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Transcendence as Cultural Identity
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-05-05 07:43:20
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There is growing chorus of voices asserting that full human development cannot be achieved without regard for essential religious values; that achievements in political, social, economic, technical, artistic and scientific realms do not fully exhaust the creativity, beauty, or triumphs human beings are capable of; that a transcendent meaning system can be a powerful developmental force as a complement to secular commitments.

A previous article on Religion and Secularism, attempted to demonstrate that religion and democracy need not be mutually exclusive; that India, the biggest democracy in the world, is a convincing example of how religion and democracy can coexist harmoniously. Out of four possible models the essay dealt with, it was pointed out that modern India has adopted the one of “religious politics and secular government,” as best suited to her cultural identity, with religion at its core and for the retention of a vibrant cultural milieu.

A valid critique is that while it may be desirable that nations with a theocratic political system (Iran, for example) imitate India by choosing model n. 4 (religious politics with a secular government), the essay fails to fully demonstrate why this model should be preferable to model n.2, mostly prevalent in the EU, i.e., secular politics with secular government, often dubbed “laicism.”

The critique can perhaps best be addressed with a follow-up essay which explains more at length why the adoption of model n. 4 may be the most suitable for building and cultivating a culturally vibrant society. Moreover, I will also attempt to demonstrate here that, when all is said and done, religion may prove to be the best remedy for the recovery of cultural vibrancy and a sense of transcendence within Western civilization. Those losses are due to a wholly secular horizontal, immanent Western culture that assumes that it is possible for Man to live by bread and circus alone, and has considerable difficulty in imagining a social paradigm that goes beyond material prosperity and Machiavellian real politick considerations.

It seems to me that the very first question that needs to be raised on the issue is this: What is the cause for this reluctance within Western development thinking to bring in the same field of vision political and religious-cultural components? A preliminary answer could be that the myopia is due to the fact that modern Western Civilization, beginning with Descartes’ rationalistic philosophical paradigm, and the subsequent advent of the industrial revolution, has opted for a system of cognition and a structure of knowledge which is partial and incomplete, in as much as it privileges materialistic socio-economic components at the expense of the spiritual. The result of this reductionism leads development specialists to function as one-eyed giants, purveyors of science and bereft of wisdom. They analyze, even prescribe and act, as if human destiny can be stripped down to its mere material dimensions.

It may be wise to pause for a reflection upon the high rate of suicide in developed countries. It seems to me that it ought to give us pause because at the very least it suggests three things: 1) that material abundance may be less essential than the presence of meaning in one’s life; that people lose even the willingness to survive once they have lost the meaning of their destiny (See Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl); that ultimately, a meaningful existence is the most basic of human needs, 2) that awe and mystery are as integral to human existence as bread and reason; 3) that the future prospects of the human species depend upon internalizing an essentially religious perspective able to transform what is by now the dominant, materialistic, secular outlook.

It would be enough to read a book such as Jeff Haynes’ Religion in Third World Countries (1994) to become convinced that indeed most people in developing countries derive their primary source of meaning from religious beliefs, symbols, and mysteries. They sense that no ideology or promise of material paradise will ever abolish life’s tragic dimensions: suffering, death, wasted talents, hopelessness; that to insist that it can be accomplished with material prosperity alone in a valueless society, is to ultimately trivialize life itself. Moreover, the sociologist Peter Berger in analyzing the link between modernity and secularization arrives at this conclusion in his book titled A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992): “there are vast regions today in which modernization has not only failed to result in secularity but has instead led to reaffirmations of religion … It may be true that the reason for the recurring human outreach toward transcendence is that reality indeed includes transcendence and that reality finally reasserts itself over secularity” (pp. 28-29).

A similar judgment is expressed by Ramgopal Agarwala, a World Bank officer, when he declares in an essay which appeared in Friday Morning Reflections on the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (1991) with the title "A Harmonist Manifesto. Hindu Philosophy in Action", and asserts that “A society based on harmonism will be more than just a ‘sustainable society.’ There have been many primitive societies which were sustainable. Instead, it will be a sustainable society, with a cutting hedge at spiritual advancement that will provide the excitement that has been so painfully lacking in recent years. Spiritual advancement is the antidote to the boredom that lies just below the surface of many of the ills of the modern world.”

What we have discussed is rather easy to express in theory; the more challenging task in a world with a pervasive secular outlook, is to promote development in practice, while respecting religious and indigenous values. The first pitfall that needs to be avoided is that of treating values in a purely instrumental fashion, as means to goals outside the value system in question. This is the equivalent of using religion to engineer popular compliance with a modernization program. A better stance is the non-instrumental: one that begins with respect for the inner dynamism of traditional values which then serve as springboard for modes of development which are more humane then those derived from outside paradigms. This is more desirable because indigenous values are the matrix from which people derive meaning in their lives, a sense of identity and cultural integrity, not to speak of the experience of continuity with their environment and their past.

In this regard, let us take a close look at an appropriate example derived from the Islamic religious tradition. Because the Qur’an condemns interests as usury, Islamic banks neither pay interests to depositors nor charge it to borrowers. Since banks need to operate as viable economic enterprises in a modern world, one may wonder as to how they are able to solve this conundrum. They simply spread the risks flowing from their borrowing and lending. They receive a share of the profits earned by their borrowers and pro-rata shares of these profits are then distributed to depositors. This is a clear example of how a religious norm can alter a modern practice, instead of the other way around.

The next difficulty is the identification of those secular matters that already exist within religion as such. This is not an easy task, since the time of Marx’s stigmatization of religion as “the opium of the masses,” ushering in secular atheistic humanism. To be sure, an anti-religion stance was already in place within Western civilization with the advent of Cartesian rationalism and Voltaire’s idolization of reason, but the anti-religion stance became more intransigent with Marx’s above statement; since then those who consider themselves “enlightened” tend to look upon religion as inimical to a secular humanism which claims to overcome man’s religious alienation. Many have misguidedly thrown out the baby (religious faith) with the bath-water (religious corruption and fanaticism).

As is well known, Marx contended that it is such religious alienation that turns Man away from the building of history on earth. He denounced religion on the grounds that it abolishes history by making human destiny ultimately reside outside of history as a sort of pie in the sky. For him Christian humanism was nothing short of a fraud and an oxymoron. Perhaps the French surrealist poet André Breton expressed this philosophy best when he branded Jesus Christ as “that eternal thief of human energies,” not to speak of Nietzsche’s outlandish view of the same figure. In effect this is the challenge of secularism to religion, the hidden agenda of the eventual elimination of religion as such, often ambiguously disguised as “clear separation” of the secular from the sacred, or as “strict neutrality” on religious matters.

In facing the challenge religion needs to answer this crucial question: can it supply men and women of today with a convincing rationale for building up historical tasks within a humanistic philosophy of history, while at the same time bear witness to transcendence? In order to answer it one needs to analyze the secular commitments which all authentic religions already implicitly advocate. Teilhard de Chardin did exactly that for Christianity in insisting that matter and history matter, that evolution does not contradict creation, that building the earth was the responsibility of every human being; that to be a Christian is to be a steward of the earth. He once compared a contemporary pagan with what he called a “true Christian humanist.”

The former, he said, loves the earth in order to enjoy it; the latter, loving it no less, does so to make it purer and draw from it the strength to escape from it. But the escape is not to be construed as an alienating flight from reality in la-la land, but rather as the opening, or the issue which alone confers final meaning on the cosmos. This is the basic difference between an Epicurus and a St. Francis of Assisi. They both loved the world but the first proposed a closed, deterministic immanent world; the other proposes a world with windows to the transcendent. That distinction is crucial. To discern it better, all one needs to do is look around at modern Europe to realize that indeed since Lucretius Epicureanism is alive and well in Western Europe: soccer games are much more popular and valued than Sunday worship.

The rather convenient scapegoat for this phenomenon is usually to blame the “corrupting” pragmatism and materialism of American popular culture. Ironically, some 60% of people in the US worship on Sunday, compared to 25% in Western Europe. Which is not to say that merely going to Church a Christian makes as Kierkegaard aptly reminds us. In any case, De Chardin insisted all his life that it was a Christian duty to build the earth and history, to contribute to the solution of pressing secular tasks dealing with justice, wisdom, creativity, human development, solidarity, peace, ecological balance, as penultimate responsibilities and goals to be achieved right here on earth.

Another example of the commitment to secular values implied in Christianity is the concept of “liberation theology” which embraces the struggle for a more just world that better responds to human needs; fostering the building of history, in other words, without forgetting the witness to transcendence. This theology has become rather popular in South America and even in the United States in the Black Church. A creative tension between the immanent and the transcendent needs to be kept together; not unlike the horizontal of a cross (the historical) intersecting the vertical (the transcendent).

What I have argued so far may hopefully offer a convincing hint that it is a mistake to assume that development is incompatible with religion, just as it is a mistake to assume that democracy is incompatible with religion. This is especially so today, when most religious institutions allow for, even encourage, “religious freedom.” I suggest that if one manages to overcome those unfortunate, stereotypical modern notions originating in the so called “age of reason,” one may be surprised to discover that a respectful dialogue between religious values and social development plans, usually proves beneficial to both. In the final analysis the greater challenge today is not that of secularism to religion to become more tolerant, but that of religion to secularism to become more holistic and humane, to open itself to a greater gamut of values, thus leaving history and human endeavors open to the transcendent.

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Dimitra Karantzeni2008-05-05 23:14:51
In my point of view, religion has an incomparable power, though lately, wrongly used.. Judging from what has recently happened in Greece, where our ex- archbishop, mr Christodoulus, managed to win the challenge of bringing young people back to church, back to our religion and Christian beliefs, i have understood that that is the key to the solution we are looking for... What really made the difference was that he welcomed all people and especially young ones, persuaded them to become more humane, to regain their faith and strength, in a totally modern and not at all anachronistic way.. He prooved that religion, though attached to traditions, can coexist with contemporary needs. He underlined the importance of human values and helped everyone put theory into practice..He achieved his goal and that is something that everyone can't help but recognize it..That is why i do agree with you that a respectful and constructive, up-to-date dialogue between all different religious values and social development plans, is a conception that could provide us with a new, more democratic and peaceful social system, than that in which we're living now..

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-05 23:41:48
Thanks for the inspiring information Dimitra. At times one feels like a voice crying in the desert; which is ok; the message has to be sent out even if nobody pick it up. For a further in depth exploration of this subject of religion in the modern secular world, see Metanexus Institute and its on-line publication Global Spiral.

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