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.
Major religious figures such as the Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed revealed eternal truths in specific times and places. The truths they revealed must be understood within those contexts. We might prefer, if it were possible, to receive the eternal truth context-free, but then we would be even less able to relate it to our own lives and draw practical conclusions. Even though the world has changed since our great religious teachers, the basic context — being human — has not.
Religious scholars from all traditions have applied great effort to the ongoing process of interpreting the original teachings in ways that apply today. It is difficult to be both faithful and relevant, and not all get the balance right. If they get the balance wrong they achieve neither faithfulness nor relevance. The fundamentalists are desperate to cling on to the literal meaning of every single word, and in doing so they lose the spirit of the original teaching. The modernists are desperate to update the teaching, and in doing so they distort the tradition and throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Within both Judaism and Islam there are sophisticated schools of jurisprudence, which seek to apply the holy law today. The Talmud contains a record of how rabbis have applied the Torah in particular times and places, with their reasoning and discussions. Islam developed four main schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), and the process of interpretation (itjihad) continues today.
It is important to understand attitudes towards itjihad when studying Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, the modern Islamic movements most associated with fundamentalism, such as Wahhabi and Salafi, sought to reinterpret Islam, rather than accept the previous interpretations handed down by generations. Their interpretation was very much about taking Islam back to basics, trying to live exactly as the Prophet and his companions would have lived, and strongly rejecting anything they saw as ‘innovation’. But by rejecting the tradition of interpretation handed down through generations they in fact lost touch with the living essence of Islam, relating instead to an idealised version of the religion that they themselves had invented.
The beauty of the religions is their appearance in particular times and places, and their ongoing relevance today. God mercifully provided specific guidance for real human situations. Specificity in religion is a strength, not a weakness. There is a parallel with art here: no painting or novel would show anything true or beautiful were it not for the specific detail. The skill of the artist is to take a specific scene and, while being true to it, lift it beyond the mundane. God has done the same, by offering real people the solutions to their actual, mundane problems, and at the same time revealing eternal truth.