Monday, February 28, 2005

"There must be some kind of way out of here...."

Karen Armstong would agree with the sentiment expressed by "The Last Whole Earth Catalog:" not that we are as gods, but we are, as human beings, religious creatures, and we might as well get good at it. In what is still a post-Enlightenment world, that is an effort we have singularly failed at. After all, an excellent argument can be made that the Enlightenment project of the 19th century, to declare "God" finally and irrevocably dead, is what prompted the American fundamentalism we now suffer from. As Ms. Armstrong notes:
“Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.”

Philosophy drives much of this. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement, as was its antithesis, Romanticism. Today Romanticism is reduced to hearts and flowers and slef-centeredness, and the insights of the Enlightenment are used to justify the worst excesses of crony capitalism and brute power politics. That is not the fault of either philosophy; it is the fault of thoughtlessness. But philosophy continues to lead the discussions, if only indirectly. Much of the assault on religion today, and much of what lead to the creation and rise of fundamentalism, started in the assaults on metaphysics, which culminated in the misunderstanding of the work (a misunderstanding that persists to this day, even among philosophers) of the "Vienna Circle."

The "assault" on metaphysics led to Rudolf Bultmann's famous attempt to "demythologize" Christianity. Although, to be fair to Bultmann, that effort was merely his attempt to state to non-theologians the philosophical foundation of modern theology. It led, however, to serious distortions, and more accusations from conservative and fundamentalist groups, rather than conversation. And what is the current specialist thinking now? An essay by Aldo Gargani neatly states the philosophical underpinnings of most "liberal" theologies, although not in the simplest of language:

Our vision will remain inevitably superficial as long as we do not overcome the metaphysics of presence of theological objects and as long as we do not return to that supreme moment which coincides with out actual experience of the significance of religion and which recognizes in religious discourse a hermeneutic perspective from which to look at life....This might look like an attempt to overcome or to abandon the tradition, but what is at issue her ei s rather a recovery of the signs of the religious tradition that have not been thought through to the end. Abandoning the metaphsical commitments regarding the ontological status of the referents of theological discourse may therefore signify a recovery of the signs and the annunciations immanent within the history of a religious tradition. Once the metaphysical charge is defused, the objects of the religious tradition become figures for an interpretative perspective on life. It is in this capacity that they may be seen to intepret the movements of existence in which we are immersed, and not in so far as they attract the processes of life and history, sucking them back into a further ontological domain of transcendent beings, which is presented today as the most suitable vantage point from which to re-think religious experience philosophically. Aldo Gagani, "Religious Experience," tr. David Webb, Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998), p. 114.)

The focus of fundamentalism is precisely on preserving the objects of the religious tradition, and preserving them as objects (another irony of a belief system that eschews idolatry). Thus religion is lost to the modern world, not because humanity has "outgrown" religion, but because the discourse no longer provides an interpretive perspective on life. When Jesus spoke of mustard seeds and the road to Jericho and Samaritans, his audience knew immediately what he meant, and they understood. In point of fact, of course, they often misunderstood, and this misunderstanding was precisely the aim of the parables. But the parables and the actions and the teachings of Jesus were meant to provide an interpretive perspective on life, not provoke an idolatry of the teacher.

But that is only one direction. The other is toward understanding that this is what religion is for, and why human beings keep turning to it. Unfortunately, religion is also used for exerting power, and that is precisely what is being done, again, in the world today. As Ms. Armstrong notes, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are pursuing the same ends with the same means. If they could meet, she speculates, they would probably find they had much in common. Which is the other old, old story: that which you most oppose, you most come to emulate. So, is opposition the only course open to everyone? That's an entirely negative response to the world, to all that is "not you." Is there a positive course that is an alternative?

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