Book Review: Educational Philosophy for a Post-secular Age

Book Review: Educational Philosophy for a Post-secular Age, by David Lewin

London: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 168. Hb. 9781138923669 £110; ebook 9781315684901 £35.99

Reviewed by Piotr Zamojski, University of Gdansk, Poland

David Lewin’s book seems to call for more than just reading, apprehending, and discussing what is proposed in the argument. It seems to be a call to follow and develop the argument further. On the one hand, this is very difficult to do, as this argument is strongly embedded in Lewin’s personal experiences, and this disclosure of the intimate sphere gives the book (and every book) a strong sense of authenticity. But this also signifies the uniqueness of the perspective involved. The author is telling his story, but is it also the reader’s story?

On the other hand, the issue addressed in David Lewin’s book is of paramount importance to us all today. We live in a time when, paradoxically, increasing secularisation, rather than making religion and religiousness irrelevant, has brought them centre stage. Regardless of the personal origins of the book, the argument it presents addresses this issue in a profound philosophical way, and therefore invites the reader to rethink it with all the seriousness it deserves.

The scope of a review is, naturally, too narrow to make such an attempt. However, I would like to try to disclose the path of thinking that was initiated in me by David Lewin’s book.

What is said only implicitly by Lewin, seems to be a very clear and strong claim of the book: if we want to educate a good human being, religion becomes an inevitable part of that education. This claim, however, is based on an assumption that religion and faith should be understood as something performed, as a practice, as opposed to an institution of Church. Religiousness and faith, on this view, are rather specific attitudes towards the world, other people, and God, and not a set of institutionalised rituals, rules, fixed knowledge, belonging to a solidified hierarchical structure of social positions. Religion understood in this way seems to be necessary to educate a good human being because it consists of, and hence develops, a specific relation, a relation with the other (Lewin, 2017, p. 21). The other is not entirely understandable; s/he is a mystery. To grasp this otherness, David Lewin uses the term ‘transcendence’ (Ibid., e.g. p. 19).[i]  It is this problem, as I see it, that I will address in this review.

However, before doing that, let me follow a little further the argument David Lewin is building in his book. This transcendent, religious way of relating with the world, other people, and God seems necessary in order to shape our ethical potential. Also, it seems to be inevitable for a citizen of a healthy democracy, as democracy requires people to have an ability to discuss even the most sensitive, problematic issues. This ability is not developed within a fixed system of orthodox beliefs, solidified in an institutional infrastructure, but is engendered in the relation to the other. The very mystery inherent to the other means that that relationship involves uncertainty and is marked by doubt. And it is exactly such uncertainty and doubt that gather us around something unknown and make us ask questions, discuss, and debate about it, rather than simply impose an ultimate truth on everyone.  In that way, religiousness is immanent to democracy itself (also understood in a performative way, as acts of deliberation, rather than as a set of laws, rules, institutions, and procedures).

However, religion and faith understood in such a way seems to be suppressed by two opposite forces. On one hand, as I have already mentioned, an institutionalized orthodoxy deprives religion of its mystical and mysterious character, and transforms it into a set of fixed rules that people have to simply obey. On the other hand, the performative sense of religiousness is supressed by the enlightenment with its drive for the disenchantment of the world. In short, the enlightenment introduces critical reason, which is supposed to displace religious beliefs. Of course, as we know thanks to Horkheimer and Adorno (1973), the story went another way. Instead of the displacement of religion, the enlightenment simply replaced it with its own belief, in the purity of reason. The problem is that our understanding of education is largely shaped by enlightenment ideas, or maybe simply by the whole imaginary of that philosophical era. Hence, it is organized in a way that deprives students of this unique, essential relation with the other. Education is not about the encounter with the not-understandable, with mystery. On the contrary, education is all about coming to understand what is not yet understood; it is about knowing things, and so it seems to be quite opposite to mystery.

This is why David Lewin sees a chance for a rebirth, or a renaissance, of a performative understanding of religiousness, and a chance to rethink the relation between religion and education in the ‘post’ discourse: post-modern, post-secular, post-metaphysical. It is the last of these that functions as a turning point in the argument of Lewin’s book. This is visible through the very structure of the book, when Chapter 4, with Heidegger as its main figure, seems to provide a way to make a leap from the critical to the constructive part of the argument. It is exactly this leap that I find the most interesting and – in a way – problematic in Lewin’s inquiry. It seems as if the author’s invention took him further than some of theoretical devices he used (especially in the critical part) will allow. Let me briefly explain.

Post-metaphysics stems from the critique of so-called Western metaphysics, as initiated by Martin Heidegger. Western metaphysics always looks for arché – a ground, the first being, from which all other beings would originate, and functions, therefore, as both their principle and highest fulfilment at the same time (Cf. Heidegger, 1969). People of the west look for this arché as a source of certainty. Since arché is the principle and the goal of all beings, it transcends the diversity and alterity of what exist, functioning therefore, as the hard ground from which one can depart in order to prove something. But thinking within the scope of this fundamental/primal being that transcends everything, develops an inclination to search for similarity, for something in everything that is a remnant of that first. This is exactly how dialectics is born: philosophical thinking is all about overcoming the otherness and proving unity between a particular being and the transcending arché.

The post-metaphysical move made by Heidegger is to try to think without a ground, as if there was no origin/no goal/no transcendence. One way to do that is via phenomenology, with its aim to describe how a thing essentially presents itself to us (and not in relation to any origin). This is precisely the path Lewin takes in the second, constructive, or propositional, part of his book (entitled, significantly, ‘Experiments in reframing’). There we find a beautiful and original description of education as bare witnessing that results from a gathering of students, teachers, and the world. He distinguishes three dimensions of such a gathering: submission (to a thing that gathers, focuses, and divides); attention (to a thing that makes us bare witness/behold); and union (between means and goals – as there are no future or external aims to achieve). Education on this view is not about achieving, but performing or practicing. It is not about producing prescribed and a priori desired effects, but about practicing as such, for the sake of itself. One could say: education is not subordinated to any other external (political, economic, but also religious) goals. So it seems that this post-metaphysical attempt to describe education perceives it as an immanent phenomenon.

Such an immanent take on education seems to be contradicted by two dimension of Lewin’s argument. The first one is the – already mentioned – reference to transcendence, as the sign of God/Otherness/Mystery. Maybe – I would argue – it is exactly the achievements of the post-secular and post-metaphysical thought that should persuade us to conceptualise God/Otherness/Mystery beyond the language of transcendence?

The second dimension of Lewin’s argument that seems to contradict the immanent approach to education is the inclination towards dialectical reasoning. Surprisingly, Lewin develops many dialectical devices throughout the first part of his book. And so, in order to conceptualise the meaning of post-secularity he builds passages from being naïve towards being critical, and finally to being post-critical, or from the religious into the secular, and finally towards the post-secular. I wonder, is there a structural necessity in turning to dialectics when describing any ‘post’ discourse (whose form – naturally – assumes overcoming or going beyond something)? Maybe this is just the matter of the ‘side’ of such a description, that is, maybe it is a possible to describe the ‘post’ from within, and not to employ any dialectical schemes.

These rather technical, but nonetheless very important, questions are opened up by what I find simultaneously problematic and most valuable in Lewin’s book: making an attempt to conceptualise education anew in face of the lines of thought that make our usual ways of conceiving it inoperative. In that regard, one must acknowledge – in my view – this attempt as successful, since David Lewin’s book provides an un-dialectical and immanent perspective on education. And this is exactly what I find particularly valuable about this project.

[i] On that account it must be acknowledged that the absence of Lévinas in Lewin’s book is very intriguing.


Heidegger, M. (1969 [1955-57]), Identity and Difference, transl. J. Stambaugh, New York, Evanston, London: Harper & Row Pub.

Horkhemer, M., Adorno, T.W. (1973 [1944]). Dialectic of Enlightenment. trans. John Cumming, New York: Continuum.

David Lewin, (2017) Educational Philosophy for a Post-secular Age, London & New York: Routledge.

You can read an interview with David Lewin here.