Monthly Archives: January 2012

Post-Modern Religion

Passage from modern to post-modern era according to Hiroki Azuma in "Génération Otaku - Les enfants de la postmodernité"

I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.

Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:

“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”

Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).

Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.

The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.

Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.

Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.

Spiritual Constrictions

Based on the Taoist notion of Yin-Yang, I would like to introduce the idea of a ‘Yin’ constriction. (Please bear with me if you are already familiar with the basic concepts). Yin and Yang represent the two different aspects of the cosmos (similar to Jamal and Jalal in Islam). Yin and Yang have many different characteristics, which are all essentially relative, so I am not talking in absolutes here. In relation to each other, Yin is passive and Yang is active, Yin is yielding and Yang is penetrating, Yin is unstructured and Yang is structured, and Yin is soft and Yang is hard. As the popular Yin-Yang symbol suggests, cosmic balance is achieved when Yin and Yang are in balance with each other, and neither predominates overall.

Energy does not flow well if there is an unhealthy predominance of either Yin or Yang. In other words, an excess of either Yin or Yang is a constriction. A Yin constriction would occur if something is +too+ soft, +too+ unstructured, +too+ yielding. In spirituality (as with furniture) we require a combination of structure and unstructure, form and space, hardness and softness – otherwise we will end up falling on the floor. In this context the hardness means fixed points. Archimedes said “give me a fixed point and I can move the world”. If nothing is fixed them we have nothing to lever against to move through space, and we become immobile. In my opinion the ‘fixed points’ (principles) of religion should not just be criticised and dismissed as “precepts and dogma”, as then we will lose the opportunity to lever off them and gain spiritual momentum. This does not mean these principles have to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker: obviously an intelligent process of interpretation and jurisprudence is necessary.

Individual spiritual practitioners need different combinations of Yang and Yin, hard and soft, structure and unstructure, form and formlessness. A ‘one size fits all approach’ is not appropriate. The practitioners of the Yin side are just as capable of being dogmatic with their insistence on stripping away form as the Yang practitioners with their insistence on erecting it. Individuals should be free to choose the right balance for them.

Pushing religion at people is counter-productive – but so is pulling it away from them. Following the Buddhist example, it is important to develop equanimity (the middle way between attachment and aversion) to all phenomena including religion. The attitude of equanimity towards religion means understanding what it is, without prejudice, and making a conscious decision about how to relate to it. Certain modern, ‘spiritual’ schools express aversion to religion by focusing exclusively on the dangers of attachment to religion, ignoring the benefits of religion when practised appropriately.