Heroic Materialism in European Culture - Part I

I’d like to begin this column with a quote from the June 9, 2004 report in the European Policy Center in Brussels. In such a report Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, a senior research fellow at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) in both Paris and Harvard University has this intriguing quote: “Europe is the only part of the world which has a general hostility toward religion. Europeans tend to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion…The European tendency to equate Muslim religion with fanaticism—already present in Voltaire’s “Mahomet, of Fanaticism (1745), still lives on.” She goes on to trace this tendency to the Enlightenment era, which leads one to wonder if the Enlightenment needs to still enlighten itself.

And yet, religion may well be best overlooked remedy for the recovery within Western civilization of a lost cultural vibrancy and the sense of the transcendent. The symptoms of such a loss are the observable despair and cynicism, boredom, and a general despondent nihilistic attitude among the young generation; a generation which has all the technological gadgets imaginable to play with, but believes in precious few values. I'd like to suggest that the loss of humanistic modes of thought within Western civilization may well be due to the fact that we live and have our being in a wholly horizontal, immanent culture which misguidedly assumes that it is possible for Man to live by bread alone, and has considerable difficulty in imagining a social paradigm that goes beyond material prosperity, scientific formulas, manipulation of nature and society and a Machiavellian real politick paradigm.

The paradigm of heroic materialism which is so prominent in Marx's ideology (and is often accompanied by state atheism) has turned out to be not so heroic after all; the emperor was in reality naked. It did not create the famed "workers' paradise on earth." To the contrary it created untold misery. The People's Republic of China is now embarked on the same materialistic experiment; it has joined the rat race with the West. Dej‡-vu?

It seems to me that the very first question that needs to be raised on the above mentioned issues is this: What is the cause for this reluctance within Western development thinking to bring in the same field of vision political and religio-cultural components? A preliminary consideration could be that the myopia in this regard is due to the fact that modern Western Civilization, beginning with Descartes’ rationalistic philosophy, and the subsequent advent of the industrial revolution, has opted for a system of cognition and a structure of knowledge which is partial and incomplete, clever by half so to speak, in as much as it privileges the socio-economic component at the expense of the spiritual.

The result of this reductionism leads development specialists to function as one-eyed giants, purveyors of science bereft of wisdom. They analyze, even prescribe and act, as if human destiny can be stripped down to mere material dimensions. Science is seen as what makes this paradigm possible. Trouble is that it truncates the holistic humanity of Man by failing to integrate its three realms: the spiritual, the intellectual, the material.
It may be appropriate here to pause for a reflection upon the high rate of suicide in developed countries. It is quite interesting that Finland, for example, has the highest rate in Europe for attempted suicides in 1989, as per the latest available statistic. World-wide, Finland had 37.2% of all attempted suicides in the world, which is to say 314 over 100,000 people per year. Those rates are much higher in Europe than in Asia. They suggest a nexus between suicide and hopelessness which has little to do with mere material prosperity. More specifically, they hint at four things:

1) that material abundance may be less essential than the presence of meaning in one’s life; that people lose even the willingness to survive once they have lost the meaning of their destiny (See Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl)

2) that ultimately, a meaningful existence is the most basic of human needs

3) that awe and mystery and a poetic vision are as integral to human existence as rationality and material comfort

4) that the future prospects of the human species depend upon internalizing an essentially religious perspective able to transform what is by now the dominant, materialistic, secular outlook.

It would be enough to read a book such as Jeff Haynes’ Religion in Third World Countries (1994) to become convinced that indeed most people in developing countries derive their primary source of meaning from religious beliefs, symbols, and mysteries. They sense that no Marxian ideology or promise of material paradise will ever abolish life’s tragic dimensions: suffering, death, wasted talents, hopelessness; that to insist that it can be accomplished with material prosperity alone in a valueless society, is to trivialize life itself.

Moreover, the sociologist Peter Berger in analyzing the link between modernity and secularization arrives at this conclusion in his book titled A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992): “there are vast regions today in which modernization has not only failed to result in secularity but has instead led to reaffirmations of religion … It may be true that the reason for the recurring human outreach toward transcendence is that reality indeed includes transcendence and that reality finally reasserts itself over secularity” (pp. 28-29). An intriguing question which cannot be settled by facile caricatures of religion as the promoter of ignorance and obscurantism, not to speak of the "fear of the gods" of Lucretius.

A similar judgement is expressed by Ramgopal Agarwala, a World Bank officer, when he declares in an essay which appeared in Friday Morning Reflections on the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (1991) with the title "A Harmonist Manifesto. Hindu Philosophy in Action”, asserting that “A society based on harmonism will be more than just a ‘sustainable society.’ There have been many primitive societies which were sustainable. Instead, it will be a sustainable society, with a cutting hedge at spiritual advancement that will provide the excitement that has been so painfully lacking in recent years. Spiritual advancement is the antidote to the boredom that lies just below the surface of many of the ills of the modern world.” This echoes Dostoyevsky's insight that if one places Man in a wholly deterministic universe, he will blow it up simply to prove that he is free.

So much for the theory; the more challenging task in a world with a pervasive secular outlook, is to promote development in practice, while respecting religious and indigenous values. The first pitfall that needs to be avoided is that of treating values in a purely instrumental fashion, as means to goals outside the value system in question. This is the equivalent of using religion to engineer popular compliance with a modernization program. A better stance is the non-instrumental one that begins with an abiding respect for the inner dynamism of traditional values serving as springboard for modes of development which are more humane then those derived from outside paradigms. This is more desirable because indigenous values are the matrix from which people derive meaning in their lives, a sense of identity and cultural integrity, not to speak of the experience of continuity with their environment and their past.

In this regard, let us take a close look at an appropriate example derived from the Islamic religious tradition. Because the Qur’an condemns interests as usury, Islamic banks neither pay interests to depositors nor charge it to borrowers. Since banks need to operate as viable economic enterprises in a modern world, one may wonder as to how they are able to solve this conundrum. They simply spread the risks flowing from their borrowing and lending. They receive a share of the profits earned by their borrowers and pro-rata shares of these profits are then distributed to depositors. This is a clear example of how a religious norm can alter a modern practice, instead of the other way around.

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