The Interlacing of Culture and Religion
The human experience of life and the Earth is different depending on variables and factors like climate, locale and landscape, or history and so on. No one should think that the African would have the same experience as the Northern European, or the Arab the same experience as the Canadian, or the Canadian the same experience as the Chinese or Indian. The circumstances of our existence differentiate us endlessly, and it is our various responses to these circumstances, both individual and collective, that define us, including, of course, our responses to the presence of “the other” — the famous “them”.
In fact, this very diversity has been the basis for all human progress. And even in times of hostility, different cultures were influencing each other, even fertilising each other, in very subtle ways which we might call “co-evolutionary” ways. The survival of these societies, even the flourishing of culture, has very much depended upon their conscious openness to that influence and fructification (or leavening) and not by shutting down and erecting walls and fences against it.
All civilisations are in a sense mongrel affairs or, we might say better, that they are confluences of different streams of the collective human experience. Always the first objection to the conservative or reactionary type is Blake’s Proverb of Hell: “the standing water breeds pestilence”. That is especially true of civilisations, for it means that the civilisation is no longer learning. Learning is the reason why we are here, and so an open society is a matter of learning, while a closed society is one which is decadent because it no longer learns or changes in the misguided belief it is preserving its “purity”.
The Islamic Golden Age was the confluence of Abrahamic religion and Greco-Roman philosophy. The European only started to emerge from the Great European Dark Age when he or she started to learn from the Arabs. Algebra, alchemy or chemistry, algorithm, and so on are all Arabic words. Even some Arthurian heroes and knights of the Round Table were apparently Arab Muslims or “Saracens” (Sir Palamides and Safir). It’s around the 12th century when the names of great Muslim scholars like Avicenna or Averroes begin to circulate in Europe, preparing the breakthrough that has come to be known as the Renaissance. Even the Knights Templar, who are generally recognised as Europe’s first bankers and financiers, learned their skills in finance and accounting from the Arabs during the Crusades. From China the West learned the compass and gunpowder, two inventions that have had such an extraordinary influence on the making of the Modern Era.
Modern music traces its geneaology to Africa, and the black experience of being literally uprooted and transported to the New World. Jazz, Blues, Soul or Rock and Roll are literally unthinkable except as inspired by the legacy of Africa combined with Western influences and instruments. Pablo Picasso’s art is really jazz on canvas, and he also arrived at his style by carefully studying and imitating African art — during his so-called “Negroid phase”.
Everyone is in the business of influencing everyone else, “co-evolving” whether in war or peace. It’s a spurious argument to speak of “cultural appropriation” (although that might confuse appropriation and misappropriation) since “plagiarism is the basis of all culture”, as folk singer Pete Seeger once put it. The West even borrowed its religion from other sources. It borrowed its science and philosophy from the Arabs and the Greeks. It borrowed its legal and political systems from the Greeks and Romans. It’s beginning to borrow its environmental and ecological sensibilities from the native North Americans.
There isn’t much that is distinctly “Western” at all, really except this amazing readiness to extract and profit from history and from the experience of other people — the “Open Society” — and to adapt it all to the exigencies of its own historical experience. The European was once barbarian, (even called once “the hairy ones”) and even now much remains of the barbarian still, by which I understand “closed-minded” and unwillingness to learn, which goes hand in hand with the “culture of narcissism” and the empathy deficit. Even the word “bigot” once was practically synonymous with the word for “barbarian”. Reputedly, “Visigoth” became “bisgoth” became “bigot”. So the ignorant wretch, who is proud of his ignorance, still dwells amongst us, as indeed amongst all, even as the “fanatic” who is just as much a barbarian as the bigot.
Multiculturalism, or the “Silk Road strategy” as we might call it, is the official policy of Canada with this in mind — that all the great societies of history were not monolithic but places of collection and re-collection, convergence and confluence for many different human experiences, which became mutually fructifying. Canada is deliberately trying to model in itself McLuhan’s “Global Village” as befits its name (for “Kanata” is Huron for “village”). It’s based upon an insight into history, and the belief that respect for different people’s different historical experience can only be culturally enriching. It’s a sound social philosophy and policy, but only if everyone remains committed to openness and learning from one another. And here, as elsewhere, many are not. But you could say even that Canada is a laboratory for a grand social experiment in constructing a “universal history”. It can succeed if everyone wants it to.
And so that change of name from Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Ministry of Global Affairs with the new Trudeau government is something I hold as being a highly significant shift in orientation.
The uneducated and the too narrowly educated share much in common though. Polls show they are the most resistant and most reactionary about interculturalism or internationalism. It’s here, if anywhere, that Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy, pedagogy, and formula for the “new mind” should be a great interest: respondeo, etsi mutabor — “I respond, although I will be changed”. If people don’t greet and approach the events and circumstances of their lives, challenging or not, as an opportunity for learning, then they have simply wasted their time and probably everybody else’s. All the most remarkable people I have known in my life lived Rosenstock-Huessy’s maxim without even knowing it. They had a wide-eyed, child-like openness and curiosity about everyone and everything — always at the dawn of things: “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”.
The cynic, the dogmatist, the bigot, or the fanatic are just symptoms of already exhausted inspiration and life.