Peter Berger, “Easternizing Spirituality,” and the Colonial Difference

In case you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, sociologist Peter Berger has a new blog, Religion Other Curiosities, at the American Interest Online. It’s a great blog and worth checking out on a regular basis. Berger has keen insights into Religion and culture and it’s great that he’s decided to jump into the blogosphere. (EDIT- See Stephen Prothero’s brief review of Berger’s blog here)

What caught my eye today was his post on Sai Baba and the spread of Eastern religions to the West. Berger rightly notes that Asian religions have tended not to missionize in the West, a few Buddhist groups and Swami Vivekananda aside, but rather that Asian religions have floated into Western culture through various means:

But the much more significant impact of Asian religiosity on the West has not come by way of missionary organizations. It has been much more diffuse, seeping into the culture through miscellaneous informal channels—books, periodicals, electronic media, small groups of friends and acquaintances, and last but not least through the influence of celebrities (“Hollywood Buddhism” and the like). The diffusion probably dates from the late 19th century, when the alleged wisdom from the East attracted wide interest in Europe and America. Later this trend grew into the so-called New Age movement, then burst into prominence with the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and today can be found in the many cases when people say that they are “not religious, but spiritual”.

The diffusion dates earlier than Berger notes–I would trace it to the turn of the 19th century–but his brief history sums things up nicely. It also points out the difficulties of trying to write a history of Asian religious influences in America. Catholics and Jews came to America in rather set patterns of immigration and brought institutions and communities with them. Asian religions, and specifically for me Hinduism, traveled through diffuse networks, across a myriad of media, and was represented and imagined in all sorts of ways starting in the late eighteenth century.

Berger then takes his post in a different direction than I had hoped, following Colin Campbell in his book The Easternization of the West, Berger sees the “Easternizing spirituality” as a challenge to the core beliefs of “the West.”

In think that Campbell is correct in seeing this last complex of ideas as offering the sharpest challenge to core Western values. If one goes back in history, everywhere, one comes on what may be called the mythic matrix of all human cultures—a worldview in which the individual is embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods. I think that Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history has given the best descriptions of what he called “leaps in being”—ruptures in this fabric of cosmic unity. Two ruptures have been seminal for Western civilization—those of ancient Israel and ancient Greece—the exodus of the people of Israel from the mythic world of the surrounding cultures of the Near East—and the different but equally powerful force of Greek reason in challenging the compact universe of myth. Of course these two ruptures did not immediately bring about what we now call Western individualism. It took centuries for this to happen. Perhaps the best metaphor of the original rupture is that moment in Greek sculpture when individual human figures stepped out of the archaic friezes and stood free, by themselves. “Easternization” in all its forms implies the suggestion that we should step back into the frieze. This would be a far-reaching reversal of the entire course of our civilization. We should think very carefully before we recommend such a step.

A “far-reaching reversal?” Berger invokes a standard piece of colonial discourse. There is the rational Hebraic-Greek West which has stepped out of the mythical world and then there is the mythic East that is still locked in the imaginative and dreamy land of myth where the individual is “embedded in a community that includes humans, animals, nature and the gods.” The Easternization of spirituality then becomes a backsliding by rational Westerners into the “frieze,” a euphemism for mythic life. Berger’s image of the mythic and spiritual East versus a demytholigized and individualized West draws on a series of Western contrasts built before and during colonialism to help the West make sense of itself and of its Others. Richard King outlines the properties of the West and East nicely in his Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and the Mystic East. The West: Public / Society / Science / Institutional Religion / Secular / Rational / Male and the East: Private / Individual / Religion / Personal Religion (Mysticism?) / Sacred / Irrational or Non-rational / Female. These essentialist distinctions were born in the Enlightenment and worked out in the colonies, especially in India. The “Easternization” of the West, or America, is a problem only insofar as the West imagines itself in these terms and in contrast to the East. The need for an Other against which America or the West could construct and imagine itself requires the East to remain mystical and irrational. To step out of the frieze we must keep the frieze in a museum somewhere.


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