Monday, May 25, 2009

Amen ...

... Faith in the future.

It is one thing to argue that the model of universal secularisation is mistaken, and to show – as the authors do very effectively – that the decline of religion in Europe is not going to be repeated worldwide. It is another thing altogether to suggest that an American kind of religiosity is spreading nearly everywhere.

One problem is the conception of religion the authors deploy.

Nearly always, religion for them means monotheism – more specifically, Christianity and Islam. Polytheistic and non-theistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are allowed a few pages, but only in order to argue that “American methods can work” even for them.

I have at times been critical of John Gray, but this is an excellent, well-balanced review. I have always thought it interesting that secularists should find America's persistent religiosity peculiar, given that so many of its colonies were established for religious reasons. Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman may not have been conventional churchgoers, but they sure were religious. Also, with its veneration of saints, Catholicism is much more compatible with polytheism than Evangelical Protestantism. My neighborhood has lately been graced with a large number of immigrants from Mexico. Their religiosity may not be conventionally American, either, but it is genuine and deep. Our Lady of Guadalupe rules. Gray hits the bull's-eye with this:

God is Back may not show that the American way of religion is uniquely well suited to the modern condition. Where this urgently relevant book succeeds triumphantly is in demolishing the myth of an emerging secular civilisation.


  1. Anonymous1:38 PM

    Polytheism is very different to monotheism - but i'm coming to see these as temperaments rather than clear-cut & opposing religions. i think a crucial difference is that monotheism tends to suppose there is a fixed, singular truth - one god, one church, one creed, etc. - this mindset i guess enabled modern science, the sense that there is an objective truth 'out there' which will look the same to different people - so a lab in Geneva will get the same results as a lab in New York. So science owes its existence to monotheism.

    The polytheist approach is more poetic, fluid, subjective - if someone asked me 'do you think Thor really wrestled Death?' or 'do you think Odin really had a 8-legged horse?' i wouldn't be able to say yes or no - though i'd understand the question; i suspect a pagan Viking wouldn't even have understood the question - it would be like saying 'do you think that pie really OBJECTIVELY tastes good?' - it's meaningless.

    A typical modern person would say 'it's either objectively true or it isn't', either the myths really happened or they're lies. But the polytheist kind of mind - which i think isn't specific to pagans - the mythic mind - would feel that there's some kind of truth in the stories, even if they obviously contradict each other, that as long as you don't put the wrong kind of pressure on them they become a field within which understanding can occur.

    Polytheism tends to involve a felt uncertainty, a sense that as Milton puts it, God accommodates himself to Man - uses our language, if you like, because we wouldn't understand his - and that the various stories we have are therefore both made up and true.

    "Phoebus is dead, ephebe. But Phoebus was
    A name for something that never could be named.
    There was a project for the sun and is." (Wallace Stevens)

  2. Actually, what polytheism is, is a both/and approach to life rather than an either/or attitude. I've found that either/or dualism is pretty much so inherent by now to Western culture that people don't even realize they're caught in it. Like, does a fish know it's breathing water?

    Having grown up in India, surrounded by polytheism, and having been involved for some time now with what Harry Hay described as "subject-subject consciousness," i.e. the realization that the other IS yourself, I frequently find the Us vs. Them trope that dualistic thinking falls into laughable. But I do agree that dualistic thinking tends to be the product of monotheistic cultures rather than polytheistic ones. Not even Catholicism is free of this, being after all integral to Western culture, but Frank is right in that it does differ markedly from Protestant monotheism precisely because it preserves some concepts of polytheism.

    One of the keys concepts of many polytheistic religions (including Medieval Catholicism, to be honest) is that there are many masks of god: many versions of the face of god; not just one imago dei, but many.

    Behind that, is perhaps what Meister Eckhart and Hindus alike named the Godhead, that force or being which is the source of the emanations of what we see as god, or gods. In other words, a deep, hidden Mystery. All we can ever see are the masks, not the Godhead. But the mystic's goal is to reach the Godhead. (Which I believe Eckhart did.)

    Polytheism also does include the viewpoint of local adaptability: gods presenting themselves to us in ways that we can comprehend. Hence, many masks, one deep sacred inner reality.

    This is explicitly acknowledged, BTW, in some of the oldest Hindu scriptures, esp. the Upanishads and the Vedas.

  3. Anonymous3:37 PM

    i'd somehow forgotten there were polytheistic religions still about, as part of the broader culture - i'd been thinking entirely in terms of Asatru (Odin etc.).

    A sense of awe, an acknowledgment of mystery - not as a crushing incomprehensible thing but as a provoking & stirring challenge - this lies behind my own sense of the matter.

    Runa - from whence comes 'rune', means 'mystery'. That expresses it well, that the word for the Viking writing script, the means of communication, also means 'mystery'.

  4. That is why, Art, I like to describe myself as a medieval Catholic.

  5. Frank, that sounds exactly right. It sounds great, actually. Works for me!

    elberry wrote:

    "A sense of awe, an acknowledgment of mystery - not as a crushing incomprehensible thing but as a provoking & stirring challenge - this lies behind my own sense of the matter."

    The mystic's impulse in a nutshell, nicely put.

    I have often speculated that one reason a lot of earth-based neo-pagan religions have had a revival over the past century—to the point of now being living, multi-generational active religious traditions—is because of a return of this mystic's impulse to the common folk. It began to be released from the monastic cloisters and theological tomes around that time, and reached a culmination with two events that happened mid-century. (I find none of this coincidental, BTW.) I'm referring to the council of Vatican II, which released Western mysticism into the common culture; and the exile of the Dalai Lama from Tibet into India, which caused a parallel and related release of Eastern mysticism into the common culture. I think we're richer for all of it.

    I for one treasure what I've learned from Meister Eckhart, as well as from Zen. Not that they are that different! :)