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Books

The Cassette Player Against the West

Le Désenchantement du monde Gallimard, Paris 1985 Un monde désenchanté? L’Atelier, Paris 2004

When The Disenchantment of the World was first published in French in 1985, it was like a breakthrough in Europe. The message was understood to be that Christianity was ‘the religion of the exit from religion’. That was almost thirty years ago, when Marxism still seemed to be there forever, but one received idea was already challenged, according to which secularisation and the liberating dynamic of Progress would infallibly consign religiosity to the dustbins of History.

 

 

Actually, ‘The Religion of the Exit from Religion’ was the title of the first chapter of the second part of the book. Its author, Marcel Gauchet, not yet forty, lectured at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, was a close associate of such influential historians as Pierre Nora and François Furet, and edited the review Le Débat for the prestigious publisher Gallimard.

 

The ‘disenchantment of the world’ was not a new idea. It has been launched by Max Weber. But contrary to the great German sociologist of the early twentieth century (who by the way had also underlined the role of Protestantism in the rise of capitalism), Gauchet did not attribute the disillusion to the advent of sciences which abolish all mystery. He argued that Judeo-Christianity was not just a victim of the decline of religions but rather its principal source, if not its sole engine.

 

 

The awareness of the oneness of God, who is universal and transcendent, prohibits turning Him into the organising norm of social life and the guarantee of any political hierarchy. Christ brought this to an extreme, definitely going much further than the primitive figure of the ‘Priest-King’ as mediator between heaven and earth, the latter being in fact only that piece of land over which the king is responsible for and not the whole of creation. Jesus even completely subverted this model by subordinating the logic of omnipotence to that of love, by dying miserably and finally returning to ‘heaven’. He thus introduced the ‘autonomy of earthly realities’.

 

 

To make his point, Gauchet did not use this wording, which comes from Aquinas. Nor did he mention St. Augustine’s distinction in the early fifth century between ‘the City of God and the earthly city’. But he did refer to the Holy Scriptures, albeit without quoting much. He reasoned as a philosopher more than as a historian, focusing on conceptual refinement rather than the laborious processes through which evangelised societies had gradually freed themselves from the authority of the Church. He did not dwell either upon the paradox that those who strove to impose Christ’s distinction between ‘God and Caesar’ declared His Revelation superseded and believed that if His kingdom was ‘not of this world’, this was simply because there is no world beyond ours.

 

 

This may be the reason why The Disenchantment of the World was widely commented on and discussed above all in Christian circles, while militant anti-clericalism was left virtually voiceless. Marcel Gauchet thus became a ‘travelling companion’ of Catholicism – but not a malleable one: he insists he is not a believer. This gave rise to clarifications and explanations in La condition historique (Stock, 2003) and Un monde désenchanté? (L’Atelier, 2004), in which Gauchet laid emphasis on the fact that ‘modernity’ does not imply at all the disappearance of the religious from the private or public spheres. He also analysed, outside Europe, the convulsions of Islam during the era of globalisation: ‘The fundamentalists who believe that they can use the cassette player against the West give the West access to a deeper level… Faced with the global challenges launched by the appropriation of the instruments of modernity…, the reaction is more violent… where hurried modernisation has had the most obvious de-structuring effects… Reaffirming a religious identity… is at the same time adjusting to modernity from inside it’ (Un monde désenchanté?, pp. 146-147).

 

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