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Facing The Fire On High


new internationalist
issue 210 - August 1990

Mao inspired the fervent belief not just of Chinese but of a generation of Western radicals.
Facing the fire on high

We will never counter fundamentalism by asking
people to stop and think, argues Chris Brazier.

I wouldn't count myself as a very spiritual person. I have always tended to see the political and the spiritual as polar opposites and argued from an atheist or at least agnostic standpoint. 'If God stands by and condones world hunger,' I often used to say, 'if He allows so many people such a minimal, pathetic chance in life in the name of some cosmic non-interference policy then He is not anyone I would want to serve.'

And yet.when I look back over my life I remember significant moments when I have been drawn to the idea of surrendering to God and faith. Walking through New Orleans at an impressionable 18, for example, I was accosted by evangelists on the street, invited in for a meal and talk and offered the chance and the bliss of surrender to God. 'Just open yourself up to Christ and invite him in,' they said. 'We envy you the moment when He enters your life, the happiness you will feel when you know you have come home.' And for a while back there I was sorely tempted... Even after I had tumbled out on to the street in search of a bit of perspective, their Intrusive and Omniscient God seemed to hang over the rooftops of the French Quarter. It was with great relief that I came back down to the earthiness of jazz, prostitution and sordid commerce.

The very act of surrender is appealing in such cases. By buying into a package of certainties you are at the same time kissing goodbye to a wasteland of anxiety and rootlessness. If God or Allah is out there holding everlasting truth and meaning, then all we have to do is submit to His will (the very word Islam means submission).

How can the secular Westerner match this attractiveness? Answer: with other kinds of faith. I didn't give in to the messianic tempters in New Orleans. But a couple of years later I certainly bought into a package of faith in a different-coloured parcel.

In my university hall of residence I lived next door to a student who had recently 'invited Christ into his life' and had all the bright-eyed enthusiasm of the new convert. He would try desperately to convert me; I would try just as passionately to undermine his new certainty. It seemed to me like I won the argument time and again - coming up triumphantly with discrepancies between Old and New Testaments, exposing his own illogic. But he was never truly shaken. What mattered was his faith, his personal relationship with God and 'Truth' - my rational arguments, however convincing, were never going to shake his happiness.

By then I had my own evangelizing to do: I had discovered Maoism, or at least my own interpretation of it, which ran along these lines. People were born as blank sheets, tabulae rasae. They became what the world made them. Violence, injustice, oppression - everything negative emerged from a selfishness which had to be purged by proper education in the art of living for the good of others. Such education could only be controlled by a benevolent state. These totalitarian notions excluded any sense of a soul that was immune to social engineering. Yet they gave me a watertight system with an answer for everything - and my belief in it was utterly religious.

How can the Western secular project possibly compete with this kind of certainty? All it offers is unending angst, a difficult terrain of mountainous doubts and ethical potholes. When the Fire On High of fundamentalism flares up, is there really no alternative but to grit our teeth and get on with the job of patient, rational persuasion'?

Ultimately I'm not sure that's enough. Fundamentalism isn't simply an escape from the complexity of life. It is also a response to the spiritual vacuum at the heart of modern Western society. The young people who 'dropped out' in the 1960s - wandering off in search of Eastern wisdom or journeying deep into their own skulls via hallucinogens - were escaping a materialism more pervasive than at any time in human history. Few of these counter-culturites found a coherent alternative, which may help explain the conservative reaction of the late I 970s and I 980s. But the same impulse to explore alternatives to the empty greed at the heart of Western culture is now flowering again.

And as radicals who are as hostile to the capitalist project as to the fundamentalist one, we weaken our case unduly by denying the spirit. It isn't enough to say 'Stop! Think about what you are doing'. People are craving more than rationality -they are craving meaning. And that is why the surge of the Green movement is such a hopeful sign. We can talk about Deep Greenness as a kind of fundamentalism in itself, throwing off the Machine Age and the evils that have befallen us since we last baked our own bread and hoed our own patch of earth. But the Green movement is powerful and resonant nonetheless. It has started to reach people in such mass numbers not because it tells them about the pollution problem, the exhaustion of resources and so on - that information has been around for decades.

No. Green thinking has power and resonance because it is more than thinking. It talks in almost religious terms of the earth and cosmic principles of balance. It is a Western version of Eastern religion - like Taoism and Buddhism. it sees humans as inseparable from nature rather than mighty conquerors of it. And it values our inner lives in contrast to the unyielding materialism of both Left and Right.

If we are to have a chance of rolling back the waves of fundamentalism our resistance must be spiritual as well as rational. Otherwise we have not a hope in hell of success.

Chris Brazier is an NI co-editor.

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