Friday, September 14, 2007

Centenary of the Modernist Crisis

As I have been reading and meditating a bit on Bhaktivinoda Thakur's modernist project, I found the following report on ABC, The Centenary of the Modernist Crisis, interesting in its review of the Catholic response to modernism, apparently a term invented by Pope Pius X and defined as "the synthesis of all heresies."

When you read the transcript, you get the impression that Krishna consciousness had a similar reaction to the intellectual impetus that leads to modernism. ("It ushered in a period of repression, spies, secret vigilance committees, dismissals and excommunication that stifled open independent thought for half a century.") Although, thanks to the OCHS and its offshoot in New Rarha Desh, this seems to be increasingly less true with the passage of time.

David Schultenover S.J. (Professor of History at Marquette University, U.S.A.) comments on the nature of the fear that led to this reaction:

...It largely reacted out of fear, very understandable fear, coming out of all the forces that were unleashed by the French Revolution. You know, all of the ideas that were promoted by the Enlightenment, ideas that centred around individual rights and various freedoms, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, limits on the power of governments and rule of law, free exchange of ideas, market economy, transparent system of government, accountability, participative government, all of those things, those values that were very foreign to the church's own polity, the church's own organisation, it's own sense of itself.

It is indeed a very curious thing, when you think about it. Bhaktivinoda adopted certain modernist arguments that were adopted in certain Protestant circles, ideas like natural intuition (sahaja-samadhi), evolution and progressive revelation, etc. These ideas were applied in certain particular ways by Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. Indeed, you might easily argue that Bhaktivinoda Thakur's idea of sahaja-samadhi led to Bhaktisiddhanta's newfangled concept of the disciplic succession. In the particular environment of India in which he was preaching, where his combination of new and old, rolled up in an anglicized Bengali (at least in speech, if not in writing), gave the GM a cachet of novelty that worked well with many of the educated and forward-looking Bengali youth. Of course, in his reformist zeal, he introduced many dogmatic elements that were not so vividly present in Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

His disciples like Bon Maharaj and Goswami Maharaj, who came to Europe to preach the Gaudiya Math message failed to make much headway. The reason for it is somewhat easy to recognize: their approach was too intellectual and therefore too relativistic. They never said joto mot toto poth, but they could not bring themselves to say nāsty eva nāsty eva nāsty eva gatir anyathā.

Bhaktivedanta Swami's approach was to abandon modernism entirely and return to a dogmatic insistence that not a dash or iota of the timeless message had been changed, and had been carefully preserved like a hot potato from one master's hands to the next, with no concern for history except for the occasional need for renewal, kaleneha mahatā yogo naṣṭaḥ parantapa.

Bhaktivedanta evidently brought a kind of return to fundamentalism into Krishna consciousness that left people like Bon Maharaj shaking their heads. He never thought of preaching to idiots!! But it raises phenomenological questions about the relationship of the kaniṣṭha mentality to conversion, the necessity of passing through a kaniṣṭha stage of dogmatism, etc., before the madhyama intellectual engagement (or tussle) with faith-based ideas can truly be meaningful. (Bhaktivinoda does indeed hint at something of the sort in his Kṛṣṇa-saṁhitā, as does Sri Jiva in Bhakti-sandarbha.)

Bhakti cannot function as a purely intellectual movement; even its doctrinal elements have to appeal beyond the rational levels. I think this means, like William James said, that the ideas of faith must present themselves as living, forced, and momentous. (See The Will to Believe.) This certainly narrows the field of possible converts, excluding those who are merely interested in the phenomenology of religion. It leaves only those who are in a position of openness to ideas that are recognizably meaningful, unavoidable, and demanding of urgent engagement, i.e. an existential response. In other words, they must be seekers in existential crisis.

I recently gave my friend Philippe an Īśopaniṣad to read. When I asked him how he liked it, he said, "It is as though a long lost memory is coming back to me." It was more than just a rational argument he was encountering there.


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