The Modern Spirit of Asia:

Looking back while hurtling forward

posted by Richard Madsen

At a time when the late twentieth century giants of comparative social science—like S.N. Eisenstadt and Robert Bellah—have recently passed away and when most of the younger generation of social scientists are preoccupied with narrowly focused research questions, it is heartening to see Peter van der Veer reviving the great tradition of comparative inquiry into the cultural origins and consequences of modernity. The Modern Spirit of Asia is an ambitious book that sets a new standard (and a hard standard to meet!) for comparative studies of religion and modernity. The level of erudition is impressive, but unlike the work of most comparative historical sociologists of an earlier era, the knowledge of historical documents is undergirded by an experiential, ethnographic knowledge of the languages and cultures of India and China (as well as extensive knowledge of European languages). Beset by pressures for specialization and for rapid and steady “productivity,” younger scholars will find it difficult to reach the level of scholarship displayed in this book.

But, ready or not, anyone who wants to grapple seriously with understanding modernity will have to confront the paradigm shift advanced by this book. Van der Veer goes well beyond the classic intellectual frameworks of such great founders of the historical sociology of modern culture as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Eisenstadt and Bellah. For the breadth and subtlety of their visions, they tended to essentialize large civilizations by depicting them as unified wholes. For all their cosmopolitanism, they tended (Hegel more explicitly, but the others more indirectly) to set Western modernity as the standard against which other forms of modernity were to be measured. They tended to gloss over the ways that cultures transformed one another through their interactions and they did not systematically analyze how the forces of imperialism influenced their mutual understandings.

Van der Veer, on the other hand, argues that the very conceptions developed by Western scholars of China or India as unitary cultures are a product of the hidden assumptions of imperialism. And the assumptions of indigenous intellectuals that they are part of a unified cultural whole are also derived from their reactions to imperial power. The notion that Western modernity sets the standard for others, he argues, is also a manifestation of ethnocentrism enabled by hegemonic power.

Although he criticizes Hegel, there is one phrase from Hegel that van der Veer’s work validates: The Owl of Minerva spreads her wings when the shades of dark are falling. His book is about things past: imperialist control of India and domination of China, the rise of Western comparative religious studies, the subsequent influence of these on modernizers in India and China, and the consequences of all this for social revolution and political nation building. This past history is now reinterpreted from the perspective of a new historical situation. The interpretation, the new narrative, is a product of a particular time and place, a postcolonial and post-Cold War world in which things fall apart and Western Europe and the United States have lost some of their hegemony. When hegemonic power declines, to borrow a phrase from another student of Hegel, “all that is solid melts into air.” This includes seemingly solid concepts of what a national culture is, what a world religion is, what a cultural tradition is, and what a modern transformation consists in.

The old certainties may have seemed so plausible because they seemed to have successfully resolved the uncertainties that were a byproduct of imperial interaction. Take for example modern Western notions of the nature of religion, spirituality, secularism, and magic. The increased knowledge of non-Western traditions brought about by imperial outreach in the nineteenth century destabilized Western religious faiths. For some the expanding cultural horizon relativized Western faiths. Having lost their faith, intellectuals could then step back from European Christianity and undertake a putatively “objective” comparative study of religions. Underlying this was often a sense that all religion was a form of illusion that should be overcome in a truly modern, secular society. But the complete rejection of all forms of religion opened up a psychological void and a search for emotional depth that was then relieved by seeking a “spirituality” that supposedly underlay all forms of institutional religion.

On the other hand, the challenge to European faiths inspired vigorous missionary movements that sought to prove the faiths’ superiority and vitality by converting the “heathen.” Van der Veer shows how nineteenth century missionary movements to India and China were different because of their connection with imperialism from the efforts of sixteenth century missionaries like Roberto De Nobili and Matteo Ricci, who went to India and China, respectively, without the same kind of imperial backing. In any case, missionaries were never simple agents of imperialism. Their faith often put them into conflict with commercial and political agents of imperialism, and conversion to Christianity sometimes stirred Indians and Chinese to rebel against imperial interests. Thus the flow of van der Veer’s narrative is constantly breaking up into ironies, contradictions, and multiple causal forces pushing in different directions.

Furthermore, Indian and Chinese modernizers in the twentieth century often were deeply influenced by Western Protestant Christian ideas of true religion even as these nationalistic modernizers saw themselves as drawing on purified indigenous traditions to combat the West. One example was the attempt to separate “magic” from “religion” (actually a Protestant distinction made possible by a strong rejection of Catholic sacramental theology) and to eliminate magic as incompatible with either a secular or religious modernity. But the elimination was never effected and the dialectic between religion, magic, and secularism continues, although the different items in this dialectic are constantly being transformed through their interactions with one another.

What sets van der Veer’s narrative apart from earlier classics in comparative historical sociology is that its units of analysis are not clearly delineated religions or cultures or nations but principles of cognitive and political relationships. The concepts of religion, secularism, spirituality, and magic are “syntagmatic chains”—terms defined in contrast to one another. The actual content of the realities denoted by “religion” and “secularism” for example is constantly changing according to different historical circumstances, but what remains constant is that these terms always gain their meanings through mutual contrast.

Imperial power relationships are also constantly changing according to historical contexts. For example, European imperialist encounters broke the old Chinese empire into many parts but later pulled the collapsed empire together into a nation-state with a myth of a unified national culture to support its fragile political unity. But now, with the collapse of stable structures of the Cold War, the Han Chinese majority faces ethnic-religious conflict with Tibetans and Uyghurs who are joined by transnational alliances of co-religionists. Similar breakdowns and transnational alliances affect Hindu-Muslim relations in India. What is constant are struggles over power. What constantly changes is the composition of the parties to the conflict and the cultural and political resources available to carry out the struggle.

These shifting, disintegrating, and reintegrating social and cultural realities are visible only now with the collapse of the old imperial and neo-imperial orders that previously held them in place. The Owl of Minerva can now write a narrative about the collapse of old master-narratives. By doing this through a deep study of the two major cultures that were transformed by Western imperial modernity, van der Veer helps us see the collapse of Western meta-narratives from the outside.

But the Owl of Minerva is blinded by the bright light of the present and can’t see into the future. Some of this is apparent in van der Veer’s work. His narrative of shifting relations among syntagmatic chains and shifting axes in the struggle for power provides an alternative to the old narratives, but not necessarily a coherent one. One gets a picture of religions, cultures, and worlds in pieces and we are now aware that these pieces were never tightly bound together in the first place. But the portrait of the present is like a jigsaw puzzle still in its box.

His work points the way for many more scholars to further disassemble received historical narratives, to understand the relationship between religion, secularism, spirituality, magic, and politics in terms of the dynamic and inherently unpredictable development of richly complex forms of life within ever changing social contexts. I foresee this becoming a standard way of doing religious studies over the next generation. The problem is that few scholars will have the time, energy, and erudition to produce such a rich and subtle comparative work. So as with Weber before him, this piece of complex scholarship may produce a lot of epigones.

But I would hope it also eventually stimulates a desire to go beyond its paradigm. Intellectuals will eventually want to try to put the jigsaw pieces back together. We now know that modernity comes in many forms and no matter which form it is replete with ironies, contradictions, and conflicts. Is there a way to see a larger unity beyond all of the differences? What could this look like? One possibility would be to discern a kind of unity around common global threats, especially environmental collapse, but also the widening disparities between wealth and poverty that foment widespread social unrest and threaten a new war against all. This is a situation that generates new religious movements, reconfigurations of the traditions that have supported the identities of different corporate groups. If the groups arising from such movements are antagonistic, this can produce holy war anarchy, built around coalitions that transcend state borders and out of control of modern states. But there can also be creative efforts at peace and reconciliation, movements for global justice that cut across boundaries. Some of this could come from reconfigurations of religious traditions. As Robert Bellah wrote at the end of his great book on Religion in Human Evolution, religions arise from a kind of “lamplight consciousness” rather than a “searchlight consciousness.” That is, they do not permanently focus on one thing, one path to one goal. They illuminate, perhaps dimly, almost everything and can motivate action for many different purposes in many directions. That is, they are sources of unpredictable creativity. Future comparative analyses of religion in China, India, and around the world may discern a grand narrative of forces of disintegration contending with global quests for unity. But the Owl of Minerva may have to wait until darkness has fallen on our unsettled current era.

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