The New School celebrated its centennial during the Days of Awe. The six-day Festival of New, held October 1-6, 2019, fit snugly between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, an auspicious if demanding time. The planners may not have been aware of this alignment with a different kind of festival of renewal, but a complicated syncopation with Jewish tradition, and religion writ large, has been at work at The New School for a long time. A star-studded 1932 lecture course on Religion met Friday nights, competing with the prayers of the Jewish Sabbath – or perhaps replacing them.
From its earliest days, a fraught engagement with religion characterizes The New School — a school conceived just as Max Weber was delivering his lecture “Science as a Vocation.” If it was pioneeringly secular from its beginnings, as it has been glibly suggested, this is not because The New School has not engaged religion both as an object of study and as a voice in its debates. Its secularity was almost never understood simply as the absence of religion. The new challenges for which a new school was required needed new ways of understanding religion, but also, perhaps, new religions, including secularism as a religion. The New School’s critical engagement with religion made it a leading center for imagining and critiquing secularisms.
In the first article published about the school, Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic and midwife of the New School, offered the nascent “School of Social Research” as an institution that would pave the way to a religion of humanity. “The new school,” Croly wrote, “will be founded in the faith that science can give back to mankind some of the security and integrity which its own capture by individual, national and class particularism has jeopardized.” The movement toward the necessary social transformation might not go very far until it receives an impulse from the restoration of religion to a worthier place in human life, but the religious revival, if it comes, must come when and where it pleases. In the meantime, something can be done to anticipate by education the birth of the new faith, and in this pedestrian job, schools of social research… could make an indispensable contribution.
The “social” of this new school for “social research” was sacred, and to be praised and venerated as such.
James Harvey Robinson, one of the Columbia professors who served as the first directors of the school, celebrated The New School and the social sciences to which it gave pride of place as finally liberating the human sciences from the dead hand of Christian theology. Natural science had made enormous progress in recent times, he argued, but theological assumptions had stunted the study of human affairs even among supposedly free-thinking scholars. Robinson’s course, “History of the Human Mind,” laid out a program for turning the tables on the still theology-haunted human sciences: animal and comparative psychology; genetic and analytical psychology; anthropology, ethnology and comparative religion; history of philosophy, science, theology, and literature. In Robinson’s social science, religion was to be explained, not a constraint on explanation. “History of the Human Mind” became The New School’s first best-selling book, Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform (1921). But when Robinson left in 1922, his course’s anchoring role in the curriculum was taken by “Dominant Ideals of Western Civilization,” taught by Horace Kallen, which offered a more complex appreciation of religion.
Kallen had been teaching at The New School since 1919 and offering courses on religion since “The Function of Religion in Social Progress” in 1920. Kallen was as opposed to organized religions as Robinson — or his friend, fellow pragmatist John Dewey. But Kallen’s stance toward religion was more complicated. His biographer Matthew Kaufman recently quipped that Kallen represented the paradox of someone “committedly Jewish who rejects Judaism but embraces religion,” a constellation hardly confined among New Schoolers to Kallen. By the time he came to The New School Kallen had long been arguing that “Hebraism” (as opposed to “Judaism”) was a spirit that was modern before its time: realistic about the indifference of the universe but uncowed by it; experimental, scientific, pluralistic in culture and cosmopolitan in politics. Its best representative was Job, Kallen argued in his 1918 The Book of Job as a Greek Tragedy. Kallen renamed Hebraism several times over his long career, passing through “cultural pluralism” to land finally in his perhaps distinctively Jewish American understanding of “secularism.”
The 1932 “Religion — Why?” course didn’t include Kallen — Kallen’s course “Dominant Ideals” also met on the Sabbath! — but it evoked the name of Kallen’s 1927 book Why Religion? in which he had spelled out the function of religion in social progress that he had been lecturing about. Why Religion? claimed to update and extend the psychological findings of The Varieties of Religious Experience of William James, Kallen’s teacher, and mentor. Like James, Kallen thought religious traditions at best warehouses of second-hand religion, but argued that religious experience was not only a real thing but a vital one. Indeed, individual spiritual freedom was constitutive of the “American idea,” which required and rewarded it.
Progress and Happiness are grounded on a religious foundation, but religious in complete contrast to the traditional meanings of that word. This is the living religion of the firing line, of the danger-points of life and at the firing line there can be no finalities and no infallibles. There can be nothing but faith in a projection, in an imagined content of value; faith that carries on only by its own momentum and by no other. (WR 286m qtd Kaufman 157)
Over the next half-century, Kallen taught from and about a vantage he for a time called the “religion of religions,” and eventually celebrated as “secularism as the religion of a free people.” Happily coopting existentialist Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s discussion of the Deus absconditus, Kallen preached that both this-worldly and other-worldly systems were based on St. Paul’s “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Appreciated as different ways of offering people hope and meaning, they were not in conflict.
Kallen shaped the pluralistic New School ethos, which Alvin Johnson called “Kallenism”: an ethos that embraced the social scientific study of religion but also welcomed dialogue with religious figures engaging broader cultural and political issues. In a remarkable commitment to the significance of religious voices to the secularism it promoted, The New School gave honorary degrees to Reinhold Niebuhr (1951), James H. Robinson (1953), Paul Tillich (1955), Martin Buber (1957) and Jacques Maritain (1959). Most of these religious luminaries were no strangers to The New School. The Catholic philosopher Maritain had led the short-lived École Libre in 1943-4, but Protestant theologians Niebuhr and Tillich were significant presences at The New School over decades. Speaking for the faculty, Niebuhr praised the ethos he had encountered as a teacher at The New School:
In lectures which deal with controversial issues, not merely political but those involving contrasting interpretation of human history and the meaning of human existence, the discussions are characterized by a remarkable urbanity of intellectual eagerness.
Niebuhr and Tillich were both based at Union Theological Seminary even as they taught at The New School. So was the theologian and sociologist of religion Arthur Swift, coordinator of the “Religion – Why?” course in 1932. That course marked the start of a quarter-century Swift spent at the school. He spearheaded a crucial post-war self-study of the school and ended as Vice President for Planning and Dean of the School of Politics and Social Studies in 1961. One of The New School’s longest-serving presidents, Jack Everett, a specialist in philosophy and religion, had also studied (and was ordained a Presbyterian minister) at Union, and served on its Board. If the University of Chicago is one overlooked interlocutor of The New School for Social Research as it worked out its mission in the world, exchanging important faculty and administrators for decades, Union Theological Seminary may be another.
As the first university for adults in the United States, The New School furnished a platform for provocative religious analysis and prognostication well before the establishment of “secular” religious studies programs in American universities more generally. It offered courses in everything from Jewish existentialism to religions of the ancient Egyptians, East-West religion taught from an Indian perspective to religion for the Age of Aquarius, “The Bible as a Human Document” taught by a rabbi to early courses in women’s spirituality and queer religion. Krishnamurti gave talks here, and “Twitter monk” Haemin Sunim taught here before he discovered Twitter. In one semester we offered three courses on gender in Islam! A representative picture of religion’s place in the intellectual proposition of The New School might be the Spring 1952 course “The Spiritual Quest of Modern Man,” in which Tillich offered “The answer of Protestantism.” That came right after a lecture on “The answer of cults” by course chair Carl Hermann Voss (another ordained graduate of Union Theological Seminary) and a few weeks before “The answer of communism.” “The answer of existentialism” came soon after, taught by Hannah Arendt in her first New School appearance.
In course and public event offerings from and about religion, the “Kallenist” spirit lives on, if in somewhat diminished form. At the research level, however, The New School’s central contributions have been to deepening understanding of the secular, and the significance of these contributions cannot be overstated. A tradition of Weberian sociology of religion goes back to the University in Exile’s Carl Mayer, who arrived in 1934, and flowed parallel to the more philosophical work of Kallen and his theological interlocutors. (The Philosophy Department has long offered courses on theological problems and even mysticism.) Peter Berger studied here, and it was at The New School that he authored the classic work of secularization theory, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967), as well as A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1969), the first crack in what would become the most prominent public recantation by a secularization theorist. Perhaps modernization brought not the collapse of religion but its pluralization.
A generation later, José Casanova, also a New School Ph.D., wrote the field-refining reassessment of secularization theory, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), proposing that both proponents and detractors of secularization theory needed more specificity. Casanova argued that secularization theory was right in seeing a progressive differentiation from religion of other spheres of culture, such as politics, economy, and the arts. But it was wrong to suppose that religion had become a private atavism, let alone disappeared. Casanova enjoyed being the rare religion specialist in the interdisciplinary discussions of the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science, sharpening in the General Seminar his analysis of how modern religious movements, not content to be relegated to the private realm, in fact contest secularist sphere distinctions.
Casanova’s views, while groundbreaking and prophetic, have not gone without criticism. The critic he says he learned most from was a colleague at The New School, the anthropologist of Islamic societies Talal Asad, with whom he had taught a course together in 1991. Asad penned the classic of the theory of religion Genealogies of Religion (1993), and his critique of Casanova presaged the argument he would make in Formations of the Secular (2003): secularism is as much a contingent formation of embodied political subjectivity as “religion,” and no less in need of critical scrutiny. (Asad left The New School in 1995.) Casanova incorporated some of Asad’s relativizing questions in responding to a third crucial text in secular studies with connections to The New School’s distinctive intellectual culture, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. (Taylor offered intensive seminars at The New School to honor and support its bridging of Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions of thought.) In a world shaped by different religious cultures, must not there be multiple secular ages, too?
Kallen, Tillich, Berger, Asad, and Casanova are at best memories at The New School today. (Casanova left The New School in 2008 after more than three decades.) Their questions continue to be salient to a time now sometimes uneasily dubbed “post-secular.” Secularism is not a neutral absence of religion but an array of dramatically different local formations of subjectivity, sociality, and even spirituality. Some secularisms support religious pluralism; most endorse the liberal state; few are self-reflective. What secular selves is The New School now forming? In recent years we have added a sense of urgency regarding questions of injustice and sustainability to our “urbanity of intellectual eagerness,” but the messianic call of social research as harbinger of a new age of humanity sounds dimly if at all. The promise of the “new” seems more like a golden calf, formed of the melted down baubles of forgotten ideals.
The explicitly religious language repurposed by Croly and Kallen survives, if at all, only in “Mission and Vision,” long since staples of corporate culture. While classes interrogate the secular and post-secular, The New School’s official visions of making the world a “better, more just place” offer the sectarian satisfactions of an unexamined secularism. Does the secularity we are forming at The New School today merit our faith in it? It might be suitable atonement for the shallowness of our appreciation of our spiritual legacies to have a new Sabbath series, “Secularism — Why?”
Mark Larrimore is the Program Director of Religious Studies in Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.
*Feature image courtesy of the Digital Archives at the New School: “The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr speaks in the New School’s Race Crisis Lecture Series, 1964.