What Mayor De Blasio’s Order Tells Us About The Wasteland Called Secular Modernity

A Hasidic Funeral

On April 28 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a reported 2500 Hasidic Jewish men and women came out to mourn the death of a beloved Hasidic rabbi. Eye witness reports described the streets as packed with people, many of whom were neither wearing masks nor obeying social distancing.

In an especially dramatic and forceful move, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, came to the funeral in order to disperse the crowd. Shortly afterward, he tweeted:

Naturally, many Jewish people, Hasidic and otherwise, were outraged and not just because de Blasio saw fit to single out “the Jewish community.” Name-calling and indignation aside, the central issue remains unexplored, let alone pointed at.

And that central issue is secularism.

Antigone’s Fate

When I reflect upon this incident, I can’t help but think of Sophocles’s tragic play Antigone. As we begin reading, we learn that Antigone’s brothers had, before the action begins, fought on opposite sides of a civil war. Both brothers had died while fighting, yet Creon, the ruler of Thebes, has ordered that the insurgent brother, Polynice, shall not receive the proper burial rites.

Antigone is faced with an impossible choice: will she abide by the edict of the city-state even though it flies in the face of piety? Or shall she act out of piety and filial responsibility and, in so doing, risk her own life on account of her disobedience?

Loosely speaking, the tragic dilemma discloses, in this case, the irresolvable conflict between the religious and the political.

The Differend

In 1983, just six years before the collapse of the USSR, Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote The Differend: Phrases in Dispute with a view to explicating what a differend is. A differend is any conflict or dispute that occurs whenever two different language games, both of which have their own grammar, clash. One example he uses to illustrate his point is that the language game of capitalists is heterogenous with that of the proletariat. To put the matter too quickly, we might say that the supreme difficulty dies in the fact that two groups of people are speaking two different languages.

Perhaps it can be said that after 1989, Fukuyama was right: liberal democracy is the last game in town, and differends, at least in most quarters, have ceased to be heard.

Secular Modernity’s Recalcitrance

What is striking about secular modernity is just how recalcitrant it is to any claims coming from a different order of value or experience. Put differently, there are no higher values–nay, no ontology of value apart from endless, unexamined immanence.

Pointedly, it was not that de Blasio recognized the sacred nature of funeral rites yet then claimed that saving lives, in this case anyway, must trump the religious observation of such rites. No, so far as I can tell, neither this tweet nor remarks he made elsewhere suggest that he even acknowledges that the religious dimension has any validity.

And he is not alone.

What this incident illustrates is not that Hasidic Jews were right to pay their respects in just the way they did (I suspend judgment here) and not that de Blasio was necessarily wrong to order the funeral to be broken up. It’s rather that the hierophantic, the numinous, the sacred, and the holy have no legitimacy or grounding at this point in history. In other words, there can be no differend.

Opening Up The Economy

To see further what I mean, return to de Blasio’s comments while also paying closer attention to how state governments in the US are trying to gradually open up the economy. See that the only thing that secular modernity can countenance or value is the physical body.

Is it alive or dead? How long will it live for? What can we do to ensure that it perdures? Is it functional? If so, it can work. Is it capable of experiencing pleasure? If so, it can consume.

It was easy, then, to allow supermarkets and healthcare facilities to remain open because secular modernity values the physical body. Next to be opened up will be restaurants and shops not because they’re necessary or essential but because bodies have “appetites” and need to fulfill their pleasures. The economy very clearly reveals to us our secular commitments. So far, there has been no talk of allowing houses of worship or places of practice to resume services.

While stopping the disease and saving lives are both important, how did we get to a point in history at which nothing else really matters or can matter? 

We are very far from any transcendentals. Where have wisdom, beauty, goodness, truth, holiness, or grace gone? And do we even have ears to hear their claims?