Fundamentalism and modernity

14 06 2010

Editorial note: I’m unavailable until Thursday. Posts will continue to appear, but this blog is on auto-pilot

I highly recommend the article, Rush Hour of the Gods by William Dalrymple (found via the Western Confucian blog). The article makes many counterintuitive points that I think any student of modern religion needs to take into consideration. While his analysis of Islam in south Asia was known to me, his analysis of modern Hinduism was particularly informative. Such an “ancient religion” is really not so ancient all things considered, and modernity has come to shape it just as much as it has contemporary Christianity.

My own exercise here is to compare and contrast what is going on with Hinduism and Islam in India with the long evolution of Catholicism in Latin America. In both cases, nationality, technology, scholarship, and the media are striving to define what Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism are on a national and international scale, often in contrast with more local manifestations of these faiths.

I begin by citing the following:

For Mohan told me that his ancient recitative art is now threatened by the lure of Bollywood and televised Hindu epics shown in India. While watching one of Mohan’s night-long performances, one of the village Brahmans explained that villagers no longer had the attention spans to listen to the whole epic. “Now that we have TV, our children don’t like to listen so much. The younger generation prefers the CD with the main points of the story. It takes only three to four hours maximum.”…There is no question that TV and film are certainly formidable rivals: when the Mahabharata, a story recounting a battle for domination between two factions of a ruling Indian family, was broadcast on the state-run TV channel Doordarshan in the early 1990s, viewing figures for the series never sank beneath 75 percent, and at one point were said to have risen to include virtually the entire television-watching audience—an estimated 600 million people. Everyone who could stopped what they were doing to sit in front of whatever set was available. In villages across South Asia, hundreds of people would gather around a single TV to watch the gods and demons play out their destinies.

One can wonder what EWTN would do to Catholicism if more people watched it. What is being described here is the homogenization of myth at a national scale, to the detriment of local manifestations of that myth. While the drama that is similar to the Mahabharata is endangered on the local scale by lack of people to recite and hear it, such a story is supplanted by a national version of it, just as in many parts of Latin America, local “saints” are often drowned out or forgotten due to the spread of other cults, defection from the ancestral faith, or condemnation by national religious gate keepers.

Such supplanting is not merely an innocent act of technological forgetting, as the author further writes:

All over India, villages were once believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods who were said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life… But increasingly in urban India, these small gods and goddesses are falling out of favor as faith becomes more centralized, and as local gods and goddesses give way to the national hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, a process scholars call the “Rama-fication” of Hinduism.

According to Thapar, this homogenizing process is now accelerating: “The emergence of a powerful middle class,” she believes, has created a desire for a “uniform, monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements.” This new Hinduism masquerades as the revival of something ancient and traditional, but it is really “a new creation, created to support the claims of [Hindu] majoritarianism.”

In Latin American, unlike India, the middle class has been under siege economically, so Catholicism in many ways has not been homogenized into a more “middle class” version of itself. Indeed, there has emerged a sort of “lumpenization” of Catholicism since the early 1990’s, with cults to various “illegal” folk saints emerging throughout Latin America in response to the effects of globalization. The list of these includes bandits, murder victims, mummified skeletons, and death itself. Oddly enough, Brazil seems to have bucked this trend from what I have read, the height of the occult having occured under the dictatorships of the 1960’s and ’70’s.

Nevertheless, it is duly noted that what has emerged as Hinduism in the last fifty to one hundred years is often more the product of scholarship and political forces than an organic religion emerging on the local level. Indeed, one of the points of Dalrymple’s essay is that India is becoming more religious, not less. The shape of that religion, however, is no less modern, and its tendency is to supplant other popular manifestations of religion in India.

The end came on March 4, 2009. A group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn, and placed dynamite around the squinches of the dome. The shrine chamber was completely destroyed. The Taliban issued a press release blaming the shrine for opening its doors to women and allowing them to pray and seek healing there. Since then, several other shrines in areas under Taliban control have been blown up or shut down, and one—that of Haji Sahib Turangzai, in the Mohmand region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas—has been turned into a Taliban headquarters.

We have spoken of this phenomenon in Islam many times before: the “fundamentalists” in this case are the modernists. They are the ones that would like to purify the religion by eliminating the past that they consider was not pure enough. South Asian Islam used to be as filled with holy men, temples, and miraculous intercessions as medieval Catholicism. One could consider the Taliban, the Wahhabis, and other “fundamentalists” to be the radical Protestants in their own Reformation. The problem is that not only are other Muslims the targets.

This sort of reminds me of the plight of popular Catholicism in much of Latin America. I can’t tell you how many times I have encountered stories of “folk saints” and questionable practices where you find someone who says: “the priests used to come to say Mass for our saint, but one day the bishop said something, and they stopped”. This often leads to outright condemnation of the cultus by the clergy, as well as accusations of superstition, witchcraft, and ignorance by the rest of society. Nowhere near the violence of the Taliban, but often the same spirit.

Some will say, along with St. Cyprian of Cathage, that a tradition without truth is an inveterate lie. I have to say, however, that the vast majority of people who believe this are wet blankets who deserve to be horse whipped. But that’s just my opinion. If no one is getting hurt, and people believe it, it is best to leave well enough alone.

Here is your weekly dose of syncretism:

And a final word from Ghalib:

The Shaikh hovers by the tavern door,
But believe me, Ghalib,
I am sure I saw him slip in,
As I departed.



7 responses

23 12 2010

Very interesting post. Perhaps EWTN isn’t the voice of Catholicism, but the evangelical Christians have become the most influential voice in Christianity in the US. This movement created a Jesus who grants his believers SUVs, weight loss and will smite anyone who messes with the good ol’ US of A.

No one may be watching evangelical TV anymore than EWTN but they do have a strong media force… one that goes straight into their shopping mall style mega churches.

It is easy to see why many people turn to other religions such as Wicca, New Age, other established eastern religions (though generally with an americanized flair) or athieism as they too believe the only true Jesus is a neo-con Jesus as the evangelical media has been very good at creating him.

As for Catholic media, at least what I have been finding online (maybe I am just unlucky?) most forums seem to be of a very conservative nature and reflect EWTN values. Knights of Columbus also pushes a very narrow neo-con Catholicism. One thinks that the money they raise goes to helping the Church but in reality much of it goes to causes such as fighting same sex marriage.

What I find most interesting is that the ultra-conservative movement is going through most world religions. What kind of strange mind control are religious leaders up to? Henry, I think you said it best… they are not in the market for charity but for capitalistic enterprise, something so many fringe cults have been guilty of has now gone mainstream.

21 06 2010
Henry Karlson

I did a few posts on RealCatholic tv on Vox Nova. Michael Voris is a deceptive commentator; when the Pope speaks against heresy, it means, of course, that all those Voris dislikes is being criticized. Of course, he consistently mocks Catholic Social Doctrine, and to do it, he usually uses the USCCB: USCCB is bad, with the commies, and so what they say is wrong. Sometimes he will admit “This goes all the way up to the Vatican,” but in general, he attacks the USCCB and it is enough to say “USCCB” to get approval of his criticism. That he often engages guilt by association and outright misrepresentation is beside the point: he is laying it thick, so it’s all good. And yes, I did point out how absurd someone who has a mere STB is being treated as an authority to judge bishops. Of course, one can have criticism, but the style demonstrates the individualism of the US and the “conservatives” with their love for capitalistic enterprise over charity.

21 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

For our purposes, I thought this was exhibit B:

Because some guy with a bachelor’s in theology is the most qualified to upbraid bishops for being “too soft” on heretics.

I bet this guy is no fun at parties.

17 06 2010
Henry Karlson

This goes along with many of the posts you have done recently, but I thought I would put it here because of its ties to Hindu-Catholic thought: This is a book you should look into and would find interesting:

Kerala Christian Sainthood. It expresses quite a bit of the folk Catholicism in India — some of which is fascinating (such as the way Hindu gods and Christians saints have become associated, not that it is the Hindu god is turned into a Christian saint, but that they are seen as working together at times, and there are “encounters” between them in processions, etc).

17 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think you can’t read this post as a screed against EWTN. In truth, I know how insignificant EWTN actually is in the Catholic consciousness in this country. I don’t even know anyone who actually watches it on a regular basis. Really, the more important organs of Catholic media in this country, like America Magazine, your local diocesan newspaper, or even Our Sunday Visitor, are far more influential than EWTN will ever be. And they are also more “far to the left” than EWTN, caring little about liturgical or culture war issues.

The exercise I would ask one perform here is to imagine that EWTN became so hegemonic that it would magically acquire 100 million viewers from one instant to the next. Suddenly, people would look at the Catholicism they are practicing and realize that it isn’t correct enough, that they need to start saying X chaplet, that they need to pray these prayers when they read the Bible, etc. I don’t think I am making a “value judgment” here about it; only that a religiosity can change drastically under the guise of “returning to a tradition” when the mass media is involved.

14 06 2010

Arturo, you amuse me. You are looking at EWTN in the same way you claim your hated NeoCaths look at the Church: as a clearly defined entity with a rational core. Neither the Church nor EWTN is any such thing.

EWTN is less motivated by “orthodoxy” or “fundamentalism” or whatever you want to call it than by a deep fear of offending contributors – mostly women over 65 – and ceasing to exist. Everything you see on EWTN is the fruit of this dynamic as well as the weird internal spiritual and ideological battles that are always going on there, more to the fore since Mother Angelica had her stroke and has been confined to Hanceville.

It’s a tangled, fraught web down there, one which leads inexorably to narrow-minded mediocrity, a reality which some of those employed by EWTN actually realize but feel helpless to correct.

(Not from an EWTN employee, btw)

14 06 2010

Arturo: One can wonder what EWTN would do to Catholicism if more people watched it.

William Dalrymple’s assessment of the rise of South Asian fundamentalist Islam parallels the rise and influence of EWTN. Dalrymple depicts the strife between organic popular Sufism and Islamic fundamentalism as the product of the colonial crucible. EWTN’s hostility towards “(post)modernism” reflects the perceived “humiliation” of orthodox/fundamentalist Catholicism against the social developments of the latter 20th century. Perhaps EWTN perceives itself as colonized by the “sexual revolution” and other straw men. This colonization perception fuels an ever-deepening emphasis on orthodoxy through idealized but nearsighted lenses.

As you have often mentioned Arturo, a “folk Catholicism” permits a wide spectrum of believers: the self-righteous worship alongside prostitutes; festivals take priority over sacramentalism. EWTN’s homogenization of Catholicism permits little latitude. EWTN liturgy reifies Palestrina at the expense of Poulenc. Their news shows mouth neo-con politics to the exclusion of other perspectives. Most troubling, EWTN never invites other religious leaders onto their shows for comparative discussion. Only converts from other religions are presented as exemplars and their former traditions characterized as deficient. This last development echoes Dalrymple’s lamentation that the push towards hard boundaries between formerly syncretic cults dissolves goodwill between neighboring religious groups. EWTN might present itself as the Catechism on satellite TV, but in reality this confection reflects little else than a levee against perceived threats from social change.

I daresay that EWTN resembles Dalrymple’s description of the South Asian fundamentalist madrassas. In both cases, the creation of an artificial bulwark against “modernity” has lead to a projection of a narrow interpretation of a religious tradition as the ultimate precis of a particular religious tradition. The reclamation of Catholicism from EWTN and the revitalization of indigenous, imperfect, and vibrant popular cult requires public witness to the diversity of Catholicism and a conscious rejection of Catholic homogeneity.

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