KARL JASPERS FORUM
Response 8 (to C9 by Maurice McCarthy)
INDIVIDUALS AND GUIDELINES
by Herbert FJ Müller
7 April 2008, posted 19 April 2008
Maurice McCarthy wrote :
‘<3> The Church now gets flogged in public on a daily basis with little appreciation of how it held in check the excesses of individualism for centuries. During their lifetimes strong characters could make ripples in the social structure but once they were gone things soon returned to normal, religiously dictated. This was possible since people were not as intellectual nor as individuated as today. ... Since taking command of your own constructing activity is prerequisite for a strong sense of personal identity then it follows that the consciousness of the Middle Ages was very different to what it is today. <4> Social norms must be suited to the consciousness of their time but today there is a disjointedness and excessive individualism (egoism) is tearing society apart. Fundamentalism represents an anachronistic error of trying to use an outmoded religio-social form as a counter-balance. In fear of losing their cultural identity, in which they wish to ground their egos, fundamentalists retreat into outdated religion. That must sound paradoxical, but that is the dynamic I see before us.’
MM’s points are well taken; they are not usually emphasized in contemporary discussions of religion. In the early part of the Middle Ages it was largely Muslim philosophers and scientists, such as Geber, Abulcasis, Alhacen, Avicenna, Avempace, and Averroes, and the library at Cordoba, which continued with the Greek philosophical tradition. And Muslim countries had great political power, starting in the seventh century, and again after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. From them the knowledge was transmitted to Christian Europe, until the time of the Renaissance, starting mainly from Florence, when individual thinking was rehabilitated as a creative force. Since then there has been a gradual reversal of intellectual and political power, which was finally sealed by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. This reversal must surely be an important (if hidden) motivation behind the recent actions of the Muslim ‘counter-crusaders’. It is to my knowledge not mentioned in their declarations; but the awareness of the great Muslim past is evident in statements such as that the Ayatollah Khomeini was praised as a ‘fine medieval scholar’ when he returned from Paris to Iran in 1979, to replace the Shah.
Whether fundamentalism can be seen as ‘anachronistic’ depends on from where one looks. For many Muslims the subjects’ submission is a source of identity, as you say. It must surely be anachronistic when it is the chief determining force in contemporary governments of Western countries. Religions cannot be entirely ‘rational’ <2> because they deal with the center of subjective experience which cannot be entirely structured in a contradiction-free manner; there will be areas of ‘absurdity’ as Tertullian already said. But I remember that a colleague from a Muslim country told me some decades ago that although Islam was irrational, he thought it was ‘less psychotic’ than Christianity. Our present problem is the increasing difficulty to accept theistic doctrines when educational levels rise, as Dawkins points out repeatedly. But if we see religion (‘warts and all’) as a human tool we may be better able to deal with it. We can treat it as one of several available aids for individual and social thinking and action; and if we take a meditative 0-D start point, the main problems, such as excessive individualism, ought to become easier to deal with.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>