News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Secularism, Nothingness, Religion, and the Secret Passwords

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Secularism, Nothingness, Religion, and the Secret Passwords

A lot of ethnographic, historical, and sociological evidence shows that when cultural systems decline, social and personal ills appear. You don’t need to look too far to see the truth of this conclusion. Within our own culture, the culture wars are a backlash against the destruction of traditional American cultural values. In the Islamic world, a similar reaction at seeing their culture trashed has been perhaps even more profound.

Statements by political and religious thinkers suggest some cognizance of the problem but also a willed attempt to shroud its source. Couched in the language of a clash between civilizations, the present situation assumes a world where everything that I am and that we are will die if we or I don’t return to a purified version of the traditional or founding values. ...

We face a situation in which those fighting the American culture war since the 60s against the counter-culture have come into conflict with Islamic cultural warriors who have been fighting a similar war for their cultural identity since the 60s, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to prominence in Egypt.

For many, religion has come to the fore as the main institution under attack. As a cultural system—to borrow a phrase from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz—religion is ultimately associated with ethics and social structuring in such a way that when religion withers on the vine, social chaos and personal anomie quickly ensues.

Even the so-called “evil” extremists are not anti-civilization. Indeed, that is the brunt of their message. The extremist Jihadist is as much concerned for cultural and ethical values as are PB16, Pat Robertson, or Pres. Bush himself. Seeing their culture devalued as second-rate compared to Xtian civilization—remembering the history of European colonialist nations’ attempts to carry out the protocols of manifest destiny--they bring into play the opposing view that Islam is a noble and valid cultural framework within which a human being can attain happiness.

What else are fundamentalists—whether Xtian, Jewish, Hindu and (dare I say it?) Rationalist—saying? They expect to convince me that the solutions revealed in their books, practices, rituals, holy verse, or methodologies can deliver the answers to all those questions that all humans in all places have asked. Indeed, all human desires, thoughts, and actions--these doctrines maintain—can be answered if we only find that one thing hiding the truth and crack open the shell—of faith, reason, or desire.

Where seek an answer when the locus or place of the problem is so varied—from the imperceptible movements and needs of the internal person to the profound social and historical non-human processes? The multitude of levels at which wrong, pain, and hurt can be felt pose problems enough. Modern consumer society provides numerous diversions to keep us from asking some very basic questions about ourselves and the world we implicitly give our allegiance to.

This is the crisis we face. This is the dilemma whose gates we stand before with the guard blankly asking for the secret password so we can pass through to greater awareness and understanding. We face our own alienation, boredom, ennui, self-deception, and despair and seek an answer from others who themselves ask the same questions. And when they can’t give an answer either or act in ways that rub us the wrong way, we immediately cast them in the position of being the root of our own despair.

This little Kafkaesque flourish points up the mystery of lives that have been denuded of all magic, all paradox, all byways by what used to be called spirit could entertain the visions of purity of heart, worlds beyond the world, dimensions whose hold on us made demands that drove saints into the desert. We are left with the anemic demons whose blood rituals grow in ever expanding orgies of blood lust.

On the face of it, this is a bizarre assertion. It suggests that the majority of human-kind is enmeshed in some kind of mass hallucination that hides from them the true nature not only of the world but of themselves. Not only that, it calls to mind the camp of fanatics, intolerants, and madmen throughout history; not to mention those saints and other religious aficionados who happened to escape from their faith and attain a measure of equilibrium, by which is meant producing a result that even the rich swilling at the trough of abundance and extravagance can find quaintly worthy of praise.

But there are signs of this mass hallucination everywhere. It takes on the guise of inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence, keeping up with the Jones’, scandal-mongering, apathy, and alienation. Everything from consumer shopping frenzy to stay in touch with the most recent product to religio-political programmes for civic sanitation and ethical renewal to fundamentalist rage and purification through romanticizing cults of death—all these phenomena represent a deeply ingrained despair, sometimes recognized, most times not.

Not only do these attempts to promise happiness—the ultimate Good, said Aristotle—they also promote a way of life that will ensure a society in which people within those societies can achieve happiness. If we all have the same things, then everyone will be happy. If we all look and act alike, then the lack of differences will assure peace through conformity. If we all vie for the same status and material goods, we will find stability in the struggle for subsistence itself.

The vagaries of history have favored capitalism. It is assumed by many, therefore, that it is the big winner of the cosmic lottery. Basing themselves on this apparent luck, Xtians, for example, see the hand of God at work. They believe that God is in control of all things and, like a big banker in the sky, is ready to repay all those centuries of investment by past generations who’ve sacrificed and labored in the Lord’s vineyards.

But what history, or God, gives, it can also take away. Unless of course, you think, like the savior-President, that God and history divinely ordain one group of people to spread to the rest of the world a message of peace and freedom.

Some crises are so great that falling back on the old ways and thinking simply don’t work anymore. This “not working” doesn’t just mean that we can’t make a success in life. Continuing in the old ways might indeed continue to bring success. But the success or the “working” part of our lives doesn’t mean anything. Life’s not working anymore means that the old ways just don’t make sense and do not bring the satisfaction that they did before.…

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once wrote that one must experience evil to find good. What he meant by this is that the traditional values and ethical concepts have been denuded of meaning—that meaning that seeps into my very bones and animates everything else I do in life. Through the process of experiencing dissolution and evil I will come to know Good—that I must know what the reality of the evil is before can even begin to see the possibility of its opposite, the Good.

From this perspective, I begin to see the current ethical and spiritual chaos as an education for a higher order. I experience chaos and let its Antarctic cold tear off my face before I can even start that journey to anything else. The alternative is to lose myself in a faceless and meaningless herd mentality that promises the eternal in everyday routines and consumer Disneylands, but whose promise is ultimately empty. These Disneylands lead to much unconscious despair though emitting a veneer of pan-consciousness on the TV and computer screens of the world.

Absolute freedom promises absolute obedience. Knowing evil leads to good. Sickness brings health. In an age where all formulas and incantations to happiness have been co-opted by either a religio-political regime or otherwise colonized and turned into an advertising enthymeme, all values must become known through their opposites.

This is not a call to do evil for evil’s sake. Anyone familiar with the writings of Jean Genet understands how difficult it is to consciously pursue evil. Instead, the education of the modern age brings with it a despair that I must know and recognize, eschewing all empty phrases and jingoistic methods that deprive of something so essential to my life that I will indeed die. Violence is just another form of losing my self.

The crisis we face is two-fold: immunizing ourselves to the pain and suffering of others and the shutting ourselves off from that which would make us capable of perceiving the our true selves and thereby giving loving others for who they are. We are born with the sense for ethics; but it must engage an environment and practice that encourage its growth and continuation.

What modern secular culture does not do is to provide this environment. As a consequence, traditional cultures rebel when their cultures suffer desolation at the onslaught of secularization. Those already secularized find themselves in despair without knowing it—encased in an ever-growing cocoon of cultural anomie, social fragmentation, and personalistic isolation.

Yet, it is only through the purifying nothingness of secularism that I can or will come to know who I am. For we will learn that there are no systems that can grip with infinite value, no morals that cannot be questioned, no authority whose legitimacy is not based on egoism and self-interest, no final solution beyond the terror of mass enslavement and manufactured death.

Related Links

No comments: