Thursday, May 15, 2008

Personal Lifestyle Versus Religion

That Buddhism is the most popular religion among educated, affluent and cultivated elite of the modern west is probably obvious to many. It is on the list of "stuff white people like" in the satirical blog, in the form of a tiny Buddha statue on the armoire in a bedroom with "Pottery Barn"-like furniture. Today, it is in the New York Times today, in the "Home & Garden" section - in the form of a bohemian couple living an alternative life-style in the desert of Arizona. Only, to what extent it is "Buddhist," I am not sure. Their supposedly austere tent is furnished like a tourist magazine photograph from Tibet or Nepal, and their speech pattern makes it clear that, no matter how learned they might be, what they believe and practice is essentially no different from any new-age non-philosophy that one can purchase off the shelf.

What makes this form of self-made spirituality so attractive to certain populations in the west, I suppose, is the apparent absence of a figure of authority. Even the word "discipline" that is being used rings like the kind of discipline that we associate with athletic training or diet: it is demanding, but it is good for you. In other words, it is not a kind of discipline that we impose on ourselves for the sake of others, for the love of some higher good. It is a discipline that "purifies your mind" - with emphasis on "you." For this reason, the story of this couple is appropriately placed in the "Home & Garden" section, implying the truth that this is about a personal lifestyle and is far from being an authentic religion.

What makes monotheistic religions unfashionable among the Western educated elite, I presume, is the fact that they implicate a partial submission of the individual to an institution. (Why it is any worse than submitting oneself to institutions such as the university, the company, the nation-state, I cannot quite figure out. My Episcopalian or Anglican parishes have never obliged me to attend office on Sundays, whereas there are days that one cannot miss at the university or work.) But for religious persons, I suspect that it is precisely the recognition of the limitations of the individual that is the most rewarding aspect of their practice. By this, I do not simply mean the limitations of the individual before an almighty, absolute God. On the more quotidian level, the daily mediation of one's values, beliefs and practices through intercourse with other human beings is a powerful antidote against self-delusion.

The presence of a community and competent spiritual leaders prevents religious people from making up their own gods, in other words. More than once, I shared my own "theology" with friends, only to find out at the end of a long conversation that my ideas were incoherent (at best) or debased (at worst). Left to my own devices, I would be in a situation where I can make up whatever idea I have of God for my own benefits, safeguarding the criticisms of others with the deluded dogma that "spirituality is a personal thing." The truth is that in an authentic and functional religion, the "I" always needs to be checked against the values of the collective, or, even better, a small affective community based on friendship. Is there anything more precious than the presence of human beings whom we trust enough to ask, "Do you think that I might be mad?" All the more precious are those who will respond with honesty and intelligence.

That said, since religions are human institutions, they are susceptible to all human weaknesses. Corruption is standard in any institution, and I have often recognized in certain Roman Catholic bishops in Europe the same crooked faces of Zen-Buddhist charlatans in Taiwan (all with names like Star-Cloud Master or Child of Moonlight) who molest female worshipers habitually. And when a population suffers systemically, we can only expect that the religious institution that it upholds will also suffer and go mad: this is the case with radical Islam today. For any religious person, who must to some extent take responsibility of his or her religious institution, perhaps nothing is more painful than watching a rich religious tradition degrade itself due to contemporary circumstances. At that point, one has the choice to stay or leave, and either decision will affect the person's understanding of his or her identity.

Many religious people have chosen to stay in imperfect traditional religious institutions - some harder to defend than others - instead of going away to the desert to make up their own Buddhist lifestyle. Some of these religious people are less educated than others; some can defend themselves with more conceptual clarity; some, admittedly, become incoherent or mediocre when pushed to articulate their faith. But I wonder if all of them do not share one thing: They all implicitly recognize or understand religion as a form of institution that, when made to function as a rich symbolic space in which metaphysics and ethics join to dance, might end up saving human beings from their own follies and miseries.

To defend a religious institution and to partake in it is like speaking a language. Just as I do not refuse to speak German for the reason that it has been tainted by Amtsprache of the Third Reich, I do not reject the Christian tradition for the reason that it has been co-opted by the Roman Empire and been misused numerous times as pretext for political and military violence. The same as German language remains valuable to me because it is the language of German philosophy, aesthetics and poetry, the same I continue to defend Christianity, not only because it is the most feminine and pagan of monotheisms, but above all because it is the religion whose essence is the Sermon on the Mount, the loving and merciful God, and the faith in the imperfect perfectability of every man and woman.


gale said...

I think one strength of institutional religion is that it forces different people - people of varying social status, educational levels, cultures, etc. - to come together.

But it's a slippery slope.

First, we can think of mega-churches, pulling in members by sorting out the membership into microgroups. You like mountain biking? Great. You hang with the mountain bikers. You're a single mom between 30-40? Great, this is your group. Not much room for dynamic clashes and change there . . . a case of churches adapting to culture? Probably, since most of these enormous churches are based on modern capitalist marketing.

Secondly, religious institutions, like all human enterprises, almost always define themselves by what they are not. My church "others" the conservative parishes in the diocese, for example, as a way to define its own mission. The bigger picture (Roman Catholicism, or worldwide Anglicanism, or Islam) though makes it harder to find "others" when just about every nation and race and culture has some representatives in your group. (I'm ignoring inter/intra religious conflicts, simplistically, I know!)

So, my question, I suppose, asks if it is possible for religious institutions to exist separate from the contemporary culture. I think not. Rather than thinking of it as either "pure" institution, above culture, or mired within it, perhaps the best examples are when religious institutions subvert the dominant culture: like the early church in the Roman Empire, the resistant pastors in Nazi Germany, the liberation theologians in 1970s Latin America.

Joyce Cheng said...

I think Gale made a rather nice point there (I feel like I am in a seminar) about the link of religion not so much to "society" but to "culture." The reason is clear: the United States is not a religious state, there is no official religion (use and abuse of mere words like "Jesus" and "God" in politicians' discourses notwithstanding). Since religion is recognized as a private affair, its impact on the American society at large is rather hard to judge. So I think Gale is right to ask the question about religion and culture instead.

I think that we have to think about the relationship between religion and culture, but also religions as cultures, and different cultures in religion. Wouldn't you say, Gale, that the traits distinguishing a liberal Episcopalian church in a city and an evangelical church in the rural South would be cultural, not so much doctrinal? (The evangelicals: "What doctrines?" Sorry for my cultural condescension - I will post another blog to make up for it.)

gale said...

Yes - but I meant more that religion is always embroiled in culture. It can't be separated from the society in which it exists. In other words, there is no transhistorical, transcultural "religion" since religion is a human creation, and humans are always in culture and society.

That said, some religions are formed as oppositional to that culture (so they might appear to be outside of it but are actually formed in response to it, and therefore are tied to it). This is what I meant by the early church example - it was anti-Rome, in some cases, anti-Judaism, and in other cases, anti-gentiles, but still shaped by all of those things.

But I agree that in the US, the variety of social experiences creates a diverse array of Christianities, a microcosm of worldwide Christianity.