If we define religion as an ensemble of doctrines and practices that derives its legitimacy from one or more revelations each experienced at a particular time and place, we can understand the difficulty of reconciling religion with a global civilization independently of the question of the supernatural.
As I pointed out in the previous Chronicle, Islam provides a simple test of this formulation: it defines itself as the product of a single revelation, that of the Coran to Mohammed, and it insists on its vocation of universality: the revelation took place at one point in space-time, but its destiny is to be received by all of humanity. Christianity has in principle the same ambition, but what sets off Islam, or its Islamist purists, is its conviction that jihad to convert the entire world to Islam is a sacred duty.
Despite the depth of conviction behind this belief, its incompatibility with not simply the Western “Westphalian” nation-state system, but the globalist one-worldism toward which the West’s more advanced countries appear to be moving, only underlines the point that in the context of today’s virtual global “conversation,” for which the Internet offers the exemplary platform, and in which all human relations are increasingly assumed to take place, no historical revelation can recreate the originary human community.
Whence the rise of wokeness that I described. Wokeness does not refer to a specific historic revelation, but to the residue in each human psyche of the revelatory scene that the originary hypothesis postulates as preliminary to human history, and whose moral power is that it need not and cannot be referred to.
That religions, in particular, those of the two Testaments, have punctual revelations at their core was the governing principle of Science and Faith (Rowman & Littlefield, 1990), which contrasted (1) God’s revelation of his “name” to Moses in Exodus 3:14 as the founding monotheistic revelation with (2) Saul/Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 as the founding revelation of Christianity as a world religion. Saul’s realization is that his persecution of the Christians demonstrates his own sacralization of their martyred leader, whom he realizes can no longer be understood as a Jewish heretic but as the divine founder of a “new Israel.”
Given the description in Chronicle 681 of the originary sense of the sacred as the effective power of an external interdicting will that the human community recognizes as effecting a necessary control over its destiny and welfare, historical revelations reveal the further intentions of this will to one or more individuals in a specific time and place. If the originary revelation must be hypothesized as taking place in a collective setting in which it establishes the first human community, in more advanced hierarchical societies, where priests or sacred kings mediate between the divinity and the members of the community, these are understandably the privileged recipients of revelations. In later, less “compact” societies, their role can be taken over by founders of new religious communities.
The experience of revelation, of hearing the word of God, whether in intuition or in reality, lies at the ultimate crux of anthropology/religion: man creates God / God creates man.
There is no animal “religion”; animals have no internal scene of representation on which transcendent beings can manifest themselves. The Hegelian/Sartrian pour-soi is not available to beings that have never shared the human experience of the sacred/significant. Thus, as with language and the other elements of human culture, the emergence of religion cannot be explained in the biological terms of gradual emergence and specialization; there is nothing in animal life that can “evolve” into language. The very existence of religion is the clearest sign of this: transcendence is a new dimension, open only to humans, leaving open the question as to whether its ontology demands an extra-worldly domain of its own.
This is the reason why generative anthropology is both necessary and ignored. The denial of possible “animal religions” is no doubt, like the denial of the existence of “black swans,” an empirical or “falsifiable” statement. But it is not one that natural science in its present state has any hope of demonstrating.
The point of GA is that only a hypothesis of human origin described in terms of plausible human experience, rather than a set of conclusions from a multitude of data sets, can permit us to deal with the fundamental ontological issues of human culture. Waiting for natural science to tell us how language and culture began means bracketing the most important domain of human knowledge aux calendes grecques, meanwhile leaving the field to the believer-atheist dialogue de sourds.
It is therefore my conviction that the central task of generative anthropology is to elaborate and extend its phenomenology of the originary scene, my own and other accounts of which are necessarily subject to continual refinement. If we would understand the human as such, we must understand in the first place the originary humans who were our ancestors, and to do this, we must attempt to put ourselves in their place in the formative configurations that began with the originary event.
Such speculations are “unfalsifiable” and lacking in the rigor of empirical science, but their reliance on a intuitable hypothetical event is no less reliable than that of classical phenomenology on introspection. For whatever authority I may have to describe the “contents of my consciousness,” my descriptions are unverifiable by others save via a shared intuition of this human consciousness. And without an originary hypothesis, we must simply take for granted the mechanism that allows others to share my intuitions, including those that are constitutive of languages and cultural structures of all kinds.
In the case of the “Awokening,” for example, the acephalous nature of the movement depends on the contagion effect of condemning what are described as symptoms of “systemic racism.” The all-important “gotcha” effect is indeed a form of revelation, one well-suited to a society that is no longer held together by the great historical religious revelations, while having absorbed their originary moral framework as an ethical template.
The Judeo-Christian roots of wokeness are essential, because although all human cultures share the moral model inherited from the originary event, Christianity foregrounds the victimary nature of the scenic center more explicitly than any other religion. This foregrounding has been the source of the greatness of Western culture, as well as of the anthropologies of Girard and GA; yet the woke phenomenon demonstrates its limitations. The flaw it reveals in Christianity is the example it sets, not for society’s “victims” so much as for their purported victimizers, in whom the most innocent manifestations of social hegemony can be described as examples of “white privilege” and “systemic racism,” that is, ultimately, forms of participation in the murder of Jesus.
The originary event is the source of our openness to revelation, and the more insightfully we can phenomenologize it, the better we can understand the effectiveness of historical revelations and the differences they reflect in the societies in which they have occurred.
To carry out such a task will require much further research into the specifics of religious traditions. At this point, I can say only that, if the fundamental intuition behind the originary hypothesis is correct, its application to the study of and comparison among the separate religions promises to raise the study of religion to a qualitatively new level.
The sole example I can offer of my own research in this area is my very limited study of Mahayana Buddhism, presented in my talk at Nagoya in 2016 (the text is given in its entirety in Chronicles 515 and 516). In this paper, I pointed out that, in contrast to Zeno’s paradoxes, Nagarjuna’s paradoxical evacuation of propositional truth is an intellectual emptying of the scene of representation, analogous to the psychological practices of Buddhism and other “Eastern” religions (yoga, meditation, etc.), the common purpose of which is to emphasize the scene of representation itself at the expense of the central object around which it was originally constituted.
Emptying the scene of its central object, or emphasizing its arbitrariness by focusing, as in meditation, on some arbitrary item, enables us to contemplate, or at least to conceive, the scene itself. This intuition of the peace of the empty scene is inversely symmetrical to the suffering unto death in the scene of the Crucifixion.
Since the object in the center is in the first place a sacralization/sacrifice to the community, both alimentary and spiritual, earthly and transcendental, emptying the scene brings us closer to an intuition of bare transcendence “as such.” We could not have the sacrifice, even Jesus’, without the scene—nor, on the other hand, the scene without its sacred/significant center.
The two religious traditions each emphasize one of these two elements: in the West, our personal bond with the transcendental as “sons of God”; in the East, our ability to transcend worldly desire to grasp the divine emptiness—the space-time of deferral—within which alone a sacred being could appear. Whence the contrast we see today between the West’s self-destructive “humanism” that makes discipline of any kind, including punishment of criminals (“victims” of society), increasingly difficult, and China’s often brutal assertion of the priority of the common scene as the basis of the community over the “illusory” desires of its individual members.
Needless to say, a far more inclusive analysis would be required to confirm and extend these suggestive conclusions. I offer this example as a preliminary model for other, more extensive research projects. Generative anthropology exists as an affirmation of the principle that only by hypothesizing an originary scenic configuration of language and religion, that is, of the specifically human as such, do we become able to substitute a plausible and intuitable configuration for the abstractions in which religion is habitually discussed.
For it is one thing to talk of “love of God,” and another to situate this love as the transcendence of resentment in a specific originary context. Classical phenomenology attempts to find such configurations within the researcher’s own mind through introspection, but there is no substitute for positing them in the first place as objective external realities, which they must have been at some point in order for the human universe to get started. All the revelations and insights that have made humankind what it is today can be understood as dependent on this originary step beyond the social world of our prehuman ancestors.