Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Aphorism 125: The Madman

Richard Holloway, former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, has has a succinct and extraordinary piece in today's International Herald Tribune on the challenge of salvaging religious liberalism. The problem, he admits, is that Nietzsche was right -- God is dead:
He died the death of a thousand cuts inflicted by some of his own followers. Decent people, they could not resist the attractive freedoms of secular society, so they tried to teach their ancient god new tricks. They wanted him to go easy on women, for instance, and to stop beating up gays: a courageous thing to attempt when the old monster had already set down his opinion on those subjects in the Bible. The attempt to liberalize Christianity was honorable, but when you subject a religion to meticulous historical and scientific analysis you expose all its violent absurdities and doom it in the eyes of the very people to whom you are trying to commend it. This is why the most humane and tolerant species of religion on earth today, Liberal Protestantism, is also the most endangered.

The Pope, a fervent champion of the old god, understands this, which is why he resists any attempt to adapt Roman Catholicism to the emancipatory values of secular democracy. The popes of Evangelical Protestantism understand this, which is why they crow with delight at the death of Liberal Christianity and gloat over their capture of the citadel of American democracy.

What neither group realizes is that they are themselves dancing on the grave of God. The fact that humans are at war over religion is evidence that there no longer is a single, absolute and universally compelling meaning to life. There no longer is a unifying authority to which humanity can submit or against which it can rebel. In other words: God is dead.

Even the confident religions know this.
What Holloway doesn't do is ask why religious illiberalism, i.e. fundamentalism, has arisen with renewed force now, when for so long, in the middle portions of the twentieth century, it seemed clear that fanatical religiosity was headed for the proverbial dustbin.

In my view, the return of illiberal religion can only be understood as part of the aftermath of the slow death of chiliasm's only significant secular challenger, namely socialism. As the Communist God slowly shrivelled and died -- and it doesn't much matter whether you date that death to 1917, 1921, 1934, 1938, 1956, 1968, 1989 or 1991 -- people were left with only two options: either to live for materialist consumerism (for a while, in the 1990s, the American media treated "markets" almost as a new kind of god), or to return to the older, angrier gods.

Holloway rightly rejects the latter option, mostly on cognitive grounds: the fact remains that God is still dead, no matter what Osama bin Laden or James Dobson or George Bush or Tony Blair think. Eppur si muove. But Holloway also presumes that all material consumerism must inevitably veer into ugly, soulless excess -- which is why, despite his effort at uplifting verse, his essay comes off as so pessimistic.

But is it true that the material world created by capitalism is necessarily ugly and soulless? Am I automatically an over-sophisticated cynic if I find sufficient happiness in the minutiae of my daily life? The joy I get from hearing my daughter's shriek of delight when she hears me enter the front door in the evening? The pleasure I get from eating a delicious dinner with my wife? The sense of workmanship I get from doing my job well?

These things are enough for me, but perhaps there is a class bias at work here. A sense of upward mobility as a Silicon Valley middle manager no doubt helps to fend off the existential malaise, or at least to mitigate a larger sense of meaninglessness. If the best job I could ever imagine getting was working check out at Wal-Mart, I might feel the need for something more.

For many people, the collapse of social modernism -- the idea that a meliorist, rationalizing, benevolent, technocratic state could solve all social, economic and perhaps personal ills -- has left in its wake nothing but a spiral of downward mobility, and for such people, the traditional opiate provides a haven. In a world in which most people's economic prospects are in steady decline, the need for metaphysical redemption becomes ever more compelling. In other words, the crisis of the humanist dream of redeeming the material world explains the reemergence over the last thirty years of politicized fundamentalism in both Muslim and Christian societies.

Just as many French and English Romantics of the 1800s-20s returned to Catholicism in the 1830s-1850s when their youthful dreams petered out, so as the "romance of economic development" died in the 1980s, many would-be economic romantics returned to religion.

This dynamic explains both the nature of Republican Party in the United States today, and the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East over the last three decades.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, a few basis points: first of all, Hobbes was right: life in the state of nature (read: liberal capitalism) is almost not worth living. And if it is worth living, then -- as your analysis of your own contentedness demonstrates -- it is because one can still find solace in spiritual or epicurean pleasures. Upward mobility does not justify any materialist ideology, as it has belonged only to the (often tiny) minority of the population of all societies throughout history. What's missing from your analysis is the observation that spiritual and epicurean pleasures are not dependent on illiberal religious sentiment -- so why is it that so many people seem only to find spiritual and epicurean values in the fundamentalist context? -- Lars