The Nova Effect

Especially with modernity, religiosity had become something suspect. According to the secularisation thesis, the rational advancement of societies will ultimately lead to the decline of religion. The contemporary situation in fact proves the opposite. After a decline of religiosity after the second world war, today we see how religion continuous to rise again.

After having studied religion for some years, I believe it is not really possible to make a relevant distinction between religious and non-religious people. So-called “atheists” often express a commitment to their beliefs, which also has an influence on the rituals they take refuge to. And even for the rest category of the “non-religious”, for whom religious questions are apparently meaningless, we see often how morality, meaning making and rituals also connect these people to a larger framework of ultimate sense. The only truly non-religious are therefore the nihilists and the depressed; true nihilists are hard to come by, and fortunately, depression is for many people a transitory experience, although it might stick for a very long time.

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has written a striking analysis of religiosity in our postmodern age with his 2007 publication A Secular Age. According to him, present day religiosity is characterised by what he calls the “nova effect”, in which the possibilities for individuals to give meaning to their lives has increased exponentially in the past decades. Since religiosity is no longer a public matter, but has been relegated behind the front door, the question how to understand our position in the world has become a matter of individual deliberation and therefore the options to do so have become vast.

Therefore, although “religion” in the form of institutional affiliation has been in decline, the individual expressions of religiosity have skyrocketed. I believe this evolution is an enrichment to society. If religiosity is not in the first place a public matter, this enables people to experiment with forms and expressions to connect to their perceived divinities. The diversity of people will lead to unexpected encounters when we inquire each other about our spiritual or religious rituals. No longer does modernity drive a wedge between institutional believers and the modernists; the postmodern playful human has claimed the spiritual for herself in order to create new relationships with others.


Night watch

“Kwetsbaar lillend vlees

Ongebroken scheppingskracht

De nachtwacht houden” – Eugeen

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Anish Kapoor, “Internal object in three parts” (2013 – 2015), detail, silicon and pigment.

This afternoon I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with two of my guests from Belgium. At the Rijks, there are currently three works on display from the contemporary artist Anish Kapoor. This triptych, which is called “Internal object in three parts” is very daringly displayed in the “Gallery of Honour” of the museum, which is devoted to masterpieces by illustrious Dutch painters such as Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer and above all Rembrandt.

The choice is very daring indeed, because the works are an expressionistic depiction of something, which resembles blood, meat, muscle tissue and fat tissue. The most adequate description would be that the works depict a rabbit which was put in a shredder. The works are made of silicon and color pigment. Passing visitors, when confronted with this work in the most classical of museum wings, posed the eternal question: “Is this art?”, thereby implying: “This is not art.”

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Rembrandt Van Rijn, “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” (1662), detail, oil on canvas.

Opposite the Anish Kapoor reliefs was one of my favourite works of Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum: “The Syndics”. On this picture, we see six Dutch burghers, apparently surprised by the entrance of the spectator. In a most delicate way, Rembrandt breaks through the “fourth wall” of the painting. In the juxtaposition with Kapoor’s carnal festival, the glances of the “inspectors of dyed cloth” become even more poignant. As if they are inspecting and judging the appearance of these peculiar presences in the room. “Mene, mine, tekhel, upharsin.”

Kapoor’s works demands attention. In an interview in NRC Handelsblad, Kapoor has expressed his suspicion that his show at the Rijksmuseum might become an exercise of humility for him. But despite the condescending murmur you hear when you stroll through the “Gallery of Honour”, the context of the 17th Century masterpieces is necessarily and irrevocably changed by Kapoor’s critical expressionism. They present an aesthetic of the sublime next to works which were created in an age where beauty was the only aesthetic. Kapoor therefore reminds us, that it has become impossible to genuinely repeat the spirit of the Golden Age.


Daoism and climate change

The final negotiations of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, most likely concerned whether the long expected “final draft” of the agreement would contain a commitment to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or stick with a phrase which would spin the commitments to “(far) below 2 degrees Celsius”. While the Western nations have the luxury to show off their moral superiority in forming a “high ambition coalition” (which also includes all nations so poor that they can only rely on moral superiority) which strives for the 1.5 degree ambition added to the final draft, countries such as China, India and Saudi Arabia have other interests to consider and decided to cool down (pun intended) the negotiations.

Meanwhile, I was taking part of a conference on the study of Chinese religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of Groningen University. At this conference, James Miller, a scholar of Chinese studies from Canada, presented a plea to think about the environment from the perspective of Daoism. One of his assumptions is that the common ecological perspective which frames our environmental endeavours as a desire to “save the planet” is part of a fundamentally Christian worldview and above all ultimately absurd.

Part of this common perspective in which the “protection of the planet” is central, Miller argues, is the idea that time evolves in a progressive and irreversible way. Our existence is meaningful because of this progressive movement. The natural environment is considered as the background on which we can project meaning. Furthermore, meaning is not part of the natural world. Human beings are assigned as “guardian” of the environment.

As opposed to this worldview, Miller puts forward a Daoist worldview, which promotes the idea of self-cultivation in relation to the natural environment. Furthermore, the flourishing of some things also requires the destruction of other things; the energy I obtain to live comes at the expensive of the death of many others. Miller argues we should be aware of the “transformational” character of the natural environment, which is an essential part to the Daoist understanding of the universe. Religion could therefore be understood as the negotiation on the economy of cosmic power.

The environmental crisis is thus not an appeal to save the planet, as the Christian/humanist worldview understands it, but rather challenges us to respond in a creative way. Miller suggests we should think of religion as the “collective representation of death and violence”. The environmental question challenges us to quantify human violence and to see how we can consume in a creative way, thus avoiding the destructive patterns we have developed in the past.

When we only think of climate change and the environmental crisis as a materialist problem, we fail to see the underlying worldviews that, first of all, identify the crisis as a crisis and secondly how the solutions which are the result of these worldviews might in fact aggravate the situation. I agree with Miller that the Daoist worldview offers an adequate alternative model, which focuses on transformation and vitality, but also acknowledges death, violence and destruction as part of nature. It also enables us to look at climate change as a challenge, instead of a crisis.


Hard indeterminism

For a long time, it has been a common conviction that human beings possess free will. With respect to actions, individuals are considered to have a choice between different potentials and therefore, they are also considered responsible for the consequences of this action. With the modern worldview came the rise of a mechanistic and thus deterministic universe in which all events are the cause of antecedent events. This causally closed universe did not leave much room for deliberate human agency.

The apparent contradiction between our perceived free will and the universe as a causally closed system lead to much philosophical reflection on how to reconcile the two positions. Many philosophers, such as David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and more recently Daniel Dennett have argued in favour of such a reconciliation of free will and determinism; a philosophical position which is called “compatibilism”. Some philosophers however have argued that free will must necessarily rest on an illusion if we want to go with a deterministic universe, a position known as “hard determinism”. On the other end of the spectrum, there have also been philosophers who take determinism for an illusion. Especially in quantum mechanics, we have seen theories that describe the universe as something “statistical” rather than determined. Since the universe is not determined, in their views, a human free will is perfectly feasible – a position which is called “liberalism”.


One philosophical position has been neglected in these reflections. Since quantum mechanics still stands as one of the most successful physical theories of all time, all evidence points into the direction of a indeterministic universe. But this does not necessarily imply that therefore the actions of human beings are the result of a free acting agent. In short: the universe could very well be undetermined, but still human beings have no free will. This position is called “hard indeterminism”. Since many of our contemporary scientific insights point in the direction of the illusion of subjective will, but also the illusion of determinism, I believe “hard indeterminism” deserves more attention by contemporary philosophers.


Becoming animal

Some days ago, I was invited to watch again a children-horror classic: The Witches, a Roald Dahl book adaptation for film by Nicolas Roeg. In the film, the protagonist Luke is transformed into a mouse by a convention of evil witches, whose goal is to exterminate all children from the face of the planet, for the only reason of their opinion that children are disgusting. The transformation of humans to animals was also an important motive in the recent movie The Lobster by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. In the imagined universe of this film, the inhabitants who want to find a love partner need to check into a hotel isolated from society. If they failed to find a partner within forty days, they are transformed into an animal (of their own choice).

In both films, the transformation into an animal is considered as a curse. The protagonist in The Witches, Luke, easily adapts to its new existence as a mouse and plots a revenge against the witch convention with the help of his grandmother. For the protagonist in The Lobster, David, the transformation into an animal will only remain a daunting prospect, but daunting enough nonetheless to escape the hotel and live in the wild as a “loner” in a group of renegades who are actively persecuted by the “adapted” members of the society.

In both cases though, the cause of the transformation is clear. It is the result of an explicit policy to exterminate certain people from society; children and singles respectively. Not so clear is the cause of the transformation of Gregor Samsa in the famous novel by Franz Kafka Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis), who wakes up one morning realizing he has become an insect. While Luke and David try to actively rebel against the people who instituted the transformation of people into animals, Samsa’s only possible action is to explore his own guilt to find out why he deserves such a punishment.

Becoming an animal is in all stories perceived as something involuntarily and undesirable. Being an animal if you have been human before is apparently a regression from a “higher” state of being. From transforming into an animal, it is only a small step to complete annihilation, which Samsa will in fact suffer. All stories show an anthropocentric worldview, to which animal life is clearly distinguished and also inferior. If we put the animal at the centre of attention, Luke could be considered as liberated from the repulsion of the witches (his new natural enemy will be the cat, another animal); David could find liberation from the pressures of human society to behave in a certain way if he would accept being transformed into a lobster. Only for poor Samsa, the transformation into an insect will just be the beginning of his soul searching. If guilt is not restricted to the human world, we could ask whether Samsa has in fact transformed into an animal or whether he can only really understand the gravity of the human condition as an animal.


Eternal Woman

The young Dutch philosopher Simone van Saarloos recently released a publication, which is called Het monogame drama (The monogamy drama). The book presents a case for multi-intimacy and it argues that many people are withholding themselves from living their real desires, because of the cultural dogma of exclusive love. Van Saarloos criticizes the cultural bias, which assumes that being single is just a transitory state on the way to the monogamous love relationship. Why can it not be the other way around, she questions. The argument has much in parallel with my own work on multiple religious belonging, which you could consider as a similar case for polyamory of religious affiliations. Why is it necessary to fix your religious identity (“I am a Buddhist/Christian/Atheist”) and is the spiritual seeker considered, by cultural bias, as a transitory stage?

Last week, I also went to see the Flemish music band dEUS playing in Carré. Front man of this band Tom Barman directed a film in 2004, Any Way The Wind Blows, which convinced me to stay in Belgium for a little longer (at that time, I was living in Ghent, but being confused about the inaccessibility of the Flemish, was considering moving to Amsterdam). Furthermore, one of dEUS’ songs is called Eternal Woman. In one of the lines, Barman sings: “Maybe I’m too romantic. These expectations I should quell.” The Eternal Woman of Barman might refer to the monogamous final lover, but in a saarloosian manner, we could also understand the eternal woman as the eternal object of love, which is beyond the particular person you love. Doesn’t anybody who follows either a pattern of serial monogamy or a full blown polyamorous lifestyle agree that all lovers are different, but then again, all lovers are the same as well?

To further deconstruct our cultural biases, we of course have to get rid of the gendered eternal woman too. Multi-intimacy will definitely not restrict itself to heteronormativity and gendered beings. The eternal woman; the mother, the lover, or the Holy Virgin – isn’t this also, to speak with Deleuze ones more, the result of generalized repetition? Shouldn’t we distinguish repetition from generalization and consider every partner in intimacy as something new, as a new creative moment? The attempt to capture the creation of love in a monogamous relationship resembles a theological reflex, to worship an ultimate divinity. Van Saarloos offers us the challenge to play with identities and to be creative, which is also very synonymous to intimacy. I believe the plea for multi-intimacy is therefore a plea to refuse to accept that creation is already finished.


Genesis and repetition

One day I worked on a film project in Rotterdam and Ghent. One of the actors in the film was, who owned a parakeet, which they claimed to have named after Gilles Deleuze. I learned that the name of the parakeet was in fact “Manzi”. Being quite surprised, I inquired how “Manzi” could possible be derived from the French philosopher. “Of course,” they explained, “Manzi that’s derived from Deleuze’s first name Gilles, Gillesman, and hence manzi.”

In the introduction to “Difference and repetition” – which is very conveniently called “Repetition and difference”, Gilles Deleuze aims at distinguishing repetition from generality. Deleuze writes “To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent.” Just as Deleuze has made a project of thinking the diverse as diverse and not as unity, in this text Deleuze attempts to think repetition not as constituting natural law, but instead as creative. Repetition which only leads to general rules is what Deleuze refers to as “religion” – it generalises the singular into something ultimate or transcendent. Repetition is not mediation to a higher order – repetition is about the immediate.

In her inaugural lecture, “Mediation and the Genesis of Presence”, anthropologist Birgit Meyer explores a material approach to study religion. Her appeal is against the dominance of what she calls the “mentalist” approach towards religion, which places more importance on beliefs, texts and hermeneutics as the mediator of religion, whereas she argues that we have neglected our interest in the religious objects as mediators for religion. She proposes to look at how religion is generated through material objects, which serve as mediators between the transcendent and the immanent world.

On the outlook, Deleuze and Meyer have a different object of focus. While Deleuze refuses to look at religion, but is only interested in the immediacy of immanence, Meyer’s principal object of study is religion as a medium. But nevertheless, I believe their approach is in fact very similar: they are namely both interested in immanence and generation.

As scholars of religion, but using Deleuze, we could speculate that the religious – or the divine – is not something mediated, but something generated in the religious practice. This would reduce God from its function as transcendent being, to the moment of generation in the immanence of religious objects. If the divine could be generated in religious objects, this would  deny Deleuze’s rejection of religion and it would also deny Meyer’s attachment on the transcendent as the definition of religion. But this might be the necessary consequence if we want to focus on the immanent and the immediate.