Far from dying of modernity, might the world's religions merge into a single system? Not if you regard the teacher as more important than the lessonby prospect / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Whatever you may think about the fading fads of postmodernism, you can hardly deny that modernity itself has seen better days. A hundred years ago it was poised to fulfil the cherished hopes of the Enlightenment. Gullibility, irrationality and deference were going to be cleared away like old slums and replaced by the shiny new edifices of secularism, toleration and universal high principle. If Prospect had existed then, its Edwardian contributors would have been heralding a new age in which poverty, ignorance and disease were about to surrender to the forces of political internationalism and scientific materialism. Meanwhile, poetry and the arts would have been preparing to take over the residual functions of religion, offering solace to those who had not recovered from the death of God.
But the 20th century failed to stick to the modernist script. Politics did not become scientific and religion did not wither away. Far from triumphing over all challengers, reason was dragged into a mire of sentimentalism and superstition. The assurance of rational progress began to seem like another irrational dream. The question that puzzles us today is not so much whether modernity has died of inanition as whether it ever got a life at all.
The crisis of modernist hope calls for some rethinking in the camp of sceptical progressive rationalists. We may have been right to scoff at the idea of God, but we were certainly wrong in thinking that religion would evaporate like the morning mist once the sun of science began to shine. Whether we like it or not, there is something in religion that even the most modern people seem unwilling to do without. But does that mean that history has vindicated the theists, as they laugh all the way back to church?
Keith Ward thinks so. He is a liberal Christian who has spent most of his life teaching theology at Oxford University, producing a shelf of lucid and well informed books about Christianity and the other great religions of the world. His latest, The Case for Religion, is a compendium of a lifetime’s thought and a testimony to his optimism. Like the modernists of the past, he believes in the irresistible progress of reason, but unlike them, he does not think it will lead to the extinction of religion. He is convinced that religion – defined as the attempt to form a “relationship to a supernatural or transcendent reality” – is in good health, and going from strength to strength.
The US is the most modern country in the world, but only 13 per cent of its citizens consider themselves secular, while 76 per cent are Christian believers. This simple statistic is, as Ward remarks, a “living refutation” of the idea that modernisation automatically deletes religion from the cultural menu. It is also, he argues, a considerable embarrassment for the kind of historicism that has been part of secular common sense since the time of David Hume. In The Natural History of Religion (1757), Hume looked back through the millennia, and claimed to see that “the primary religion of mankind arises from an anxious fear of future events.” As far as Hume was concerned, the subsequent development of religion – the eclipse of animism and polytheism and the rise of Christianity – had done nothing to extirpate the primal folly from which it originated. Religion would always belong to the infancy of the human race.
Similar attempts to discredit religion by linking it with a shameful and barbaric past can be found in the works of the Victorian anthropologists EB Tylor and James Frazer, and, in a different way, in Marx’s historical materialism and Freud’s psychoanalysis. But the historicising critics of religion are all, as Ward points out, in “a very odd position.” They would have no patience with anyone who suggested that modern chemistry is simply an inflated version of primitive alchemy, or that there is not much more to contemporary astronomy than the horoscopes of ancient astrology. So why not extend the same charitable treatment to religion? Why not say that religion, like the natural sciences, began in abject ignorance, but grew into a well established body of knowledge as time went by?
In the central chapters of The Case for Religion, Ward sketches a comprehensive history of religion as “a global phenomenon.” He starts with the inchoate and unambitious spirituality that left its traces in the cave paintings, carvings and burial chambers of hundreds of generations of hunter-gatherers. The first agricultural settlements, established around 9,000BC, extended the repertory by postulating “vegetation gods” to supervise the annual round of sowing, germination, watering and reaping, and these eventually led, according to Ward, to the first attempts – in Sumeria and Egypt – to explain the entire cosmos as a piece of divine handiwork.
But it was not until the dawning of what Karl Jaspers called the “axial age,” around 800BC, that the great civilisations of the world – in India, China, Japan, and the middle east and around the Mediterranean – began to systematise their various glimpses of spiritual reality and work them up into bodies of religious doctrine. Much later, most of these systems – with the exception of the religions of ancient Greece and Rome, which disappeared almost without trace – went through a further revolution, carrying them into a third or “critical” phase where they opened up their claims to the canons of secular rationality, and were taught a salutary lesson of “humility about many of their own alleged certainties.”
According to Ward, religion is now entering a fourth and presumably final stage – a “global” phase, in which “all religions are consciously seen as parts of one global phenomenon of human religiosity.” Ward is not soppy enough to suggest that all religions are equally true: there are, he concedes, real doctrinal disagreements that will need to be argued over until they are eventually resolved. But he describes himself as an “inclusivist,” holding that spiritual reality has many faces, “genuinely known in various partial ways in diverse religious traditions.” Just as there are different traditions in the natural sciences, so there are in religion as well, and for all their differences, the adherents of different religions should be able to acknowledge each other as partners in the common project of constructing a “convergent spirituality for the future.”
No one could complain that the argument is crabbed or narrow-minded. But I doubt if many will find it satisfying either. If religion is essentially a massive programme of research into “spiritual reality,” then the various practices of religious observance – the sacred music and poetry and prose, or the rites and sacrifices which mark births, initiations, marriages or deaths – cannot be any more than provisional spiritual technologies, to be discarded like old radios as soon as better ones became available. The religions of the future could eventually dispense with the old-fashioned raptures of worship and replace them with dispassionate spiritual inquiry, subject perhaps to regular peer review to keep it disciplined and businesslike.
It is possible, however, that the external trappings of religion are its most important part. Some religious believers are quite indifferent to the idea of “spiritual reality,” and even those who are committed to it are more interested in looking up to it in humble amazement than trying to trap it in the nets of theological science. Religion may be a matter of attitude more than objectivity, of reverence rather than reality.
You do not have to be a believer to think that religions may encode certain kinds of knowledge that modern reason, to its cost, knows little of. You could be an evangelical atheist, but still regard religions as precious cultural ecosystems providing havens for certain endangered species of exotic truths. Even a bumptious materialist ought to be able to appreciate certain insights which, like rare orchids, find it hard to survive in competition with industrial-strength modern science – truths that can speak to us eloquently even if they do not aspire to objectivity.
But believers may not be as interested in God as atheists suppose. The time they devote to their religion is not spent contemplating spiritual reality in the abstract. Instead, it is filled with the deeds and utterances of teachers – sages or seers, gurus or brahmins, prophets or messiahs – whose disciples they would like to become.
As a general rule, what is learned from one teacher can also be learned from another: once you have learned to ride a bike or prove a logical theorem, you can get on with it on your own. But not always. When it comes to the kinds of questions that religions typically concern themselves with – the questions that arise, for instance, in moments of grieving or rejoicing over the lives and deaths of parents, lovers, or sons or daughters – what matters is not only what is said, but who is saying it. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” has a certain grandeur as part of Jesus Christ’s sermon on the mount, but the same sentiment would be ridiculous on the lips of a surly teenager, and an impertinence if uttered by a journalist or even by a priest speaking in his or her own name.
The insights and correctives that people need when their lives get too much for them are not the kinds of truths that can be detached from the person who utters them, or converted into some kind of general knowledge about spiritual reality. That, perhaps, is the aspect of religion that really sticks in modernity’s throat: not its tendency to drift off into high-altitude metaphysics, but its refusal to let go of the idiosyncrasies and particularities of our lives, our loves and our deaths.