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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Secularisation of the West (and world) or in-depth Christianisation?

The following is a follow up to my post in this discussion thread on a Buddhist forum about the points of agreement between Buddhist and Stoicism. You may need to read the initial post to contextualise this, but probably won't need to if you are already familiar with Foucault's explication in his lecture series of 1981/2 The Hermeneutics of the Subject of how the ancient Greek maxim of the epimeleia heautou or 'the care of self' that had once served as the orienting precept for the more well-known maxim of the gnothi seauton or 'know yourself', had over the long history of Western culture and philosophical tradition but culminating in roughly the 'Cartesian moment', slowly been devalued and forgotten, such that 'know yourself' is today valued as the sole principle for approaching the question of truth, the pursuit of knowledge, and the relation of self to self and others.

[This is a quote of the previous discussant's post] Sooner or later there has to arise reconciliation with one's own western culture and its roots. So it is good to reveal ubiquity of wisdom and to abandon the myth of "the wisdom of the east" and the myth of "the one and only wise and holy guy".

[My response]

Indeed. According to what is suggested by Foucault's research on the history of the relation between (ways of approaching) truth and subjectivity, we ought to perhaps be more mindful about the progressive narrative of 'secularisation' that is widely accepted as an unassailable truth in the history of the Western liberal political tradition, or Western culture more generally. Adopting an understanding of conditionality that is not dissimilar to the general logic of dependent co-arising, his work suggests that the 'Cartesian moment' and its ongoing effects are dependent upon certain conditions, underpinned by certain Western Christian theological understandings of the pastorate that are today articulated as a seemingly 'secular' political rationality and embodied in the 'systemic structure' of (neo)liberal forms of govern-mentality, which like the Christian pastorate has to deal with the question of how to best tend to every individual member of the population within a certain territory - in other words, modern forms of political power has to engage in a central task of policing, regulating, and managing 'individualisation' not dissimilar to how Christianity requires its members of 'the flock' to examine and speak the truth of the self in order to objectify the self as an individual who has to seek salvation and redemption via a morality of confession and obedience. Again, I stress that this is not a matter of blaming Descartes alone but merely pointing to the impact of his rationalist mode of thinking and its metaphysical presuppositions; Descartes is of course regarded as a key figure of the European Enlightenment and a father of the 'Scientific Revolution', a historical label that was articulated in retrospect, and to my understanding,  historians have questioned if it accurately describes the sudden rupture or break as we have come to understand it in vernacular language.

The genealogy traced by Foucault's work suggests that certain Western Christian theological ideas about how we should recognise the truth about the self formed the precondition for the modern approach to truth and the pursuit of knowledge, where the act of knowing is predicated on the objectification of the self or subject, a process of interiorisation - the cogito ergo sum is one expression of this. This claim would no doubt agitate some, though I think if one feels a sense of discomfort, it usually indicates that something about our body-mind requires attention. Foucault has even suggested that it would be more prudent not to be complacent, self-assured or even smug about the accepted narrative of the secularisation of Western culture, and by extension, with colonialism and globalisation, the inevitable secularisation of the world. Rather, he wonders if there has been more precisely, a process of 'IN-DEPTH CHRISTIANISATION', the most obvious ongoing effect of which is the social, political, and ethical challenges of 'individualisation' confronting our neoliberal capitalistic times - this a problem that contemporary Buddhism has to grapple with. This is not so much a disavowal of such secular ideals as fairness and equal opportunity as such, but a simple reminder that we should perhaps strive to always defuse habitual thinking, and to do so in such a way that what goes 'obviously' without saying, may no longer go without saying. This, I believe, shares a certain 'critical ethos' with what we are pursuing with bhavana, the cultivation of insight and clear perceptual comprehension of our present experience.

The tracing of routes forgotten or not taken in the history of the Western tradition, like a reconsideration of Stoicism and other ways of approaching the question of truth and of relating the self to self, such an exercise in cultivating historical consciousness may uncover new vantage points to interrogate sedimented understandings about religion/secularism, stubborn habits of thought and self-relation that arguably pin us down to certain identities, modes of thinking, and ways of being. Alongside other wisdom traditions like Buddhism - provided we proceed with care, circumspection and attentiveness - we may perhaps discover ways to sharpen awareness about the question of 'who we are', test the limits that have been imposed on us, and hopefully always hold a space open for you and I and the world to become otherwise, over and over and over again: becoming-as-unbecoming. This, to me, is what Buddhism teaches with the idea of anicca and anatta, impermanence and not-self. But of course such ideals may be shared by others. Indeed, I believe we may learn just how much we share if we enact a gesture of hospitality towards those perceived as strange or foreign, or those perceived as holding incompatible beliefs to our own beliefs (even if one holds a belief in unbelief), engaging them in conversation for the purpose of mutual learning, recognition and respect, rather than accuse the other of bad conscience or jostle for the tinkling of our censure to be heard - or worse, insist that the line between True and False be drawn once and for all (typically from one's own 'right' side), before we accept the responsibility of changing our habits.

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