issue 155 | January 1986
Flame of Faith
THE local Hindus had been preparing for weeks for Thaipusan. It was one of the great religious festivals of the Malaysian Indian community and a time when young men like Siva proved their mettle. You could glimpse the frenzied activity down leafy back allies and narrow side streets as coloured lights, tinfoil, peacock feathers and pots of red, green and yellow paint were unpacked.
Siva, too, was preparing for Thaipusan. Last year, he had skewered his cheeks and carried a decorated kavadi supported by wire threads and tiny hooks in his chest and back. This year he was building a chariot to honour the gods. He spent weeks painstakingly hammering and sawing in the cool of early morning, pouring his soul and more than a few weeks pay into its construction.
When the great day came Siva and his friends pulled the chariot through the crowds. The steaming Penang streets were clogged with celebrants and smashed coconut shells and throbbed with high-pitched Indian music. Much later, in the quiet of the temple, the wounds from this year's hooks were daubed with sacred ash by the priest. Then the streets were swept clean, the crowds thinned and the festival was over for another year.
Siva breezed into work on his Honda the following Monday. Humming a Stevie Wonder pop song, he began to coax some dust out from under the lunch table into a plastic dustpan. A smudge of grey ash was barely evident on both cheeks. The curtain of work had descended again and Thaipusan was a fading moment of glory from last week. He had asked for a 'boon' from the gods, received it and paid his debt publicly. And in the process he had brought himself, his family and friends status and respect.
No existential trauma, no embarrassment, no doubts. He was a Hindu - he had been born a Hindu, his friends were Hindus. What could be more natural?
For Siva, as for most people in the Third World, religion is not something to agonize over. Like parents and in-laws, floods and famines, death and taxes - faith is part of life.
Not just a personal matter, but part of the life of the community.
Whether it's the tightly knit Tamil culture of Malaysia or a small Catholic village in El Salvador, religion in the Third World is seamlessly woven into the fabric of community life. That's why Indian peasants or African villagers are often astounded by Westerners who claim to have no god. When faith is so intimately bound to the way the world is perceived, meeting an irreligious person falls into the same category as meeting an alien from outer space.
Religion has not had the same smooth sailing in the West. In fact, it's fair to say the mainstream churches in North America and Europe have been fighting a rearguard battle for nearly 300 years.
The 'Enlightenment' opened the first chink in the armour of organized religion. It began with thinkers like Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. Slowly but surely the twin gods of rational inquiry and scientific scepticism undermined supernatural explanations of the universe. Things magical or mysterious fell into place: the solar system, the working of the human body, the causes and cures for deadly diseases and eventually the secrets of life itself. The whole moral order of the Christian universe began to dissolve like a wet tissue before the onslaught of pragmatic science.
Instead of God sitting comfortably in the centre of the universe, people had to take responsibility for themselves. Life on earth was logically seen as the result of human action, not the result of some preordained plan made in Heaven. The omnipotent and omniscient force that had been the explanation and the reason for all of nature, history and human action, was forced to retreat to the sidelines. Christian theologians have been attempting to bring God back to centre field ever since.
New social order
This process of secularization picked up steam with the great social dislocations of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. The sacred was being slowly peeled away from the world of politics and economics. As the populations in the new industrial towns grew, the number of active churchgoers steadily declined. By 1851, only 42 per cent of the population of England and Wales attended church regularly. In the worst slum parishes the estimate was less than ten per cent.
The old authority of God and tradition no longer held sway in this new social order. It became clear to industrial workers that it was not God, but the factory managers and owners who were responsible for their lot.
Karl Marx and other social reformers spearheaded a growing opposition to organized religion. The church was criticized as a pie-in-the-sky diversion, promising comfort and contentment in the hereafter in exchange for social conformity and obedience to authority in the present.
Marx himself, in an infamous dictum, said that religion is 'the opium of the people'. But he put his finger on a more profound problem by adding: 'Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions.'
It was precisely these 'spiritless conditions' that loomed larger as fantastic leaps in technology and industrial prowess ushered in the post-war age of consumerism. Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche had already announced the 'death of God' while 20th-century Christian theologians were pushed into trying to define a new role for a modern God who had been supplanted by science. The buzz phrase was 'god-of-the-gaps' - a kind of spiritual mortar to plug the murky regions of doubt and dread that science and technology could not reach.
Denied its public role, hived off from the world of economics and industry, religion increasingly became a matter for private conscience and personal contemplation. God was not dead after all; he had merely retreated to the realm of the personal. Faith, for those who had it, was a source of spiritual strength and nourishment. It didn't matter that particle physics and genetics explained the physical workings of the world. Religion could not be pushed into a corner of the human psyche and forgotten like a bad dream. Faith, theologians like Marcel Eliade began to realize, 'is an element in the structure of consciousness, not a stage in the history of consciousness'.
By the early 1970s religion appeared to be making a comeback - in spite of hardening secular trends. Consumer culture offered the riches of the ages, but somehow it wasn't enough. According to American religion writer Harvey Cox, 'something had been lost; and what is lost seems to be religious: the sacred, the element of mystery in life, the transcendent, the spiritual dimension, a morality firmly grounded in revealed truth.'
The Nicaraguan priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal put this passion for the spiritual another way:
A New order. Or rather
a new heaven and a new earth.
New Jerusalem. Neither New York nor Brasilia
A passion for change: the nostalgia of that city. A beloved community
We are foreigners in Consumer City
The new man, and not the new Oldsmobile.
At the very deepest levels our spiritual needs seem as great as ever. Believers want a full-blooded religion that packs an emotional punch. One that provides both meaning and values for us to live by and that offers us a purpose beyond the bottomless hollow of consumer culture.
In Western countries this search for a solid spiritual anchor has again put religion and the church at the very centre of an intense political debate. In countries like Canada, the US, Britain and Australia, fundamentalist Christianity has gained a new lease on life, pulling in adherents from mainstream churches and making loud noises about contentious social issues.
Fundamentalist preachers offer a clear prescription for both personal and social behaviour. They want not only to preserve the faith, to swing it back to its roots; they also want to inject an old-fashioned morality into our permissive secular era. Spokesmen like US preacher Jerry FaIwell offer a smooth blend of personal salvation and down-home values.
'There is going to be an invasion of God on this planet, and changing of lives: real biblical evangelization', FaIwell says. And that means 'we must come back to the only principles that God can honour: the dignity of life, the traditional family, decency, morality'.
In practice, though, this fundamentalist morality is shot through with right-wing ideology. It poses a stark literalist vision of good and evil which neatly polarizes the world into two warring camps. Mr.Falwell and his supporters lay the blame for the world's ills on the twin demons of 'godless communism' and 'godless secularism'. The fundamentalist solution is to put women back in the kitchen, blacks in their place, gays in psychiatric hospitals and Marxists in church. It is a poisonous theology and a dangerous one. But it has to be taken seriously.
Speaking with authority
There is no question that fundamentalism scares the traditional churches - precisely because it works. Jerry FaIwell and his Christian colleagues offer a theology that is simple, even crude. But it is also a faith which resonates with real life, which puts people at ease and which triggers the emotions as well as the intellect.
People have also turned to 'new' religions, from guru-based cults to scientology, in a frantic search for alternatives to the sterility of modern Christianity.
Partially in response to this and the overlap between fundamentalist theology and right-wing politics, mainstream Western churches have begun to come alive again. They now speak loudly about social justice and the need to build community. British churches have taken a strong lead in public education on Third World development; the US Catholic bishops have blasted the Reagan administration on its arms policy; the Canadian bishops have fired a stinging salvo at their government's orthodox economic policies. Established churches everywhere have taken clear positions on apartheid.
But other domestic concerns have also galvanized the major Western churches: unemployment, sexism, racism and the criminal justice system. The church is once again speaking with authority, conviction and confidence. And in the process it has vaulted back into the political limelight.
This religious revival has not been confined only to the West. In many ways it is a pale reflection of a fierce battle which is taking place in much of the Third World. There, the Western industrial model has stormed through in less than 40 years, upsetting patterns of community and worship which have been more or less stable for centuries. Fundamentalists of all stripes have leapt into this confused vortex.
The austere morality and severe vision of Iran's militant mullahs has won new converts to Islamic fundamentalism from Pakistan to Indonesia. And in black Africa and Latin America, fundamentalist Protestants continue to make inroads. According to the conservative US magazine, Christianity Today, there may be 100 million Protestants in Latin America by the year 2000 - most of them fundamentalists.
For Latin Americans concerned with social change, the impact of this conservative theology is a real threat. There is already clear evidence of Protestant groups in Central America being used to channel American funds to mercenaries attempting to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
Another sort of 'people's' religion has also emerged in Latin America, a vibrant form of Christianity whose contagious energy has swept through the Roman Catholic Church from Korea and the Philippines to South Africa and Chile. Liberation theology came to life in the favelas of Brazil. But it has taken root wherever the poor have been brushed aside by modern development and the church hierarchy has catered to the rich and powerful.
Liberation theology puts God and the poor together at the centre of the world. Christ is seen as a liberator, the son of God who suffered and died for the rights of the poor - and for whom justice was an earthly as well as a heavenly concern. According to liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, poverty is not a fact of life but a result of sin by the powerful - and therefore a cause of God's wrath. Accepting poverty is akin to accepting sin. So being a Christian means not only changing your ideas, it also means changing your life. And that is why liberation theology is sending shock waves through the developing world. It challenges not only individuals, but inept governments, corrupt bureaucrats, big landlords and greedy businessmen.
So where does all this leave us? In the end we still confront the same yawning void humankind has faced since the beginning. In the words of Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt, 'we are still prompted to religious dread and longing by the thought of our own death, our own littleness, and the precariousness of human values in the face of Nature's vast indifference'.
We all confront these profound questions in different ways. Some of us are actively religious, many of us are not. Yet we all need faith in something - beyond the soul-destroying consumer culture that threatens to enervate us completely. The main thing we must do is take each other's faith seriously, whether it's faith in a better world or faith in God. It's time we dropped our arrogance and snobbery and began to see we're all in the same predicament.
But one thing we can't do is lose our critical edge. That's because religion cuts both ways. While faith can offer us a pathway to understanding the human purpose, religion has also sparked the worst of human passions - hatred, bigotry, intolerance, pride and bloodshed. When that side of faith surfaces we must be on our guard against religion and be prepared to speak out forcefully against it.
In the meantime, if we cannot agree on our approach to God, let's at least agree on our approach to the enemy: the rootless nihilism of the modern age.
This special report appeared in the flame of faith - religion, politics & everyday life issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.