Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thoughts related to God cultivate cooperative behaviour and generosity

Source: University of British Columbia Date: August 29, 2007 More on: , , , , ,
Thinking About God Leads To Generosity, Study Suggests Science Daily — Thoughts related to God cultivate cooperative behaviour and generosity, according to University of British Columbia psychology researchers.
In a study to be published in the September issue of Psychological Science journal, researchers investigated how thinking about God and notions of a higher power influenced positive social behaviour, specifically cooperation with others and generosity to strangers.
UBC PhD graduate Azim Shariff and UBC Assoc. Prof. Ara Norenzayan found that priming people with 'god concepts' -- by activating subconscious thoughts through word games -- promoted altruism. In addition, the researchers found that this effect was consistent in behaviour whether people declared themselves believers or not. The researchers also found that secular notions of civic responsibility promote cooperation and generosity.
"This is a twist on an age old question -- does a belief in God influence moral behaviour?" says Shariff. "We asked, does the concept of god influence cooperative behaviour? Previous attempts to answer this question have been driven by speculation and anecdote."
The research, conducted between September 2005 and July 2006 with 125 participants, is the first of its kind in North America. According to the researchers, there is little replicable empirical data using moral behaviour and religion as measures. As Shariff notes, UBC is the first to apply an implicit priming technique to capture and assess subconscious motives or goals, and their associated behavioural outcomes, to this area of concern.
Priming is an experimental procedure used by cognitive and social scientists, mainly in psychology and economics, to obtain indicators of social tendencies by implicitly inducing relevant thoughts. As priming operates largely outside explicit awareness, subjects are unlikely to consciously revise their behaviours or beliefs, the researchers say.
The researchers undertook two related studies. In both studies, groups were randomly assigned to the religious prime or to the control group. Participants in the religious prime group were given a word game and had to unscramble sentences (using spirit, divine, God, sacred and prophet). Those in the control group were given the same task with non-spiritual words. After this task, all participants played an anonymous dictator game, whereby subjects were given 10 one-dollar coins and asked to make a decision of what to keep and what to share with an anonymous recipient.
The researchers were surprised by the magnitude of the positive results for the religious prime in both studies. Sixty-eight per cent of subjects from the religious prime groups allocated $5 or more to anonymous strangers, compared to 22 per cent from groups where neutral or no concepts were activated.
In the second study the researchers also investigated the strength of the religious prime relative to a secular prime. They used concepts of civic responsibility and social justice to prime subjects (with target words civic, jury, court, police and contract) and obtained almost identical results.
"We did not anticipate such a subtle prime, simply getting participants to unscramble sentences with a few key words, having such a large effect on people's willingness to give money to strangers," said Shariff. "These are compelling findings that have substantial impact on the study of social behaviour because they draw a causal relationship between religion and acting morally -- a topic of some debate. They by no means indicate that religion is necessary for moral behaviour, but it can make a substantial contribution."
Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University of British Columbia.

Vivekananda’s doctrine of Maya is not like that of Sankara

Pertinence of Vivekananda’s Apotheosis in Indian Social Diaspora
Dr. Ravindra Kumar - 8/29/2007
Rabindra Nath Tagore once wrote that “he who wants to understand Indian society must read Vivekananda for he awakens in the younger generation the devotion and love for their motherland, their pride in its past and hope for its illuminating future”. William Jones, the Harvard philosopher called the Swami as the “paragon of Vedantists”. Max Muller and Paul Deussen, the famous orientalists of the nineteenth century, held him in genuine respect and affection. Romain Rolland writes Swami’s words “are of great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handal choruses”.
The intuitive mind of Vivekananda has been inspired by the juxtapose thought and theism of various pantheists and epistemologists.
  • He was first moved by reading John Stuarts Mills “Essays on Religion”, which caused his optimistic surface theism, gleaned in fashionable Brahmo Samajist circles to crumble away. The face of evil in nature appeared to him and he revolted against it.
  • Afterwards he tried to adopt the theories of Spencer with whom he had corresponded, went in vein and
  • then for sometimes the soul of Vivekananda bathed in the aerial waves of Shelley’s pantheism.
  • But the deepest influence upon his thought is obviously of ancient Hindu philosophy – especially of Vedanta. As a Vedantist his main body of thought is derived from the Hindu scriptures Upanishads and Vedanta. His doctrine of Maya is derived from this source.
  • It is believed that he was also influenced by Buddhist philosophy because the three ideas of Buddhist thought like mass liberation, worth of humanitarian and altruistic work, Samyak Karmanta and Ajiva have inspired Vivekananda’s philosophy to a great deal.
  • He was also quite impressed by the strength of character; forgive the oppressor and the ideal of service and love of the Christianity thought.
  • He also influenced by the indeterminate nature of reality, the quality of fearlessness and selfless work of Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s thought.
  • But the profoundest influence, in the light of which every other influence was remodelled and shaped, was that of his teacher Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Swami Nikhilananda who has written a biography on Vivekananda speaking about this says “it was his duality of God head, the unity of existence, the universality or harmony of all different regions”.
The philosophy of Vivekananda is idealistic in more senses than one. His metaphysical idealism believes that the reality is ultimately spiritual or ideal in character. So, he thought that the ultimate reality is essentially spiritual in character. His idealism is also monistic, because an idealistic philosophy that is strictly monistic becomes abstract and comes to assert that reality has to be indeterminate. He described absolute as Sat (existence), Cit (consciousness) and Ananda (bliss and love). That’s why he believes God is supremely real, is also object of our devotion and worship, so God is present everywhere and in everything. On doctrine of Maya he says is a simple statement of facts as they exists, that the every basis of our being is contradiction, that wherever there is good, there must also be evil and where ever there is evil, there must be some good, wherever there is life, death must follow as its shadow and every one who smiles will have to weep and vice-versa. Vivekananda’s doctrine of Maya is not like that of Sankara who believes it as a power that creates illusion but accordingly to Swamiji it is a fact about the nature of the world.
Vivekananda was a strong believer of the Law of karma where he feels that man normally performs his actions out of ignorance and man’s karma determines his nature and karma does not contradict man’s freedom. By his own good deeds man can win over his ignorance and suffering. He means freedom as a self-determination, which represents the essence of soul, and soul is not really in bondage, because due its simplicity the soul is immortal. According him the desire to win over death is also taken as a sign of our immortality and through yoga soul can realise immortality. Yoga he means, the path leading to the realisation is the path of discipline and union. We have lacked the path of discipline, that’s why he criticised our people for having lost touch with the rest of the world and become stagnant and mummified. He remarked that “the fact of our isolation from all countries of the world is the cause of our degeneration and its only remedy is to getting back into the current of the rest of the world. Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a universally renowned Gandhian scholar, Indologist and writer. He is the Former Vice-Chancellor of University of Meerut.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Read Augustine as a historical figure and as a contemporary

Vox Nova Tuesday, August 28, 2007 On Reading Augustine By Michael Joseph
Happy Memorial of St. Augustine of Hippo!
"Lord, renew in your Church the spirit you gave Saint Augustine. Filled with this spirit, may we thirst for you alone as the fountain of wisdom and seek you as the source of eternal life." (Morning Prayer, Memorial of Augustine, Bishop and Doctor)
To commemorate who is arguably the single most significant Bishop, Father and Doctor of Catholic tradition, I decided to write a few tips on how to read Augustine. Please excuse the presumption! For years I struggled with Augustine. Questions from other Christians stumped me:
  • Did he prefer symbolic explanations of the Eucharistic?
  • Did he produce a nascent Calvinism?
  • Is Augustine responsible for producing every 'heresy of the West'?
  • Internal questions plagued me: Do we encounter the real Augustine in the Confessions?
  • Should we privilege Augustine's later writings, such as the ant-Pelagian tracts or his Retractiones, over his earlier works?
  • Did Augustine properly distinguish between Neoplatonism and Christian doctrine?
  • Did Augustine really have a full-blown just war theory as many presume?
  • This is only a sampling of the questions that every serious student of Augustine must face.

Here, I offer some tips on approaching Augustine's work and dealing with the complexities that lie within his texts.

TIP #1: Start with Augustine's Confessions. Sure, this work appears in the middle of his writing career, but it is the only time Augustine gives us an extended glimpse of his own soul. Not only does Confessions mark the first true instance of introspective and existential writing in Western literature, but it also provides the first intellectual autobiography by a saint. By starting here, you will understand and appreciate the academic formation of the Bishop of Hippo, which will pay huge dividends when you attempt to plow through his much more difficult works. Plus, Confessions provides that needed spiritual boost with its emphasis on sin, grace and conversion from a personal, and not abstract, point of view.
TIP #2: Unlike many of the others Fathers of the Church, Augustine wrote a handbook and summary of the faith, the Enchiridion. This is available in English from New City Press and is titled The Augustine Catechism. The Enchiridion is a later work from Augustine and covers what he believes to be the most essential aspects of the Christian faith. This little work will give you his mature reflections not only on grace, but also on how grace and salvation work themselves out within the context of the Church and the sacraments. Here you will get a taste of the whole Augustine. The Enchiridion will help you get your bearings for Augustine's other treatments on more specific theological issues.
TIP #3: Get to know Augustine's intellectual roots in Neoplatonism. I cannot recommend you do this enough. Cicero, Plotinus and Porphyry were always in Augustine's head. Try to get your hands on his more philosophical pieces, which were written early in his career, such as Against the Academics, Soliloquies, and On Free Choice of the Will. These are short writings in dialogue form, no doubt inspired by the Socratic dialogues. These are for the most part dry, but they will give you an orientation toward Augustine's intellectual milieu, as well as a familiarity with a framework of thought which stayed with Augustine to the last spill of ink.
TIP #4: Once you have an acquaintance with Augustine's philosophical foundations, his greatest works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), will make a lot more sense and your reading of them will be more fruitful. Do not neglect these works! One will lack a true appreciation for Augustine and his influence on Western Christianity until one has tackled these tomes. I also have to metion his De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine/Teaching Christianity) for its development of hermeneutics and catechetics.
TIP #5: Don't forget about the secondary literature on Augustine. Essential reading in this regard is John J. O'Meara, The Young Augustine. O'Meara will introduce you to Augustine's intellectual formation in rhetoric and Neoplatonism while guiding you through the Confessions. I also recommend Mary T. Clark's Augustine for a good overview of the complexities of Augustine's thought. Last, but not least, Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia is quite good for researching any topic about or from Augustine.
TIP #6: Read Augustine as a historical figure AND as a contemporary. Augustine has much to say in terms of Christian living that is immediately applicable to today's world of faith. Don't underestimate the value of reading Augustine for spiritual and practical guidance! Posted by Michael Joseph at 7:32 AM Labels: , , Comments (7) Trackback

Outside the normal educational process and outside the myriads of media images

Schall: Another Sort of Learning July 4th, 2007 by JLT
A perfect book to begin the reviews (and your reading) is James V. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning. It is a perfect selection because it is about everything. It is a books of essays, “contrary essays” it claims in a subtitle too long to type and too fun to read aloud, about reading, studying, teaching, longing, thinking, evil, sanity, values, lectures, devotion, prayer, sports, and a few other things. Easily, Schall could have entitled his book “On Everything” if only Hilaire Belloc had not used that one for a book of essays in 1909.
The book begins with a quotation from Mad Magazine, and ends with a reference to Aristotle. In between the end-pages you will repeatedly encounter names such as Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Russell Kirk, Augustine, Plato, Machiavelli, Josef Pieper, Eric Voegelin, Thomas Aquinas, Flannery O’Connor, Stanley Jaki, John Henry Newman, Dorothy Sayers, and Maurice Baring. It is a book largely about reading and thinking.
What keeps one going back to the book, if not only to reread the essays, is to consult the book lists. Part of the beautiful subtitle states “Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found”. Each chapter contains at least one delightful book list; and then there is the bibliography. You will find “Eight Books on Evil and Suffering”, “Five Books Addressed to the Heart of Things”, “Sixteen Books on Belief and Disbelief”, “Eight Collections of Essays and Letters Not To Be Missed”, and so on.
It is easily read, in any chapter order, and at any speed. It is a perfect start to a journey in worthwhile books. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning is “Not To Be Missed”. This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 4th, 2007 at 8:07 pm and is filed under reviews.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007 Schall's "Sort of Learning"
Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Fr. James V. Schall's delightful book, Another Sort of Learning, which bears, I think it is safe to say, the longest subtitle of any Ignatius Press book: Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else, Containing Some Belated Advice About How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together With Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else In Captivity to be Found.
Another Sort of Learning was the first Schall book I ever read, and it remains my favorite. The many attractive qualities of the book, which is a combination of essays and book lists, is captured well in this 1988 Touchstone review, written by John Thompson, and recently made available on the Touchstone website:
Long subtitles are apparently “in,” and so is the reconsideration of the declining role of the humanities in our society, à la Bennett, Bloom, Alder, Hirsch, et al. Fr. Schall is a bona fide enthusiast for the humanitites, but he’s no mere antiquarian. He is listening not only to the great minds of the past., but also to the questions raised by contemporary students in his political philosophy classes at Georgetown University. The result is a readable, challenging, and (necessarily) idiosyncratic book. Fr. Schall’s book stands out all the more for his willingness to flaunt contemporary taboos like belief in a deity who is more than merely a philosophical necessity.
His thesis is simple: “I believe that we are in a world today where most of this seeking must take place outside the normal educational process and outside the myriads of media images with which we are constantly confronted.” Another Sort of Learning helps to frame the questions that a moderately inquisitive person should be asking about the world, human nauture, and God. This is no “Cliff’s Notes” on philosophy; rather, it is an often tantalizing and useful guide to some of the great minds, (both Christian and non-Christian), with whom Fr. Schall vigorously interacts throughout his book.
This book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first, “So You’re Still Perplexed even in College?” is essentially an apology for launching into a quest for the meaning of “what is.” The second, “Books You will Never Be Assigned,” focuses on seven contemporary titles that provide a convenient sounding board, ranging from Ralph McInerney on St. Thomas Aquinas to Jeffrey Russell on Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. The third part, “Have You Thought About It This Way?” deals with what he calls “higher order concerns”: those things that we “must read and know just because they are true”—and on the impact that a serious pursuit of these things should have, among other things, on one’s political, intellectual, and spiritual life.
Even though it is almost passé for so-called “conservative thinkers” to issue educational manifestoes and agendas calling us back from contemporary chaos to the great minds of the Western tradition, this three-hundred-page book makes a worthwhile contribution. It is much more likely to be read and used because Fr. Schall’s style is relatively light, definitely personal, and even whimsical at points. Its appeal comes not so much from what he introduces, but from the way in which he introduces the subjects and the great thinkers.
As an unabashedly personal statement, Another Sort of Learning will certainly not satisfy everyone. It will in fact invite the sneers of those who are looking for an utterly serious, systematic, high-brow treatise. For many a concerned Christian, however, it will be an enjoyable, sometimes pungent treatment of spritual and intellectual issues. It’s a friendly introduction to classics like Aristotle, Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Belloc, as well as to contemporaries Muggeridge, Russell Kirk, and (even) Mad Magazine.
You can order the book here. Fr. Schall has been writing regular essays for for three years now. Visit his author page or do a search on Posted by Carl Olson on Wednesday, July 18, 2007 at 07:19 PM

Monday, August 27, 2007

A rationally informed faith requires the imaginary perspectives of literature as well as human history

Faith, Reason and Imagination: the Study of Theology and Philosophy in the 21st Century John Milbank The Centre of Theology and Philosophy; Nottingham and Southwell, Nottinghamshire, UK
Recovery however, is not enough, because, as Pope Benedict also indicated, modernity is not simply to be rejected. The modern emphases upon strict logical identity, the independence of thought from being, the scope of possibility and freedom, have indeed increased our sense, albeit in a distorted because Promethean or else relativistic fashion, of the primacy of cultural mediation – the way human beings through sign, image and artefact create their own world and are in turn shaped by this world. There is no avoiding this new awareness by longing for the impossible return of a totally fixed, hierarchical social order wherein all knew their place.

On the other hand, as Bruno Latour has pointed out, modernity rests upon one supreme contradiction. Nature is supposed to be given and fixed and to run according to immutable laws, while culture is supposed to be entirely mutable and to pursue no pre-assigned ends whatsoever.[1] Yet today we realise that there may be nothing fixed about nature and that her supposed ‘laws’ may merely apply to certain regional natural republics within a more fundamental sea of chaos. Moreover, we have discovered that there may be no intrinsic limit to our capacity to transform also the physical world for good or ill. Nature, too, it seems, turns out to be cultural. But on the other hand, if that is the case, then our cultural reality is conversely entirely natural – it exhibits, as it were, on the surface of the earth, a strange fusion of nature’s capacity both for unpredictable fluidity and for the imposition of order.

Once again, in postmodern terms one can read this scenario either nihilistically or theologically. In the latter perspective the question ‘how should we be?’ turns out to make no sense if does not also mean ‘how should the whole of nature be?’, since nature is no more given than culture. On the other hand, the discovery that there is after all no ‘nature’ in the sense of a given order, can lead us back to the view that all finite reality is not ‘nature’ but rather ‘creation’. As created, all things participate in the divine creative power which is at once order-making and yet unpredictable, like the flow of music. Human beings simple command this power more intensely and consciously and this is the valid sense in which they are cultural beings.

A renewed metaphysics should not seek to suppress the primacy of becoming and the event either in nature or culture. It should not recognise divine order in the world despite the flux but through and because of it, albeit in its series of complex ans always relatively stable and consistent punctuations. The participation of finite being and intelligence in the godhead needs now to be re-thought in terms of the vital flow of historical becoming which will take account of the way in which, while ontological structures provide the setting for events, the latter can also exceed the import of pre-given structures. This is in fact allowed for by Aquinas’s view that essentia is actualised by esse, but the implication needs much further drawing out.[2] One can say here that the neoplatonic sense of metaphysical genealogy, namely that the ‘how’ of the way things are must be traced back to the ‘why’ of their ultimate ontological derivation (whereas for Scotus and his legacy the ‘how’ of things is complete as a description without advertence to origin)[3] needs to be infused also with a sense of historicist genealogy, namely that the ‘how’ of things must also be traced back to their temporal derivation.

The issue then is to understand just how the process of temporal becoming participates in the eternal procession of the creation from the divine Trinity which is itself a kind of eternal and perfected process of emanation and yet equally a process of internal becoming. The Son emanates perfectly from the Father, but the latter ‘becomes’ Father retrospectively (as it were) only through this perfect imaging. The Spirit then expresses, one could say, the perfect unity of metaphysical origination from the perfect with ‘historical’ evolution from an origin to further explication (even though, in God, this explicatio is perfect eternal complicatio which renders the origin replete from the outset).

In this way, one could speculate, creation is atemporally and emanatively given to us always through the eschatological achievement of the new Jerusalem, the perfected heaven and earth, and all our lesser, spoiled historical realities depend for their very existence upon this mediating source. On the other hand, a slow coming to be from Adam, contingently interrupted by the fact of sin and the process of redemption always at work (for even our ontological sustaining), unfolds through time the ‘becoming’ aspect of the Trinitarian life.

A more historicised metaphysics must also give more attention to the role of the imagination. As Aquinas already knew, the latter is for us the threshold between matter and spirit: it is the mysterious alchemical point at which mind, in order to think at all, must produce its own shadowy sensations that must always be ‘returned to’ in order to complete a thought (conversio ad phantasmata). Normally we see ‘right through’ these phantasms in order to re-establish contact, via our senses, with the physical world outside us. And yet they are always secretly at work and this is exhibited in the way we not only sense the world and all it includes, but necessarily and ‘fantastically’ sense it ‘as something’. It is just this capacity which renders us consciously historical creatures and one can say that ‘history happens in the primary imagination’, in Coleridgean terms.[4]
What makes a historical event an event is precisely the fusion of sensation and thought which imagination, and not reason alone, brings about. And to this is added the work of the secondary imagination when the mind, in the absence of present physical realities, is capable of projecting its shadowy sensations back out into the sensorily perceived world in order to modify it. This gives rise, in the first place, to those fictions that we believe in, those fictions that we inhabit, and which also, along with imaginatively perceived natural realities, help to compose our human history.

And then there are those fictions that we do not inhabit, or not fully, or which we know that we could never inhabit. Pictures of what has never been; symbols of the intrinsically absent and ineffably secret; stories that are simply ‘made up’ and may never be fully enacted. This is the realm of literature, where the secondary imagination absolutely rules. But together with the historical, now intrinsic for both philosophy and theology, the literary is also, in postmodernity, inescapable.

Why should this be? It has to do with the double import of the imagination. The latter, as I have said, is the mediating twilight threshold between spirit and matter, or between reason and the senses. Its strangest characteristic as a ‘between’ phenomenon is that it resides ‘in the middle voice’, at once passive and active.[5] Whereas we can control even where we direct our gaze, images flood into our mind when our eyes are shut, often unprovoked. All the same we can to some degree learn to conjure these images at will and to shape the precise from which they take. However, at the point of seemingly most control, when we are being ‘creative’, it is more as if we must find the trick of ‘summonsing’ in to the chamber of our mind elusive hidden realities that are seemingly in some sense ‘already there’. (This is why, in Sufi thought, the imagination is seen as opening onto a realm of intermediate beings, rather as rarefied reason opens upon the angelic realm;[6] similar considerations are found fragmentarily within Christendom in terms of the intrinsic link between imagination and ‘faerie’.).

But this double aspect both renders thought more real, and reality more spectral. And this is exactly why modernity, which ever since the Renaissance has more and more opened up the power of the imagination (including the technical imagination), is at once more historical and more fantastic than were the Middle Ages. For a greater sense of our reliance upon the primary imagination grounds thought back in sensation and image, and makes us realise that our thinking is inseparable from our corporeal living and from all that has really happened to us. On the other hand, the further release of the secondary imagination (escaping from ecclesiastical, political and sexual censorship), reveals to us the fluidity of physical nature as such and the way that form and image is far more intrinsically spectral than even rational speculation.

This release can, of course, be part of a scenario whereby ‘art’ usurps the place of religion. On the other hand, it can also serve to point up the very core of the religious impulse in a clearer way than for the often more abstract reason-dominated Middle Ages. (And it is probably the case that only an appeal to the logic of the imagination allows the ‘great tradition’ of theology from Origen to Aquinas adequately to counter the more consistent rationalism of the nominalist revolution.) For the secondary imagination is also the very point at which reason and faith become conjoined. This is because the theological necessarily links rational reflection with the contemplative regard of historical events and visualised pictures or symbols. Its elusive blend of idea and image belongs precisely to the realm of the imaginative ‘between’.
Moreover, it is by exercise of the secondary imagination that we have to try to connect historical becoming (including the Incarnation and the emergence of the Church) with the descending emanation of all of nature and culture from the perfect Godhead. Rationally informed faith therefore, is the exact place at which thinking about history (inhabited fictions and real-ideal occurrences) and thinking about literature (uninhabited fictions) comes together. Since religion concerns ‘believed-in fictions’ or fictions that might be inhabited or in some sense already dimly are, it transcends the contrast between literature and history, just as, in the life of Christ, mythos, as narrative saturated with meaning, and historia, as real event deficient in meaning, really (and not just in our supposing) come together.[7]

In the light of faith therefore, history and fiction both appear as different kinds of ontologically real realms, since they are both situated in the more all-embracing world disclosed by the light of faith: the world in which imagination discerns the link between emanative derivation (which we can only ‘fantasize’) on the one hand, and historical becoming on the other. Merely fideistic faith, by contrast, tends to ape a rationalistic reason without faith and a positivistically-conceived history, ignoring its constitutively ideal dimension (the way in which ‘what happens’ is always in part ‘what people think has happened’). Fideisms or fundamentalisms always notably downgrade imagination, or go for the kitsch, because they reduce revelata to factual assumptions and theology to a few simple and rigid rational deductions from those assumptions.

The reflections in this third section are intended to try to explain why, in the modern era from Hamann through to Tolkien via Claudel and Péguy, it has been literary works which have often most successfully defended and rethought the orthodox Christian legacy. Having understood this, we can in future take more systematic account of the literary-imaginative dimension.

By the agenda of ‘theology, philosophy and literature’ therefore, I propose in the first place a reflection on the theological origins of modern philosophy. In the second place a theological critique of modern philosophy. In the third place an attempt further to incorporate temporality into metaphysics. And in the fourth a realisation that a rationally informed faith requires the imaginary perspectives of literature as well as the imaginative perspectives of human history.
[1] Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy trans Catherine Porter (Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP 2004). See also Michel Serres, L’Incandescent (Paris: Le Pommier, 2003)
[2] See Philipp W. Rosemann, Omne ens est aliquid ( Louvain-Paris: Peeters, 1996), for an important attempt to do so.
[3] On this point see Emmanuel Perrier OP ‘Duns Scotus Facing Reality: Between Absolute Contingency and Unquestionable Consistency’ in Modern Theology Vol 21 No 4 October 2005, 619-643
[4] For Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the imagination see his Biographia Literaria (London: Everyman, 1965)
[5] For ‘the between’ (metaxu) see William Desmond, Being and the Between (New York: Suny, 1995) For ‘the middle voice’ see Catherine Pickstock, After Writing (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) passim.
[6] See Henri Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn’Arabi (Prineton NJ: Princeton UP 1997)
[7] For this thesis see John Milbank, ‘Atonement: Christ the Exception’ in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), 94-5

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What really binds me to rituals are the mantras, sutras and shlokas

This post will briefly take you through the development of my relationship with Institutionalized Prayer and offer a view of a remarkable factory-style temple operation. Since I was a child, I have lived in contradiction as far as my relationship with Religion and Puja (Hindi for Prayer) is concerned. I hated the idea of praying to God everyday - I would, as most kids are wont to, pray to him when I needed to. When I did pray, I would pray imagining myself to be the little cow-herd from the parable who forced the Lord to drink milk by by his earnest praying, crying and even begging.
I found visits to most temples hollow - I took an instant dislike to greedy priests, dirty corridors and the 5-second-blink-and-you-miss-God darshans before you were pushed along by the security-guard. I prayed best when I sat in silence, remembered my forefathers and God.
I was mesmerised by rituals - the sound of a smashing coconut (and the laughter when its watery contents were emptied onto my Father), the incantations (I memorised lots of the sanskrit shlokas), the smell of camphor, the beautiful chunari my mother would wear and of course, the chum-chum or barfi that would come after.
Over the years, visits to the Madurai Temple, Salasarji outside Jaipur, Tirupathi in the South, Siddhivinayak in Mumbai, Pushkarji (again outside Jaipur) and Dwarkaji near Mithapur in Gujarat confirmed my disenchantment with priests and their money-making ways. God is nobody's pillion-rider. Prayer is not a covenant but a loving two-way relationship. I disavowed Puja and prayer for the new-fangled spirituality, good old personal prayer in new clothes.But the contradiction still continues.
I am still fond (not mesmerised any more) of rituals. I still like the camphor, flowers and festive atmosphere but have grown to detest the average pandit. What really binds me to rituals are the mantras, sutras and shlokas. I believe that the ancient texts (vedas and the upanishads) and rituals derived from these represent a body of experience and thought of the philosophers and prophets of the past essential for our continued survival. To ignore them would be conceit and to blindly take them on, foolishness. These texts are, even today, expressed in their own contextual syntax which is indecipherable to the average person and an ignorant or worse, a calculating pandit will misinform, misguide and confound him even further.
I like to embrace these texts with intuition, intellect and a good dictionary as guides.
It was with trepidation then that I visited the Trimbukeshwar Temple, four hours from Mumbai, this morning to perform a 4-hour Puja ceremony. I hoped that it would be devoid of squabbling about money (just eight weeks ago when at Haridwar I had come face-to-face with an ugly display of naked greed by the priest performing Granny's last rites) and be personal, a little one-on-one with God.
(Above: The main temple at Trimbukeshwar. Image courtesy Dharmesh)
Reaching Trimbukeshwar at 5 a.m. we were accosted by a drunk man en route to the sanctum sanctorium and even at that early hour had but a fleeting glance of the Idol. This was followed by a 2 hour wait for the priest who was to do our Puja, a period that saw the devotees standing in wait swell to the hundreds.
When we actually got to the Puja, I realised that this was going to be a community affair. The devotees were segregated by language ability into different lines and led to one of several large halls where all the ingredients and paraphernalia of the puja had already been placed by the team of coordinating pandits.A senior Pujari led the proceedings in every hall, taking rows of gathered devotees through a series of synchronised actions and rituals, culminating in the final havan (sacrificial fire) in each devotees' personal, portable kund (vessel).At first, this batch processing of the devotees interfered with my conception of what pujas should be like. But as the puja went on, I saw that this factory manner was a very effective and efficient way to run the process.
(Above: Devotees wait before the start of the Puja. This picture represents a fourth of the hall. There are several halls of this size with pujas happening simultaneously)
The dakshina or fees for the Puja were spelled out upfront - all ingredients for the Puja were included, no extra was asked for and there were no hidden costs.The pandits had organised every conceivable item to be used in the Puja before-hand. All one had to do was sit down and start the puja. This ensured that no time was lost due to the devotees getting different (or incorrect) ingredients and misplacing or mishandling them.
(Above: flowers, milk, curd and various other items to be used in prayer)
(Above: Representations of a selection of the pantheon of Hindu Gods through nuts and wheat)
The pandits did their best to explain the rituals - as well as one could expect a hall full of devotees to be talked to anyway. If you wanted to understand the rituals in detail there was a provision to visit the temple a day earlier and speak to a member of the coordinating team in advance. It was perfect- they had discriminated between those who wanted information and those who did not- to the convenience and satisfaction of both.
There was no distinction based on class or income, everyone was treated in exactly the same way. This was a welcome change from temples where there are VIP or Express queues for those willing to make a payment for quick access to God.
The rather teacher-like Pujaris ensured silence and were quick to admonish any errant behaviour. This ensured that one got time for a little quiet one-to-one with God before, during and after the Puja.From a demand-supply point of view, the small number of designated Pujaris managed to mediate the Puja for several devotees in a small amount of time. If this same Puja were to happen for each devotee individually, it would place an enormous strain on time and resources of the temple management.
(Above: The Puja in Progress at Trimbukeshwar)
Throughout, you dealt with one main organiser so you didn't have to take the trouble of finding the right person to answer any questions. As for the rituals- the Pujaris were available after the Puja to answer any questions and queries and to offer advice.
Most devotees gathered there after the Puja left satisfied.
It was simple. It was standard. It was quick. It got the job done. Ray Kroc would have probably nodded in approval.
As for me, the fascination with rituals continues.
Just before I started this post, I paid my regular visit to Charu's blog and came across her nice post on rituals, inspired by Krish's Priestly Matters, his account of his tryst with a Priest and Rituals at his Wedding. You must read both.
Vivek has worked as a management consultant, a volunteer for 2 major Global Disasters and as a Principal of an international school in India. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard and lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife Ashima. His posts are primarily on Education but will traverse a gamut of things close to his heart.

This brand of ‘diversity in unity’ was non-existent in the Vedic Age

Bhavan's Journal (English) Vol.No.54 Issue No. 1 Contents August 15, 2007
An Interview with Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet India’s True History Is In Its Myths
Q: You are a cosmologist and interested in the ancient systems of knowledge in India. Some say India’s spiritual base is rooted in superstition; this has to be let go so they can make the needed technological advances. How do you view the current discussion about science versus superstition?
Superstition in the Indian context is simply clinging to beliefs without a knowledge base. In the Vedic age there were ‘Laws’ of Correspondence and Equivalence which were on the order of what we know of as science today. There was no superstition. This system of knowledge had its own language, and if you did not know it, you could not begin to understand what was being conveyed.
Science really has no place in this discussion. Yes, today there is superstition, and it has to go, but not the system of knowledge at its origin. We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater! In these ancient studies, what could be called occult sciences, though there are better terms for these things, there is a preparation that is different from a scientist’s point of view in that you are measuring fields that science is unaware of. Science is limited to the material field. In the same light, in these other systems of knowledge you have the possibility of measuring but the tools are quite different and the laws that pertain to this system are also different. You can’t say which one is wrong and which is right – they are two different systems. They pertain to different situations.
Q: This makes me recall a recent newspaper article in which a scientist criticised devotional traditions as ‘superstition’. You may remember that.
This is a case in point. The author is prepared in the field of contemporary science, which is quite different from what she was criticising. She was calling superstition, as I recall, anything that had to do with devotional practices, Temple matters, what ‘science’ the ancients knew or did not know, and so forth. It is similar to someone who picks up Einstein’s theories. If you don’t understand physics and its language, you are in no position to criticise. But the people who defend their belief systems and traditions also do not have adequate knowledge of what they are defending. They ignore what is really behind these practices. So it causes someone like this scientist to protest. She realises it is largely superstition. If the upholders themselves knew, there would be a very different approach to the discussion. There is such a lack of understanding of what we should look for and be discussing. Therefore we throw the baby out with the bathwater because we have no response to people in science.
Q: You have written it is neither science nor spirituality that will solve our modern dilemma, but it is a third thing.
That is precisely the point: neither one is sufficient to present a true perception of reality as it is. Science deals with the material, physical dimension; it is incapable of truly integrating the human factor within that. Therefore, you have the aberrations you see around us today, such as this insane weaponry that is destructive beyond belief. Here we are dealing with science that totally excludes the human element within its framework. It is like robot’s devising methods to destroy us, with no deeper perception of what resides in each human being – there is no capacity for that.
So then, can we say that science is the answer? In the present situation, of course not. On the other hand, spirituality has abandoned the material field and left it to science. This is the point that needs to be stressed in India: spirituality has opted for an escape from the world, from what it calls ‘illusion’ - the field where samskaras are accumulated. They say we must find the way to escape from these chains where we continue the wheel of karma from birth to death to rebirth, and on and on. If we abandon the Earth, our ‘field’, we should not complain when science steps in and takes over. Spirituality also has no answer, except to say, ‘All this is illusion, put your consciousness elsewhere, beyond it all’.
So this is the conundrum we face today; it’s been building up for several centuries. It is more acute now because science has come up with these extraordinary weapons and we now have the capacity to destroy ourselves. We are concerned with where science is going and we try to arrest it with spirituality, because orthodox religions have proven themselves inadequate; rather they are a big part of the problem. In India we turn to the teachings of the great yogis or realised souls; but in what way is that path adequate? Nothing is arresting this downward slide. We have to question why spirituality is not able to give us the answer.Nobody realises this in India. They believe ‘Truth is One’ and it is all- inclusive; and then that this kind of discourse on spirituality is not appropriate. In fact, it isn’t really ‘all one’.
Well, it is — in the sense that the only truth we know is escapism right now and abandonment of this material plane, for which reason science has taken over. And that is what makes it worthy of discussion now - science has taken over and may destroy the whole works. Otherwise we would be slowly moving along as we have done for centuries, each one on his own path, oblivious of the other. We can’t do that any more – we’re forced to face issues we have refused to look at in the past.
Q: You call your cosmology ‘Indocentric’. What do you mean by that?
Yes, it can rightfully be called that because it is a cosmological paradigm which places India at the centre of an emerging new order. You could say it is the new science; there is a measuring process in which time and space are integrated parts. In ancient India it was the accepted method; we have remnants of this system in every temple and in the old texts. The point is to rediscover those same Laws of Correspondence and Equivalence within the context of our world today. That is what my cosmology does.
Q: Can you be more specific? Provide an example?
Using this geo-cosmology, that is, using the globe itself as a measuring device, we locate India at the centrepoint – and this can be verified. Earlier we would be discussing cosmology from a Eurocentric point of view; not now. But India is not fulfilling its role as the ‘centre’ because there is too much ignorance in this field, too many unknown areas. If the facts were known, perhaps they would form the foundation for a resurgence in the country. But by the very fact that a work of this nature is established here, we know it will not die; and this gives us hope. A time will come when the growth of this experience will overtake the ignorance. Now it hangs in the balance - which way will it go?
Q: Rather than spiritual growth we see more concern with economic development. Would that conflict with your vision of India in the new world order or is it a part of that order?
Economic advancement is the major interest in the country. Some may lament this turn to materialism, but they too offer no solution to the problems that 21st Century economics has thrown at us. What they offer could also be criticised simply as superstition. We may lament but we do not have an integral, integrated approach or appreciation of both the problem and its solution that can satisfy contemporary minds.Using a series of concentric circles, India is placed in the centremost circle and from there it is a widening experience. Right now, it looks like that centre is void. It is not the upholder; it does not offer the inspiration for this new order on the world stage. An economic ‘order’ can never inspire and satisfy the innermost longings of the human spirit. In ancient times this was thoroughly appreciated, but not today. That is where the problem lies.
Q: You have been engaged in a reform of Hinduism, something to do with the timings of festivals and worship. In what way would that help?
The temple situation is another case in point. In Tamil Nadu we have recently campaigned for a change in the calendrical system that temples use in determining the time of festivals and worship – with some success, I might add. In ancient times, what we know of as the Tropical Zodiac of the Sayana system was used for this purpose. Today, in India, Nirayana is the system used to determine the timings of worship. The exact date for the celebration of the Makar Sankranti (Pongal) or the entry into the sign Capricorn is a good example of the problem we are discussing. Using the Sayana system, the date to celebrate the Makar Sankranti is 21-22 December, or the shortest day of the year. But now with the Nirayana system, we celebrate it 23 days later, on 14-15 January instead of at the Solstice. The Capricorn gateway is placed elsewhere on the time scale – 23 days later! And there is not even a clear consensus on that! One says one thing, another says another. It cannot be one and the other. A transit into a sign is only one; the entry into Capricorn is 21 December, now and always.
Q: But with so many pressing problems like caste discrimination, out-dated customs, and so forth, how is this relevant?
In all the Vedic texts there are methods given to calculate the shortest day of the year, Uttarayana, and the entry into Capricorn, the most important festival in India. Calendars in all civilisations were the means to bind a populace together around a single ‘purpose’. They created harmony instead of chaos for vast numbers of people. Imagine what India would be today if it did not have the universal calendar to connect it to the world and had to rely on the plethora of calendars in use throughout the subcontinent. How would you choose? Each community and religious sect believes that it must have its own calendar for this very reason: to serve as a binding force for the faithful.
It is an old tradition, and a sound one that cannot be overlooked. The point is, can we update this tradition and make it cosmologically relevant in a way that carries it beyond sectarian divides and can serve all sections of society? This is precisely what the new cosmology does.For example, about the disputes concerning which system to use for the timing of the Makar Sankranti, critics say, ‘Use the constellation, Capricornus, as your measure – it is more scientific’. But that is something quite different – the constellations are thousands of light years away. Certain pundits, influenced by science, were cajoled into believing that by using the Sayana system they were doing it all wrong and they should use the constellations instead as their measuring point. They lost sight of the fact that this celebration was always attached to the shortest day of the year and hence to the tropical zodiac along the ecliptic. In ancient times the Equinox in March for Hindus was the beginning of the year, not 14 April (23 days late) as presently observed. After that the timings of the rest of the observances all fit beautifully into place when you have this solid cosmological foundation, this one circle where all measuring is done. There is no room for speculation, guessing, fantasy. These timings are astronomically verifiable, unlike in the current Niryana system for which reason confusion abounds.
Recently Ugadi was celebrated (18 March 2007). This is the New Year for Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and I believe Kerala. Nowhere else in the country. Soon, Tamil Nadu will celebrate its New Year, 14 April, together with a few other States. And so it goes. No one seems to question how this can be? How can there be so many different ‘new years’? The answers that come are, this is ‘freedom’; this is ‘a healthy eclecticism’; ‘all in one’, and so on. One respondent replied by stating that this is a good example of India’s diversity in unity!
So, all is perfectly as it should be. Or so it seems when one is thoroughly immersed in the atmosphere generated by this situation. Actually for the Seer who stands outside of the tumultuous whirlpool, this is just chaos, a clear demonstration of the disconnect from Vedic Wisdom. And it is easily verifiable if one goes deeply into the matter, which few seem willing or capable of doing. After all, we know that this brand of ‘diversity in unity’ was non-existent in the Vedic Age; we also know for a fact that the New Year fell on one date, and only one date; we also know that the entire Hindu Samaj followed the Seers’ injunctions in this regard. But today we claim that things have changed ‘for the better’ because India accommodates all these different religions and sects, and what not. It is the same as saying corruption is fine, as many do, because IT IS INDIA. Accept it or leave it. They are so immersed in a ‘system’ which seems unchangeable that they are not willing to admit that THIS IS NOT INDIA. This is India only from the Dark Ages, when invasions started and the link with the Vedic Age was lost. This is what it mean’s to have a plethora of ‘new years’. Chaos, not harmony, and not at all unity. (to be concluded). Back to Periodicals

Monday, August 20, 2007

Political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation

The Politics of God Mark Lilla The Times Magazine: August 19, 2007 (Page 3 of 10)
'After centuries of strife, the West has learned to separate religion and politics — to establish the legitimacy of its leaders without referring to divine command. There is little reason to expect that the rest of the world — the Islamic world in particular — will follow.'
One powerful attraction of political theology, in any form, is its comprehensiveness. It offers a way of thinking about the conduct of human affairs and connects those thoughts to loftier ones about the existence of God, the structure of the cosmos, the nature of the soul, the origin of all things and the end of time. For more than a millennium, the West took inspiration from the Christian image of a triune God ruling over a created cosmos and guiding men by means of revelation, inner conviction and the natural order. It was a magnificent picture that allowed a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower. But the picture was always difficult to translate theologically into political form: God the Father had given commandments; a Redeemer arrived, reinterpreting them, then departed; and now the Holy Spirit remained as a ghostly divine presence. It was not at all clear what political lessons were to be drawn from all this. Were Christians supposed to withdraw from a corrupted world that was abandoned by the Redeemer? Were they called upon to rule the earthly city with both church and state, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Or were they expected to build a New Jerusalem that would hasten the Messiah’s return?
Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians argued over these questions. The City of Man was set against the City of God, public citizenship against private piety, the divine right of kings against the right of resistance, church authority against radical antinomianism, canon law against mystical insight, inquisitor against martyr, secular sword against ecclesiastical miter, prince against emperor, emperor against pope, pope against church councils. In the late Middle Ages, the sense of crisis was palpable, and even the Roman Church recognized that reforms were in order. But by the 16th century, thanks to Martin Luther and John Calvin, there was no unified Christendom to reform, just a variety of churches and sects, most allied with absolute secular rulers eager to assert their independence. In the Wars of Religion that followed, doctrinal differences fueled political ambitions and vice versa, in a deadly, vicious cycle that lasted a century and a half. Christians addled by apocalyptic dreams hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury they had once reserved for Muslims, Jews and heretics. It was madness.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes tried to find a way out of this labyrinth. Traditionally, political theology had interpreted a set of revealed divine commands and applied them to social life. In his great treatise “Leviathan” (1651), Hobbes simply ignored the substance of those commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believed God revealed them. He did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do — he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs. If we do that, Hobbes reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts and then perhaps find a way to contain the potential for violence.
The contemporary crisis in Western Christendom created an audience for Hobbes and his ideas. In the midst of religious war, his view that the human mind was too weak and beset by passions to have any reliable knowledge of the divine seemed common-sensical. It also made sense to assume that when man speaks about God he is really referring to his own experience, which is all he knows. And what most characterizes his experience? According to Hobbes, fear. Man’s natural state is to be overwhelmed with anxiety, “his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity.” He “has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.” It is no wonder that human beings fashion idols to protect themselves from what they most fear, attributing divine powers even, as Hobbes wrote, to “men, women, a bird, a crocodile, a calf, a dog, a snake, an onion, a leek.” Pitiful, but understandable.
And the debilitating dynamics of belief don’t end there. For once we imagine an all-powerful God to protect us, chances are we’ll begin to fear him too. What if he gets angry? How can we appease him? Hobbes reasoned that these new religious fears were what created a market for priests and prophets claiming to understand God’s obscure demands. It was a raucous market in Hobbes’s time, with stalls for Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men and countless others, each with his own path to salvation and blueprint for Christian society. They disagreed with one another, and because their very souls were at stake, they fought. Which led to wars; which led to more fear; which made people more religious; which. . . .
Fresh from the Wars of Religion, Hobbes’s readers knew all about fear. Their lives had become, as he put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And when he announced that a new political philosophy could release them from fear, they listened. Hobbes planted a seed, a thought that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. He knew it was impossible to refute belief in divine revelation; the most one can hope to do is cast suspicion on prophets claiming to speak about politics in God’s name. The new political thinking would no longer concern itself with God’s politics; it would concentrate on men as believers in God and try to keep them from harming one another. It would set its sights lower than Christian political theology had, but secure what mattered most, which was peace.
Hobbes was neither a liberal nor a democrat. He thought that consolidating power in the hands of one man was the only way to relieve citizens of their mutual fears. But over the next few centuries, Western thinkers like John Locke, who adopted his approach, began to imagine a new kind of political order in which power would be limited, divided and widely shared; in which those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; in which public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; in which many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; and in which individuals would have inalienable rights to protect them from government and their fellows. This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Mark Lilla is professor of the humanities at Columbia University. This essay is adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,” which will be published next month.

Core values that guide their daily lives

What is This I Believe? This I Believe is an international project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives. These short statements of belief, written by people from all walks of life, are archived here and featured on public radio in the United States and Canada. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow. NPR invites you to share the beliefs that guide you in your daily life. Tell us what you believe » Essays New and Old
The Holy Life of the Intellect
August 19, 2007 · Canadian poet George Bowering says we experience the mind of another person when we enjoy poetry, jazz or love. He believes this vision of human intellect is the closest thing we have to the divine.

I Am Not My Body
August 13, 2007 · Instead of prizing the "ideal" physique, Lisa Sandin finds beauty in something less than perfect. She believes she is more than her body — and more than her birth defect.

A Reverence for All Life
August 5, 2007 · For a college class assignment, Michelle Gardner-Quinn wrote a This I Believe essay about her love for the environment and reverence for life. Two days after turning in her essay, she was murdered.

Experiencing a Feeling of Wildness
July 30, 2007 · Nature writer David Gessner believes you don't have to climb Everest or raft the Amazon to find wildness. It's often found much closer to home, in our backyards and in the experiences of daily life.

Stress Yields a Sweeter Life
July 22, 2007 · If you think a Manhattan consulting job is stressful, try farming. Tim Stark has done both. He believes a reasonable amount of stress brings out his best qualities. It also produces tasty tomatoes.

Living in the Here and Now
July 16, 2007 · Shaken by his brother's death, Jeffrey Hollender vowed to reconnect with the things he valued. Now, the Seventh Generation CEO believes being present isn't easy but it is the best way to live life.

A Sacred Connection to the Sun
July 8, 2007 · Joy Harjo's Native American heritage taught her that the sun is a relative to be honored. The Muskogee Creek Nation poet believes that in doing so, we connect with nature and the sacredness of life.

All Beings Are Interconnected
July 2, 2007 · In 2005, Iraqi militants captured Christian peace activist James Loney. The experience of his 118-day captivity in Baghdad helped the Canadian solidify his belief that all people are interconnected.

The Learning Curve of Gratitude
June 23, 2007 · After suffering a life-threatening illness, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter had time to reassess her priorities. She came to believe in more fully appreciating the blessings each day brings.

Becoming a Parent Is a Gift
June 14, 2007 · Infertility dashed the hopes of fatherhood for Indianapolis teacher Chris Huntington. Now, the prospect of adoption has helped him see that becoming a loving parent is more than a biological process.

Admittance to a Better Life
June 10, 2007 · In his younger days, Michael Oatman was educated on the streets and in bars and strip clubs. Now, the Ohio writer believes the education he's getting in college classrooms has opened doors to a better life.

A Marriage That's Good Enough
June 4, 2007 · Writer and NPR listener Corinne Colbert knows her life isn't perfect. Despite living in a culture that chases what's bigger, faster and better, she believes it's OK to settle for — and appreciate — what you already have.

Every Person Is Precious
May 27, 2007 · Massachusetts listener Dr. Isabel Legarda found her faith challenged by her medical training. But in selecting anesthesiology as her specialty, she came to believe every person and every breath is precious.

Every Person Deserves Respect
May 21, 2007 · "Father of the Internet" and Google Vice President Vint Cerf has made a living with high-speed technology. When it comes to personal interactions, Cerf believes in showing respect to everyone he meets.

Inner Strength from Desperate Times
May 13, 2007 · As his father slowly succumbed to ALS, student Jake Hovenden was impressed with how lovingly his stepmother cared for his dad. The experience left Hovenden with a belief in the power of inner strength.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred

August 2007 137 » Essays » The sacred and the human Today's atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred. As René Girard argues, religion is not the cause of violence, but the solution to it
Roger Scruton Discuss this article at
First Drafts , Prospect's editorial blog
It is not surprising that decent, sceptical people, observing the revival in our time of superstitious cults, the conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderousness of radical Islamism, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. The "sleep of reason" has brought forth monsters, just as Goya foretold in his engraving. How are we to rectify this, except through a wake-up call to reason, of the kind that the evangelical atheists are now shouting from their pulpits?What is a little more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos—beliefs that, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe God is Not Great, writes: "One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody… had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs)."Hitchens is an intelligent and widely read man who recognises that the arguments most useful to him were well known 200 years ago. His book takes us through territory charted by Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, and nobody familiar with the Enlightenment can believe that our contemporary imitators have added anything to its stance against religion, whatever examples they can add to the list of religiously motivated crimes. However, Enlightenment thinkers, having shown the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many went on to conclude that religion must have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than consolation. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted men like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the idea that religion is not, in essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that might be. Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, it was not faith, but faiths in the plural, that composed the primary subject matter of theology. Hence the appearance of books like CF Dupuis's Origine de tous les cultes, ou Religion universelle (1795), and the busy decipherment of oriental religions by the Bengal Asiatic Society, whose proceedings began to appear in Calcutta in 1788. For post-Enlightenment thinkers, the monotheistic belief systems were not related to ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. Rather, they were crystallisations of the emotional need which found expression both in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus. This thought led Georg Creuzer, whose Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker appeared between 1810 and 1812, to represent myth as a distinctive operation of the human psyche. A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world, but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance. If you look at ancient religion in this way, then inevitably your vision of the Judeo-Christian canon changes. The Genesis story of the creation is easily refuted as an account of historical events: how can there be days without a sun, man without a woman, life without death? Read as a myth, however, this naive-seeming text reveals itself as a study of the human condition. The story of the fall is, Hegel wrote (in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 1827), "not just a contingent history but the eternal and necessary history of humanity." It conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship, about our relation to nature and mortality. For Hegel, myths and rituals are forms of self-discovery, through which we understand the place of the subject in a world of objects, and the inner freedom that conditions all that we do. The emergence of monotheism from the polytheistic religions of antiquity is not so much a discovery as a form of self-creation, as the spirit learns to recognise itself in the whole of things, and to overcome its finitude. Between those early ventures into the anthropology of religion and the later studies of James Frazer, Emile Durkheim and the Freudians, two thinkers stand out as the founders of a new intellectual enterprise—an enterprise which seems not to have been noticed by Hitchens, Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. The thinkers are Nietzsche and Wagner, and the intellectual enterprise is that of showing the place of the sacred in human life, and the kind of knowledge and understanding that comes to us through the experience of sacred things. Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, and Wagner, in Tristan, The Ring and Parsifal, as well as in his writings on tragedy and religion, painted a picture that, while rooted in the post-Enlightenment tradition, placed the concept of the sacred at the centre of the anthropology of religion. The lesson that both thinkers took from the Greeks was that you could subtract the gods and their stories from Greek religion without taking away the most important thing. This thing had its primary reality not in myths or theology or doctrine, but in rituals, in moments that stand outside time, in which the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome, through immersion in the group—an idea that was later to be made foundational to the sociology of religion by Durkheim. By calling these moments "sacred," we recognise both their complex social meaning and also the respite that they offer from alienation. The attempt by Nietzsche and Wagner to understand the concept of the sacred was taken forward not by anthropologists but by theologians and critics—Rudolf Otto in Das Heilige (1917), Georges Bataille in L'Érotisme (1957), Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane (1957), and, most explicitly and shockingly, René Girard in La violence et le sacré (1972). It is Girard's theory, it seems to me, that most urgently needs to be debated, now that atheist triumphalism is sweeping all nuances away. For it helps us understand questions that even atheists must confront, and that their dogmatic certainties otherwise obscure: what is religion; what draws people to it; and how is it tamed? Girard begins from an observation no impartial reader of the Hebrew Bible or the Koran can fail to make, which is that religion may offer peace, but has its roots in violence. The God presented in these writings is often angry, given to fits of destruction and seldom deserving of the epithets bestowed upon him in the Koran—al-rahmân al-rahîm, "the compassionate, the merciful." He makes outrageous and bloodthirsty demands—such as the demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. He is obsessed with the genitals and adamant that they should be mutilated in his honour—a theme that has been explored by Jack Miles in his riveting book God: A Biography (1995). Thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens conclude that religion is the cause of this violence and sexual obsession, and that the crimes committed in the name of religion can be seen as the definitive disproof of it. Not so, argues Girard. Religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence comes from another source, and there is no society without it since it comes from the very attempt of human beings to live together. The same can be said of the religious obsession with sexuality: religion is not its cause, but an attempt to resolve it. Girard's theory is best understood as a kind of inversion of an idea of Nietzsche's. In his later writings, Nietzsche expounded a kind of creation myth, by way of accounting for the structure of modern society. On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) envisages a primeval human society, reduced to near universal slavery by the "beasts of prey"—the strong, self-affirming, healthy egoists who impose their desires on others by the force of their nature. The master race maintains its position by punishing all deviation on the part of the slaves—just as we punish a disobedient horse. The slave, too timid and demoralised to rebel, receives this punishment as a retribution. Because he cannot exact revenge, the slave expends his resentment on himself, coming to think of his condition as in some way deserved. Thus is born the sense of guilt and the idea of sin. The resentment of the slave explains, for Nietzsche, the entire theological and moral vision of Christianity. Christianity owes its power to the resentment upon which it feeds: resentment which, because it cannot express itself in violence, remains turned against itself. Thus arises the ethic of compassion, the mortification of the flesh and the life-denying routines of the "slave morality." Christianity is a form of self-directed violence, which conceals a deep resentment against every form of human mastery.That "genealogy" of Christian morals was effectively exploded by Max Scheler in his book Ressentiment (1912). Scheler argues that the Christian ethic of agape and forgiveness is not an expression of resentment but rather the only way to overcome it. Nevertheless, there is surely an important truth concealed within Nietzsche's wild generalisations. Resentment remains a fundamental component in our social emotions, and it is widely prevalent in modern societies. The 20th century was the century of resentment. How else do you explain the mass murders of the communists and the Nazis, the seething animosities of Lenin and Hitler, the genocides of Mao and Pol Pot? The ideas and emotions behind the totalitarian movements of the 20th century are targeted: they identify a class of enemy whose privileges and property have been unjustly acquired. Religion plays no real part in the ensuing destruction, and indeed is usually included among the targets.Girard's theory, like Nietzsche's, is expressed as a genealogy, or a "creation myth": a fanciful description of the origins of human society from which to derive an account of its present structure. (It is significant that Girard came to the anthropology of religion from literary criticism.) And like Nietzsche, Girard sees the primeval condition of society as one of conflict. It is in the effort to resolve this conflict that the experience of the sacred is born. This experience comes to us in many forms—religious ritual, prayer, tragedy—but its true origin is in acts of communal violence. Primitive societies are invaded by "mimetic desire," as rivals struggle to match each other's social and material acquisitions, so heightening antagonism and precipitating the cycle of revenge. The solution is to identify a victim, one marked by fate as outside the community and therefore not entitled to vengeance against it, who can be the target of the accumulated bloodlust, and who can bring the chain of retribution to an end. Scapegoating is society's way of recreating "difference" and so restoring itself. By uniting against the scapegoat, people are released from their rivalries and reconciled. Through his death, the scapegoat purges society of its accumulated violence. The scapegoat's resulting sanctity is the long-term echo of the awe, relief and visceral re-attachment to the community that was experienced at his death. According to Girard, the need for sacrificial scapegoating is implanted in the human psyche, arising from the attempt to form a durable community in which the moral life can be successfully pursued. One purpose of the theatre is to provide fictional substitutes for the original crime, and so to obtain the benefit of moral renewal without the horrific cost. In Girard's view, a tragedy like Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus is a way of retelling the story of what was originally a ritual sacrifice in which the victim can be sacrificed without renewing the cycle of revenge. The victim is both sacrificed and sacred, the source of the city's plagues and their cure. In many Old Testament stories, we see the ancient Israelites wrestling with this sacrificial urge. The stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah are residues of extended conflicts, by which ritual was diverted from the human victim and attached first to animal sacrifices, and finally to sacred words. By this process a viable morality emerged from competition and conflict, and from the visceral rivalries of sexual predation. To repeat: religion is not the source of violence but the solution to it—the overcoming of mimetic desire and the transcending of the resentments and jealousies into which human communities are tempted by their competitive dynamic.It is in just this way, Girard argues, that we should see the achievement of Christianity. In his study of the scapegoat, Le Bouc émissaire (1982), Girard identifies Christ as a new kind of victim—one who offers himself for sacrifice, and who, in doing so, shows that he understands what is going on. The words "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" are pivotal for Girard. They involve a recognition of the need for sacrifice, if the guilt and resentment of the community is to be appeased and transcended, and the added recognition that this function must be concealed. Only those ignorant of the source of their hatred can be healed by its expression, for only they can proceed with a clear conscience towards the tragic climax. The climax, however, is not the death of the scapegoat but the experience of sacred awe, as the victim, at the moment of death, forgives his tormentors. This is the moment of transcendence, in which even the cruellest of persecutors can learn to humble himself and to renounce his vengeful passion. Through his acceptance of his sacrifical role, Christ made the "love of neighbour"—which had featured in the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible as the standard to which humanity should aspire—into a reality in the hearts of those who meditate upon his gesture. Christ's submission purified society and religion of the need for sacrificial murder: his conscious self-sacrifice is therefore, Girard suggests, rightly thought of as a redemption, and we should not be surprised if, when we turn away from our Christian legacy, as Nazis and communists did, the hecatombs of victims reappear. Girard's account of the Passion is amplified by many references to Freud and Lévi-Strauss, and by a conviction that religion and tragedy are, as Nietzsche argued, adjacent in the human psyche, comparable receptacles for the experience of sacred awe. The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a form of superstition that will one day be chased away by science. It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies in the heart of human communities. That is how Girard explains the peace and celebration that attends the ritual of communion—the sense of renewal which must always itself be renewed. Girard takes himself to be describing deep features of the human condition, which can be observed as well in the mystery cults of antiquity and the local shrines of Hinduism as in the everyday "miracle" of the Eucharist. There are many features of Girard's theory that can be criticised—not least the idea that human institutions can be explained through creation myths. We need more evidence than is contained in a creation myth for the view that our "original" condition is one of vengeful competition. And the alleged "mimetic" nature of human competition is underjustified. Moreover, there are other plausible explanations of the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice besides the one offered by Girard; and the success of the Christian ethic has other causes besides the mystical reversal that allegedly occurred on the cross. The growth of towns under Roman imperial jurisdiction meant that people were in daily contact with "the other," and living under competing urges both to exclude and to forgive. Why is that not an equal factor in explaining the rapid spread of a gospel of disinterested love? Such criticisms do not, it seems to me, account for the comparative neglect of Girard's ideas. Girard's thesis has been received with the same dismissive indifference as Nietzsche's in The Birth of Tragedy, and though he has been honoured with a siège (seat) at the Académie française, the honour has come only now, as Girard approaches his 90th year. I suspect that, like Nietzsche, Girard has reminded us of truths that we would rather forget—in particular the truth that religion is not primarily about God but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed. Always the need for it will arise, for it is in the nature of rational beings like us to live at the edge of things, experiencing our alienation and longing for the sudden reversal that will once again join us to the centre. For Girard, that reversal is a kind of self-forgiveness, as the concealed aggressions of our social life are transcended—washed in the blood of the lamb. Girard's genealogy casts an anthropological light on the Christian ethic and on the meaning of the Eucharist; but it is not just an anthropological theory. Girard himself treats it as a piece of theology. For him, it is a kind of proof of the Christian religion and of the divinity of Jesus. And in a striking article in the Stanford Italian Review (1986), he suggests that the path that has led him from the inner meaning of the Eucharist to the truth of Christianity was one followed by Wagner in Parsifal, and one along which even Nietzsche reluctantly strayed, under the influence of Wagner's masterpiece.Of course, you don't have to follow Girard into those obscure and controversial regions in order to endorse his view of the sacred as a human universal. Nor do you have to accept the cosmology of monotheism in order to understand why it is that this experience of the sacred should attach itself to the three great transitions—the three rites of passage—which mark the cyclical continuity of human societies. Birth, copulation and death are the moments when time stands still, when we look on the world from a point at its edge, when we experience our dependence and contingency, and when we are apt to be filled with an entirely reasonable awe. It is from such moments, replete with emotional knowledge, that religion begins. The rational person is not the one who scoffs at all religions, but the one who tries to discover which of them, if any, can make sense of those things, and, while doing so, draw the poison of resentment. Roger Scruton is a philosopher and a research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Virginia