Tuesday, July 19, 2005

"O Rose, thou art sick...."

We therefore want to follow this trace of the trace, to take as constitutive for a renewed reflection on religion the very fact of its return, its re-presentation, its calling to us with a voice that we are sure we have heard before. . . . On the one hand, the robust presence in our popular culture of the return of the religious (as a need, in the new vitality of churches and sects, and in the search for different doctrines and practices, the 'fashion' for Eastern religions and so forth) is motivated above all by the sense of impending global threats that appear quite new and without precedent in the history of humanity. It began immediately after the Second World War with the fear of possible atomic war, and now that the new state of international relations makes this threat seem less imminent, there is a growing fear of an uncontrolled proliferation of these same weapons, and more generally an anxiety in the face of the risks to the ecology of the planet, not to mention those associated with the new possibilities of genetic engineering. A no less widespread fear, at least among advanced societies, is that of losing the meaning of existence, of that true and profound boredom which seems inevitably to accompany consumerism. It is above all the radicality of these risks, which seem to threaten the existence of the species and its very 'essence' (it is possible now to modify the genetic code), that evokes and renders contemporary once again that 'too extreme a hypothesis' which for Nietzsche was God. Even that form of the return of the religious expressed in the often violent search for and affirmation of local, ethnic and tribal identities may in the majority of cases be traced back to a rejection of modernization as destructive of the authentic roots of existence.*
A lesson from suicide attackers throughout history: you cannot threaten another people's identity, the "authentic roots of [their] existence," and expect to succeed in your efforts. The threats Vattimo lists here apply to all of us, and especially "the profound boredom which seems inevitably to accompany consumerism" afflicts American, where only a spectacular opportunity at consumerism (the release of another Harry Potter book) seems able to stir us from our torpor and pique our interest. The more we press forward with our Western insistence that "modernization is the way!" (and we press that in a myriad of ways), the more we will be met with increasingly violent resistance. They all, it seems to me, stem from the same source, and that source is not "modernity," but neither is the cure either to bash modernity, nor to go deeper into it. We cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from the problems we have created for ourselves, nor so easily condemn any one problem as the one sin we need to set right.

The situation we find ourselves in is an historical one, as well as a philosophical and theological one. Which should make us at least wonder what we are doing, and why.

*Gianni Vattimo, "The Trace of the Trace," Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1996), pp. 80-81.

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