"Can we get past the past?" In conversation with Postdoctoral Fellow Maxwell Kennel

April 4, 2022 by Maxwell Kennel & Siri Hansen

Department for the Study of Religion SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow Maxwell Kennel’s academic interests range across religion and violence, Mennonite studies, and the relationship between conspiracy theories and religion. He is also the author of the recently published book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (Palgrave Macmillan). We sat down to talk to Max about the book and his work on the powerful lines of influence between time, history, politics, religion, and secularity.

DSR: Let’s start with an overview of what your new book is about.

Maxwell Kennel: In each chapter I follow and challenge the idea that we are in a “postsecular” time where society has overcome or moved past secularity. For some postsecular thinkers this word means that religion is justified again after it was threatened during the Enlightenment and modern period. But I want to challenge that narrative, along with the general notion that we can get past the past. For example, we’re hearing about a post-COVID or post-Trump reality, but I think that the prefix “post” is not adequate to the complexities of time. It’s not possible to get over things so quickly. The past is never past, and always comes back.

There is an ambiguity to the word “postsecular” itself: it could denote something after the end of secularism, or something after the beginning of secularism. Can you unpack the meaning of “postsecular” for us? 

In the book I respond to these ambiguities by talking about periodization, which is a term for dividing history into periods. I want to show how “postsecular” is defined by the way it periodizes time and history. Beyond that, I am challenging the forward-facing inclinations of the term “postsecular” by looking to the past and showing how the entanglements of secularity and religion have interesting histories.

So tradition still plays a part?

Certainly! But I think that my work in Postsecular History is about how we often look back to traditions and forward to the future at the same time, and I am interested in how we mediate between past, present, and future in theologically and politically influenced ways. Ultimately, we cannot preserve, conserve or possess the past or the present or the future in the ways that terms like “postsecular” often attempt to. There’s a tendency for abstract terms like this to solidify, even though a concrete meaning remains elusive. For example, when we call something “secular,” we think we know what that means, but the category of secularity is complex. There are even those who understand themselves to be entirely secular but who engage in religiously inflected forms of devotion or piety.

Can you give us an example of that?

Beyond the book, I see a lot of connections with the postdoctoral project that I am working on at the DSR. My current work is on the relationship between religions and conspiracy theories. For many people who believe in conspiracy theories and consider themselves to be secular there are sometimes religious influences that go undetected. For example, Michael Barkun defines conspiracy theories in three propositions that intersect with religion: “nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; and that everything is connected.” For many conspiracy theorists, religious structures define the secular content of their beliefs and influence the rituals they perform and the forms of speech and persuasion they engage in. All to say that, throughout the book, rather than sharply distinguishing between religion and secularity, I am speaking always in terms of their entanglement.

Can you define political theology for us, and describe why it is important to what you call ‘the politics of time’ in the subtitle of your book?

For many scholars, political theology is only a subdiscipline of Christian theology where political terms are used for theological purposes. But I follow thinkers who see the insights of political theology in broader and more interdisciplinary terms, often under the auspices of the scholarly study of religion. The basic proposition of political theology is that there are structures, ways of thinking, concepts, and practices that we think are secular, but which have very religious histories that recur in the present. 

Is secularism a modern phenomenon?

There are some interesting precursors to contemporary secularities. For example, in the book I explore a group called the Collegiants who were active in the 17th century Dutch Republic. They did not distinguish sharply between Christianity and the world outside of it, and they formed groups of what Leszek Kołakowski called “Christians without a church.” Spinoza was also a member of one of these groups which included free thinkers, Quakers, Socinians, and Mennonites. To me, they resonate with our contemporary ideas about pluralism and democracy and yet they were from the 17th century, which perhaps makes them “ahead of their time.” They were Christians, so they were religious in that sense, but they also wanted to break free from the ecclesiastical structures of their day by refusing to be bound by one unified confession. In the book I am pointing toward these in-between spaces where we find people – like contemporary religious “nones” who do not understand themselves to be either secular or religious. I think that these complex identities are some of the most important for us to understand in the study of religion.

A sensitivity to time permeates your work. What is the particular attraction to that theme for you?

I am interested in unpacking how time is used to make our ideas seem legitimate. If you want to convince someone of something, you may point back in time to a golden age we ought to return to, or you may point forward to the end of time and appeal to a dystopian apocalypse or the promise of a utopian society. Regardless, it is the manipulation of temporal terms like past, present, and future – and the mediation between them – that is persuasive. What motivates me in my concern for time is the question of legitimacy. What is legitimate knowledge? What is credibility? Who do you trust?

In our conversation you mentioned that trauma gives us an analogy for your approach to the postsecular – could you explain that connection?

I think that trauma is at the heart of what I am trying to say about time, but I only realized this as I finished writing the book. Trauma is defined by a past event that returns in the present in negative ways. It is a misappropriated, unhealthy, and violent relationship with time that comes from overwhelming experiences and requires processing and remediation in order to allow the past to settle into the past without being forgotten or returning to the present in unhealthy ways. If you have experienced trauma, there is a part of your past that returns so that you can’t experience certain things in the present without triggering a memory of the past that puts your body in a similar state of stress. People are often told, “Get over it. Move past it,” but that is not a solution to trauma. It needs to be worked through and not overcome. For the discourse of political theology and the study of religion and secularity, this book reminds readers that we haven’t gotten over anything. We haven’t simply moved past anything; to go forward we must go back and work through the complexities of this distinction between religion and secularity. 

Watch the symposium marking the launch of Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time, featuring Maxwell Kennel in discussion with Michael Driedger (Brock University), Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto), Travis Kroeker (McMaster University), and Jennifer Otto (University of Lethbridge).



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