Abaraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, often portrayed as a pyramid with the more basic material needs at the bottom, haunts much of the contemporary discourse in both religion and political science (and, perhaps, long before Maslow articulated it, the pyramid has been in the backs of everyone’s minds since time immemorial). In simplest terms, for the political, democracy and liberty can easily be undermined by a careful calculation of keeping the majority of society on the brink of physiological and psychological starvation. The religious almost seem to tacitly agree, as they counter-act by either outright denying the importance of the pyramid’s bottom tier (asceticism), sharply separating the apex from the lower tiers (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”), or asserting the apex’s dictatorship over the lower tiers (fundamentalism, theocracy). However, Maslow’s shadow is much more intricate and dark.
My friend Maarten, a student and aspiring activist in peace and conflict studies, and I share what could be called a Maslowian obsession, mine religious, his political: the relationship, and often conflict, between body and soul, this world and the next, or put another way, resources and rights, stability and liberty. At root, it is really about, both individually or collectively, the clash of desires, heteronomy’s limits upon self-actualization and self-determination, and the struggle with contingency. We’ve been thinking about these issues as they appear under the light of material crisis — such as the one going on right now in the Great Recession and the deepening of the neo-liberal order — when history very much casts entire swathes of human beings into the seeming positions of winner and loser, successful and failure, celebrated and forgotten, survival or extinction.
Desires, human and divine
Religiously, the fundamental question is not just the classic formulation of whether there is space for chance, and hence a possibility for the expression of human will. It is, I feel, a riddle between one’s own conceptualization of oneself, even one’s seemingly innermost desires, and God’s conceptualization of oneself. In the Long Obligatory Prayer of the Bahá’í Faith, we proclaim, “By Thy might which is far above all mention and praise! Whatsoever is revealed by Thee is the desire of my heart and the beloved of my soul. O God, my God! Look not upon my hopes and my doings, nay rather look upon Thy will that hath encompassed the heavens and the earth. By Thy Most Great Name! I have desired only what Thou didst desire, and love only what Thou dost love.”
There is, of course, an oft-overlooked hyperbolic dimension to the Bahá’í Writings. Like all Abrahamic scriptures, it is intended to convey their revelatory nature, i.e., that these words come from “somewhere else“, a transcendent authority that bursts into our quotidian existence and lifts us up to a new level of experience and meaning, thereby re-orienting our very being. Nevertheless, such hyperbole raises a troubling question: what if I have not desired what God didst desire? Or, what if God didst desire my destruction, and the destruction of everything I hold dear? Why do I not have the right to determine my own desire?
Crucially, the hidden assumption of this line of questioning is that there is no such thing as contingency, or at least, it is reasonable to assume that all instances of heteronomy are somehow indicative of divine will. At the most logical extreme, the religious seem to be at risk of forfeiting their right to believe in tragedy, much less injustice; we should take the cognitive stance of believing that even the most horrific of events are blessings in disguise, providence hidden in calamity.
Politically, this question translates into the much-rehearsed problems of individual self-determination vis-à-vis the collective, and national self-determination vis-à-vis the planet; indeed, it is, at root, not just about other human beings, but also our very physical selves, both in terms of our individual bodies and in the natural resources we can assemble to our use, as individuals and as collectives. The massive debates over abortion in societies like the United States and over precious minerals and rare earths in societies like Kyrgyzstan are perfect illustrations of this: a women’s right to abort a fetus poses a direct challenge to the continuity of American society, and the Kyrgyz’s right to choose who can mine their gold poses a direct challenge to the international community’s financial and technological continuity.
Again, crucially, the hidden assumption of this line of questioning is that there is no such thing as necessity, or at least, it is reasonable to assume that all instances of autonomy are somehow indicative of individual will. At the most logical extreme, the political seem to be at risk of forfeiting their right to not always be Nietzschean and will themselves to power; maybe we should not hold ourselves responsible for every calamity.
There ought not be an ought
The religious and the political intersect very intimately. In my reading of Western thinkers like Claude Lefort and Richard Rorty, as well as Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal and even Sayyid Qutb, such fatalism — in essence, an excess of transcendence — was precisely the cognitive failure of pre-Modernity. That is why all of us, even those societies that suffered from Western colonialism, are still better for being able to participate, if indirectly, in the guillotine’s descent: we believe that there is not, or ought not, be an order external to humanity to fix our society into place.
We are now veering toward the opposite extreme, in which there is an excess of voluntarism — in essence, an excess of immanence. Take anarchism and libertarianism for instance: in 1798, the world realized that the throne and the king were not one and the same, that the king was actually contingent; today, even the throne is seen as contingent by many on the ideological extremes of communism and liberalism. In the most cynical formulations of our present predicament, such as that by Carl Schmitt, there is only the clash of atomistic individuals, driven by vague and largely accidental needs that are subjectively compelling but are objectively unverifiable, and hence, effectively meaningless outside of ourselves. Little wonder, says Schmitt, that consumerism has become triumphant: all desires are equal, and hence, mere preferences.
Here’s another way of thinking about the problem. David Hume argued that in pre-Modernity, the is and the ought were cognitively fused: things just were, the cosmos was structured a certain way, and so, too, human society, and all under the careful craftsmanship of God. Today, they are cognitively disentangled, and as much as we would like to craft oughts based upon is’s — do we not hear this when people defend homosexual marriage on the grounds of a “gay gene”, as well as counter-arguments that the “gay gene” is a mere “mutation”, or that nature is not the determinant of what is right? — we are unable to succeed.
For one, because, à la Thomas Kuhn, science won’t let us be so confident in our assertions about the is: the scientist is a painter constantly revising his masterpiece with every new noticed detail, sometimes, as in the case of Copernicus and Ptolemy, tossing out the canvas and starting all over again. For another, because there is no common consensus about the ought, since it is usually just another way of saying “desire”. Indeed, we are realizing that the is poses a very real, and often insurmountable, challenge to the ought. In this respect, we are discovering the hard limits to our freedom, something which our ancestors always knew, but we are unwilling to resort to their solution, and rightfully so. The only compelling ought today is that there ought to be no ought.
Fighting the future
Consider again the examples I gave above: we see in these a conflict between futures — an “I” (a woman or the Kyrgyz) versus a “We” (America or the planet). Strangely, though, these and similar debates are usually construed in the news and intellectual discourse in terms of conflicting presents; the future tends to be absent. Again, this is because of our excessive immanence.
Journalistic and intellectual discourse in the post-Cold War period has embraced a certain ideological aimlessness, indeed, an ideology of aimlessness, that often goes by the shorthand of “liberalism” and “democracy” but at points has a very thin bloodline to John Locke and Adam Smith. That is because the traumas of communist central planning remain frightfully vivid in our global collective consciousness, and we secretly desire to believe that capitalism’s proverbial “invisible hand” is fair and just, and that it shall protect us from heteronomy by relying upon all of our infinite autonomies. Thus, the future itself, because of its unknowability, becomes a heteronomy, and thus, it becomesa tyranny.
Of course, neo-liberal presentism overlooks the fact that the present is also heteronomous, not to mention the past that gave rise to it. Moreover, the ongoing struggles in the West over “Austerity” could represent a reaction against such aimlessness: young Americans and Europeans do not want their future sacrificed just to maintain the old’s present. As is increasingly being revealed by statistical analysis of the distribution of wealth in our countries, the invisible hand turns out to not be so fair and just after all.
I have desired only what Thou didst desire
The conflict between present and future is also at play in the religious quandary: presumably, God’s business is the future, maintaining and guiding His creation to some kind of grand perfection. At stake religiously, then, is really the ultimate of all “I”-“We” conflicts: between being and Being, life and Life, microcosm and macrocosm. I like to think in metaphors: can the smoke ever hope to overcome the fire that wrought it? The post-Nietzschean rejoinder to this would be: even if it could, should it? Or, for the sake of the All, should it surrender its will to power in a supreme act of amor fati, islam, agape?
Maarten and I do not have a solution to the problem. However, I do have one intuition: much may depend upon how, so to speak, Cartesian and Aristotelian we choose to see the world. In the fist, there is a strict partition, an equation which can only result in war between transcendence and immanence, inevitably resulting in the defeat and exile of one or the other. The second, by contrast, is a telological vision in which case all desires are really various shades of an ultimate, final desire, to become whole, i.e., to join in community with others (political) and to unite with the divine (religious). It is a way to see the transcendent in the immanent, and vice versa. Both are mystical perspectives, but like any lens, they create different worlds.
Alas, there appears to be equal grounds to put on either the Cartesian or Aristotelian glasses. Positivists and Nietzscheans can point to humanity’s many triumphs over nature and tyranny as evidence that we are better off without God, and that one day, all heteronomy shall bend at the knee; if anything, the evidence favors them. Others, like liberals (in the best sense of the term) and, I hope, the Bahá’í community, can hope for peace; indeed, such a moderate vision becomes a choice. It is, ironically, to insist upon an ought against the cruel face of the is, namely, that the is ought not be so cruel. I hate to admit that neurotic son of a bitch Søren Kierkegaard was right, especially considering the psychological damage he has wrought upon a loved one, but perhaps he was, perhaps he was.
The other irony is that the very compelled sacrifices Maarten and I wish to avoid — that our meager personal autonomy and our tiny innermost desires shall not be trod underfoot by history, the universe, and the divine — appear to be more necessary for the victory of the Aristotelian, moderate view, than for the Cartesian view. That is because humanity has always descended into extremism: if in pre-Modernity we refused to embrace immanence, today we refuse to embrace transcendence. In both cases, we could not bear our anxiety, we could not persevere in the face of ambiguity, it had to be one or the other, either/or. We desire nice, simple pictures — how often have I heard as a journalist the demand, “Just the facts”?
Surprisingly, it takes courage to be moderate — courage and sacrifice. To paraphrase the English expression, in order to have our cake and eat it too, we must be prepared to give up our cake and give up our eating of it. We must be willing to accept destruction of everything we hold dear, and to proclaim, “Whatsoever is revealed by Thee is the desire of my heart and the beloved of my soul!” And we must be willing to do this in order to show that another way is possible; and indeed, more than just show, but to actively establish that other way, to strike that balance, and to look toward the horizon of the possible and believe in a kingdom of the impossible. Alas, I’m not always particularly good at doing that…