Remnants of history everywhere


When I absorb the beauty of religiously inspired architecture I get the sense that there was something captured within deep religious moments of people long ago when they imagined how their feelings and thoughts inform the way these edifices should look.  On a visit to Stuttgart Germany last summer I stood in wonder when I laid my eyes upon St. John’s church (pictured above), completed in 1876 according to what Wikipedia says is the Gothic Revival style.  The church’s design is incredibly intricate and beautiful, and has a dark, austere, and grim medieval feel to it.  When people say that the holy scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths are full of passages that are dark and harsh, as a way of indicating their dislike of these religions, I wonder if they’ve fully appreciated how, over the general span of human history, life was marked predominantly by hardship and uncertainty:  strong rulers and deities were part of how people dealt with what has been called the “immemorial misdirection of life”.  Take for instance what Robert Bellah says about divinity and kingship in Ancient Egypt:

“The king is the key link between humans and the cosmos such that the weakness or absence of the king is a sign of profound cosmic and social disorder; the proper functioning of the king is the primary guarantee of life and peace. Just as powerful beings of tribal peoples were violent as well as benevolent, and in ancient Mesopotamia one never knew what Enil might do, so chaos and disorder were never far from the consciousness of the ancient Egyptians”

Although we in a country like the United States may presume that monarchical governance should be consider an antiquated relic of the past, the remnants of history still have their impact on us.  According to the historian Frank Prochaska, throughout our history as a nation “Americans have been highly susceptible to the transcendent glamour of hereditary kinship, and find little contradiction in saluting the stars and stripes one moment and bowing to the British sovereign the next”.  Prochaska goes on in his book The Eagle and the Crown (2008) to say that “the newly-formed American nation looked across the Atlantic for time-honored traditions, family ties and possessions that would give a sense of inheritance to a people otherwise defined by their novelty. Expansion and rapid social change unsettled American citizens, leaving them uneasy about class but preoccupied with status.  Titles, honor, and distinctions of rank alleviate the monotony of democracy”.  Prochaska focuses on monarchy’s viability in shaping and giving meaning to identity and national culture, and perhaps what he refers to as its’ “transcendent glamour” is what makes stories about monarchy so compelling for audiences.  Speaking on behalf of monarchy’s historical and broad sweeping hold on humanity, the historian SW Spellman says that the “imposition of rule by one speaks to a deep human need, a desire for permanence and meaning in a world of unpredictability and danger”.

It simply intrigues me, that in a Hegelian sense, history encapsulates experiences and practices that humans can’t quite shake off, even when we deem particular historical phenomena antiquated.  Perhaps the stories and games within a genre like medieval fantasy provides us with a way not only to peek a bit into how our ancestors lived, but also acts as a sort of counter-weight to what we find as existentially unsatisfying about life in modern times.  Imagine the conventional image we have of the heroic knight from medieval times:  he lives in a world in which chain of command and hierarchical status dominates human life.  He serves his lord the king, and all serve a Lord or Lords, as in the God or Gods that made up their mythological landscape.  There’s something satisfying about that, the finding of a psychological settlement and comfort in knowing life’s clear purpose and meaning.  Our 1960s cultural revolution represented an all out assault on authority.  Its’ radical leaders and adherents left little to revere, to be loyal or obedient to, except the revolutionary ideals and tasks that sought to destroy so many established ways.  In our world today, although extreme nihilists, epitomized by the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, are a minority, there are still strains of influences that lead a lot of people to uphold somehow that they themselves are primarily the only ones they have to answer to or take orders from.  The ethic of defiance seems embedded in our moral fabric.  In such a world of broken respect and adherence to the ways of various hierarchies and authorities, genres like medieval fantasy provides a chance to partake in what life is like when its’ swayed more by deference to community and authority rather than the individualism and anti-authoritarianism in our culture.

When I think about how I as a Muslim can communicate the reason why I pray to a more secular minded skeptic of religion, it begins with my simple observation that there is something a lot greater out there than whatever is happening in the daily events of my life.  Within the lush and untouched natural areas of the earth, like a forest, and out in the distance when we gaze out into the cosmos, there is the perpetual reminder that we should attend to the concerns in our lives with an eye toward the grander significance of things.  When I place the temple of my head on the ground during prayer, I acknowledge this grander significance.  When I think about the incomprehensibility of the vastness of time and space, the limitations and fragility I have as a human, these existential questions can be assuaged in having faith that God is there to glorify and give praise to.



The Spirit of History

Robert Bellah said:

“We can’t know culture in the deepest sense without knowing its’ history, even though we may think that we have outgrown it” (referencing Hegel)

“In an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us”

Reflecting on his words I draw out the following:

It’s fascinating for me to observe how history plays its’ part in various countries.  In Bulgaria I’ll always remember an acquaintance by the name of Plamen.  He vociferously read history books, with particular interest in the military and the narratives that shaped Bulgaria through communism and the USSR after World War II.  Our conversations would always include historical references.  I was blown away by how much he knew, doing my best to make out the details of what he was saying in Bulgarian.  I compared Bulgaria with my own society in the United States.  Surely in the US there are some people fond of history and enjoy discussing it, and bastions to history like museums obviously exist.  But it’s different.  The US is way too centered on change, innovation, and projecting into the future to make much space for history in our everyday lives.  Other societies capture the spirit of history in an intriguing way to me.  For example, though in Oman I don’t see many physical remnants in the environment from their distant past (whereas Europe is filled with architecture preserved for centuries), it is as though the depth and importance of history is on display in their lifestyle and adherence to tradition and religion, as if the spirit of history is supposed to exist from within.  This willingness to breathe the air of history may have good effects on lifestyle.  Societies like Bulgaria and Oman are way more laid back than a place like the United States, at least where I grew up in northern New Jersey, where sometimes you feel like a weirdo simply for taking a leisurely stroll.  Can such a difference be attributed at all to how a society relates or in informed by history?  One could make the case that a regard for history is not that important, but the historian Eric Hobsbawm said that the acceleration of cultural change in the recent past has threatened to cut us looks from history, snapping the links between generations, and therefore past and present.  What are the consequences of this?  One of the things that attracted me to Islam was to see how strongly its’ adherents seek to preserve the links between generations, seeing it as a kind of treasure trove of wisdom. Of course, as this country has recently modernized and been affected by globalization, there could also be ruptures to the way the people here view the relevance of history.  But for a society so centered on religion and tradition, I don’t see it happening anywhere near the level like in the US.  I would go as far as to say that part of the reason we have the president we have is because of our society’s disregard for what some see as the legacies of “dead white men”.  It baffles and saddens me that so many Americans see the heartbeat of our nation’s narrative as one marked by slavery and oppression.  The last decade of my life abroad has awakened me to the true remarkable nature of the United States.  It has stoked a keen interest to study our history in a deeper way, especially the founding and early national era.  The dissolving of social cohesion in our society, the inability for us to center our hearts on one uplifting and proud historical narrative, is surely one of the reasons why our president resonated so deeply with millions of us.  I’ve witnessed other societies defend their historical narratives and national identities with a reverence and fervency that is lacking in some corners of the US.  Patriotism doesn’t need to translate into nationalism or fascism.  Certain features of our modern world simply make many of us search for a reliable life raft.  Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. puts it well:

“The world shrinks, and its population is more mixed up today than ever before. Shrinkage subjects the world to a whipsaw, tearing it in opposite directions–intense pressures toward globalization on the one hand, toward fragmentation on the other. The world market, instantaneous communications, media–all undermine the nation-state and develop a world without frontiers.  At the same time, these very internationalizing forces drive ordinary people to seek refuge from unrelenting global currents beyond their control and understanding.  The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.  The more the world integrates, the more people cling to their own in groups defined by ethnic and religious loyalties.”  

And besides the relevance of a shared reverence and understanding of history for the cohesion and stability of a people, I wonder if we in the US an underlying anxiety about the kind of legacy our modern culture will leave behind for the generations that come after us.  In our era remakes of movies that came out just a few decades ago makes one wonder if this is ode to our cultural heritage or a reflection of our society’s value towards making an ensured and easy buck on a brand name that will appeal.



What religion is made of: insights from Robert Bellah

My first two posts on Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution sketched out how Bellah seeks to widen our awareness about how life is lived outside the bounds of ordinary reality.  It’s commonly regarded that religious experience exists outside of these bounds, but Bellah shows that other realms of life, such as within science and aesthetics, also operate on a different plane.  To grasp what Bellah is getting at with all this talk about non-ordinary reality, let’s consider how he defines what the “scientific perspective” is (he quotes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz on this):

“Deliberate doubt and systematic inquiry, the suspension of the pragmatic motive in favor of disinterested observation, the attempt to analyze the world in terms of formal concepts whose relationships to the informal conceptions of common sense become increasingly problematic—here are the hallmarks of trying to grasp the world scientifically”

This description of the scientific perspective was quite fascinating to me when I first encountered it.  It’s easy for us in the modern world to think that there is nothing more ordinary than thinking scientifically, but Bellah shows that the type of cognition and language involved in science, namely through conceptual thought, is actually not associated that much with what goes on in the “ordinary” realm of our lives.  For example, Bellah states that “families, nations, and religions know who they are by stories they tell, and the content of these stories are often unconcerned with scientific accuracy”.  The Greek word episteme is rooted in the idea that knowledge is based on being able to demonstrate the validity of a proposition through the power of logic and observation.  Bellah puts it well when he says:  “narrative does not demonstrate; rhetoric can persuade but not demonstrate.  The world of daily life normally is constituted much more by opinion, narrative, and rhetoric than by demonstration.”  

It’s with this wide view of how we live in several overlapping ways that Bellah elucidates the phenomena of religion.  In the few instances when Bellah offers us definitions of religion, a word that appears frequently is “symbol”.  Indeed, Bellah states that “symbols are basic to religion: religion becomes possible only with the emergence of language”.  To illustrate the importance of symbolism, Bellah gives an anecdote about the experience of a scholar who once attended a graduation ceremony at his institution.  The scholar had a vision while watching the students coming down the aisle.  He imagined an endless procession of great scholarly figures from history, like Socrates and Freud, leading the procession of actual students at the ceremony.  Bellah states that his vision “stands as an apprehension of the academic procession as a symbol, standing for the true university as a sacred community of learning, transcending time and space.  If we no longer glimpse that sacred foundation, the actual university would collapse.  If the university doesn’t have a fundamental symbolic reference point that transcends the pragmatic considerations of the world of working and is in tension with those considerations, then it has lost its raison d’etre”.

We are all capable of having the type of epiphanies and visions (laced in symbolism) that this scholar had at the graduation ceremony, but a significant part of religion has to do with making these kinds of experiences communicable to others.  It’s through various kinds of representation, like the stories that religions tell, by which they become communicable and meaningful to others.  Thus community is at the heart of understanding religion, and Bellah joins scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Emile Durkheim in emphasizing this.  According to Durkheim, religion is “a system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community”.

Part of the reason I’m so excited to share the work of Bellah is because he offers such a comprehensive approach towards understanding religion, one that shows the inadequacies of critiques made against religion by groups such as the New Atheists.  In his well regarded book The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt describes the New Atheist approach: “religion [by them] is studied as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, and these beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions”.  So, as Sam Harris has repeatedly stated, terrorists are supposedly driven to do what they do because they are following the injunctions of their religious scripture, with the belief that paradise awaits them in the afterlife for the noble cause they took up in the name of God here on earth.  Haidt says “trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball.  You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community….often our beliefs are post hoc constructions designed to justify what we’ve just done, or to support the groups we belong to”.

This Durkheimian emphasis on understanding religion by remaining steadily attentive to the community aspect of it is indeed very important.  For example, in the Sultanate of Oman where I reside, one clear aspect of the society here is its’ stress on maintaining social cohesion and ethical clarity through the vessel of Islamic religious practices and ethics.



Bellah on Science and Religion

* I continue in today’s post a sharing of some insights from Robert Bellah’s fantastic book, Religion in Human Evolution.


An important part of the backdrop towards understanding the aim of this book is to grasp that for Bellah, a thorough understanding of history is a key to overcoming the challenges we’ve faced in the modern era.  Although Bellah draws on the work of historians on occasion, the insights he shares from disciplines like psychology and cognitive science act as a foundational source of knowledge unto which he wishes us to understand the events of the past, as well as the human condition in general.

Bellah sets the stage in chapter one by acknowledging that life is tough.  Indeed, “survival of the fittest” can tell us something about what it is to be human, but those who draw primarily on Darwinian theory to explain our lives are sorely lacking a big part of the picture.  If life has always been primarily about survival, then how on earth have humans had time to make art like they always have, or engage in the countless other activities that could be classified as leisurely?  Yes, there is a place in life for that hard-nosed pragmatist in us, but the description of what Bellah calls (borrowing from Alfred Schutz) the “paramount reality of life” calls to attention how dreadful and exhausting that reality can be:        

“The everyday world of objects and practical acts is the reality of life that we are rooted in and whose pressures and requirements we can’t escape….we have a pragmatic motive, a wish to act upon the world to bend it to our practical purposes and master it…this is characterized by striving, working, anxiety….it is a world of function, adaptation, survival”

Life would clearly be sucked of it’s joy and meaning if we lived by the pragmatic motive all the time.  Bellah cites the work of the acclaimed psychologist Abraham Maslow to show how we all make room for air to breathe in our lives.  Maslow calls this breathing space B cognition, and Bellah explains: “when we are propelled by B-motives, we relate to the world by participation, not manipulation; we experience a union of subject and object, a wholeness that overcomes all partiality.  The B cognition is an end in itself, and it tends to transcend our ordinary experience of time and space”.

Ah, life sounds a lot better now doesn’t it?  And yet, even the very things that are supposed to make life easier and better contain enormously consequential drawbacks.  Technological advancements are often looked at as godsends, but in certain fields like the military, can be pushed in their know-how toward the brink of total annihilation.  Bellah points out that our enormous need for energy “has driven us to tap the finite and nonrenewable resources of the sun stored in fossil fuels, all to maintain our ever increasing complexity”.  

In a world in which so much our pragmatic motives strive to make up for what we lack, it is technology that also races with overcoming what we lack in fields such as the economy and military.  Bellah states that technology can become “the victim of hubris and megalomania”.  Technology is obviously the fruit emanating out of scientific knowledge, but Bellah emphasizes that scientific understanding must be integrated within other fields of knowledge, such as the humanities.

In several passages worth quoting from, Bellah articulates why science shouldn’t be seen as the only way to truth, and validates other approaches to knowledge:

“Thus scientific truth, about which I have no doubt, is an expression of scientific practice and has no metaphysical priority over other kinds of truth. When we find [Martin] Buber speaking of an eternal You, who shines through the faces of other humans, sometimes the faces of animals, even at moments through trees, rocks, and stars, it would be easy to try to find a scientific explanation of why he would say that. But such an explanation, which might be true, would in no way refute the truth of which Buber speaks. Science is an extremely valuable avenue to truth. It is not the only one. To claim it is the only one is what is legitimately called scientism and takes its place among the many fundamentalisms of this world”

“The Wikipedia article on Verstehen [a word used by Max Weber] describes it as ‘nonempirical, emphatic, or participatory examination of social phenomena’, but there is nothing nonempirical about emphatic examination of social phenomena. Such inquiry involves the effort to put oneself in the place of the person under scrutiny and try to see the world as they do….it is a valid effort to get at one rather central aspect of what is really going on among the people under study. One way of making the distinction between scientific and humanistic methodologies is to say that scientific explanations are concerned with the causes and functions of the activities under study; humanistic understanding is concerned with their meaning….both kinds of methodologies are required in both science and the humanities”  

These points are important for Bellah to make because we clearly live in a time when many people live as though it is the age of scientific triumphalism.  Attacks against religion are made within a narrow purview of scientific critique.  According to Bellah, religion is a way of making sense of the world, of forming an identity in relation to it.  This is why a purely causal or functional analysis of religion leaves out important aspects in studying it.

Since part of the secular worldview stresses that we have outgrown our antiquated need for religion, which then sets up tensions, and even violent conflict, with the religiously pious, it is essential that Bellah’s level headed and widely encompassing book be read by all.  

Beyonding with Robert Bellah

In describing the heights we can reach when we study, acclaimed sociologist Robert Bellah gives an example by commenting on what it can be like reading a piece of philosophy: “for the person who understands it, reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics can set off a subliminal dance”.  Bellah continues this thought by quoting from Bertrand Russell: “the true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry”.

This description of what it can feel like while we study is precisely how I feel every time I open up Religion in Human Evolution (2011), a 600 page book written by Bellah shortly prior to his death in 2013.  

The range of disciplines Bellah draws from to lay forth the insights that make up this project is astounding.  Tapping into such an unusually vast range of scholarship is suited for his task, because this work has an unusually grand aim for a scholarly work. In Bellah’s own words: this book “asks what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living….it is an effort to live again those moments that belong to us in the depths of our present, to draw living water from the well of the past, to find friends in history who can help us understand where we are”.  Bellah also sets himself for the difficult task of trying to conjure up a sense of humanity’s broad solidarity and brotherhood.  For the variety of conflicts and divisions that exist in our world, like the culture wars between atheists and the religious, Bellah’s book stands as a proclamation to put our weapons down and consider how we share so much in common.  In a part of the book when he describes Mesopotamian civilization he says “in an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us”.    

Scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Samuel Huntington have been good at showing why the idea that “all culture is one” hardly resonates with human beings, a species that has a proclivity to emphasize their differences rather than their similarities. Though at times some of Bellah’s overarching remarks on the human condition strike me as naïve and overly apocalyptic, his work definitely deepens our appreciation and understanding about, as the title of the book states, religion in human evolution.

As the inspiration strikes I’ll be posting snippets and commentary from this book, categorized by topics that I find Bellah has offered us some of his most insightful thought.

I’d like to start with what Bellah says about the drudgery that can overwhelm us in our daily lives, like when we drag our feet to work.  According to Bellah, a defining feature of this part of life, what he calls ordinary reality, is that no one can stand to live in it all the time.  This has nothing to do with religion at this early point in his book, though Bellah does say that religions are good making a frontal assault on the world of working, and call it into question.  A whole host of activities prove how ordinary reality, when we are swept by various pragmatic motives, is only just a part of our day.  Indeed, a third of our lives is essentially spent asleep often in the land of dreams.  Other than that, Bellah makes the case that everything from watching TV to going to a musical concert is an example of non-ordinary reality, which for him is an important concept, because religions view this kind of reality as sacred.  A saving grace for humanity, the possibility for relief from the drudgery of our lives, is that we are a species making full use of symbols and symbolism. An extract from the book illustrates this point well:    

Without the capacity for symbolic transcendence, for seeing the realm of daily life in terms of a realm beyond it, one would be trapped in a world of what has been called dreadful immanence. For the world of daily life seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.