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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Religion: the purloined letter of modernity

Thus, if man does not use the organs which  his Creator has given him in this abode, when his soul leaves the body it cannot find [any of those organs] again and therefore it remains perplexed, like someone who has neither eyes, ears, heart nor tongue; one can imagine how anguished and torturous his condition would be. But if man sees with his eyes that which he is commanded to see, hears with his ears that which he is commanded to hear, walks on that path which the Prophet has commanded him to walk, speaks with the tongue that which he is commanded to speak, and knows with his heart that which he is commanded to known, then when his soul leaves his body [it retains the faculties of] eyes, ears, heart and tongue, so that in the abode of delights he will possess them in their entirety.” Nasir Khusraw, Knowledge and Liberation.
“Paradise is still locked up and the Cherub is behind us; we must make a trip around the world, and see whether perhaps it isn’t still open somewhere in the back.” – Kleist, On the Marionette Theater
When the French missionaries came to North America, they faced a critical problem with the Indian peoples they attempted to convert, which was that these groups had a perfectly clear idea of the afterlife, and it was nothing like heaven or hell. It was like life – it was not, as Marx would have it (speaking on the assumption that religion is monotheism) a counter-society, or society reversed and thus restored. Thus when the French priests would tell the Hurons about heaven, they would get responses like: “for my part, I have no desire to go to heaven; I have no acquaintances there, and the French who are there would not care to give me anything to eat.” In fact, there is an account that neatly captures the Huron this-worldliness in Carole Blackburn’s Harvest of Souls:  the soul of a recently deceased woman came back to a Huron encampment to warn that those who went to heaven were being tortured there by the French.
These stories, which were carried back to Europe in the accounts of the Missionaries, fed into the early enlightenment idea that the Hurons were right. It is a question which is never asked, but should be: did American Indian ideas influence European thought? Lahontan, a French explorer, published a famous book, Supplement aux Voyages ou Dialogues avec le sauvage Adario, in which he represents himself talking with Adario, a Huron, about the cosmic vision of the Christians – which Adario finds either barbaric or comic. We know that this book influenced Rousseau and Diderot.
Marx was the intellectual heir of these accounts, but when he wrote the Kritik he had only an intuition of where this intellectual theme would lead him. And we are still being led there. One of the responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was the production of cartoons showing an after life Charlie Hebdo crew. It is a comic instance, because even if we believe in the after life, we don’t imagine it. It has been closed down in the imagination as a serious topic. Perhaps this is why a political act, revenging the “dishonor” shown to Muhammed (and, I would contend, treating him as a God – a blasphemy against which Muhammed directed a lot of his energy), is still not imagined as a religious act. We refuse to engage in the politics of the afterlife. We are going to “respect” religions, but them in a black box.
Myself, I think this is an entirely impossible thing to do. Anything social becomes political – this is the primary law of modernity. It isn’t even something I like or approve of – politics, to my mind, is a buncha shit. But my mind wasn’t consulted when we were constructing the global system, so tant pis for me.
In fact, so unimaginable is religious belief to the “progressive” that it can’t be encountered at all – it must have to do with racism. It must have to do with this world. In this sense, the progressive idea of “respect” for religions is founded on an utter disrespect for them, the disrespect that comes when you simply refuse to argue a topic because you find it beneath you.

It is in this atmosphere of disrespect that, for instance, “christian” leaders can come on news shows and expect not a single question about their christianity. Rather, they are accepted (maddeningly) as prima facie  Christians, even as any reader of the gospels would have to be appalled at every word issuing from their mouth. The same is true with imams, or “spokesmen” for the Muslim community.   

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