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Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Give & Take

In Return of the Tribes in the Weekly Standard Ralph Peters(tip to Eunomia) writes an insightful article, though it is rather over-indulgent in his own thesis, which concerns the staying power of globalism in its contemporary manifestation. Globalism, of course, is nowhere near being a new or modern phenomenom: we have only lately seen the demise (largely) of the last great neo-colonialist system, namely in Soviet and Maoist Communism. Before that was European colonialism, and before that were numerous systems, empirialist and otherwise, that sought some form of globalism. Some have been more successful than others.

Mr Peters focuses upon the experience of Islam and Christianity and its advance from the Near East to the rest of the world, and finds in that expereince parallels with contemporary globalism. He points out that both religions have found difficulty in transposing their systems to insular peoples, particularly those of the forests, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a great deal of truth in his claims. However, he seems to set up to strong of a contrast between local manifestations of the given faith and the percieved 'global' orthodox manifestation of that faith. Several problems arise with such a contradistinction. First, particularly with Islam, both faiths begin as 'local' faiths, albiet with a universal vision. Yet each is initially very firmly connected with the localized manifestation of faith, praxis, and culture in which it began, both on a conscious level and the unconcious. In Islam there is a continuous undertone of regional conflicts, regional ideas, and regional people, that is manifested in the Quran and thus becomes part of the deposit of orthodoxy. The importance of the Ka'aba and its haram, the sacred precint, which is crucial to one of the Five Pillars, is for example a uniquiely local religious phenomenom, though of course it has reflections in all religious systems. Likewise in Christianity Jewish ideas and local practices coexist with more uniquiely Christian ones.

This process of give-and-take, in which local elements are either adapted, combatted, or somehow subsumed, into 'orthodoxy,' has always existed within the context of the global/local interaction. Another example one might raise in regards to both Islam and Christianity is the cultus of the saints. In neither one is it explicit in core Scripture and initial doctrine- yet it arises very soon. In Islam of course there is more initial disagreement- the Quran has a couple of verses that would seem to rather explicitly disbar the Christian cultus of the saints- yet it rather quickly becomes an important aspect in much of the Islamic world.

In both the cultus of the saints becomes one of the arguably most important means of give-and-take and hence integration of local concerns and identity within an orthodox context: and it does so without sacrificing orthodoxy, or even catholicity. For a Turkic (Sunni) Muslim of Central Asia or China, or an Anglo-Saxon Christian of Northumbria, the cultus of the saints very early on provides a way to centre the new faith in the local community. First, it provides a definite, incarnate locus of the new faith, both concretely- the saint while alive teaches and preaches and works miracles- but also in a more metaphysical/self-identity way, particularly after the saint's death. St. Such-and-Such becomes our saint, his shrine is here in our town or region: yet he continues to exist within the broader religious community, whether of the umma or the Church Catholic. Thus the saint becomes both a means of local identity and local integration into the 'global' religious community.

The give-and-take continues under the cultus of the saints. Mr Peters notes- rightly- a tendency in developing world Christianity and Islam to emphasize 'temporal' things, such as healings, aid in prosperity, and such. The desire for concrete, here-and-now manifestations of spiritual realities is certainly very strong in 'non-Western' societies-and, actually, Western ones, as it is silly for various reasons to call Latino Christians 'non-Western.' But that is another topic. Anyway, these temporal blessings are a strong drive in much of the world- in my limited travels and interaction with non-Western Christians it has been quite noticeable. And yes, usually when I am around Christians who talk quite candidly about healings and such, I begin to feel a little nervous. Yet arguably it is I who am out of touch with the broader Christian experience. For again we find, actually from the very beginning, a bold and central affirmation of miracles.

And this affirmation again undergoes a give-and-take interaction with local cultures, in both Christianity and Islam, under the cultus of the saints. Now, the supposed collapsing of local gods and spirits into saints is overblown and usually inaccurate (Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints is an excellent examination of this topic), but it is not inaccurate to say that the cultus meets local needs and ideas. Indeed, one may recall Pope Gregory's instruction to handle pagan culture lightly- not to engage in syncrynism, but to seek to mold the give-and-take, inherent in such interactions, so as to at once remain orthodox yet meet local needs within a local context. One of these was and is the need for physical things. Healings and other miracles are strongly associated with the saints, and their shrines become centres of healing, which further reinforce their status as locii of local identity and catholic integration. I might also note that just because people believe in miracles and such strongly it does not necessarily follow that they are uninterested in the more transendental aspects. People are quite capable of maintaing both. But that is really a whole different topic.

All of that is to emphasize that to characterize the interaction of 'global' orthodoxy and the local is artificial if it over-collapses the interaction into a simple dichotomy. Mr Peters actually does not do this, though there are plenty who do- and certainly, some approaches to the give-and-take become little more than power struggles and a great deal of 'taking,' usually by one side. Yet even in those- such as the great European colonial projects- there is still a lot of local semi-autonomy and even voluntary integration.

What does this mean for current globalization? Mr Peters suggests that if projects such as democratic governance are going to function in many places, we must be aware of local needs and identity: this is very true. And I would suggest that the ancient process of give-and-take, resistance and integration, will continue. I doubt that this will always, or even often, lead to a massive rectification of local identity against the outside world, against the 'other.' It will certainly happen sometimes, but it is not guaranteed in any situation- and differnt localities have different approaches and traditions regarding their interaction with the other.

But then, history and the interpretation of it is never simple. Which is what makes it often tragic, often surprising (even in a good way), and always fascinating.


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