Friday, April 13, 2007

Faith and Anthropology

Gil Bailie has put up a quote from Romano Guardini that I, not a great believer in salvation through works, like much:
All around us we see activity, organization, operations of every possible type; but what directs them? An inwardness no longer really at home with itself which thinks, judges, acts from the surface, guided by mere intellect, utility, and the impulses of power, property and pleasure. An "interiority" too superficial to contact the truth lying at life's center, which no longer reaches the essential and everlasting, but remains somewhere just under the skin-level of the provisional and the fortuitous.

Before all else, then, man's depths must be reawakened. ... In a word, man must learn again to meditate and pray. ...

Therefore we must return to the essence of being and ask: What is the connection between a man's work and his life? ... What is obedience, and how is it related to freedom? What do health, sickness, death really signify? ... When may attraction claim the high name of love? What does the union of man and woman known as marriage mean (at present [1951!] something so seedy, so choked with weed, that few people seem to have any serious conception of it, although it is the bearer of all human existence)?
Now this is an argument for meditation on the purpose of our Being in history that comes to us from a Christian context, but it is not an argument whose truth is only negotiable by believing Christians; i.e. its truth, or lack, can be appreciated, limited, weighed, by anybody from within a secular anthropological and historical discussion of human nature. As I was telling Dag last night after our Covenant Zone meeting, I think our Western postmodernity will soon either collapse into ruins (because of its difficulties in motivating its members to reproduce themselves and their productive roles), or, more likely, it will turn away from its current nihilism, its materialism without much sense of purpose of what things and productive activity are for, towards a new kind of faith that combines a new kind of anthropology with more traditional religious positions, positions that will become somewhat re-positioned thanks to the new kind of anthropological and historical discussion that is emerging in the wake of (post) modernity's destruction of traditional cultures.

An example of this, again from a frankly Christian context, is provided by Mark Gordon's discussion of the Christian anthropology of Bailie and Rene Girard. Christianity, Gordon notes (and I would say this is true of Judeo-Christianity), is not simply one faith tradition among others, but a radically innovative attempt to interpret human nature and origins. And, as such, it is a claim on fundamental truth (truth about our specifically human origins and the purpose of human culture) that can and should be compared to others. This work of "anthropologizing" faith, and in turn of learning to put greater faith in our anthropology's original and ongoing purpose - a purpose that is both articulated (with more or less self-understanding) and evidenced by the history of societies' ways and means of representing their ethics - continues today. We find it not only in the high-minded discourse of the likes of Gil Bailie, but also in the more popular trenches of religious and political debate, as was made evident to me when I saw, a few days ago, the republication of an article "What Would Muhammad Say to Jesus?", by Mohamed Elmasry, head provocateur of the Canadian Islamic Congress, in whose newsletter the article originally appeared.

As soon as we are forced, by historical circumstances, to start comparing and contrasting two faith traditions put in close proximity, we either become close-minded dogmatists, or open-minded anthropologists, or some combination thereof. In his dogmatism, not only does Elmasry reveal a great ignorance of Christian theology and teaching, and of the anthropological truth behind trinitarian belief (the trinity is, among other things, a theory of human representation, a [Christian] means of symbolizing three basic ways people experience language or representation) but, I think, Elmasry also reveals a desire to engage Christianity in a larger debate about human nature that he thinks is the key to winning converts to Islam. In other words, I see him as a simple dogmatist with a small foot in the door of a larger anthropological wisdom.

To win this discussion, he will either have to hope there are a lot of lame brains out there who have already made up their minds that Christianity is a failed religion, and will show no interest in what it really teaches, or he will have to do a lot better in explaining how Islam can make a claim on fundamental truth regarding the co-emergence of (a name for) God and humanity at the origins of human culture, an explanation that can surpass that of Christian anthropologists like Gil Bailie and Rene Girard, or even that of a guy who comes up with a quick but pretty devastating inversion of Elmasry's article.

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