Monday, March 1, 2010

Religion less as creedal assertion and more as embedded, embodied practice

Visioning a civilised democracy ET, 4 Feb 2010, Kiran Karnik

Sigmund Freud believed that the first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization. Sixty years of the Republic is as good a time as any to keep this in mind as we reflect on and, if necessary, refine or redefine the vision for the country. Of late, the 'super-power' tag, as a goal, has gained ascendancy amongst many people; others prefer descriptions like "economic power-house" or "a seat at the high table". The objective branding of 'biggest democracy' has been supplemented by the corporate favourite: "fastest growing free-market democracy". Many also focus on India’s cultural richness and talk of India’s 'soft power'. […] 

Sadly, democracy occasionally degenerates into majoritarianism. A majority riding roughshod over the rights or views of a minority certainly cannot be the vision for India; nor an aggressive, organised minority coercing others through threats… These regressive and fascist tendencies often ride on linguistic or regional chauvinism, caste or religious identity, or xenophobic pseudo-patriotism.   

The Spirit and Form of an Ethical Polity: a Meditation on Aurobindo’s Thought by Sugata Bose, Modern Intellectual History, 4, 1 (2007), Posthuman Destinies
The Indian intellectual deserves to be put on a par with the European thinker and, as Kris Manjapra argues, ought to be viewed “as engaging and revising through phronesis” the full range of Indian, European and in-between ideational traditions which he or she encountered.9 … In 1905 Bepin Pal wrote of the new patriotism in India, different from the period when Pym, Hampden, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Kossuth and Washington were “the models of young India”. The old patriotism “panted for the realities of Europe and America only under an Indian name”. “We loved the abstraction we called India”, Pal wrote, “but, yes, we hated the thing that it actually was.”

Taking exception to American exceptionalism by George Shulman, The Immanent Frame, Feb 26, 2010

The United States is an empire in decline, as well as a nation under enormous economic duress, and civil religion remains the language by which people here struggle to engage and make sense of those circumstances. The very decline of American power will intensify attachment to the language and symbols typically associated with civil religion, and politicians will feel incredible pressure to invoke it, because they strategically seek electoral legitimacy, and because they themselves are deeply invested in, gripped by, an “American” political identification. The only alternative is that Americans mourn their investment in empire—i.e., in being god’s chosen nation and the “world’s greatest superpower”—to confront and accept the loss of a beloved identity and worldly power. […]

But as Asad also argues, we need to see religion less as creedal assertion and more as embedded, embodied practice. In just these terms, in turn, David Morgan’s post redefines “civil religion,” not as a set of beliefs, but as a body of practices that convene people and conjure their aspirations toward a future. While Morgan holds onto the national frame, and repeats the futile effort to distinguish a “civic patriotism” from its dark double, his turn toward practices is incredibly important as a way to think what “religion” means if we put the focus on democracy, rather than nationality. […]

If we imagine democracy, not as creedal doctrine, but as liturgical practices embedded in ordinary life, then perhaps we can salvage something of value from the nationalist (and religious) traditions braided by the discourse of civil religion. To truly listen to those the enfranchised have cast out as others, to hear their experience of the conduct of the enfranchised and their sense of their own needs, and to debate what that testimony means about how security and identity are conceived, is to begin to rebuild a democratic life in which “the people,” or political community, is reconstituted. That life has creedal elements, to be sure, but politics is a relation to people, not principles, and is thus a relation that requires listening as well as claim-making and conflict. My thought, then, is to shift from seeking to define a benign civil religion focused on state sovereignty in national form, as if democracy is thereby housed or engendered, to exploring “democracy” directly in popular and local, but also electoral practices. We should ask what practices constitute this form of life, and should identify the dispositions, capacities, and commitments we must try to engender if we are to sustain it. Such questions by no means require a localist answer, and indeed will generate arguments in favor of state power, as well as deep conflict over competing claims to represent both “the people” and a democratic faith.

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