One of the ideas that struck me as particularly illuminating, from the first day of the seminar on religious violence I’m attending, concerned fundamentalism*. Scott Appleby told of a Jewish writer who observed that the practice of his religion has shifted from being mimetic – learnt from his family with the air he breathed – to being performative, essentially a case of doing right by a rule book. The shift happens as a result of the dislocation and alienation people experience as they are buffeted by rising pluralism and increased mobility.
The change might be generalised to other faiths, the performative approach placing great store on specifics – in other contexts, I imagined the huge importance that wearing a veil or a crucifix comes to carry. More subtly, faith stops feeling like a way of life that holds you, and becomes a way of life you must hold onto. Not far on from that are feelings about being at odds with the world, and then that the world is at odds with you.
A similar pattern is seen with tokens, those moral issues – abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia – that are not about what you do, because the fundamentalist/conservative is not going to admit those themselves, but rather about what you believe. (Incidentally, it seemed pretty clear to me that scientistic conservatism has its own tokens too, in its loathing for beliefs like creationism. No doubt, there are ‘liberalist’ tokens as well – the absolutisation of rights, perhaps.)
Such tokens represent deep concerns that the believer has about the way things are in the world, what the Pope calls the culture of death, for example. At an existential level, they become so inflated because objection to them is also a way of saying ‘you are not hearing me’ or ‘I fear for my place in the world’. Nothing less than the whole person feels under threat.
I also wondered whether tokens are a way of staving off how believers, probably unconsciously, themselves feel compromised by the way things are in the world, because they are implicated in it too. For example, it is often noted by pro-gay folks that injunctions against usury are far more widespread in the Bible, and yet Biblicists never seem that bothered by them: much more seems to stand or fall by the relatively rare ones against homosexuality. Here, the logic of the token issue of homosexuality also allows the individual to contain any sullied feelings arising from their own usurious practices – pension, mortgage, credit cards and the like – which is a fancy way of saying they blame it all on homosexuality!
Anyway, some such dynamics seem to be at play in the culture wars.
*Appleby also encouraged us to avoid using sweeping terms like fundamentalism; there is probably no such thing, but rather fundamentalisms. Sorry.
(Image: David Woroniecki, son of preacher Michael Woroniecki, with instructive sign for football fans on Michigan State’s campus, by Saraware)