Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Re-enchantment

Nietzsche’s Smile: Modern Conversion and the Secularity Craze

Matthew Scherer

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.1

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