In 1918 Max Weber famously wrote that the modern world “is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” In other words, the rise of science and rationality has taken the magic and mystery out of life. So, how has religion continued to thrive in this disenchanted world? And more specifically, what forms has Jewish culture taken in this new world bereft of mystery and magic.
Answering those questions is the task of The Spirit of Secularism: Jewish Cultures in a Secular Age (website, syllabus), a new UCLA course taught by historian David N. Myers. The course mostly covers intellectual history, with short forays into political history to flesh out the historical context. Myers begins by focusing on the ideas of proto-secularists such as Philo of Alexandria and Benedict Spinoza, and then he moves on modern thinkers including Moses Mendelssohn of the European enlightenment and modernists such as Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka.
Myers is a calm, thoughtful lecturer who often pauses to involve his students with questions and other prompts. There are occasional flashes of humor, but mostly this is a serious discussion of serious ideas.
(Word to the wise: UCLA occasionally does some housekeeping and removes old course podcasts from its website. So if you’re interested in this course or other UCLA courses, download them while you can.)