggest that this exuberant announcement is itself a work of art, itself an experiment. Nietzsche’s sensibility here is doubled—he recognizes an error for what it is, but he doesn’t imagine that he can eliminate it. Looking at European culture, Nietzsche smiles at the alternating surprise, alarm, glee, and distress at the discovery that religion is itself being transformed—that it is subject to human transformation, along with political formations. An emergent consciousness of that fact is part of what is now experienced as secularity; Nietzsche suggests that this second-order experience—the experience of change and of artifice, as well as the responses to these—can take a range of forms from casual or passive nihilism, to melancholic delusion, to giddy exultation (the political madness of secularization), to artistic reinvention. He does not propose a theory of secularization that would cover this range of experience exhaustively, but he does identify secularism as a particular problematic—the conscious experience of transformation within “religious” life—and brings to our attention some of the ways in which we are invested in misunderstanding and avoiding that problematic.
Nietzsche warns us that some of our most indispensable narratives about modernity—that God is dead, that we have broken with tradition—at one and the same time produce modern experience and blind modern subjects to the fine-grained, often contradictory, crystalline processes that underlie, and belie, those narratives. In staging the death of God as an event that at once has already taken place and not yet arrived, Nietzsche locates secularity in the middle of a process of transformation, suggesting that theories of this process will always be inadequate and that mastery of it will be imperfect, but that we are nonetheless responsible for giving it direction. Nietzsche had neither a naive Enlightenment faith that we stand at a new beginning nor a desperate eschatological premonition that the end is upon us. He urged us, instead, to return to ourselves, to find that while we are always becoming otherwise, we nonetheless find ourselves lodged squarely in mid-process. We might say that modern secularity emerges through a distinct break with the religious past, although this is not quite true. And therein lies an occasion to smile.
With all this in mind, we might briefly reconsider the example of recent politics in Egypt. In 2011, a confluence of forces—including structural changes in the national economy, the emergence and coordination of social movements and media, and popular discontent shared across the greater Arab world—combined to force President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime from power. These events seemed to open the possibility for a new politics in Egypt and perhaps in North Africa and the Middle East more broadly. As much of the world watched, captivated by what seemed a truly revolutionary moment, the uprisings seemed to stall, and then to be decisively reversed with the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in 2014. Between 2012, when Mohammed Morsi and an “Islamist” parliament assumed power as the result of plausibly democratic elections, and the denouement of 2014, preceded by a military takeover, democracy’s elusive promises were shown to be tightly and unavoidably entangled with religion’s persistent claims at this leading edge of political modernity.
Nietzsche might have smiled at the minor frenzy of our collective responses—fear, jubilation, enthusiasm and denunciation, airy promises and dire warnings, hope and foreboding—at seeing religion and politics so plainly enmeshed at the center of our world. He might also have urged more of us to smile upon and enter the ranks of protestors, activists, and amateur politicians that included both secularists and Islamists in the joint madness of their efforts to create new festivals, traditions, and possibilities worthy of a future made possible by Mubarak’s fall. Indeed, it would seem, if it is to be democratic, that modern secularity must be broad enough to smile upon such revolutionary ventures, capacious enough to welcome all players on its stage.
In retrospect, the odds against Egypt’s democratic revolution were quite long. But a certain kind of conversion on the part of Islamists, secularists, those in between, and those who observed from a distance may have gone some way toward shortening the odds. This would not have been a conversion to or from Islamism or secularism. It might instead be imagined as a conversion to the early protestors’ demands for “bread, peace, and social justice.” That might seem at once mundane and infinitely demanding, but conversion often seems that way—perhaps that is why theologians tend to attribute conversion to the agency of God rather than to that of humans. Thinking of modern secularity in terms of conversion might remind us of our persistent attachments to the patterns of religious experience, of the challenges posed by a politics that would make the world something other than it is, of the continuous contention between religious and political fields characteristic of public life, and of the promise that our as yet unrealized modernity might still hold.