Saturday, March 19, 2011

What makes you right and me wrong? The similarities between Christianity and Western universalism

Religion and democracy have more in common than we realise. Before I explain why, let’s set up the paradigms around which this statement is situated.

Ever since colonialism- no, scrap that. Ever since human beings were put on this earth (or however you believe we got here) we have functioned under the idea that ‘equal’ means of ‘equal worth’ and ‘different’ implies of ‘lesser worth’. Slaves, savages, servants, the list goes on. In a sense, the discovery of ‘humanity’ occurred historically at the same time as the discovery of ‘savages’.

Under colonial rule, the idea of the Other sprouted up, which was used to label all those cultures that were essentially not European. Here, the European doctrine of universally valid claims was a strategy of power. Yet this idea of ‘universal’ claims was developed by those who somehow believed they were superior and thus could validate such claims via their self-imposed hierarchical status.

With this in mind, I think Christianity and Western universalism are similar in many ways. The Christians sent missionaries, the Western universalists sent… well, men with guns. The Christians believed that the heathens could be baptised and thus partake in true religion, the Western universalists believed that ‘underdeveloped countries’ and non-Western indigenous societies could be ‘modernised’ and thus baptised in the truth of democracy and market economics. One boasts salvation via the pursuit of eternal happiness, the other success of the state.

In both cases, the underlying concept is that of difference implying lesser value. This has, and continues to lead to, the justification of authority, be that by physical force or force-fed ‘education’.

French philosopher Michel Foucault, the articulate man that he was, called this process of force-feeding the “ritual of truth”. He surmised that throughout history there has been a sense of duty to normalise the truth, that is, to deny the otherness of the Other and convert it to the ‘universal’ truth. Europe and USA happen to know exactly what universal truth is, naturally.

Ulrich Beck in his work on rooted cosmopolitanism believes we are approaching a new way of thinking; what he calls the Second Modernity. Here, the Other is both different and equal and, as such, what he calls ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ is a state where one can be “at home everywhere and at home nowhere”. Beck says much of this new development stems from globalisation, which has allowed people to live and educate themselves transnationally and thus eliminate the clear division between the inner and outer that is at the heart of nationalism.

Discussion of such an idea can get quite messy and be applied in both theory and practice. In this article I want to use Beck’s concept to explore the idea that the Second Modernity is opposed to ethnocentrism and universalism, whether that be from the right or left. Like it or loathe it, in a postcolonial world there is no ‘pure’ nation to go back to.

In this day and age I get the sense that many people are aware of the dangers of moral absolutism and the violent realities that grow out of exclusive certainties, and so instead we search for a happy medium.

Yet, does a centre exist? In the political world we have the right-wing, left-wing and moderates, and within that the right-wing will call the moderates left-wing and vice versa. Christianity preaches their beliefs are true, atheists are certain Christianity is a load of crock. Western politics can’t envision a fair, free and just society without capitalist democracies, and non-democratic countries can’t envision the perfect society without totalitarian control. Some people don’t know what to believe so they just sit on the fence.

The amazing thing, I think, is that humans feel compelled to put value and moral judgements on everything. Part of that can be due to the nature of language- that perhaps it is impossible to be completely objective when we are using language that inherently sets us up for bias. There is also a sense that being human means that we can feel passionately about things but can’t all agree on whatever we feel passionately about.

To go back to my original premise that humanity functions under the idea that ‘equal’ means of ‘equal worth’ and ‘different’ implies of ‘lesser worth’, the dilemma comes when we ask ourselves how we can resolve this. In one breath someone might denounce religion and praise capitalism. In another one will say it is unfair to use authority to enforce religious beliefs and then that it is essential to put laws in place to preserve ‘democracy’.

In a world of black, white and grey where everyone thinks they are right and have some kind of understanding of universal truths, we are reminded that throughout history we have not been able to agree on very much at all.

Despite all this talk of the unfairness of an individual or group deciding the future of another human being, we live in a world of law and order. Where hard decisions need to be made, and so we elect politicians to make them on our behalf. Such is the paradox of life; that we all have an opinion, we all have a set of beliefs and yet no matter how much we want to sit around and philosophise, in order for society to function we have to make decisions that benefit some and disadvantage others. Decisions that are informed by values and beliefs, and essentially, an understanding of what is fair and ‘equal’ and what isn’t.

Therein lies the rub. One person’s sense of superiority is another’s sense of ‘savageness’, and vice versa.

So how can we resolve this paradox? Can it be resolved? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing that can be said, though, is that in an increasingly secular world that places little value on religion, it’s only fair to acknowledge that such a value judgement is just that. Who is to say one value judgement is more ‘right’ or- to use consistent terminology- ‘superior’ to another? If we do such we fall into the trap we have criticised Western imperialists for doing centuries ago.