Towards a Metamodern Academic Study of Religion

by clasqm

By Michel Clasquin-Johnson, University of South Africa

“…so I never worry when I’m ‘sad’ as the meta modernist in me knows that I will soon oscillate to ecstasy.” Tweet by Aisha Lëna Shapiro (@ciaolena), 20 July 2015.

This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared in HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 73/3. 2017


In Religious Studies we never entirely discard a methodology. We can still write exegeses that would have been recognizable to F Max Müller. We can use survey methods borrowed from the social sciences, analyze religious performances using the playful postmodern irony, and so on.

To this methodological smorgasbord we may now be able to add metamodernism. This article will introduce metamodernism and ask whether it has something to add to our discipline. And vice versa. I will primarily approach this from a Religious Studies perspective, but there are implications for Theology too.

The term “metamodernism” has a prehistory: we can see the term being used as far back as 1975. However, metamodernism as we understand it today originates in 2010 when Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker published their article “Notes on metamodernism”.

Metamodernism is a twenty-first century development with young proponents. If it catches on, it will be the philosophy of the Millennial Generation. It is therefore unsurprising to see that it has not (yet) used the conventional academic distribution channels of monograph and journal article to disseminate itself. To investigate metamodernism, we have to delve into the world of online articles, tweets, blog posts and podcasts.

What am I, a not-so-young academic, seeing in this new philosophy? Just this: while we cannot apply metamodernism simplistically to Religious Studies without adapting it to our needs, its underlying principles can be shown to apply to religion itself (or at least to some religions) and to the study of religion.

It expresses the zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century when large numbers of people use apparently contradictory self-ascriptions like “spiritual but not religious” with perfect sincerity. Even if we choose not to use metamodernism explicitly as a research methodology, it clarifies events that remain baffling and contradictory in terms of earlier methodologues.

Metamodernism is a negotiation between modernism and postmodernism.

This was the prime motivation behind the development of metamodernism. In Religious Studies, the clash between modernist and postmodernist paradigms has not been experienced as deeply as in other disciplines. Not that we have been left completely untouched by it, of course.

In Religious Studies, are there two contradictory views that both seem to be entirely valid? Secularization comes to mind. It is true that people are leaving religion behind and taking on a non-religious identity. It is equally the case that religion is thriving and that it is more vital than ever to take account of the role of religion as a factor in society.

From a modern or postmodern perspective, this is an intolerable contradiction. The modernist demands a solution to the contradiction, while the postmodernist demands that the situation be ironically deconstructed. From the metamodernist point of view, however, the new category of “spiritual but not religious” was only to be expected. A metamodern Peter Berger would not have needed to recant his earlier work – it would simply become one pole of a view of reality that needed to be balanced by a new one. The new does not invalidate the old – it completes the picture, for now. In metamodernist language, there is an “oscillation” between the two viewpoints.

Another example is the drawn-out tension between Religious Studies and Theology. In a metamodern approach to religion, these two would not cease to exist. Individuals would still feel drawn to one or the other. But moving within the spectrum of approaches would become less of a life-and-death academic struggle. One could, within the constraints of a given project, accept certain religious teachings as true without setting this as the yardstick of all future projects.

This already happens. Scholars are human and they have their own beliefs, prejudices and preferences. The advantage of the metamodern approach is that it allows an openness, an accountability that is now closed off by attempting to maintain an unattainable epoche.

Equally, the theologian can move into Religious Studies territory. You have not ceased to be a theologian because you are oscillating in the direction of Religious Studies. You have become a different kind of theologian. Tomorrow’s project will call for a different blend of the two.

Metamodernism favours dialogue over dialectics.

Metamodernism does not seek to destroy modernism or postmodernism by bringing them into an all-encompassing synthesis. Indeed, for the metamodernist project to succeed, the contrasting forces it attempts to bring into dialogue must continue to exist and even to thrive. Modernism and postmodernism must exist as viable alternatives to act as boundary conditions between which the metamodern thinker can oscillate.

In a small way, this has been the case in Religious Studies. Our methodological eclecticism has ensured that there have been vigorous dialogues between scholars working from different perspectives.

This should not make us shrug our shoulders and declare that metamodernism is something “we have always done”. To recognise oneself in a small aspect of something as all-encompassing as metamodernism is heartening, but that is different from embracing this philosophy and trying to put it into action.

Metamodernism embraces the paradoxical..

We could hardly have asked for more. The person who sincerely believes in the creation story presented in the book of Genesis also knows that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant comet 76 million years ago. The person who knows perfectly well that the wafer of bread was created in a bakery down the road out of flour, yeast and water also knows that it is the body of Christ. To the metamodernist, the fact that there is a paradox does not mean that one is wrong and the other right, or that one has to be relegated to a mere “subjective truth”.

Metamodernism discredits the concept of cognitive dissonance by placing different levels of objective truth in different sectors (I hesitate to call them “levels”) of existential and universal truth. In this, metamodernism comes surprisingly close to traditional exegetical rules. Ashanti story-tellers preface their performance with “I am going to tell you a story. It is a lie. But not everything in it is false”.

An metamodern academic study of religion would ultimately not employ the word “paradox”, so completely integrated would be the paradoxical view of life. We are a long way from that. Even metamodernism itself has yet to reach that point. And that is a familiar position to students of Zen Buddhism. If the paradoxical view of reality completely transcends the reality that produced the paradox in the first place, it ceases to be paradoxical and just becomes another reality, ready to produce its own paradoxes. Kōan study prepares the student to see “transcendence” as an illusion and “enter the market place with helping hands”, not trying to make the paradox go away but living it fully. Incommensurate values are not negated by reducing or negating one of them: They are juxtaposed. When I teach a religion that I do not belong to, indeed a religion that in my most private thoughts I regard as ridiculous, I am both ironic and completely earnest.

Some years ago, a colleague reported on a conference in which the topic had been whether one could study Islam without being a Muslim. I replied, “That is very interesting. I just came from a conference in which the topic was whether you could study Buddhism if you actually were a Buddhist!” The role of the scholar-practitioner remains an open issue. Metamodernism could lend us insights here. There need not be a separate category of scholar-practitioner. One oscillates between the role of scholar and the role of practitioner. With time and practice, both are present simultaneously. The dichotomy is shown not to be false, but negotiable.

Creative tensions within metamodernism

Metamodernism has moved from a philosophy of oscillation to one of simultaneity. For a six-year old philosophical system to have undergone such a profound change shows that it is capable of change and growth.

Reading metamodernist writings shows that the older “oscillation” metaphor is far from dead. It would be contrary to the entire spirit of metamodernism to launch an inquisition against a recalcitrant oscillationist faction, or to split into distinct schools. If metamodern thought consists of being able to contain two contradictory ideas simultaneously, then it must be able to contain both the oscillationist model and (recursively) itself. Besides, a sufficiently fast oscillation gives us a de facto simultaneity.

If metamodernism is indeed moving towards a position of simultaneity, then a rich field of discussion between metamodernism and Religious Studies opens up. Hindu Advaita, the Buddhist Catukoi system used (and demolished) by Nāgārjuna, the non-dual position in Zen and Taoism, even the complex Jain epistemology all become possible interlocutory partners. For such a conversation to take place, a number of questions would need to be cleared up. For example, if metamodernist simultaneity remains built on an oscillation between two poles, is there not a dualism built into it, if at a somewhat deeper level? Is it possible to oscillate between three, or four, poles? Infinite poles?

The relation between oscillation and simultaneity is the metamodern kōan, the burning question that can be “solved” only temporarily and provisionally before the student moves on to the next kōan.


Engagement with metamodernism opens up the possibilities of new discourses within Religious Studies and new opportunities for engagement with our colleagues in Theology, and vice versa. It allows us to understand the new kind of secularization we are viewing right now, that simply refuses to comply with traditional secularization theories.

The picture gets murkier when we look at religion itself. Religion as we know it today reflects a premodernist, Axial Age mindset (or arguably an even earlier one), and much of today’s contemporary events regarding religion reflects those traditions that have yet to make their peace with modernism. We can hardly say that self-consciously postmodern religion is a large-scale phenomenon. What are the chances of metamodernism, a “structure of feeling” that claims to supersede both modernism and postmodernism, by incorporating both, making an impact on religion?

Paradoxically (of course) this is quite possible. The creative use of paradox, the provisional reconciliation of false dualisms and many of the other issues that discussed above are part of the religious impulse. This does not mean that metamodernism takes us back to the premodern, even less that religion was a sort of primordial metamodernism. It does show that there is a potential affinity between metamodernism and religion, one that could be explored and embraced by participants of both, oscillating from one to the other.

The metamodern religious world will be neither unipolar nor bipolar. It will be multipolar, and some religions will find themselves better able to engage with this than others. Metamodernism will enable certain religions to return to their roots within the context of this new, connected world. A new form of religiosity will evolve that oscillates between/simultaneously adheres to deep reserves of traditional spirituality and radical personal freedom. Dare we call it “spiritual but not religious”?

If the proponents of metamodernism are correct and it, or something very much like it by another name, turns out to be the dominant “structure of feeling” of the twenty-first century and beyond, then we will all end up living in it, and with it. If we are moving into a metamodern world, then religion, and the academic study of religion will be both part of that move and be affected by it. With luck, religion will not need to be dragged in there against its will, and Religious Studies and Theology will be there to document and analyse the development, hopefully with an increased awareness of themselves as part of an overarching academic study of religion.