Modernity on the Wings of Morality

On Wednesday, October 19, Jurgen Habermas traversed the Atlantic to deliver a lecture on myth and ritual as a part of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs lecture series.

Habermas defined religion as a world-view doctrine, with its roots in traditional local rites.

Pakistani trucks decorated to show "how the individual relates to the world or to the divine. Thus, the symbols used in truck decoration in particular (and vehicle decoration in general), even when they are not consciously representative of a particular religious message in the iconic sense, are still shaped by a notion of the religious place of the individual, by a religious worldview, and they still elicit responses which are framed within the parameters of that particular worldview.”

He remarked that because religion is rooted in rituals such as worship and ceremony “religious traditions preserve their connection to an archaic experience to which all other cultural sensors and sectors have lost access during the process of modernization.”  What does he mean by modernization?  Does he suggest a way that modernity is an externality of religion?

For the past few decades there has been a lot of buzz around acting “glocally”.  If networks can transcend geographic boundaries linking the micro (local) with the macro (global), we will be positioned in a much more sustainable environment.  This is the concept behind Sid Tarrow’s view of rooted cosmopolitans in his book, The New Transnational Activism.  Successful social movements can teach us how to mobilize against injustices such as BP’s pillage of the Gulf Coast, Dow Chemical’s irresponsibility in contaminating groundwater in Bhopal, India, TransCanada’s proposal to build a pipeline that would endanger a local aquifer, and most popularly as of late, the greed and deceit that has characterized Wall Street.  What all of these movements have in common is that they can benefit from linking national causes to international interests.

Often religious communities, focused on directly attention to ethical provisions for all mankind, are the most active rooted cosmopolitans.  In Reverse Mission, Timothy A. Bynres, who will be delivering a lecture at Georgetown on November 10, investigates transnational religious communities through three case studies—the Society of Jesus, a group of 4,000 U.S. citizens influencing policy on the war in El Salvador, the Maryknoll sisters changing public opinion and the government in Nicaragua in 1983 and the Benedictine monks in Vermont shaping the U.S.-Mexican border relations.  He details “how these U.S. citizens who are also Jesuit priests, Maryknoll missioners, and Benedictine monastics engaged actively in a variety of political processes in order to protect and advance the interests of the transnational religious communities to which they belong.”

Elucidating the uniqueness of mankind’s “ability to step out of the ‘egocentrism’ of a still self-enclosed primate consciousness into the public domain of the world, interpreted in common,” Habermas reminded us of the tensions between the collective and the individual.  Is there is a necessary loss of individualism when joining a collective?  And conversely, isn’t the individual only an individual when interacting, defined by and embedded in a group?

He illustrated the complexity of interaction by remarking that in “any cooperating community there is a tension between competing and yet complementary imperatives—that of the self-preservation of individuals on one side and that of the survival of the collectivity on the other.”  From the perspective of an increasingly globalized world, it appears that religion might have been one of the first globalized phenomena–one of the first platforms for individuals to maintain their local ties in a globalized worldview.

As any compelling philosopher, Habermas left the audience with more questions than answers.  He left us wondering about the paradoxical nature of humanity: that we need cooperation and common goals to structure relationships so that we may maximize diversity, democracy and survival.


Sarah Inman

Sarah is a former Georgetown CCT student and assistant managing editor for gnovis. She comes from Louisiana where she studied Political Science, wrote for a local newspaper, and ran from hurricanes. She is interested in exploring the invisible and forgotten--from infrastructures to human beings. Her writings aspire to raise questions about technology's role in politics, identity, and international development. When she's not studying, writing or talking to all of you, she likes to brew beer, laugh at improv comedy, dream about living in the Wind River Mountain Ranges, and go to live shows.