Thus, at the turn of the Eighteenth Century an early warning against the direction taken by science and technology was sounded by poets and visionaries: Goethe, Swedenborg, Blake. Too bizarre to be understood, as it attempted to undermine the premises that seemed obvious, their warning did not succeed in turning the tide. European romanticism signified just the opposite solution: once the authority of reason and its quantitative methods were recognized as the only certain source of truth–but of a truth impersonal, cold, severed from man’s aspirations and longings–human subjectivity was left to itself as a sort of outcast in the world of iron laws. A poet, an artist, would protect his “truth of the heart” from that world of causes and effects, of universal necessity, conceding at the same time that his inner fortress was made with a fabric of dreams–while only the external, the domain of the scientist, was real.
Czeslaw Milosz in his Introduction to The Noble Traveller: The Life and Writings of O. V. de L. Milosz, edited and selected by Christopher Bamford (West Stockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1985), 37-38.
O Lord my God, born on this same day
Of womankind, accepting human state,
That we might share your life, avoid the fate
Of Adam, Eve, our parents gone astray;
Accept, O Lord, your weakened servant’s plea,
From one whose heart should be your cave or manger;
Who finds instead his heart always a stranger,
An inn whose door is closed with iron key.
My heart should leap for joy, my lips should praise
The coming of thy humbled, hidden might;
Instead my heart drones on, my lips shut tight;
My life proceeds deep rutted in its ways.
Still, hear my cry, O Lord, and be born here;
I’ll cleanse and wash your cave with sigh and tear.
While thinking about the previous post, I realized that I’d left a couple of obvious ideas out. These deserve inclusion, so here they are.
First of all, modernity and respect for the human person.
The main strain of modernity visible in the Euro American world has been marked by an emphasis upon a certain kind of respect for the individual human being; and this is a great thing; even a blessing. That I sometimes think that this is not philosophically coherent with the metaphysical underpinnings of modernity is irrelevant. With respect to my suspicions about philosophical coherence and the modern project, Eric Hobsbawm noted that what he termed “enlightenment ideologies” had led to the most horrific century ever, the twentieth, because of Hitler and Stalin (and Mao, I add); this despite the fact that he is a Marxist. But after the French Revolution, and after the end of Stalinism and the Second World War, the overall trend has been towards an emphasis upon respecting individual persons, and this is a very good thing.
But the reality of our current world is more complicated. First of all, simultaneous with this respect is the social fragmentation that occurs through the decline of anything resembling a consensus, so that social frictions that would once have been solved extralegally (through social pressure, parental edict, and other indirect methods) now become litigated, then codified into law. The net result is an atomistic society in which the conflict of individual rights outstrips the ability to legislate; and–even worse– an ever more intrusive government where nothing is left to common sense: the nanny state. This state of affairs comes about through modernity’s stress on the individual; so the blessing of respect for individuals is accompanied by the dissolution of social coherence and the rise of the omni-legislating state. My conclusion is that all forms of human order have very real and intrinsic limitations present within them; and the effort to escape this fact and arrive at some utopia results in more evils than it cures.
The second positive I left out: the willingness to challenge corrupt hierarchies that outwardly appear traditional, but are not.
The child abuse scandal in the Catholic church in the USA and Europe have made many understandably skeptical about the Catholic hierarchy, and wary of the idolatry of the clergy in general. This too is healthy to a point, though commentators on the right have argued that the Catholic church as such has undergone a press vilification in excess of the facts. But thinking that the Catholic church should actually live up to the call of the gospel in a way beyond, say, public school teachers seems like a healthy attitude; and that perhaps modernity frees individuals to hold the institution and its ordained clergy to this high standard is a good thing.
This second is related to a larger issue. Traditional cultures, premodern cultures, exist so that the wisdom, the intellectual and moral center is embodied to a degree in the culture as a whole, rather than in each individual as a locus. In contrast, modernity, with its emphasis upon the individual, stresses that we each make our own much-ballyhooed choice on every possible subject. If a traditional institution (or, I would argue, an institution that is in part traditional, holy, revealed and in part also a self-protecting bureaucracy, for the church may well be a divine institution, but it is also certainly a human one as well, and hence fallen and sinful) is corrupt, then it is a very good thing that individuals make clear choices about that corruption and express these choices as clearly as they can.
Modernity, by stressing the individual, puts pressure on each human to choose. That perhaps this emphasis is overly optimistic–look at consumer culture and at market-and-marketing-driven capitalism to see just how quick we humans are to wish to default on this responsibility–does not change the fact that we are moral agents and knowing beings; and our use of these two central faculties of choice and intellect under whatever banner can be ennobling or enslaving.
One additional comment: while certain premodern institutions such as the Catholic church have for the past half century used language that sounds like that employed by supporters of human rights, the basis of the basis for the Catholic church’s emphasis upon respect for the individual person differs from that of a secular humanist. The two forms of respect find their foundation in very different reasons and very different concepts of just what a human being is, so while their calls for respect may sound the same, they are actually somewhat different.
To know when a subjective experience is subjective–is that what is meant by the phrase so common since Weber among sociologists, so prominent in the argument over secularization, Entzauberung, de-magification, dis-enchantment? Once upon a time the wood was bewitched, and goblins and fair spirits dwelt in the trunks of trees and among the roots. But now the wood is administered by the Forestry Commission, and although romantic men still hear a goblin running in the undergrowth and glimpse beauty behind a bush, they know a subjective experience is subjective. Entzauberung.
It will not do to exaggerate the number of goblins that used to run. You need to beware of the word Entzauberung as cautiously as you beware of the word secularization. Both describe processes where it is easy to have fanciful pictures of an earlier age, and as easy to have illusions of our own generation. We got rid of imps and demons but we pushed them into the subconscious and called them by different names. We got rid of witches by learning to take no notice of their spells.
–Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century [The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh for 1973-4] (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 258
Reading traditional and traditionalist/perennialist religious authorities as well as localist and thoughtful conservative commentators, one sometimes gets the view that modernity and the ideas behind it are without positive value, and have contributed only to the destruction of social and individual well being, and the enshrinement of lies in the eccentric (in the root sense–decentered) forms of society around us. While I believe this is true in the deepest sense, and think that anyone who is a thoughtful believer in a major religion must hold this as at least partially true, I do believe that there are compensatory and providential mechanisms at work. These are the subject of this essay, on the charism of modernity.
The enlightenment represented a stark break from the philosophical and religious past of Christian Europe in terms of both personal and social ideals and goals. Premodern ideas were vertical and metaphysical in orientation: reality was hierarchical, atemporal, static, and, while these ideas validated the reality of the material world, they also included higher and lower levels of being that gave meaning and even a provisional degree of centrality to the physical. It was a world simultaneously of intellect and symbol, where transcendent referent and intense physicality could coincide. There were both surfaces and depths; and in the ideal, the surfaces led to the depths.
The enlightenment instead presented a flattened and horizontal world, one where the empirical ruled, and where only mathematical qualities, their flux, and the temporality that allowed change were considered real. Anything that claimed existence beyond these confines was illusory, childlike, even deluded. Paradoxically, modernity involved simultaneously the coagulating and reification of the physical world and its utter dissolution through abstraction: by rendering physical surfaces completely opaque, it allowed their quantification through science as well as their increasing abstraction from lived experience. So while premodernity is a world of simultaneous surface textures and depth (the Advaita Vedanta concept of maya is profoundly helpful here), modernity is instead constituted by disembodied consciousness inhabiting a world of mathematical abstractions. There is no depth; no true meaning; life is no longer involves any attempt to pierce the veil of maya or to see all things shining in an immanent glory, as connected with each other through their origin.
Presented in this way, modernity seems utterly about the disenchantment of the world. We go from a world of immortal cosmic intelligences guiding the planets to one of inertia and gravity, two impersonal laws of the universe doing the same work. That initially, in early modernity, this might have involved a deistic watchmaker God leaves humans with a cold comfort: one certainly better than no comfort at all, but hardly the ontologically rich world that Newton’s system replaced. And while early modernity allows for the watchmaker God, full modernity does away with even this nod toward the vertical dimension. Instead, the physical world is a product of some form of necessity: physical laws, natural selection, and other immutable processes that involve no intelligence and no benevolence, just the magic, inexorable, solar-fueled leap from non-life to life, and the even more magical leap from primitive and simple life to full consciousness of environment, others, and self.
Again, if disenchantment is all modernity can offer, how can we speak of its charism? How can it have anything positive about it at all? There are two kinds of answer to this question, the first philosophical and about empirical science as a corrective, the second a deeper one, focusing on modern views involving a rewording and reenvisaging of traditional belief: not a change; but as providing an opportunity to understand religious and philosophical traditions more deeply.
First the philosophical one. Insofar as modernity and particularly modern science involves paying attention to secondary material causes, and we do not confuse these causes with either first causes or all causes, what it discovers is true and valid; and even secondary truths are worth our respect. If approached in the right spirit, perhaps they lead to greater truths. The problem of course occurs when we become hubristic about just what we know. As some smart people–even smart scientists–have noted, we need humility in the face of the ignorance that our scientific knowledge paradoxically reveals to us; mystery has its place even when empirical science reveals some instrumental cause. Furthermore, perhaps the relative ignoring of secondary material causation in European thought before early modernity was based upon a blind spot in an inherited Greek world view, an intrinsic diffidence about material existence, and a binary idea about the mutable–material and the immutable–immaterial. It is hard to read certain passages of Plato, or of Plotinus, and not come to the conclusion that such ambivalence–even if exaggerated by modern thinkers–exists, even if it does not equally run through all of their writings. In this reading, the charism of modernity is a corrective one: a restoration of the a certain kind of attention to the material, the empirical; and a chance to see in some tentative way the blind spot that inherited philosophical traditions imposed upon premodern Christian worldviews.
The second charism is similar in its effects, but in a different area. Modernity as typified by modern science forces those of us with premodern leanings to enunciate in a much more careful way our beliefs. First of all, crudely put, without modernity, there could be no Bede Griffiths, no Schuon, no Coomaraswamy, no author of Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism. Regardless of what one thinks about any single member of this group, taken as a whole, their ideas enrich our understanding of not only our own religious, metaphysical, and philsophical traditions, but also our understanding of how these might be illuminated by other traditions. Our understanding of the depths of our beliefs is transformed, however inadvertently, by modernity’s combination of indifference and hostility. While premodern man has beliefs enunciated in myth, he need not figure out the referents of these myths: he is instead enriched in a holistic, almost impersonal way by their embodied presence in his life through decorative art, folklore, and religious practice. The lack of these supports in the modern world, while profoundly impoverishing in real ways, forces us to become more aware of just how–and just what–these myths mean. Our knowledge of our beliefs becomes more precise and more analytical; and while this is a mixed blessing, it is at least in some ways indeed a blessing.
As a closely related corollary to this, modernity forces us to investigate the truth claims of other religions, and to come to some intellectual and spiritual framework that allows for the truth of these claims. In a world where interreligious contact was infrequent or much less frequent (or dominated by one majority group at the expense of a religious minority, as in the case of Christians and Jews in Europe) humans could afford to either ignore or marginalize those “others’ who worshiped an apparently different God or gods. This is less possible, at least for those who aspire to live fully up to their beliefs in a thoughtful and considered way. The fact of modernity forces even the some of relatively unreformed churches–the Catholic, for example–to tentatively confront the existence of other faiths in a non-triumphal way that simultaneously respects their own revelation and tradition; this indeed is a benefit, even though a benefit made necessary precisely by what what made it possible.
It is in these respects that I believe that there is in fact a “charism of modernity.” All that exists must exist for some reason: this is a basic idea behind all traditional or premodern thought. Given this basic belief, even modernity, with its philosophical incoherence and manifold flaws must have something positive to offer humankind, and perhaps these past several paragraphs contain ideas that at least touch upon some of what it offers us premodern hybrids.
This quotation reveals in immense difference between premodern and modern understandings of human identity:
The Sufis say that the only worthy thing that a man has and that God does not possess and that man can offer to God is his nothingness, his being, to serve as a mirror reflecting God’s Qualities and Attributes. Everything else God has. What can we offer to God that He does not already possess? Our wealth? God does not need our wealth. He wants us to help others of His creatures with our wealth. Our knowledge? Surely He knows everything and is not in need of our knowledge, although what He wants for us is to know Him. What we can offer to God is our being, but we must remember that all that is positive in our being comes from God and already belongs to Him. Therefore, what He wants from us is the realization that we are nothing and He is everything, that we are a mirror. On the highest level, the Perfect Man is the perfect mirror before God, but at the same time and by virtue of being the perfect mirror he or she contains inwardly all the virtues, all of the perfections, which we should strive for in this life. This doctrine is very important and central to Islamic anthropology in the deepest sense, and especially to Sufi anthropology.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “The Spiritual Dimension of the Muslim Heritage,” Sophia Vol. 15 no. 9, pages 13 to 14.
Timothy Garton Ash used and then abandoned the term Englightenment fundamentalist a few years ago when writing about such people as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. His use, and the reactions of others to his use, such as that of Thierry Chervel in his essay on the term and Pascal Bruckner’s words soon after both raise interesting issues.
The self-image of the Enlightenment is primarily one of disinterested human application pure reason and secondarily, supposedly as a result of this first trait, also one of pure neutrality. But this glorification of pure reason means that reason alone is seen as the standard of truth: outside of human reason, truth claims are foolish, misguided, childlike. Hence for an adherent to Enlightenment ideas, religious beliefs and the intellectual traditions that accumulate as superstructures upon revealed texts must be considered irrational, below the regard of fully intellectually mature human beings. They can only be studied in one of the human “sciences” where we study the childhood of the human race from the privileged position of one who now sees clearly.
This pattern of course immediately calls into question Enlightenment claims of neutrality: if–as religion and many premodern philosophies claim–reason alone is not the sole path to truth, any formulation that enshrines and validates it and only it as the one true instrument in achieving such truth a priori cannot be neutral with respect to religion. This fact lies behind Garton Ash’s use of the term “Enlightenment fundamentalism.”
Furthermore, many of the vocal atheists seem to believe that all religion is fundamentalist in its impulse. Richard Dawkins, whose understanding of religious ideas in his published writings is remarkably deficient, fits into this category. Yet fundamentalism has to have a far more specific meaning than this crude and inaccurate form of use. Generally, the term refers to an oversimplified, uninformed-with-respect-to-tradition understanding of religious ideas, with a pronounced tendency towards a simplistic literalism in the interpretation of sacred texts and sacred history. Basically, fundamentalism is a hybrid product of modernity and of the Enlightenment, combined with traditional religion. It is not fundamentally a product of religion itself.
This said, and given that the desire for simplistic answers always features in human history and thought, there have always been those who are literalist and oversimplifying in habit; those who believe not that credal or doctrinal formulations are an attempt to arrive at the truth or truth as veiled in verbal form, but that they are instead fully adequate expressions of the truth itself. This narrowness, when cross fertilized with a reaction to modernity results in fundamentalism.
Paradoxically, the religious fundamentalist has more in common with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris than he–or she–has in common with the normative believer in revealed religion. As I’ve noted before, religion in reaction to modernity, even when it does not become fully fundamentalist, sometimes tends to reify expressions at the expense of what these expressions are meant to point towards. This fact, somewhat exaggerated, ends up in fundamentalisms of various kinds.
Zaytuna College, America’s first Islamic institution of higher education, recently opened in Berkeley, California. Although as a Muslim college it is in an obvious sense unique, it also shares something fundamental with such schools as Christendom College (founded 1977) and Thomas Aquinas College (1971), both founded by conservative Catholics. All three of these schools are attempts to offer postsecondary educations that fully adhere to specific spiritual and intellectual traditions in the face of an apparently hostile modern educational program.
All three of these schools are attempts at pushing back against a modern educational program that each views as antithetical and even hostile to the integral visions of humanity presented by a faith and its intellectual tradition. They are a result of diagnosing the general education establishment as presenting students with a false vision of human identity, and thus also an attempt to correct these falsehoods, at least for those students who attend.
Thus Zaytuna College envisions itself as a new link in a longstanding chain of transmission of the Islamic tradition. This is clear from the following paragraphs on the college’s web site, which emphasizes the conservatism inherent in the college’s mission:
This duality, of encouraging adherence to guidance while discouraging innovation, is buttressed by the authentic chains of transmission, which have served as the principal means of conveying religious knowledge. These chains of transmission have safeguarded both the foundational texts of Islam and scholarly writings from the earliest centuries of the religion, facilitating an intellectual stability that has prevailed in the Islamic realm. They have also helped to establish a tradition of qualified scholarship that is essential for the preservation and perpetuation of the prophetic guidance.
Herein lies one of the distinctive features of Islam: each generation of scholars received knowledge from those preceding them, establishing verifiable chains of transmission extending back to the source of the knowledge they related. Abu Ali al-Jayyani (d. 498/1105) said, “God has distinguished this community with three things: Verifiable chains of narration; meticulous documentation of lineages; and desinential inflection in our language” (Siraj al-Din, Sharh al-manzumah al-bayquniyyah, 153). Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak (d. 181/797), one of the greatest scholars of the second century AH (eighth century CE), said, “Verifiable chains of transmission are an integral part of this religion. Were it not for those chains, anyone could have said anything he wished [and attributed it to Islam]” (Sahih Muslim, 51).
The primacy of chains of transmission places central importance on the human element in relating proper Islamic knowledge. And this knowledge is as much of the head as of the heart. In the Islamic tradition, conveying knowledge does not involve the mere transfer of information from the lines of books or the screens of computers to the student. It also involves human hearts connecting with one another, and the transfer of states of being. A sincere student benefits most from a teacher who is an active practitioner of the knowledge he or she conveys. Hence, the chains of transmission have always involved both the outward transferral of information from the teacher to the student and the inner transferral of the secrets of a teacher’s state. The importance of the inner transferal cannot be overemphasized; it results in a successful student implementing the teacher’s knowledge with etiquette, mercy, and nuanced understanding.
Note the emphasis upon “discouraging innovation”! This phrase alone indicates how far the school is from the Western educational mainstream, where the word innovation is invariably used in unthinkingly positive ways. But this quotation indicates a very real difference (beyond the obvious credal one) as well from the Thomas Aquinas College founding document (see below) in its conservatism, its emphasis upon an almost mechanical transmission. This difference is not the subject matter of this post; but perhaps it is worthy of a future one. Suffice it to say that I know that when Thomas Aquinas College graduates go on to graduate study at, say, Notre Dame, they often gain a simultaneous reputation knowing their Aristotle and Aquinas startlingly well, while also being astonishingly narrow intellectually.
Thomas Aquinas College’s founding document, much more detailed and fully developed, is more nuanced, and is dependent upon a view of human nature that is simultaneously natural and supernatural, based upon a clear hierarchy of knowledge and subjects, with theology the queen of these sciences. Yet despite the real differences–Zaytuna’s statement emphasizes much more starkly submission to tradition, as is appropriate for an Islamic school–both turn their back upon modernity’s smorgasbord and job training approaches to education. To each of these schools, education is ultimately not about paychecks and job skills; rather, it is about the perfection of the human within a certain tradition; and of course each sees its tradition as the tradition.
The rise of schools such as these in Catholic circles is a result of most Catholic schools deliberately downplaying their religious identity. Patrick Deneen, a professor at Georgetown and author of a thought provoking blog, has this to say about his school’s Catholic identity in an Advent 2009 post:
Georgetown, aspiring to mimic its religiously disaffiliated peers, today shies away from firm identification with its faith tradition. But, by dint of drift, it finds itself increasingly unable – much like its academic peers – to address the pervasive utilitarianism and materialism of our day. Today, we increasingly treat the world, its resources, and fellow humans as means to our individual ends – whether in economics, politics, sexuality or biotechnology. Our main political alignments are no great help in stemming this tendency, with the Right endorsing unfettered economic utilitarianism and the Left defending reproductive and bio-technological utilitarianism. Today, it is increasingly only the firmly grounded religious traditions – and above all, Catholicism – that resists this great and nearly unstoppable philosophic trajectory of modernity. Far from being ashamed of our grounding in this great tradition, we should embrace and commend it for a broken world. Putting Christ back into Christmas is to commend His presence one day a year; putting Christ back into Georgetown is to exemplify a year-round commitment and life-long devotion by a community of witnesses.
In this passage Deneen identifies the incoherence behind Georgetown University’s approach to education, and presents the antidote: an adherence to the Catholic philosophical and religious tradition. Here, he is guided by his own habits of thought: his intellectual work is defined by his adherence to principles that are premodern, even while teaching at an elite modern research university. Modern education is incoherent except in one regard: its only coherence lies in its desire to exact total control over the external world in an effort to live without any limits, something hubristic for any human culture or individual.
But there is something imperfect about the premodern option in higher education as well. I suggest that in a comparison between Thomas Aquinas College and Georgetown University we can learn something more generally true about the attempt to fit a premodern educational program into contemporary higher education. First of all, in the case of Georgetown, we cannot expect anything resembling coherence in intellectual approach. In general, the modern research university is an immense smorgasbord of subjects, research techniques, and assumptions; and to develop this metaphor further, much on offer on these buffet tables is–at least to premodern hybrids– genetically modified junk food, not heirloom produce and grass fed beef.
But the Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) approach has its own issues. It tends to reify what is a means (the synthetic thought of Aquinas and secondarily Aristotle’s philosophy) and forget that these are a means to the ineffable truth, not that truth itself. I am quite aware that many of the tutors, students, and graduates of TAC would take issue with my claim; but the very vehemence with which they would do so further establishes the point.
To push this same idea further: human formulations of truth always contain a human element. In a healthy intellectual environment, we are always looking past the means of expression to what lies beyond. After all, Aquinas himself wrote that all he had said was “as straw,” which indicates he had seen this beyond, had seen the naked truth in some more ineffable way. This is not to say that we can dispense with specific formulations; only that we must learn to be humble in the face of their limitations, and even more so as we approach what these providential means help us enunciate.
Now to return to Zaytuna College: from its self description in the above quotation, I am afraid that it will not be the place where Islam can formulate its modern identity. It seems to have very little sense that the traditional theological and credal formulations exist to point beyond themselves. Instead their words indicate a likely reification of means, a (to fall into Freudian psychospeak) fetishization of formulation that ignores the telos of all such enunciations. Perhaps we need an Islamic college with a Sufi approach (an al-Ghazali College perhaps), and in this new school, Islam will approach modernity with neither a slavish desire to appease progressive westerners, nor a rote recitational approach to what has already been said and thought. Only the somewhat ambiguous section in the third paragraph quoted above from the Zaytuna web site, with its mention of “hearts connecting with one another” that in turn leads to a “student implementing the teacher’s knowledge with etiquette, mercy, and nuanced understanding” could possibly suggest something beyond this rote approach; but the emphasis upon the student’s “implementing the teacher’s knowledge” seems to return us to tradition as recitation.
The tentative general rule that I take from all of this: holding onto a spiritual–intellectual tradition in the modern world is at very least an extremely difficult task, and possibly even an impossible one. For while individuals are arguably capable of the balancing act between the specific expressions of truth and the truth itself, it is less clear that institutions can find this same balance. Instead, we seem to have the options of narrowness on one side, and on the other–in the modern university– an incoherent smorgasbord based upon an ethos of limitless domination. While I of course appreciate the first of these much more than the latter–a limited approach to the truth is still the truth, while a lie is always a lie (or to be fairer, a hodge-podge of truth and lies is just a confused mess)– I also recognize the limitations. Reacting to modernity seems to help push traditional expressions of truth into confessional cul-de-sacs, which while understandable are nonetheless unfortunate.
One last caveat: I do believe that there are ways of reading and reflecting on premodern texts that both respects them but sees them as part of a larger whole. In an earlier post, I suggested that reading Thomas Aquinas in a more meditative way allows us to appreciate scholastic theology in a way that transcends the narrowly philosophical. I believe this is true; but it also seems as if in part the pressures of modern thought push premodern adherents into defining their beliefs in narrower ways than they otherwise might. But from another and deeper perspective, perhaps there are other realities at work as well. For example perhaps a Hindu might see this devolution as a sign of the kali yuga, or a Muslim as simply a reflection of that hadith that states “he who breaks one tenth of the law at the beginning of the revelation will be condemned; he who keeps one tenth at the end will be saved.”
Religions exist within time, even for those of us who believe that the timeless, or that eternity and the eternal, exists. This, as Newman’s essay on the development of doctrine, can be something positive. It can also lead to ossification, paralysis, and an inertial dependence upon tradition as a dead weight even as it is also a fountain of life and truth.
August 10, 2010