Thursday, October 29, 2009

La Vie en rose: Why the material is mystical

Some months ago, the current Commissioner of NRG Affairs, Mr. Eduardo Faleiro inaugurated a debate over the matter of the management of Church properties in Goa. Initially it appeared that a suggestion was being made that the State take over the management of Church properties, or at the very least have a say, supervisory control over this properties. Howls of indignant protest followed, most pointing out that to suggest that the State have such a power would be like setting the cat among the pigeons. These objections pointed out that the State machinery itself has ruthlessly presided over the sale of common properties impoverishing the common man in the State, and such an institution is likely to only complicate matters further. In light of this rather robust response, Mr. Faleiro presented a document to the Archbishop that suggested internal reform and vigilance.

Among the many suggestions, there was one that particularly caught my eye, especially because it seemed to one that had purchase in some of the meetings organized by Mr. Faleiro. The suggestion reads “Administrative committees, duly constituted, may be truly empowered, so that lay persons feel really responsible for the administration, as the Church are Christ's faithful and the assets of the Church are their assets. Administration of the ecclesiastical assets should be their domain mainly. If this happens, priests will be left free for what is their proper field, viz. apostolate”. An interesting suggestion is being made here, that priests have really no business administering property, since property is a material good and priests have committed themselves to the spiritual. As such, leave property to be managed by those in the secular and material world. A version of ‘To Caesar that what is Caesar’s, and to God…’

Superficially the argument makes eminent sense. It extends one of the principles of secularism, of separating the Church/religion/spirituality from the State/secular/material life. Unfortunately however, this logic works well only if restricted to the secular world, it does not work at all if one does not admit of this distinction between the material and the secular. On the contrary to apply this logic to the operations of a religion, would ensure that religion ceases to have any meaning at all. The mistaken assumption of Faleiro and the secularists is that religion is about ritual and the spiritual, and it has no connection to the material. Making this assumption, they can extend the principle of secularism as they do. However, religion admits of no distinction between the spiritual and the material. On the contrary, religion is about precisely how to guide one’s material life, and as such has everything to do with the material. It is not as if Catholic culture does not admit members of the laity to be models to be emulated. On the contrary, there are a number of such examples, and priests more often than not, operate in parishes across the world in active participation with lay individuals who are identified (either by them or by social consensus) as significant members of the community. However, Catholic culture nevertheless gives the priest, one trained in the scripture, thought and tradition of the church, a preeminent place in guiding the community in its life. And because there is no such thing as a purely spiritual life, and life is lived out in a material world, this pastoral guidance necessarily extends to how we must mould our material life.

However Faleiro’s suggestion is troubling not only because it turns the idea of religion on its head. His suggestion is troubling because it perpetuates other deeply disturbing, though admittedly popular, distinctions. This distinction is between that of the public and the private. One of the reasons for the early continental European separation of Church from the State, was not because these republicans were necessarily averse to Christianity. On the contrary, their public culture continued to echo Western Christian tradition. The separation was necessary because the Church, as a human institution, was closely tied to the feudal order that the bourgeois republicans were seeking to destroy. These liberals also forged the distinction between the public domain and the private. In the private you could continue with your religious (and other traditions), and in the public they cultivated the religion of the State. Feminists for a few decades now have pointed out the problems with this distinction, pointing out that this distinction serves only to blind the eyes of State justice to abuses that go on in realms that are marked out as private. Just as there is no distinction between the material and the spiritual therefore, there is no distinction between the public and the private. Echoing the phrase ‘the personal is political’, popularized by the feminists in this context, will make the overlap between Faleiro’s suggestion and this larger ‘secular’ tradition strikingly clear. [As an aside, I should mention that this proximity between the spiritual and the feminist argument should make some in the clerical hierarchy sit up, take off their bigoted blinkers, take notice, and start thinking!]

One of the reasons I seek to articulate this critique, is because this separation that is being pushed will have a perilous impact on public life. What it will result in, is the further reduction of religion to ritual. Most of us, already thoroughly secularized in our thinking, even if we consider ourselves devout, understand religion to be ritual. Ritual in religion is however, animated by a spirit that makes meaning of it all. When that spirit is divorced, ritual is emptied out, becoming what secularists and atheists hold it to be ‘empty ritual’. The danger of empty religious ritual is that it becomes a kind of a communal marker that is then pandered to, building up the foundations of communal tensions in multicultural societies. Shorn of the mystical element that gives it meaning, and in fact allows us to transcend narrow social markers, ritual becomes the basis for marking difference. We can already see this operating in the Indian polity. ‘Hinduism’ is emptied out of the ethical values it contains to become Hindutva, an empty shell of symbols and rituals that are believed to represent a community. Islam is similarly emptied of its ethical values to become the political agenda of the jihadi. Similarly Christianity. The State panders to these symbols, only exacerbating the problem, when in fact the ethical practitioners of these faith traditions would, in daily life, normally transcend these barriers.

This particular suggestion that Faleiro makes therefore, has multiple problems for which it must be firmly ignored. The larger point however, is of the problem with this binary ‘secular’ logic; that has more followers than just Mr. Faleiro. It is a logic that is so built of partitions that it fails to allow us to lead holistic lives where we can see the connections between each other. It is a logic that builds solutions on partitions, rather than transcending the divisions that are created or may exist. If the feminists suggested so many decades ago that the personal is political, may I now suggest that indeed, the material is mystical?

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 29 Oct 2009)

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