I am at bat to teach the required Graduate course on theories and methods in the study of religion this fall, and I just got out of the first week’s seminar. Because of curricular changes made by my department last  year, I may not teach this course again, a fact that sheds light on the intimate care I gave this syllabus and also the weird disinvestment I felt walking into the room. Not to worry; the students made a fabulous start to what I think will be a terrific semester.

I decided to open the discussion reasonably. That is, with the appeals to Reason by Kant (Prefaces to Religion within the Limits, 1793) and Peirce (“Neglected Argument for the Reality of God”, 1908), and the ways these appeals assert and assume certain ontological facts about human nature, and certain practical connections between reason, experience, and a virtuous life.

I framed our discussion of these philosophers with quotations from Talal Asad about modernity as a project that certain people in power wish to achieve, a project that constructs notions of the ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ as forms of life or sets of sensibilities that need to be approached “from the shadows”; from Courtney Bender about the Gedankenexperiment of not assuming that religion, economics and politics are differentiable; and from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd about how the contesting and containing of ‘religion’ is one of the practices of secularism.

Into to this mix I asked them also to read the opening chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), titled “In which the Reader is Introduced to a Man of Humanity”.

We dissected Kant and Peirce. We talked about the forms of life their arguments construe and support, and the way they place religion (Christianity) in relation to knowledge, truth, autonomy, experience, morality and freedom. I asked them to speculate on how these appeals to Reason–so similar over their 115 year distance, and still somewhat familiar to us–how these appeals can be seen as part of the project of modernity. How do they approach the question of religion and secularity ‘from the shadows’?

The novel worked well as sandpaper that eroded the words of Kant and Peirce just enough to show up their presumptions and elisions. Who is Stowe’s titular ‘man of humanity’? Mr. Shelby, Haley, Tom, Mrs. Shelby? The text might be cited to make a case for any of these characters holding the mantle of humanity…and also for refusing them that mantle. Shelby and Haley make overt appeals to reason and humaneness. Mrs. Shelby is called upright in intelligence and morality. Tom is described as “good, steady, sensible and pious”.  But Stowe’s text undercuts the autonomy and rationality of these characters by showing how reason, religion, choice, economics and law splay out along social gradients of power, contestation, and containment. This is hardly here the categorical imperative that leads to dutiful obedience to universal moral law, or the Pure Play of Musement that nudges us to belief in a benevolent creator.

Stowe helps us pop the egoism of enlightenment white masculinity, but her novel also exemplifies its broad composting in the soil of the 19th century, when the seeds that would become the study of religion were also falling into place. She helps us tease out the sensibilities of the dialectical dance of religion and secularity.