McClure, John A. Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison.
In Partial Faiths, John McClure demonstrates that contemporary American fiction is far more interested in religion than has heretofore been acknowledged. More importantly, he argues that this engagement can be understood neither within the narratives of secularization nor by those of the received religions. Instead, the new, religiously inflected modes of being explored in contemporary fiction are characterized by what McClure calls their "postsecularism," a term he uses to signal the way writers from Thomas Pynchon to Leslie Marmon Silko plot a twofold process marked by a) the return of secular characters to religion and spirituality, and b) a novelistic drive to weaken, fracture, and reconfigure religiosity along more open, progressive, and pluralistic vectors. Situating his contributions to literary criticism within a philosophical matrix that weaves together the work of Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Jacques Derrida, William Connolly, Jurgen Habermas, and Mercea Eliade, McClure makes a compelling case that a viable alternative has emerged between the mutually exclusive certainties of religion and secularism and that fiction is an important part of this cultural transformation.
In McClure's hands, the argument that we occupy an increasingly postsecular culture involves both observations of a general nature--about re-enchantment and resurgent religiosity at work in contemporary American culture--and more finely argued points. It is immediately apparent that McClure endorses postsecularism as a social good--these "partial faiths" are conceived as alternatives to the undesirable excesses of secularist and religious ideologies. The book is not a manifesto, however, and this is part of what makes it such a pleasure to read. The "partial faiths" practiced in the novels he engages tread a fine line, which McClure follows with care: they are replete with supernatural events, but they offer something less than the certainties of the Abrahamic faiths. Instead, what he calls "new, weakened and hybridized ... idioms of belief' offer something that is vital and sustaining despite ontological uncertainty. With this schematic compass firmly established in the preface and introduction, McClure devotes the balance of his book to tracking, in clean and convincing prose, exactly how this project plays out in divergent works of American fiction.
Structurally, Partial Faiths comprises five case studies each capable of standing on its own merits as a comprehensive single-author essay on Pynchon, DeLillo, Morrison, and Ondaatje respectively. A chapter on novelists N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich breaks with this single-author form to consider what McClure calls "narratives of return" in the broader context of Native American fiction--a body of work where, as he aptly notes, "the process of secularization" was a "part of a deliberate campaign [of oppression] carried out through the institutions of the state" (138). Briefly, McClure's chapter arguments can be summarized as follows: with Thomas Pynchon, McClure urges critics away from the formal concerns favored by postmodernist theory toward the neglected (religious) content of novels like Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland. In that content he finds "a radically pluralistic, exuberantly reenchanted universe" in which characters search for communities of resistance that often come to rest in earth-centered spiritualities; Pynchon's novels, however, refuse to endorse "any single school of spiritual formation as an exclusive source of possibility" (48, 55). Noting that DeLillo's work often problematically demonizes religion in general and Islam in particular as a site of irrationalism, asceticism, and ecstatic fusion responsible for a great deal of human suffering, McClure's second chapter charts the course of DeLillo's career as a clear trajectory. McClure argues that DeLillo develops an "expanding ... circle of sympathy" that includes the improvisational "naturalistic spiritualities" celebrated in his early work as well as the "more exuberantly supernaturalist and plural forms of communion" we encounter in Underworld, White Noise, and Cosmopolis. In the work of Toni Morrison, McClure again finds the "enchanting power of a new, syncretic, Earth-positive and sensuous spirituality," a force that impels the plots of novels like Beloved and Paradise (118). Morrison, however, "discovers fundamentalist tendencies within ... the story of the Exodus" and more broadly exposes the "genocidal impulses" that are "likely to infect any community that embraces ... [religious] narrative uncritically" (107, 111). This movement of push and pull, endorse and question defines McClure's understanding of postsecularism's torsional pressures.
In his analysis of Silko's, Momaday's, and Edrich's narratives of spiritual return, McClure sketches the overdetermined nature of religion and secularism in Native American literature: on the one hand, Native Americans have long served as spiritual, earth-centered Other in the secular Western imaginary, a stereotype inflecting any engagement with native spiritual practices; at the same time, governmentally sanctioned programs of acculturation have severed many Native Americans from their cultural and sacral inheritances. In novels like Ceremony, House Made of Dawn, and Love Medicine, McClure observes that "characters walk, dance, or run their ways back into intimate relation with the sacred community and land," though this privileged relation often remains "a momentary gift rather than a steady possession" (147, 141). Breaking rather unexpectedly from the American focus that had governed his choice of novelists throughout the book, McClure devotes his final chapter to a compelling reading of the "neomonastic" communities of human flourishing at the heart of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Anil's Ghost. For McClure, Ondaatje's novels "celebrate practices--devotion, dispossession, retreat, and sacrificial service--closely identified with premodern religious ways of being," thus offering a stark contrast to the patterns of spiritual improvisation more common among the narratives to which McClure attends elsewhere in the volume.
However, McClure's argument invites several basic critiques. First, the clear dividing lines McClure establishes between religion and secularism tend to evacuate the subtlety of these traditions. As McClure seeks to differentiate postsecular alternatives to received religions, his use of the term "religion" exaggerates the formalist, authoritarian, and hierarchical nature of established faiths "dependent," in his words, "on absolute conviction and doctrinal conformity" (5). Alternately, McClure's account of secularism is at times limited to complete separation between private religion and public reason, or perhaps secularism understood as rationalist atheism. A thick account of secularism, such as that developed by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (not published at the tame of McClure's writing) includes with its compass a range of hybridized, religiously inflected modes of being McClure calls the postsecular. Is the postsecular something new? An early aside on the temporal boundaries of postsecularism ("postsecularism itself has been a feature of literary thinking since the Romantics") signals "no," but McClure locates (correctly, it seems) the yield of his argument in the current importance of religion in the popular and geopolitical imagination (3). The fact that many of the novels central to McClure's analysis are explicitly works of historical fiction--like Pynchon's Gravity's Ranbow, Ondaatje's The English Patient, and Morrison's Beloved) suggests that the role of historicity must be developed more thoroughly.
These questions in no way undermine McClure's achievement; indeed even the geographical foray away from American fiction in the final chapter on Ondaatje can lead readers to extend this inquiry to achieve a better understanding of American religious exceptionalism and to gain a fuller account of the uneven geography of postsecularism. Partial Faiths stands not only as a notable accomplishment in the burgeoning area of secularism studies, but also as a vital work of literary criticism that engages a broad array of primary and secondary materials with a deft hand. The main current of McClure's argument--namely that many novels "challenge secular definitions of the real and project a spiritually charged cosmos" while they simultaneously caution "against turning this cosmic house of the spirits into a prison house of religious dogma"--offers a compelling read for anyone interested in secularism, religion, and possible alternatives to this seeming binarism (100).