Monday, November 12, 2012

Modernism in religion

One of the most enjoyable polemics I have read in recent years is Christopher Beckwith's denunciation of modernism.  Not modernity, but modernism -- the belief that the new is always better than the old. A monstrously destructive delusion that consigns centuries, even millennia, of human experience, striving and achievement to the tediously passe, beneath the concern of the so-much-more-enlightened present.

One of the great ironies of the modern age is that those forms of religion which most proclaim their devotion to the origins of their faith are most in thrall to this delusion. All the experience and wrestling with faith and life that has happened between those origins and now is consigned to the dustbin of history as corrupting pollution of the pristine original faith. That original faith as currently imagined, of course.

This modernism in religion manifests in modernism in architecture. The Wahhabism the al-Saud are allied to is just such a rejection of the history of Islam to return to its alleged roots. A return which includes obliterating historical buildings in Mecca -- even those intimately connected to Muhammad's family and companions -- to build modernist monstrosities, such as the tallest clock tower on top of the building with the biggest floor space overlooking the mosque which holds the Kaaba, the focus of the hajj and the lodestone for the direction of the prayers of believers.

No connection to that history is safe. This obliteration of the past includes:
the house of the prophet's wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public lavatories; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson's house was flattened by the King's palace.
But more is to come. Much of the Kaaba mosque itself, along with the core of the Old City of Mecca, is to be obliterated to construct 400,000 sq metres of prayer halls notionally able to peer at the Kaaba and to allow 130,000 pilgrims an hour to be funnelled through the holy centre. Stark modernist functionality literally built on the obliteration of the history of Mecca.

There is a profound arrogance involved in this rejection of human experience, achievement and striving in favour of present obsessions. An arrogance which is profoundly destructive. In this case, quite literally and physically so.


  1. It's the arrogance of any fundamentalist: the conviction that "I've got it right", and if I am now the canon of correct interpretation, then all older interpretations are not only obsolete, they are actively harmful, because someone else might (mistakenly) decide to investigate them and come to a different (and therefore wrong) conclusion.

    There's also the tendency of this sort of fundamentalism towards Iconoclasm. The wiping away of the old in a new purity. Especially if the "old" is seen as decadent or corrupt. Puritanism as a sign of purity.

    1. Well, yes. There is much in such fundamentalism that overlaps with a sort of collective narcissism.

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