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Sunday, November 03, 2002

What I Finished Reading Today:

The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism by Karen Armstrong

Hoping to glean a better understanding of current world events, my husband and I signed up for a workshop on religious fundamentalism that our church will be offering in a couple of weeks, and it was suggested that we read this book before attending the class. So we picked it up a few weeks ago, and have been very glad we did.

In general, this is a very dense history of the world's three major religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - detailing their development over the last 2,000 years or so, and showing how the developments in the various religions have accompanied, sparked or otherwise related to major political and social developments during the same period. The focus, however, is really on the battle between "logos" (logical thought) and "mythos" (spiritual thought), which were equally valued by early man as very separate entities, both of which were quite necessary to daily life. The author contends that many of the world's religious and political problems have come as a result of modernization, which has increasingly valued logos over mythos, and has now nearly banished mythos from daily life. But because humans, by nature, still need mythos, they periodically try to bring it back into their lives. And because we've forgotten how to strike a real balance between logos and mythos, mythos-starved groups too often overcompensate, and try to replace logos with mythos. And when mythos takes over in the realm of logos (for example in politics and government), all sorts of terrible things happen (such as the Crusades, Palestinian suicide bombers, etc.)

According to author Armstrong, the yearning for a return to mythos is what gives rise, periodically, to various fundamentalist religious movements, in all of the three major religions. She contends that all such movements are, in fact, fear-based retreats from a (usually modern) society that has moved too far into logos and away from mythos, and that - ironically, since they are a wholly modern phenomenon - they represent a move back toward more pre-modern patterns of thought and action. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the current differences between the world's most modern (i.e. mostly western) cultures and cultures which are still based on more pre-modern sensibilities, such as many of those in the middle east.

In fact, she notes, many middle eastern cultures never did modernize thoroughly, and often weren't too successful with the attempts they did make to copy modern elements that originated more organically in other cultures. And while modern cultures have always valued a separation of church and state, and secular rule for their nations, pre-modern cultures still believe in the supremacy of god and religious rule in all things. They find it unfathomable - and the antithesis of all that is holy - for a nation to so thoroughly secularize itself as all the major western powers have done. (Thus their characterizations of us as "the great Satan" or equivalent terms of evil.)

In the west, however, we long ago got used to the idea that "revolution" is synonymous with the overthrow of ancient religion-based rule, and with the increasing secularization of a society (e.g. the birth of the U.S., the French revolution, Russia, China, etc.). So we tend to think of modernization (and all movement over time is toward modernization, right?) as a series of moves increasingly away from such "primitive" ideas. And as a result, we're having a terrible time these days wrapping our minds around the idea that various revolutions in the middle east in the past 20 years are going in exactly the opposite direction - reclaiming somewhat secularized and only partially modernized nations and transforming them back into pre-modern religion-based societies. But this is exactly what is happening, and it really can't be understood by looking through the lenses with which we in much more modern societies have been using to view the world for many generations now.

In fact, according to this book, to a large extent, what we're really seeing out there is a probably failure of modernity, and a failure of modern ideas to take hold, in large chunks of the world. And we simply can't understand that in places where modernization has been so sweepingly successful. But it all makes perfect sense in the cultures where it's happening, and it's not something that's going to stop any time soon. There are parallel and very opposite forces at work out there, in places where the world as we know it just doesn't exist. And we're only just now finding out how widespread the persistence of "pre-modern" thought is in the rest of the world...and what can happen when the two models of thought start to clash on a global scale, using very modern weapons.

Anyway...that's the crux of this absorbing and enlightening book. And while it's definitely not an easy read...I firmly believe it's a necessary one for nearly everyone in today's world.

posted by Elizabeth 9:18 AM

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All material © 2002-2004 by Elizabeth Fuller. Please do not reproduce anything you find here without the author's permission.

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