The Negotiation of World Peace through Religion: The Postmodern Cause?

Michael York

Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies


What ever else it is or may be, religion is an expression of culture. Religion describes the ways different parts of humanity phrase their relationship to the universe. All human culture conforms to a universal pattern which includes such things as the recognition of a specific language, the use of fire and tools, a food technology, some technical solution to protection from the variations of climate, the family and community, aesthetic elaboration and a system of meaning assignment and value allocation. Every human culture provides for educating and assimilating those born within it. Intimately connected with any specific culture is its common language system - the pattern or structure of its communication, and like culture in general, all languages change in time as part of the cultural process of realignment and readjustment. It would seem therefore that part of the question of late modernism and postmodernity and any incipient questioning of these relates to the very problem of cultural and linguistic change and any inevitable resistance to these.

But as the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1960:329) asserted, the history of humanity's ability to change existing ways of doing things, either by making innovations or by learning from other peoples, is the history of an increasing recognition that the things done are learned - that they are dependent in style on the culture from which they were learned and are in no sense inalienably related to race, lineage, historical antecedents or the particular part of the earth on which one happens to live. The key idea behind Mead's understanding of culture as a "system of learned, transmissible, and modifiable behavior through which the human species has been able to survive, multiply, maintain themselves and elaborate their relationships within groups and between groups, between themselves and their environment," (1960:328) is that cultures change; they are not static or fixed creations. Each new generation "borrows, invents, modifies, and adapts the system of habits which it receives from its predecessors and the members of neighboring cultures," and "As these people use new customs which were originally adapted to men and women with different habits, they modify them. They select parts to emphasize and others to de-emphasize. They introduce changes which make the institution more workable" (Mead, 1960:330f).

Today, we refer to this process of cultural selectivity and modification as cultural supermarket consumerism. But this very process is in itself indicative of the human being's experience of other ways of life - whether cultural broadly or religious specifically - and his or her ability to value them. Nevertheless, it is facile and erroneous to assess a culture as capable of being or becoming a commodity. Cultural or religious items may be commercial or semi-commercial articles, but a culture or religion itself is a system or pattern or structured social situation - even an organic system - of human inventions and observations which human beings have made and within which they live. The word `culture' derives from the Latin cultus - the past participle of the verb colere which denotes `tilling', `cultivating', even `worshipping'. A culture is something which is cultivated - not something which is bought and sold, and the borrowing or incorporation or interchange of meaningful inventions or ideas between different cultures is an inevitable and organic part of genuine directional change. The attribution that postmodern consumerism reduces culture to a commodity is naive, judgmental and fails to recognize the essential dynamics of social change as well as the different parameters of the contemporary world situation. All culture is in a perpetual process of change, realignment and readjustment, and postmodernity is simply the recognition of the very act of transformation which is occurring at the present within Western society.

One must be careful, however, not to confuse the postmodern with the premodern. This last is something which antedates the present; it is not of the current form or style but directly located to an earlier moment in time. The postmodern, on the other hand, may incorporate elements from the past - perhaps even eclectically - but it represents a new synthesis or perhaps even a grafting onto the modern itself. The postmodern, in one sense, represents an extension of the new rather than a strict repudiation of it. Looked at this way, fundamentalism can be seen as a postmodern reaction which seeks a premodern restitution. It is a premodern literalistic response to the modern/postmodern situation. In a sense, the fundamentalist seeks a recapturing of the purity of a past state of being or a former condition of understanding. The `new religiosity', on the other hand, is the more direct legacy of postmodernity. It incorporates various mixtures of the scientific, that is, the modern, as well as the scientistic and the reconstructionistic. It does not seek a return to the past but an incorporation of it or at least parts of it into the present. Likewise, it does not so much seek a denial of the modern and scientific as it does an extension of these - or a concurrent development with them. In this sense, in the understanding of postmodernism from the vantage of its origins as an aesthetic term within the arts, the broad gamut of the `new religiosity' as understood in New Age, Human Potential, Neo-paganism, Goddess Spirituality and Creation Spirituality is indicative of postmodernity rather than being, as is fundamentalism, a reaction to it.

The diffusion process of human cultural change, however, has traditionally depended on a degree of separation and isolation between cultures to allow the spontaneous development of significant variations. But now, in our modern/postmodern contemporary world, the striking contrasts between civilizations are ceasing to exist and variation is becoming increasingly dependent on new internal forms. The pluralistic society of postmodernity may provide the basis for spontaneous innovation and invention in an otherwise increasingly homogeneous world. Part of this postmodern pluralism is the variety of religious denominations, cults, sects and new religious movements which make up humanity's religious life. Though there is the modern recognition that human institutions and cultures are man-made, according to Mead (1960:331), "new religious cults and sects almost invariably still try to invest the simplest learned procedures of everyday life ... with some kind of rigid relationship to their own special and recently discovered supernaturally sanctioned way of life." Mead's observation is equally applicable to the current resurgence of various fundamentalisms. But even so, this condition of religious sectarianism appears to encourage the very emergence of communal distancing necessary to foster a continual ferment of growth, newness and accommodation. In the postmodern world at large, one increasingly comes to realize that culturally, linguistically and religiously determined forms of behaviour are only `one of a series' of possible patterns. This awareness allows increase in response and the articulation and development of new social concepts. In a word, postmodernity allows for the very cultivation of culture and not, as its critics contend, its prostitution.

The commodity criticism of postmodernity does not recognize that culture is itself a series of integrated systems based on the structured interweaving of various basic components and compositions rather than ad hoc and random agglomerations. Traditional religion has been formulated in terms of belief, but postmodern religion has increasingly come to assert that belief per se is NOT essential to religious orientation. Where postmodern critics assert that belief has become fragmented, a matter of personal preference and `a commodity to be packaged for the market-place', much of the `new religiosity' contends that belief is optional and of secondary importance. It is perhaps on this point that the new religious networks most challenge the traditional stance of religion. In a postmodern world in which beliefs, like cultures, are recognized as `one of a series' of possible options, what becomes required is that we accept a particular framework of ritual and symbolism in which to operate as containing age-old truths which are not literal but which are hidden and whose truth will unfold over the years as we integrate them into our own lives. The `new religiosity' considers that truth is never more than a metaphor and that worship does not necessitate belief.  One might say, in fact, that postmodern religion is based on what is done rather than on what is believed. Prevailing over belief or belief-systems from this perspective is experience - specifically what Robert Wuthnow cites as the `peak experiences' of the mystic mode of orientation which comprise `altered states of consciousness' as well as intense feelings of ecstasy and joy (vide Adler, 1986:154). Consequently, it is less a question of `belief-fragmentation' in postmodernity as it is one of `belief-devaluement'. The locus of the individual and personal exegesis become the determinants of what is to be believed if anything, and it is the shared experience of particular frames-of-reference which allow the associations and networks which are becoming characteristic of postmodernity.

Postmodern critics tend to translate the abandonment of belief and shared doctrine into a position of skepticism and/or nihilism. True enough, postmodernism in part appears to be a legacy of the existentialism of Sartre and Camus among others which stresses the uniqueness of the individual and the isolation of personal experience within a universe which is indifferent if not hostile to humanity. But part of this existential inheritance is the consequent emphasis on human freedom, choice and concomitant responsibility for action and meaning.[1] To someone with the perspective of a traditional belief-system which accepts supernatural sanction, the postmodern position is blasphemy. But to the degree that social science presents any particular belief-system as `one among many' possibilities, it suggests an implicit theology through its relativizing of all theologies whether traditional or new. Through sociology, society and culture themselves become the images of transcendence. This implied theology is what Wuthnow terms the social-scientific meaning system, and its inherent libertarian consequence promoting diversity over conformity encourages the very non-conventional experimentation characteristic of postmodernity and challenging to traditional religion.

But postmodernism as understood through the `new religiosity' is in part a skeptical affirmation that absolute knowledge of the supernatural and/or transcendent is not possible, and in this respect, it differs little from the traditional position of Christianity which denies the ability of the finite human mind to comprehend the infinitude of God. Postmodern skepticism - a legacy perhaps from sociology and the sociology of religion in particular - relativizes truth as a product of the religio-cultural system to which the individual belongs. In the religious pluralism coming to characterize Western society, the religious choice is no longer pre-set but a range of different and differently understood options. This situation itself tends to reduce the certitude in any kind of absolute truth. But at the same time, it encourages an unprecedented form of individual and social freedom which allows religion to survive as it is `consumed' rather than enforced.

Skepticism of course is part of the methodology of science - one in which sociology itself partakes. The process of doubting is integral to science's objective of relative or approximate certainty, but where postmodernity differs from scientific modernity is in its acceptance of supernatural and/or metaphorical truth which is nevertheless outside the domain of proper scientific inquiry. The typical, `trans-skeptical' position holds that we need to find ways of allowing more intuitive energy into our lives today without, at the same time, throwing out all the benefits that the rational scientific mind has brought us (Lonegren, 1991:118). The postmodernity of the `new religiosity' does not deny the utility and validity of legitimate scientific inquiry, but it also asserts the spiritual reality encoded within the metaphorical world of myth and religion. It has moved beyond the limits of logical positivism and scientific empiricism to explore what it perceives as a magical-mystical reality only fragmentedly retained or perceived in any given, traditional religious belief-system. For the postmodern individual, skepticism frees one from the narrow-minded thinking which comes from too total an immersion within any particular religion to begin the trek toward the spiritual apprehension which unites all religion. Since no two individuals are the same, no two spiritual paths are identical. Each individual must find his or her own particular way. If the individual is confronted with a bewildering array of choice through the spiritual supermarket of our times, perhaps the future of postmodernity is to transform this supermarket into what Robert Hughes (1980,1991:412) refers to as the post-modernist delicatessen. In other words, to refine the range of choice.

The deconstructive project of postmodernity endeavors to `hear the call of the other'. But this last is contingent upon creating the space in which the other can be heard. According to Jacques Derrida and Bill Martin, the other is to be found on the margins of society and culture. The marginal traditionally includes, at least in the West, the Jewish people, women, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, the poor, the disenfranchised, people of color, immigrants and sectarians as well as cultists. But in our Western secular culture of today, religion itself is becoming increasingly marginal and found more and more on the fringe of everyday concerns and activities. All of us who are here today are in some sense marginal. So we too have a stake in the processes through which the other can speak. We too must be concerned with the creation of that space which can punctuate any predominant and suffocating assimilation to oneness and similarity.

The Parliament of the World's Religions offers us a unique possibility in which to find that needed space. The Parliament offers the possibility through which the religious viewpoints can come together, commune together and seek ways of peacefully negotiating differences together. But to do this, to form a living and viable gathering which celebrates our very diversity, participation in any on-going forum can only be predicated on the tolerance and acceptance if not encouragement as well of any and all other religious claimants.

We live in a world in which, according to extrapolations from the World Christian Encyclopedia of 1982, one half the population is either Christian or Moslem. Slightly more than one-fifth of the world's total population is either non-religious or atheist, and slightly less than one-fifth is either Hindu or Buddhist. Of the remaining ten percent of the people on the planet earth, something more than half this number is pagan of one sort or another whether animist, spiritist or polytheist. New religions claim approximately 2% of the world's population, while all other religions - including Judaism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Baha’i and Jainism total together less than 1%. Now these are only figures and only roughly estimated ones at that, but they serve to give us some idea of the religious profile of our human race. And they also serve to give us some idea of the possible distribution of religious voices in a full Parliament of the World's Religions.

A religion can be defined, in fact, must be defined, as any shared positing of the identity of and relationship between humanity, the world and the supernatural in the establishment of meaning and allocation of value. This is a wide, a very wide, definition of religion, and one which potentially at least would allow all viewpoints in the universal forum which the Parliament of the World's Religions could become. For instance, some forms of materialism, marxism, humanism and Buddhism deny the existence or value of the supernatural, while some forms of transcendentalism deny the existence or value of the world. But these are all religious viewpoints nonetheless and mandate admittance to the congress of religiously oriented solution-finding which seeks to address the conflicts and problems humanity faces in establishing a viably peaceful co-existence.

The task before us now is twofold. One is to augment and continue this occasion of the Parliament on a more frequent and continual basis. We must find the physical mechanisms to keep this gathering an on-going project. And secondly, and more importantly if this project is to be a viable one in the first place, we must find the religious voice or voices through which all human grievances and conflicts can speak and grant them admission to our forum of address. Because, in the final analysis and in the proper task of religion in this postmodern era, the vision of the future rests on the mutual respect all religions must learn to have for each other - a respect upon which negotiation itself becomes our most sacred expression.





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[1] On the insecurity of modern social life and the inherent liberating consequences of this realization and condition, see Berger (1961). Berger also stresses the role the social sciences have played in producing this sense of precariousness as well as the freedom of alternation which can develop from it. Berger cites that for some people "we are now living at the beginning of the `post-Christian era'" (p. 19).