The Modern Spirit of Asia is like a brilliant pencil sketch for an uncompleted oil painting. Something inspiring appears in abstract, but the necessary shading hasn’t been done, and any effort at further illumination will necessarily transform what is depicted. The book traces in provocative outline the recent histories of India and China, arguing that neither formulations of modernity were merely derivative or defective imitations of the West, and that the degree of colonial encounter entwined religion and nationalism differently for each. While its larger goals are admirable, it fails to justify them by doing truly original research or rigorous theorizing. I agree with many of Peter van der Veer’s conclusions, but I fear that anyone who isn’t already singing from the same hymnal isn’t going to be converted.
Posts Tagged ‘history’
The Unintended Reformation is an unusual work of history in deliberately focusing as much on the present as on the past, and in emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Reformation era for understanding the Western world today. Having considered issues related to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions in the first part of my response and others related to its historical arguments and omissions in the second part, the principal focus here will be the reactions of the forum participants to my description and assessment of the present. I will also take up speculation about my supposed agenda, and the book’s lack of ideas for solving contemporary problems.
On March 7-8, 2014, Harvard University will be hosting an international conference entitled “Theorizing Religion in Modern Europe.”
A number of the forum reviewers raise objections to various aspects of the historical arguments in The Unintended Reformation. Others criticize me for having neglected what they regard as important omissions that adversely affect the book’s arguments. I will consider each of these sorts of criticisms in turn. Many of these critiques derive from the difficulty of keeping in mind that the book’s structure—a function of its method, which follows from its explanatory purpose as discussed in the first part of my response—distributes phenomena from the same historical era across six chapters rather than keeping them together. In combination with the necessarily compressed exposition, which also derives from the method, this sometimes results in readers not heeding or forgetting what is incorporated elsewhere in the book.
More than 60 reviews of The Unintended Reformation have appeared since January 2012, including forums in four journals (Historically Speaking, Church History, Catholic Historical Review, Pro Ecclesia), in addition to the multiple sessions that have been devoted to the book at professional conferences. The responses here at The Immanent Frame add another ten. I am grateful to my colleagues for their responses, to Jonathan VanAntwerpen and The Immanent Frame for hosting them, and for the opportunity to reply. I am gratified the work has provoked discussion and debate that shows little sign of abating. I am also pleased that most reviewers have acknowledged the book’s ambition and erudition, and that some regard it as an important analysis of modern Western history comparable to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Less satisfying (although not unpredictable) has been the ways in which the book has been misread, misunderstood, and misrepresented by some reviewers, including some respondents here.
As a scholar working and living in the Netherlands, I apparently live in a state of affairs in which disinterested moral disorder reigns: “Whatever the particular country in which they happen to reside, all Westerners now live in the Kingdom of Whatever.” According to Brad Gregory, our present is the endpoint of a process through which we have come to lose “any shared or even convergent view about what ‘we’ think.” The result is a condition in which the grounds for morality might altogether disappear. Or, in more colloquial terms, this lack of a moral framework leads to an attitude of disinterest: “Whatever.”
I suspect that in Gregory’s view the Netherlands must be a prime example of the Kingdom of Whatever. The influence of the Reformation has nestled itself so deep in the soul of the country that Calvinist capitalist frugality and boundless moral liberalism have well-nigh become synonymous with Dutch national character.
Or at least, so the narrative goes.
This short essay draws up the principal ideas from a book chapter concerning the historical field of Chinese religions in comparative context in order to identify its distinctive problems and possible pathways. In order to distinguish religions in the Sinosphere from other state-religion relationships in the longue durée, we need to identify how the state and religions have managed the question of transcendence. Scholars working with the Axial Age theories of religion have often expressed confusion or hesitation with regard to Chinese notions of transcendence. I argue that Chinese religions have a transcendent dimensions often missed by analysts because they operate with an Abrahamic notion of radical transcendence and dualism rather than what I call “dialogical transcendence.”
For Tricycle, an independent Buddhist publication, Linda Heuman interviews David McMahan, scholar of Buddhism and modernity, and author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism.
The efflorescence of religious life in China over the past thirty-some years has been truly amazing. In the rural areas and small towns of Wenzhou, on the country’s southeastern coast, where I have conducted fieldwork for the past twenty years, one can find periodic religious festivals celebrated in the streets and see people hold their annual ancestor sacrificial rituals. New and restored deity temples, ancestor halls, Daoist and Buddhist temples, and Protestant and Catholic churches have sprung up at a similarly frantic pace. Yi Jing (易经, “Book of Changes”) diviners, fortune-tellers, geomantic fengshui masters, and spirit mediums all enjoy a prosperous business. Even in mega-cities like Shanghai, where most of the population is firmly secular, one still finds much religious activity. In 2012, I found the main City God Temple in Shanghai gleaming with new interior décor, funded by wealthy families who spend hundreds of thousands of yuan hiring Daoist priests to conduct rituals to ensure family health and prosperity. Furthermore, the growing field of religious studies in China no longer feels the need to restrict research to the safety of the historical past. A new generation of younger scholars conducts fieldwork on the rich and diverse religious life found in all corners of the country today.
How will the relationship between the state and religion in China evolve in the next decade, presumably under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping? To make any sensible predictions about the future development of the state-religion relationship in China, we have to go back in time. Two reference points are especially important: 1979 and 1966.
In 1979, after thirteen years of failed attempts to eradicate religion from the entire society, the ban on religion was lifted. A limited number of churches, temples, and mosques began to reopen for religious worship services. It is important to know that this new policy stemmed from pragmatic considerations rather than from doctrinal change: its purpose was to rally people from all walks of life, including religious believers, for the central task of economic development under the new leadership of the CCP.