PRINT Summer 1989


THE MEMBERS OF ANCIENT SOCIETIES, fragile societies whose survival depended upon powers they could not control, sought to transcend their worldly limitations through encounters with what they perceived as the simultaneously wonderful and terrifying source of those numinous powers, described by Rudolf Otto as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Men and women sought the gods’ assistance in assuring their survival; the gods, in turn, according to ancient Mesopotamian texts, for example, relied upon men and women for worship and sustenance. All power, cosmic and human, then, was part of an integrated continuum.

The move from a belief in a henotheistic cosmos, one in which a hierarchy of gods functions as a group, to the monotheistic vision of ancient Israelite religion is fundamental for the later development of religion in the West. While humanity in the Mesopotamian texts functions as a slave class, in the Hebrew Bible humankind is created in god’s image and bound to him in a legal covenant, an underlying assumption recapitulated in the teachings of Christianity and carried over into Islam.

Yet, throughout history, mystical movements have offered the possibility for a more intimate union with the mysterium fascinans, movements willing to forego the external structure of Judeo-Christian religious practice, for example, and promising their devotees the possibility of not only encountering but actually appropriating the power of the mysterium. And what seems the most compelling aspect of any number of these mystical traditions is their insistence that belief in an eternal, independent self or soul is nothing but an illusion. Instead, what is affirmed as real is the fact that we are identical with the transcendent—that we are in some sense gods ourselves. (“Tat tram asi,” “That art thou!” for example, is an ancient Upanishadic teaching; “Hame ûst,” “All is He!” was the cry of the medieval Persian mystics.)

We, however, live in a society in which dependence on divine power for survival is no longer the essential bond that links the community. The post-Enlightenment privatization of religion, moreover, serves, in effect, to deny the ancients’ claim that the cosmos is one dynamic entity of interdependent spiritual forces. The privatization of religion speaks, instead, of the “sanctity” of pluralism. And pluralism, like privatization, is the enemy of traditional religion, for traditional religion understands the truth it proclaims to be the ultimate truth, not one truth of many equally valid other ones; it understands the world in all its aspects, public and private, as a seamless mirror of the unitary vision of the one, true religion.

If this underpinning of the traditional understanding of transcendence and humankind’s relationship with it has fallen away, where and how do modern men and women identify transcendence, if they do at all? Doubtless many advocates of today’s renewed focus on transcendent power consider themselves radical innovators; on closer scrutiny, however, we find that many of their “discoveries” are merely echoes of the insights articulated by the ancients. Science is a prime example. In the past, science was frequently labeled the enemy of religion. Nowadays, however, science is called upon to corroborate one or more of religion’s claims. Nothing symbolizes this better than the fervor with which many have greeted the “Big Bang” theory, as it seems to translate into scientific terms the explanation of the creation of the universe articulated in the biblical and Qur’ânic texts.

There are many reasons for this shift in “strategy.” Traditionally science and secularism were perceived as synonymous, both directed at combating superstitions and antiquated social structures. Secularity and science represented modern freedom and rationality; religion epitomized anti-modern conformity.

Over time, however, secularism has come under fire as a worldview antithetical to true quality of life. Where, politicians and pundits ask, have ethical values gone? What has happened to the family? Clearly, secular humanism has failed us, as our leaders and our citizens seem to ignore the ideals of commitment, honesty, and service to the needy that have been traditionally associated with the aims of religious practice. Science, however, has not evidenced the same failures. For, at the same time that secularism is faltering, science has begun, some claim, to grapple more creatively with ultimate questions about the meaning of the universe and humankind’s place within it. Consequently, a number of traditional religious communities have discovered that it is through the cooption of science that their own rejuvenation may occur. It is not peculiar to hear claims nowadays that in the Qur’ân, for example, one can discover the latest theories of nuclear physics or medical breakthroughs for the cure of deadly diseases. Science is the newest revelation, leading the faithful to greater levels of experience and insight. It provides not only the traditionally religious man or woman, but the modern secularist as well, with a unique entrée into the multifaceted realm of the mysterium, many of whose mysteries remain to be fathomed. Whereas the ancient Mesopotamians identified the gods as the powers who ensured progress and provided answers to personal and social crises, we can now turn to men and women of science, the priests and priestesses of the modern age who control access to its secrets.

Yet, while science is no longer exclusively identified as a dehumanizing force in society, technology and industrialization—as byproducts of the scientific revolution—continue to come under fire. The problem, we are told, is not that computers and factories are evil, but that our love affair with technology has been fostered at the expense of the world around us. Ironically, biblical texts themselves may have played a role in this affair, as they were frequently deployed from the medieval period to the industrial revolution to support the notion that humans, who supposedly were made stewards over creation, were therefore endowed with the powers to do with that creation what they willed. In the West, then, the world itself became objectified, transformed into an “it,” in contrast to the universe of personified powers described in the writings of many ancient cultures. And, indeed, the consequences of this objectification have been disastrous. From depleted ozone layer to oil spills, we have demonstrated our skill at manipulating and mastering our material conditions. The ensuing environmental crises have precipitated for many a reinvestment in the notion of nature itself as transcendent, and of the human possibility of reestablishing continuity with its powers. Like the ancients, we have begun to recognize that our survival depends on a harmonious interaction with, not opposition to, the forces that surround us.

A re-recognition of nature as a “thou” has led to a renewed questioning of whether or not other realms of I/thou relationships might operate in the cosmos. Many of the advocates of what has come to be called “New Age” religion reaffirm, in fact, “old age” beliefs: that the cosmos is a layered reality; that there are channels through which we can engage the spirits of varying power, both good and evil, that populate it; that the truly proficient can become one with these spirits and thus appropriate their powers. With such beliefs and practices, New Age-ites assert, as did the traditional mystics of the past, that they too are gods. But such presumedly peace-loving attempts to find the god within the human have not been the only response to a secular, social model that has, historically, refused to grant anything more than utilitarian value to the world around us. For there is a habit of violence and abuse of the earth and of others engendered by this utilitarian vision that has been echoed, in much religious thought, by the notion that spiritual transcendence might also be achieved through violence.

The symbol of the crucified Jesus in Christianity, for example, is, to the outsider, an image of grotesque violence: a man with his flesh torn by scourges, head mutilated by a crown of thorns, wrists and feet pierced by nails, and side lanced. To the uninitiated, this bloody tableau might seem a scandal. To the believer, however, that bloodied figure on the cross serves as the sign that god has conquered death by enduring it himself; it is the most powerful and poignant testimony to the conviction that each and every Christian might pass through pain and suffering, cleansed and purified, to enter the next life. The same paradigm is offered in Shî’î Islam, which tells its followers that the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein was martyred in 680 C.E., and that through the shedding of his blood, Shî’îs are saved. In Judaism, the festival of Passover celebrates a people’s liberation from slavery through the intervention of god. Yet this liberation could only occur with that same god’s destruction of Egypt’s first-born sons and the annihilation of the Egyptian armies.

In short, implicit in the myths of many traditional religions is the conviction that violence—either inflicted or endured–is not essentially destructive, but transforming. In this context, we are better able to understand–even if we do not condone—how members of a religious community might resort to violence when they believe their community’s existence is threatened from the outside. An ideological struggle, couched in Manichean terms, sets the stage for the annihilation of the presumed enemy, in many instances painted as corrupted decadents or demonic forces. It is in this context that the concept of martyrdom resonates, for to offer one’s life in the defense of truth against devilish powers is an act of the highest virtue. In the same way, to risk one’s life by perpetrating an act of violence on satanic forces is worthy of the highest merit.

But this conviction—that in killing or dying for the truth, one is defending the community from those who would destroy it—need not be seen solely in religious terms. More interesting, perhaps, is that the rising tide of nationalism and ethnicity, often linked with religious symbols, can provide a fertile ground for ideologues to exploit the symbols of transformational violence. Traditional religion championed the vision of a society unified by a single religious ideal, and delegitimized all other groups that did not subscribe to the same value. So, too, modern nationalism, coupled with ethnic and religious revivalism, has identified its Others as culturally inferior and often as political and moral threats to be exterminated. The naive idealism of the ’60s, whose political and popular culture proposed a global community respectful of the diversity of its members, has been forgotten in the present climate that favors the glorification of one’s nation or group, with concomitant suspicion, even hate, for those who oppose the political agenda implicit in this chauvinism. With all the various forms the quest for the wonder of transcendence takes in our day, many reminiscent of ideals articulated in ancient cultures, the most pervasive and influential, unfortunately, may be that based on transformational violence.

Peter Awn is professor of Islamic and comparative religion at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption, 1983.