Monday, August 20, 2007

Meditations on democracy and its cultural roots

Phil Paine's Third Meditation on Democracy is on his website blog (under August 18). If you missed the first and second, they are available here.

In the third meditation, Phil talks about the relationship between culture and democracy, specifically the idea that Christianity or the European Enlightenment were necessary precursors for the ideas behind modern democracy. Phil has always rejected this, and in the third meditation says:

The connection between articles of religious faith, especially in the form of abstract theological precepts, and what people do in practical situations, has never been obvious. Pacifism, for instance, is a pretty straightforward tenet of Christianity, recognized by most Christians as central to the teaching of Christ. Yet how much pacifist behaviour has Christianity generated? Only a handful of microscopic sects have practiced it, and they have generally suffered persecution in the “Christian” world. How many Buddhists actually make any effort to follow the Fourfold Path? Even if a particular religion can be shown to have some abstract principle that supports democratic theory, it does not follow that the people of that faith are bound to act democratically. Democracy is something that people do. It’s a practical approach to solving concrete problems.

That's a part of what Phil has to say here, but hardly all. Phil has some interesting things to say about the evolution of European culture and the cosmopolitan roots of what some of us most value in it. Read the meditation.

Just as Phil was publishing the third meditation, another interesting essay on the Enlightenment and the history of religion appeared in the New York Times, Mark Lilla published in the New York Times Magazine a long article, the Politics of God, on the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion in modern times. His major point, in my view, is that the relationship hasn't been a simple one. His discussion of "liberal" theology in pre-World War I Germany told me things I did not know, but should have, given my scholarly interests:

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.
I highly recommend this article, but it will go into subscriber-only status by the end of the week. Don't wait if you think you might be interested.

Image: Meditations Mist by Robert Masla.

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