Robert Bellah on the (Dis)Ordering of Society

Robert Bellah

Commonweal recently noted the death, this July, of contributor Robert Bellah. Emeritus professor of sociology at Berkeley, Bellah began his career as a teacher at the college from which he received his undergraduate degree: Harvard.

His article “The Church & the Search for the Common Good” appeared in 1982.  Thirty years later, Bellah’s insights remain helpful as we try to understand where we 21st-century Americans are today: societal disorder is one of the costs, when economic values dominate and consume all other values (moral, aesthetic, communal, ecological, transcendent). While Bellah is tracing a century’s-old development in Western civilization, life as we have lived it in the recent, say, half-century– and the policies we have embraced, or at least to which we have acquiesced– confirms Bellah’s thesis.

The excerpt at length is below, but the executive summary is this: whereas once religion or politics served to define a telos or purpose for society, economics by its nature supplies society with no such organizing principle. Instead, a society dominated by economic values is flattened into an amoral  marketplace (not necessarily immoral, but not necessarily moral, either); and the human being is reduced to a bundle of appetites.

Bellah does not say this, but it is worth adding: a society dominated by economic values is great for those who win. The winners end up making the rules, and inevitably those rules will favor the continual winning of the winners. That’s where we are today.

Here’s Bellah in 1982:

Modern society replaces the older ideal of organic hierarchy with a new idea of functional differentiation of spheres of life. In this new society the central institution is no longer religion or even the political order but the economy. But because the economy lacks a telos of the sort that religion and politics had the end of religion is salvation, of politics the common good, the economy does not replace them as a new kind of dominant hierarchical institution. Rather it radically undermines all older conceptions of ethical hierarchy and replaces them with functional or even technical utility instead. In so doing modern society produces a new worldview, one that reverses the traditional conception of higher and lower energies. The modern ideology is radically egalitarian and individualistic and hopes to create a good society through unleashing and manipulating egoistic and selfish desires. The new social philosophy, in the form of classical liberalism, replaces the older conception of ethical, political, practical reason, even in the political sphere. Even as early as Hobbes the problem of political leadership was replaced by the problem of regulation, of the management of human beings conceived as the material to be subjected to technical manipulation.

All of these changes were not without their precursors and accompaniments in the religious sphere, as we know from Max Weber. Yet as we also know from Weber, the increasing dominance of functional rationalization changes the place of religion as it was known in all previous societies. Religion is to be displaced from its role as guardian of the public worldview that gives human life its coherence–  a role that it retained in early Protestant communities as well as in Catholic ones. Religion is now relegated to the purely private sphere where it is to be considered merely one of a variety of possible private options.

via A Language of Solidarity | Commonweal Magazine.


Liberalism’s Blind Spot

Last week when we wrote about Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta being cancelled, we mentioned that item in the context of the tension between liberalism-modernity, and religious conservatism-tradition. One of the most important features of this time we live in, is whether this tension can be a creative tension, or whether it will inevitably devolve into violence, both small- and large-scale.

A helpful humility recognizes that both liberalism and conservatism need the correctives that the other offers. The innovation of liberalism needs the stability of conservatism; the emphasis on the individual in liberalism needs conservatism’s emphasis on community; the personal freedom espoused by liberalism needs the responsibility to others espoused by conservatism– and so on.

In our earlier post on Lady Gaga (, we identified how religious literalism/fundamentalism needs the corrective of openness, and for theological reasons: God cannot be captured by human schemes, customs, or traditions– no matter how important such schemes, customs, and traditions are for the preservation of social order. No matter how absolute are God’s decrees (and they are absolutely absolute!), they are always enacted and interpreted within a context. Religious fundamentalism forgets that God is God, and we are not. At its best, liberalism is a reminder that the world is many and various, not reducible to One Grand Scheme Which We Own and You Do Not.

Liberalism, however, is not a cure-all either. Liberalism, left to its own devices, likewise suffers without the corrective of community and tradition– or, to put it more generally, without the corrective of some kind of unity that transcends the individual. Without the check of some kind of transcendent authority (a moral code, for example), liberalism becomes a splintering force in society, promoting selfishness and aimlessness. Each self becomes its own center, the source of its own meaning, and the arbiter of its own truth. Literalist/fundamentalist religion recognizes this danger but over-reacts; balanced religion holds the creative tension that exists between two aspects even within the one divine being: the freshness of God’s creative spirit rising in every moment, AND the stability of the One who is beyond change.

Lady Gaga in Indonesia: Fear v. Freedom?

Indonesian Protest Against Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga found it necessary to cancel her June 3rd concert in Jakarta, because while some find her work and person to be an expression of freedom, others find her work and person to be an expression of evil. How do we make sense of this, in today’s world? Is there any creative outcome possible, for this quintessentially contemporary– and worldwide– tension: the tension between liberalism and individual freedom (often associated with secularism and the West), on the one hand, and conservatism and received moral codes (often associated with religious tradition and the East), on the other?

There is a real, rather than merely an apparent, conflict here. Considered as “isms,” these principles undo each other: zealous secularism is anti-religious; fundamentalism is anti-liberal; narrow liberalism is anti-communitarian; narrow Christianism is anti-Muslim; and so on. Considered in the abstract, mutual exclusivity is the rule here: a thing cannot be itself, AND something opposite of itself, at the same time.

In the world where actual people live, however, human flourishing depends on peoples and societies holding these conflicting ideas in creative tension. Sometimes a people or a society cannot hold creative tension, and events become, simply, tense– even violent. We know that– that’s not news. It was the threat of this kind of violence that caused the cancellation of Lady Gaga’s concert.

In today’s world, religiously inspired antagonism toward modernity needs the corrective impulse of liberalism. Such openness is not the perspective of Wahhabism, of the ayatollahs in Iran, of the Haredim, or of Christian literalist/fundamentalists in America. The deepest meaning of liberalism, however, has theological grounding. Simply, it is recognizing that one of the attributes of the Holy One is continually to renew the world. At its best, the impulse toward liberality is the recognition that all human schemes for capturing who God is, what God does, and what God’s will requires of us, are always provisional: provisional, because limited by human finitude. As Paul reminds us, we can see the Truth of God only partially, as through a glass darkly.

Curiosity about– and openness toward– modernity are faithful responses of religious people. What is also true– to the chagrin of radical secularists, I am sure– is that liberalism, too, needs the corrective impulse of religious tradition. More on that soon.

Here is the report on the cancellation of the concert:

“Little monsters lost to big monsters”, wrote an Indonesian television anchor on his Twitter account shortly after Lady Gaga cancelled her biggest concert in Asia, a sold-out event scheduled to take place in Jakarta on June 3.

The pop star’s fans, which she affectionately calls her “little monsters”, now have to accept that the woman they saw on Indonesian television, or discovered in DVD shops, cannot visit their country because of safety concerns.

Although a small group of Islamic hardliners rejoiced over the news of Gaga’s concert cancellation, many Indonesians started to wonder who really has gone gaga here.

In fact, this incident does not have much to do with the American singer. Instead, it illustrates a far deeper conflict that is dividing Indonesia.

The Lady Gaga saga started a few weeks ago, after some Indonesians opposed her visit, citing her exposed body parts and “devilish” lyrics.

The pop star soon became the centre of a debate between those who see her as a symbol of freedom, and those who see her as a symbol of evil. The fact that the Islamic Defenders Front IDF was successful in repelling her from Indonesia shows that threats of violence can pay off.

“The fact that police can’t guarantee security of the concert shows that our state is weak towards groups that promote intolerance,” said Hendardi, head of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.

“It’s up to the authority of the state to guarantee freedom of expression and security as outlined in our constitution.”

via Gag on Lady Gaga stirs Indonesia fears – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Selling Our Souls: Bacevich on This Age We Live In

Today's Amulet?

Andrew Bacevich is a thinker I admire. The essay (excerpted below) appears in August’s Commonweal, and is another in Bacevich’s line-up of penetrating critiques of our culture– and especially of our triumphalism. Like theologian Douglas John Hall (click here for a link), he calls our triumphalism for what it is: the false bravado of a (mostly unconscious) desperate, fearful society that has cut its ties to its moorings, and floats perilously in the chaotic seas of post-modernity.

Difficult to remember as we walk down aisles of sumptuously overstocked grocery shelves, is the saying (variously attributed), that any society is only three meals away from a revolution. While jarringly dramatic, the saying points to the anxiety that nips at us humans: our awareness that life is fragile; that the line between meaning and meaninglessness is thin; that chaos is always lurking at the edges of civilization. The barbarians are at the door, and they are us.

At the risk of oversimplification, I think it is fair to say that part of Bacevich’s argument– and, more fully, Douglas John Hall’s– is that Western Christian religion (with notable exceptions, to be sure) has been complicit in creating our present predicament. Institutional Christian religion has done this by accommodating, supporting, and legitimizing the political, technological, and economic powers that have gotten us to this point. To be fair, it was an honest mistake: the blessing and glory of human progress certainly seemed to coincide with God’s very own blessing and glory. What Christianity forgot (and this is more Hall than Bacevich), is the cross– and all of what being a disciple of that God means.

Commonweal is a Catholic publication, so Bacevich appropriately refers to Catholicism. With some important qualifications, we can read “Western Christianity” where he writes “Catholicism”:

Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.

Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.

What went wrong? The great American historian Henry Adams—dead nearly a hundred years—offers a more cogent answer to that question than any we are likely to hear from Rome. Recalling his return to New York City after a lengthy stay in Europe in “The Education of Henry Adams,” the historian rendered this verdict: “The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway,” a panoply of false gods clattering in its wake. That failure had created a vacuum. The heresies that were filling that vacuum filled Adams with foreboding.

Worse, he could see no reason to consider Christianity’s demise as anything other than definitive and irreversible. Yet a century later we remain largely oblivious to its implications. We still don’t understand what hit us….

via Selling Our Souls | Commonweal magazine.

Power, Control, and Transcendence in the Modern World: The Case of Totalitarian Art

Totalitarian Art in Saddam's Iraq

The title of this post could be the title of a very thick book.

I am prompted to these brief reflections by a review of a recently published work by Igor Golomstock, entitled “Totalitarian Art.” The review appeared in Foreign Affairs (an excerpt, and the link to the full review, appear below).

The mistake of totalitarianism– from a religious perspective– is the way that it lays claim to possessing the one overarching, all-encompassing narrative of what is real, thereby precluding any alternative. Totalitarianism works by systematizing– and therefore controlling– all facets of life: economic and political life, as well as cultural and religious life. Because the human spirit, by nature, is creative– and because reality itself, in its essential mystery, repels being captured and contained in a human system– totalitarianism inevitably has to resort to fear and violence in order to maintain itself.

Critics of Christianity will not need to work too hard to find examples of totalitarian-like words and deeds in Christianity’s history– even in its recent history. That said, the essence of the Biblical narrative– from Genesis to Revelation– is anti-totalitarian. The God of the Bible is continually redeeming and renewing; continually creating new possibilities where new possibilities seem highly unlikely, if not impossible. The God of the Bible is against systems of human power that control and dominate; the God of the Bible is for life in its wild, abundant, surprising, uncontrollable diversity.

Totalitarianism has to suppress authentic religion– and censor genuine artistic expression– because both imagine and evoke a reality that the totalitarian system cannot contain and control. Authentic religion and genuine artistic expression open intolerable alternatives to the dominant, official story.

Below is an excerpt of the review of Golomstock’s book, and the link:

Totalitarian Realism: A Closed System

Earlier this year, the government of Iraq, in a misconceived act of outreach to the country’s once dominant Sunni community, began restoring a dilapidated monument in Baghdad. Originally constructed in the late 1980s as a celebration of Iraq’s supposed triumph in its war against Iran, the Victory Arch was partially dismantled in 2008 by Sadrist elements who were eventually stopped by orders from the Iraqi prime minister. The monument consists of two sets of giant forearms and hands brandishing swords, draped with a net containing a gruesome collection of enemy helmets. Conceived by Saddam Hussein himself and carried out by the Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat using casts of Saddam’s own arms, it is such an outstanding example of totalitarian kitsch that I used it as a lens through which to view the degradation of culture in Iraq under the Baathist regime in my 1991 book “The Monument….”

via What Is Totalitarian Art? | Foreign Affairs.

What is the Nature of this Universe?– World Atheist Convention Meets in Dublin

Issues and content aside, the most compelling upshot of this past weekend’s meeting of atheists in Ireland is what it tells us about the universe we Westerners (and increasingly, all of us on this hot and crowded planet) inhabit– believers and atheists alike. Succinctly, we don’t live in a universe anymore. We live in a multi-verse– or, less charitably, we live in a chaos (the opposite of a cosmos).

The way that I am asking this question– what kind of universe do we inhabit?– is a metaphysical/philosophical question, not a physical/scientific question.  The evidence that we live in a multi-verse, is that there is no common understanding– in fact, there is very serious disagreement– about the nature of what is real; about what we can know and how we know it; about where we came from and where we’re going; about what is beautiful and good, and on what ground we can make that judgment— in sum, about all questions of meaning and purpose. Any universe begins from assumptions about the nature of what exists; the defining characteristic of those assumptions is that they themselves cannot be proven. Even the universe of Western material science is not exempt from the logical necessity for this epistemological first move, which for materialistic atheists is the functional equivalent to, ironically, a religious leap of faith.

Western culture has been in turmoil– more or less– since at least the Enlightenment, and as the West has bumped elbows with non-Western cultures, those cultures have at various times elbowed back. Fundamentalisms of all stripes– Christianism, Islamism, scientism– have wide appeal, because they aim to supply us once again with a universe to inhabit– a cosmos instead of a chaos. Such a tidy resolution to questions of ultimate purpose– such a tidy restoration of the universe– is not possible, because the commitments that people have to their cosmos– to their way of making meaning of experience– are, at root, non-rational.

A multi-verse– a world with different and competing ways of ordering morality and meaning, origin and destiny–  is always at risk of becoming a chaos. The opportunity of our time is achieving a widely-shared, deepening appreciation for all that is life-affirming in the multi-verses we inhabit together– and for the mystery at which our knowing cannot reach.

[Last] weekend [June 5th and 6th], about 350 conventioneers descend[ed] on Dublin to discuss matters of faith and its place in public life. It’s not a meeting of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but the first World Atheist Convention.

Organizers claim they aren’t trying to make a statement by selecting Ireland, often seen as one of Europe’s most religious nations, but the get-together of nonbelievers does come in a country where religiosity has been in steady decline. In fact, faith seems to be on many European minds of late and questions of religion in public life have reentered political discourse here – from the French “burqa ban” to Ireland’s antiblasphemy law to frequent complaints from Pope Benedict XVI about perceived moral relativism.

Long considered a private matter, some say public questions of faith are even threatening Europe’s traditionally secular politics. “Broadly speaking, religion is back on the agenda in a way people didn’t think it would be 10 or 15 years ago,” says Titus Hjelm, a sociologist of religion at University College London.

via Atheist confab in Ireland comes as Europe confronts religion in public life –

The Pluralism of Modernity and the Pushback of Reactionary Fundamentalism

Taseer (right) supported the amendment of a blasphemy law under which Bibi, centre, was convicted

Two sad stories from the Middle East this past week: one, the assassination of Salman Taseer, in Islamabad; two, the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria.

Both stories underline societal tensions in Egypt and in Pakistan– tensions that manifest as conflict between religions but are, more fundamentally, between forces of tolerance and forces of fear; between forces of modern pluralism and forces of reaction. Both stories also– in their sensational violence– serve to deflect attention from the less dramatic, and rarely reported, efforts of people in positions of no formal authority, whose work is an affirmation of life.

Salman Taseer was critical of a blasphemy law in Pakistan, a law that was used to convict a Christian woman (Aasia Bibi) and sentence her to death:

Mumtaz Qadri, the member of the elite force of the police deputed to protect Taseer who shot and killed him in a market in Islamabad, boasted to officers that he was proud to have killed a “blasphemer,” according to security officials.

via Deadly warning to Pakistan liberals – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Such violence comes from fear.