Friday, September 07, 2007

Some interesting links

How do we turn things around? How does a conservative hope to connect with a culture that in many respects is no longer conservative? These are the kinds of questions we frequently discuss on Thursday nights at the library. I just came across a couple of tentative but interesting answers. Britain's Peter Hitchens argues that it is wrong for conservatives to raise too many passions about the state of our fallen nations, passions we have no realistic ways to mediate. One must discover what are the pragmatic first steps for involving people again in their national covenant, that they may be free to find the compacts by which to live as they see fit, freed of the overbearing hand of the present soft-totalitarian state of the UK/EU. The first step is thus to reassert national sovereignty and democratic self-rule: Take Britain out of the EU!

But renewal is not just a political question. It also has a religious or cultural dimension. Peter Leithart (ht. Chris Morrissey) argues:
Here, as on so many other questions, there’s much to be learned from Christians in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a truism among African theologians that the Church has grown most rapidly where traditional African religions are strongest. According to Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako, this is no accident but highlights the “special relationship” that African “primal religions” have with Christianity. Like primal African religion, Christianity displays a strong sense of human finitude and sin, believes in a spiritual world that interacts with the human world, teaches the reality of life after death, and cultivates the sacramental sense that physical objects are carriers of spiritual power. Christianity catches on there because it gives names to the realities they already know and experience.

This special relationship is not unique to twenty-first-century Africa. Many African theologians invoke the patristic notion of a praeparatio evangelii, the belief that pre-Christian religion was designed to prepare the way for the gospel, to justify their approach to African religions. Athens might have been the birthplace of philosophy, but the Athenian citizens opened civic assemblies with sacrifices and Athenian women celebrated the Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter.
If Christianity is most successful among traditional religions, perhaps the Church has to reinvent primal religion before the West can be restored to Christ. Of course I don’t mean that churches should send their tithes to Wicca International or initiate pulpit exchanges with the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Re-paganizing the West means acting on the premise that, for all our pretense of sophistication, the West has never entirely escaped the impulses and habits of primitive culture, or that, by escaping Christianity, we are reverting to it. Re-paganizing the West means working out the implications of the French sociologist Bruno Latour’s assertion: We have never been modern.

Part of the trick is cultivating a healthy skepticism toward secularization theories. For Max Weber and armies of Weberian sociologists, modernity disenchanted the world, locking us all in the iron cage of rationalized bureaucracy. Even modern religion and music, Weber argued, submit to the tyranny of systematization and disperse the gods. Latour will have none of this. The world has not and cannot be disenchanted: “How could we be capable of disenchanting the world,” he asks, “when every day our laboratories and our factories populate the world with hundreds of hybrids stranger than those of the day before? . . . How could we be chilled by the cold breath of the sciences, when the sciences are hot and fragile, human and controversial, full of thinking reeds and of subjects who are themselves inhabited by things?”

Part of the trick, too, is recognizing the continuities between pagan and modern habits and learning to call them by their traditional names. If a rock concert looks, smells, and sounds like a bacchanal, why not call it that, with all the religious overtones that go with the name? If the rock star elicits frenzy, why not call him a shaman?
Kant moralized and modernized sin, atonement, justification, and the Church to bring Christianity to Enlightened maturity. Perhaps we must reverse the process and primitivize the Enlightenment, so that the gospel can again speak directly to our not-so-modern society. Perhaps we must re-paganize the West as a prerequisite to its re-evangelizing it.
Primitivize the Enlightenment? Some of our champions of modernity might have trouble with that rhetoric from the Idaho pastor, but he's surely right that modernity as we have experienced it, and not just idealized it, has contained a lot of primitive sacrificial thinking. At a time when Osama bin Laden is recommending we read Noam Chomsky, there may well be more people becoming more aware of the underpinnings of the left-Islamic alliance, epitomized by men like Chomsky who on the one hand comes across as an arch-Enlightenment rationalist, but on the other is clearly allied to some violent and irrational sacrificial forces. How has this historical merger come about? When we can well explain this to ordinary educated people, and show how so much of modern "Enlightenment" is a form of not-so-enlightened Gnosticism, we will be on the way to renewing their interest in the truer traditions of Western culture and becoming useful champions of both modernity and tradition.


Ypp said...

The Cult of Science and Fire-Worship.

For those who lived under communist rule, like the author of this piece, it is obvious that science played the centarl role in their ideology. Starting form Marx, communists claimed that their ideology was based completely on the rational scientific calculation, as opposed to traditional faith. They claimed that science can explain not only material world, but also the world of ideas and social behavior. That explains why communists always paid great attention to economics and sociology. The failure of those pseudo-scientific disciplines cold itself be a topic for a paper. However, here I only discuss one interesting feature of the scientific cult - its close relation to fire-worship.

Fire was undoubtly the first and the most important scientific discovery in the history of the mankind. By learning to use fire, people gained a decisive advantage over all other species. Fire made it possible for people to populate territories with cold climate and use a wider range of nutricients. I cannot imagine any possible discovery which would influence the life of modern people to the same extent as fire influenced the life of our ancestors. Hence, the fire-worship at that time was equivalent to the belief in the power of science.

The relation of science and fire is especially obvious from the documentary films about science. There, scientists are always shown with something related to fire. It could be a laser, a faraway star or galaxy, an atomic reactor, a starting rocket, or at least twinkling lights on the instrument board. Earlier, it used to be a blast-furnace or a steam-engine. I wonder if the current assault on smoking is driven by the desire to exterminate the competitors, namely the non-scientific fire users.

During the medieval period of "dark ages" people probably did not believe in science too much. However, as the instrumentation and means of production became more and more complicated and science started to play an important role in European societies, the worship of science reappeared. Not surprisingly, the name of that historical period is Enlightenment. The means for propagandizing science cult is education; those who do not want to educate themselves about science are usually called "dark" people.

Undoubtfully, the Global Warming Catastrophe is closely related to science. It was predicted by scientists and can be avoided only by scientific means. With Global Warming, the religion of science has obtained its Apocalipse. But what is the reason for that terrible punishment? It is the unwise burning of fuels, burning by rough uneducated people who are not entitled to do with the fire. It is the desecration of fire by the mankind. Only scientists are entitled for burning fire and distributing the power of fire to the people, but only the amounts they consider sufficient. Clearly, they cannot and don't want to prohibit fire, because the fire is their power, but they want to be the only ones in the control of the fire. By the way, the accusation of the Bush administration in the desire to control Mid-Eastern oil is a typical projection of one's aggression on the enemy.

In the light of the above piece, what else could be expected from the scientific fire worshippers? Probably, prohibition of matches, grills and fireplaces as unsafe, restrictions on fireworks and of course prohibition of fire arms. Later one may expect limitations on the use of electric power and natural gas, as well as recommendations to avoid cooking and frying. Prohibition of all combustive liquids, including alcahol. Finally, any unauthorised use of fire will be prohibited. And the Science will prevail.

truepeers said...

A friend was telling me that it is now impossible to buy a wood-burning stove in the City of Vancouver, another restriction on our burning habits. Yours is the most innovative interpretation of the anti-smoking movement I've yet seen.

You are right that the Enlightenment can be seen as an attempt to increase control of society through "reason" and expertise even or especially where these should have no place being taken seriously - in respect to political and religious questions that fundamentally require a leap of faith to allow us to engage others in some new kind of exchange, an exchange that cannot be renewed by the forces of control but only by freedom.

On the other hand, we cannot deny the genuine advances that came with the Enlightenment, including, from guys like Hobbes and Rousseau, new ways to understand the shared human scene and thus to increase our means to reason why we need to take that leap of faith. Of course those guys also got things wrong, and so did those who followed them. We take steps forward and back at the same time.

Even if Bruno Latour has a point in saying we have never been modern - that we have always remained, anthropologically, cultists of one kind or another, with science - as it is actually practised in the laboratory - still being a kind of craft concerned with the mysterious manipulation of somewhat recalcitrant and unpredictable things, it still remains that science and religion today are not exactly what they were in earlier times. Certain anthropological fundamentals don't change but what we can do with them does... I guess I worship fire in my way but not exactly like my primitive forebears. Here's an acquaintance's attempt to come to terms with our myths of a Frankensteinian modern science.

Ypp said...

There are many magic rituals and ancient symbols in our life, we just refuse to admit it. For example, demonstration for peace with slogans, songs, shouts is actually a magic dance of the tribe before the war with an enemy tribe. The figure of the enemy is burned which symbolize the future victory. Flags and slogans substitute for spears.

Other examples - elections has the symbolic meaning of killing and possibly eating the old lider, who made a mistake. Burning fire is the magic ritual of asking Higher Forces for power and success. Moustash used to symbolize the fangs, that's why before all people who represented the power had moustash. Reading papers by "modern people" substitutes for reading the holy book, TV news substitute for searmon. Actually, since their god is "progress", their holy scripts are "news".

truepeers said...

I don't question your general point, YPP. But all those old symbols and rituals are not experienced just as they were before, but rather they are re-incorporated in continually reworked networks of peoples, ideas, and things, networks of a kind that never existed before. For example, it's like the "network" we get when attaching an old technology - the wheel - to the latest hybrid engine and GPS navigation system and thus rework symbols of conquering space and time. The old symbols' effects are thus mediated in all kinds of new and old ways that both erode and extend their specific powers, according to the networks in which they are located. Things are not simply as they were before, but neither are they totally different. The screw turns.