Saturday, May 07, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraph 4

Throughout that part of the world where the vast majority of the earth's population live, facile announcements that "God is Dead" had passed largely unnoticed.

This is, in itself, a pretty "facile" statement, if one looks at what "God is dead" means. According to Wikipedia, "it is Nietzsche's controversial way of saying that God has ceased to be a reckoning force in the people's lives, even if they don't recognize it." This appears to be similar to what the UHJ is complaining about -- that religion no longer has the kind of influence that it once did. The difference is in whether one thinks this a good thing or a bad thing.

It's also worth noting that Neitzche put his famous statement in the mouth of a "madman" who wasn't simply throwing it in the faces of the faithful, but crying out in despair that humanity had killed God.

The way pre-modern peoples used to view God, as opposed to the way moderns do is a pretty complex subject, but the scientific advances that have been made in the modern world have made it virtually impossible to believe in God in quite the same way as people did before. We are left with a choice between a modernist version of religion, which makes a distinction between scientific facts and religious truth, or a fundamentalism that attempts to claim that religious truth is scientific fact.

The experience of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific had long confirmed them in the view not only that human nature is deeply influenced by spiritual forces, but that its very identity is spiritual. Consequently, religion continued, as had always been the case, to function as the ultimate authority in life.

Well, it's pretty easy to retain a pre-modern conception of God when people are uneducated; those living in the Third World who have a Western education are subject to the same dilemma that faces other moderns. However, I find myself a bit puzzled at this romanticizing of a past where people were more "spiritual"; I have always seen the Baha'i Faith as unique in *not* looking backwards towards a golden era of the past, but rather oriented towards the future. In fact, my understanding of Baha'i teaching is that this is the Day of God because the very life of mankind has been "revolutionized"; Baha'u'llah didn't come to return us to the way of life that prevailed on this planet for over 4500 years.

A good deal of this "spiritual" orientation of pre-modern people was what even religious people today would call superstition. It would not take too much effort to think of the disadvantages of such a perspective, particularly from the point of view of human rights -- some of these issues are still being fought over. The spiritual orientation being praised here also leads premodern cultures to do things like cut off parts of girls' genitalia in order to ensure their chastity, or to burn widows, or to view lower castes as "unclean", or to punish sexual misdeeds with stoning or to regard mental illness as demonic possession. One could go on and on in this vein. Yes, the supernatural permeates the world of pre-modern people, but this is not an unmixed blessing. Neither is modernity, of course -- but I'm not sure that we can really just pick out the advantages of both. We can't tell science "O.K., give us your material benefits, but leave our world-view alone." It doesn't work that way.

These convictions, while not directly confronted by the ideological revolution taking place in the West, were effectively marginalized by it, insofar as interaction among peoples and nations was concerned. Having penetrated and captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, dogmatic materialism ensured that no competing voices would retain the ability to challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation. To the cultural damage already inflicted by two centuries of colonial rule was added an agonizing disjunction between the inner and outer experience of the masses affected, a condition invading virtually all aspects of life. Helpless to exercise any real influence over the shaping of their futures or even to preserve the moral well-being of their children, these populations were plunged into a crisis different from but in many ways even more devastating than the one gathering momentum in Europe and North America. Although retaining its central role in consciousness, faith appeared impotent to influence the course of events.

I can't argue with the rest of this: A lot of people in the Third World have experienced modernity as invasive, oppressive, and disorienting. Indeed, some people in Europe had a similar experience in the early modern period. The only thing I might note here is that although the primary motivation of colonialism was economic, religious motivations, i.e. the wish to convert the heathen, also played its part.

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