Yet a personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. When he seems to fail to prevent a catastrophe or seems even desire a tragedy, he can seem callous and cruel. A facile belief that a disaster is the will of God can make us accept things that are fundamentally unacceptable. The very fact that, as a person, God has a gender is also limiting: it means that the sexuality of half the human race is sacralized at the expense of the female and can lead to a neurotic and inadequate imbalance in the human sexual mores. A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, “he” can encourage us to remain complacently within them; “he” can make us as cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial as “he” seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize all advanced religion, “he” can encourage us to judge, condemn and marginalize. It seems, therefore, that the idea of a personal God can only be a stage in our religious development. The world religions all seem to have recognized this danger and have sought to transcend the personal conception of supreme reality. [Page 209-210. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Karen Armstrong. 1993]
There are times when books of different focus and field would run parallel with each other and reveal new insight on a specific idea, making that particular idea richer.
I recently finished JÃ¼rgen Kocka’s Capitalism where he touched on, among others, the shift of power from feudal lords to the merchant class. I am currently reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and this is what she has to say on the (somewhat) same subject:
The story of Elijah contains the last mythical account of the past in the Jewish scriptures. Change was in the air throughout the Oikumene. The period 800-200 BCE has been termed the Axial Age. In all the main regions of the civilized world, people created new ideologies that have continued to be crucial and formative. The new religious systems reflected the changed economic and social conditions. For reasons that we do not entirely understand, all the chief civilizations developed along parallel lines, even when there was no commercial contact (as between China and the European area). There was a new prosperity that led to the rise of a merchant class. Power was shifting from king and priest, temple and palace, to the marketplace. The new wealth led to intellectual and cultural florescence and also to the development of the individual conscience. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations. Each region developed a distinctive ideology to address these problems and concerns: Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India and philosophical rationalism in Europe. The Middle East did not produce a uniform solution, but in Iran and Israel, Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets respectively evolved different versions of monotheism. Strange as it may seem, the idea of “God,” like the other great religious insights of the period, developed in the market economy in a spirit of aggressive capitalism. [Page 27. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Karen Armstrong. 1993]
Hearing voices announcing something over the loudspeakers in public spaces makes me uncomfortable. It gives me the feeling that somebody is watching me and worse, the unknown person is giving me an order. The automatic reaction by the libertarian in me is to question and resist, even if the announcement makes sense.
Most announcements in KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur’s Grand Union Station with its wide atrium, are harmless. Please let the passengers on-board get off the train first. Please watch your belongings. Please watch your step.
Judging by how some people refuse to wait for others to get out of the train before getting in, it feels like I am not the only trying to resist the announcement…
But from time to time it gets a little suspicious. Come join us for the F1 racing this weekend in Sepang! Drink this coffee.
No, I do not want to watch the F1 under the tropical sun. No, I do not like your coffee.
Yes, they are advertorials telling you to buy something that you do not need.
One time in a train car, a “refresher” would spray a scent of a particular brand of quick canned coffee into the enclosed air. There was no way for me to run, except getting out of the train. The advertisement campaign assaulted not only my eardrums but my olfactory organ too.
I learned to identify which train cars were installed with the horrible refresher and refused to ride on it, preferring to wait for better smelling train sets. It was not hard to know which was which. Oh, that is the car with the horrible smell of coffee. Oh, that is the coffee Wonda train car! I will let the train go for a better smelling one.
The PA system does have it uses. Sometimes, when the trains break down, the announcement helps. But at other times, all the gentle reminders — in London, I think it is “Mind the gap” in New York, “Stand clear of the closing door, please” or was it in California with its BART? I do not remember. In Paris, well, the Parisian Metro is unique with its chime ”na-na-na-na” — are definitely a hint of paternalism. It is a kind of soft paternalism that almost everybody ignores but at its heart is that suffocating authoritarian worldview.
The cavernous badly lit KL Sentral exacerbates, as with any cavernous building would, the sensation with that slight echo that follows the initial sound wave.
Growing up Malaysia, I quickly associate loudspeakers and echoes with Islam. The calls to prayer, the azan, are familiar and with so many mosques around, it can be maddeningly incomprehensible and downright annoying. In this country, expressing dissatisfaction against the competition between mosques for the loudest azan prize can bring trouble as the overly sensitive conservatives ignore comprehension of the azan recital in favor of noise. The louder the azans, the sermons, speeches and readings, the louder will the echoes be.
The echoes give the idea that god the supreme being is speaking to you. This is not just me feeling it and writing crap theory. Switch on the TV or the radio when an Islamic program is up in the air and you can hear how the editors use the echo effect whenever a verse from the Koran is read. In a more adventurous unorthodox Islamic program — I think it was Imam Muda where judges look for the best “Islamic idol” (just like the American Idol!) — an echo would accompany the contestants when he or she read a Koranic verse. So, there is something holy about the echoes.
My travels across Southeast Asia have made me realized the role of echoes in depicting something as holy is not limited just to Islam. I stayed for a week in an alley in Mandalay, Myanmar. At the top of the short alley is the Ein Daw Yar Pagoda. The Buddhist chanting I heard every morning and in the evening through its PA system was, forgive me for the neologism, echorized. It sounded like a prerecorded mantra chanting. I could hear the word amitaba through the artificial echo and among the unrecognizable words. And there was also echo in traditional Christian chanting from the mediaeval times as they sang in their tall cathedrals.
Religion, either god himself (herself for the feminist?) or the institution is an authority, I suppose sociologically, rightly or wrongly. The echo is a signifier of holy authority.
Holy and authority. Those are two of my favorite things.
And so I come back to KL Sentral with its banal announcements along with its echoes.
The libertarian is clenching a fist, but with only four fingers closed.
As far as I understand it from my experience living in the United States during my undergraduate years, the Christian right, which is a loose socially conservative religious group, believes that there is a social war going on. It is a war on Christmas.
The war is really about the secularization of Christmas. It is a symbol of a wider conflict between the social conservatives and the liberals.
Putting that aside, an example of the secularization involves greetings associated with Christmas. In place of the phrase ”Merry Christmas”, many liberals are resorting to wishing ”Happy Holidays” instead.
The very phrase ”Happy Holidays” is partly an effort to be inclusive by those who embrace liberal, cosmopolitan values that are inclusive. That is so because Christmas is not only a celebration that takes place in December. There is the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. There is Thanksgiving at the end of November. Soon after Dec 25, there is the New Year’s Eve. And given the nature of the Muslim calendar, it is very possible that Ramadan can fall around the same time as Christmas.
The point is that non-Christian holidays do and can happen around the same time as Christmas. So, the greeting ”Happy Holidays” sounds inclusive, especially when one wants to be polite but does not know the other person well. This is particularly a relevant point to mass communication when tailored messages can be a little hard to deliver with precision.
The more important point is that the end-of-the-year holidays — at the risk of committing tautology — are the end-of-the-year holidays. Schools end, professionals take their leave and families or friends go to somewhere together if they do not spend it at home. Even non-believers do this.
So, the time that is traditionally celebrated as Christmas holidays becomes the common great holidays for all. For many Christians in America, Christmas is about Christianity. For many non-Christians, Christmas is a secular holiday devoid of any religious connotation. So secular that if the political left had their way, they would have labeled Christmas as a capitalist holiday for all of the shopping sprees that happen all around the world.
Apparently, the secularization of Christmas does not only happen in America. Some years ago, several of my French friends wished ”Merry Christmas” to me. I told one of the friends that I am not a Christian. She replied, ”Neither am I. I am an atheist.”
”Oh. Then Merry Christmas to you too,” I said while smiling at her.
There we were, two non-Christians wishing each other ”Merry Christmas”.
We were just being nice to each other and we had no Christian image of Nativity in our heads.
This is only a data point but it is a proof of secularization of Christmas nevertheless.
Some secularization also happens in Malaysia.
There are nominal Muslims who celebrate the end of Ramadan not because they consider it as a particularly religious day. In fact, a lot of them do not observe strict fasting during the month of Ramadan. Still they celebrate Hari Raya because it is a tradition to do so and because everybody is in their gayest of all moods, dressed in their best bright-colored baju Melayu and baju kurung. It is effectively a nationwide party. It is hard not to get afflicted by the ambience comes to being only in the month of Syawal. Never mind that there are also non-Muslims who celebrate Hari Raya by visiting friends in the days after Syawal 1.
That is the seed of secularisation that to some extent divorces the holiday from its religious significance.
The full separation between those holidays and its religious significance however is unlikely to happen anytime soon as long as religion continues to play an important role in any society.
In Malaysia, religion will continue to be relevant for a long time.
While that is so, there are celebrations that have been fully divorced from their original religious connotation. One of such celebrations is just around the corner and it is St Valentine’s Day. Despite the name, Valentine’s in its popular conception in Malaysia and in many other places has nothing to do with religion.
The simplest way to ascertain that is to run a survey. Ask any couple out on Valentine’s and see if they have religion in mind. More likely than not. They are likely to have each other in their mind instead. The truth is that Valentine’s of modern times is a very secular romantic celebration of each other.
And secularization has allowed the idea of Valentine’s to come closest it has ever been to becoming universal.
Yet, many conservative Muslims in Malaysia in one way or another believe that Valentine’s is about Christianity. Like the Christian right which suffers from make-believe assault and siege mentality, the Malaysian Muslim conservatives suffer from the same delusion. In their mind, this is yet another conspiracy against them.
But it is not.
It is an evolution within society. Society takes what it thinks good from within it. Through secularization, society makes whatever that was confined within a restrictive four-wall more universal so that all can benefit from it.
So, to take Valentine’s as celebrated today within a religious context and then to oppose it is truly to miss the point of it all.
Words for Malaysian religious conservatives, maybe especially for Hasan Ali and his sympathizers.
In November, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an independent Salafist cleric and presidential candidate, was asked by an interviewer how, as president, he would react to a woman wearing a bikini on the beach? ”She would be arrested,” he said.
The Al Nour Party quickly said he was not speaking for it. Agence France-Presse quoted another spokesman for Al Nour, Muhammad Nour, as also dismissing fears raised in the news media that the Salafists might ban alcohol, a staple of Egypt’s tourist hotels. ”Maybe 20,000 out of 80 million Egyptians drink alcohol,” he said. ”Forty million don’t have sanitary water. Do you think that, in Parliament, I’ll busy myself with people who don’t have water, or people who get drunk?” [Thomas Friedman. Political Islam Without Oil. New York Times. January 10 2012]