Repetition that Never WaS: Return of Religion, but not Theology?

A note on religious fundamentalism

Originally published in the Thresholds magazine.

M. C. Escher – Ascending and Descending, 1960.

The one who leaves is not the one who left.

Jane Bryce

It was the genius of Jorge Luis Borges who created Pierre Menard, a fictional French author who writes the novel Don Quixote in the 1930s. In his execution, the new novel is line-by-line identical to that of Miguel de Cervantes. Even though the content seemed indistinguishable, the social and cultural context changed dramatically. After all, it is not the same thing to write about chivalry in the 17th century and three centuries afterward. While the first attempt might have been just a mere reaction to its immediate surrounding, the “same” thing in the 1930s could only be interpreted as an oeuvre of an avant-garde writer who fashioned his novel in an anachronistic manner indulging into usage of arcane notions and narratives, perfectly reconstructing languages and dialects of the 17th century Spain. Thus Menard’s Don Quixote in Borges’s story receives much better critical reception than the seemingly identical work of Cervantes, and the following passage can be illustrative of the drastic differences in meaning that those two works convey:

“It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine): . . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes: . . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.”

Pushing the irony to the extreme, Borges boldly underlines the central message: a perfect reproduction is impossible at least because of the entropy of time. In that sense, what might seem like the same signal appears in a modified surrounding. In his seminal study “Difference and Repetition”, Deluze (2001) said: “To repeat is to behave in a certain manner but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound, internal repetition within the singular.” That is to say, repetition is not a reenactment of some previous act, but rather an autonomous production that stands in relation to the original one and takes places in new conditions. Repetition is not magical transplantation of an event from the past into the present (that would anyway leave the past without a vital organ), but merely the past in the present, something old in something new.

The same goes for religion. It is not only theologically problematic but also intellectually dishonest to represent religion as a set of immutable principles. Such nostalgia stands behind every fundamentalism that aims to reenact the past in the present pretending that nothing changed and that nothing should change. Nostalgia is in this respect a displaced desire that invests its emotional and mental resources into dead artifacts rather than living experiences. A fundamentalist who wishes to restore the past is always one step behind the present. Just like Achilles who cannot catch a turtle, a fundamentalist is always at the heels of a current moment precisely because that moment escapes while he is trying to reconstruct the past behind its back. The ultimate result of the extreme fundamentalism a cult of death – it aspires to secure the eternal life of the past by balmifying it and placing it into ornamented coffins of wishful imagination that have weak relevance to the current moment. Both past and present lose their vitality in these machinations of mnemonic engineering. In contrast to fundamentalism, going to fundaments, finding inspiration in the original events, symbols, literary works, is both creative and re-creative process, content in context. In its core, tradition means delivery, and in order to have a tradition, one has to rebuild it. As Goethe said in Faust regarding tradition: “Earn, so that you may possess it”. (Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwerb es, um es zu besitzen!)

After the decades, and even centuries in which religious trends were interpreted through the dominant paradigm of the “secularization theory”, the narrative has changed. The basic idea behind the theory was that the process of modernization would lead to the progressive decline in not only influence but also the relevance of religion. Even though the trends in that direction seemed convincing for an extended period of modernization in Western Europe, the second half of the 20th century has witnessed different waves of religious revival. Now it became almost a trend to speak about the “return of religion” be it in personal spheres, be it in international relations or global economy. Unfortunately, these interpretations were often linked to the global rise of religiously inspired violence, and some critics were ready to warn that the world is heading back to the “dark Middle Ages.”

The problem that I see here lies precisely in the blurred idea of what the “return” should represent. What worries me most is the fact that everybody speaks about the “return of religion”, but nothing can be heard about the “return of theology.” Such situation is, as a matter of fact, much more precarious that the one in the Middle Ages when theology as an intellectual aspect of religion was flourishing. This is not to say, of course, that the Middle Ages were in a civilization sense preferential to the present time, but rather to emphasize a strange aberration of this incomplete return. What is worrying in this proclaimed “return of religion” is the fact that the intellectual feature of religion, its reflective engagement with sacred and the world, is being marginalized or even invisible. However, development of this kind could, in the long run, only serve those who do not desire any theological change whatsoever. Fundamentalism is precisely a strong religion with a weak theology. This uneasiness is of the same sort as the one that would occur if we could hear continuously about a return of technology without the Science of Engineering, or a return of medicines without Pharmacy. Although the global numbers of believers are on the rise, it cannot be said with confidence that the theological knowledge and education is also advancing. Because of this, one can often see paradoxical situations that self-proclaimed atheists know religious tradition much better than their self-proclaimed followers.

Perhaps there is a return taking place. This return, however, cannot be explained neither by the syntagm “believing without belonging” (Grace Davis) nor by the phrase “belonging without believing” (Hervieu-Léger). What is left is the paradoxical “believing without believing.” Although “believing” repeats two times, they are – just like in every other repetition – different. They should be understood in dynamics of the Latin verbs credo and scio. While the first believing suggests a voluntary aspect of adhering to certain principles, the second one assumes its reflective dimension, its critical aspect, and its guarantee of life. A return of religion without theology could only be a return of some strange Don Quixotes into a new world that he does not understand but wants to conquer, this time even without the basic soberness of Sancho Panza.