'THE PINCH OF DESTINY':
RELIGION AS EXPERIENCE, MEANING, IDENTITY, POWER
By Clifford Geertz
WHEN, in the last chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience the one he uneasily calls "Conclusions" and immediately affixes with a corrective postscript which he then promptly disavows--William James comes to look back at what he has been doing for nearly five hundred close-set pages, he confesses himself somewhat taken aback about how soulful it all has been. "In rereading my manuscript, I am almost appalled at the amount of emotionality which I find in it .... We have been literally bathed in sentiment." It has all been a matter, he says, of "secret selves" and "palpitating documents"--fragment autobiographies, recounting one or another shaking and evanescent inward episode. "I do not know how long this state lasted, nor when I fell asleep," reads one such, "but when I woke up in the morning I was well." "Everything I did, and wherever I went," reads a second, "I was still in a storm." "[It] seemed to come over me in waves," reads yet a third, "to fan me like immense wings." And so on and so forth, page after confessional page. Religion, James says, with that proverb-like concision he uses to rescue himself from the abundance of his own prose, is "the individual pinch of destiny" as the individual feels it. "[The] recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character," he writes, "are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making...directly perceive how events happen...how work is done." The rest is notation: it stands to the reality of the thing as a menu does to a meal, a painting of a hurtling locomotive does to its energy and speed, or perhaps, though he doesn't quite bring himself all the way to saying this, as science does to life.
This way of marking out "religion" and "the religious"--the radical individualism ("If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer."); the attraction to the wilder shores of sentiment ("I took these extremer examples as yielding the profounder information"); and, above all, the distrust of schemes and schemas (James calls them, his own included, "pallid," "poverty-stricken," "bodiless," and "dead")--gives to Varieties, when we look back at it from wherever it is we are now, a curiously double aspect. It seems at once almost ultra-contemporaneous, as though it had been written yesterday about New Age and postmodern excitements of one sort or another, and quaintly remote, suffused with period atmosphere, like The Bostonians, "Self-Reliance," or Science and Health.
The sense of contemporaneity is largely an illusion--the derangements of the last fin-de-siecle are quite different from those of this, and so also are our ways of coping. But the perception that James's great book is, in a nonpejorative sense, if there is a nonpejorative sense, dated, has rather more substance. We see religion in other terms than James did, not because we know more about it than he did (we don't), or because what he discovered no longer interests us or seems important (it does), or even because it itself has changed (it has and it hasn't). We see it in other terms because the ground has shifted under our feet; we have other extremes to examine, other fates to forestall. The pinch is still there, sharp and nagging. But it feels, for some reason, somehow different. Less private, perhaps, or harder to locate, more difficult exactly to put one's finger on; not so surely a reliable indicator or a revelatory sign, not so surely a metaphysical ache.
For what seems most to distance us from James, to separate our spirituality, if that word can be made to mean anything anymore, save moral pretension, from his, is the word I carefully left out of his glittering motto in adopting it for my title: "individual"--"the individual pinch of destiny. .... Religion," or "religiousness," in his pages, and in his world--transcendentalist New England at the end of its run--is a radically personal matter, a private, subjective, deep-experience "faith-state" (as he calls it), adamantly resistant to the growing claims of the public, the social, and the everyday "to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe." Growing in James's day, as the United States began not just to be powerful but to feel itself so, such claims have, in ours, become altogether overwhelming. Cordoning off a space for "religion" in a realm called "experience"--"the darker, blinder strata of character"--seems, somehow, no longer so reasonable and natural a thing to try to do. There is just too much one wants to call religious, almost everything it sometimes seems, going on outside the self.
When the phrase "religious struggle" appears, as it does so often these days, in the media, in scholarly writing, even in churchly harangues and homilies, it tends not to refer to private wrestlings with inner demons. Dispatches from the battlements of the soul are largely left to talk shows and the autobiographies of recovering celebrities. Nor does it refer very often any longer to the effort, so prominent at the last century's turn, when the churches seemed depleted and shrivelling and Mammon on the march, to protect the waning authority of religious conviction by removing it to an autonomous realm beyond the reach of the bitch-goddess seductions of secular life, Auden's place of making where executives would never want to tamper. These days, "religious struggle" mostly refers to quite outdoor occurrences, plein air proceedings in the public square--alleyway encounters, high court holdings. Yugoslavia, Algeria, India, Ireland. Immigration policies, minority problems, school curricula, sabbath observations, head scarves, abortion debates. Riots, terrorism, fatwas, Aum Supreme Truth, Kach, Waco, Santeria, the storming of the Golden Temple. Political monks in Sri Lanka, born-again power-brokers in the United States, warrior saints in Afghanistan. Anglican nobelist, Desmond Tutu, works to get South Africans to confront their past; Roman nobelist, Carlos Ximenes Belo, works to encourage East Timorese to resist their present. The Dalai Lama haunts the world's capitals to keep the Tibetan cause alive. Nothing particularly private--covert perhaps, or surreptitious, but hardly private--about all that.
In James's time it seemed that religion was becoming more and more subjectivized; that it was, in the very nature of the case, weakening as a social force to become a matter wholly of the heart's affections. Secularists welcomed this supposed fact as the sign of progress, modernity, and liberty of conscience; believers were resigned to it as the necessary price of those things. (James, characteristically, was of both minds.) To both, religion seemed to be gravitating to its appropriate place, removed from the play of temporal concerns. But that is not how things have in the event turned out. The developments of the century since James gave his lectures--two world wars, genocide, decolonization, the spread of populism, and the technological integration of the world--have done less to drive faith inward toward the commotions of the soul than they have to drive it outward toward those of the polity, the state, and that complex argument we call culture.
"Experience," however ineradicable it may be from any discourse on faith that is responsive to its regenerative claims (a point I shall return to in the end, when I try to recuperate James from my own critique), no longer seems adequate to frame by itself our understanding of the passions and actions we want, under some description or other, to call religious. Firmer, more determinate, more transpersonal, extravert terms--meaning, say, or identity, or power--must be deployed to catch the tonalities of devotion in our time. When, as I write, a Roman Catholic could conceivably become the Prime Minister of India if the present Hinduist government falls, Islam is, de facto anyway, the second religion of France, Biblical literalists seek to undermine the legitimacy of the President of the United States, Buddhist mystagogues blow up Buddhist politicians in Colombo, liberation priests stir Mayan peasants to social revolt, an Egyptian mullah runs a world-reforming sect from an American prison, and South African witch finders dispense justice in neighborhood shabeens, to talk of religion as (quoting James's own italicized "Circumscription of the Topic") "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine," would seem to pass over a very great deal of what is going on in the hearts and minds of the pious nowadays.
Nor is this merely a vocational matter, the voice of the psychologist fascinated with emotional depths against that of the anthropologist dazzled by social surfaces. James was not an individualist because he was a psychologist; he was a psychologist because he was an individualist. It is this last, the notion that we believe, if we do believe (or disbelieve, if we disbelieve) in solitude, standing alone in relation to our destiny, our own private pinch, that needs perhaps a certain reconsideration given the warrings and disorders which surround us now.
Meaning in the upmarket sense of"The Meaning of Life" or "The Meaning of Existence"--the "Meaning" of Suffering, or Evil, or Chance, or Order--has been a staple of scholarly discussion of religion since the eighteenth century when such discussion began to be phrased in empirical rather than apologetical terms. But it was only with Max Weber's attempt, the boldness of which still astonishes, to demonstrate that religious ideals and practical activities tumble forward together as they move through history, forming in fact an impartible process, that "Meaning" began to be seen as something more, or something other, than a set gloss applied to a settled reality.
When, with this recognition behind us, we look out now at our media-ready world to try to see what is, by some reasonable understanding of the term, religious about what is going on there, we do not see, as James did with his absorbed converts, ecstatic solitaries, and sick souls, a bright line between eternal concerns and those of the day; we don't see much of a line at all. Arnold's long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith from the blanch'd shores of ordinary life is, apparently, for the moment pretty well stilled; the tide is in, and flooding. Meaning (assuming it ever was really away, outside of southern England) is back. The only problem is that it is very hard to figure out what that means.
Most everywhere (Singapore perhaps is still excluded, though, even there, there are evangelical stirrings), we see religiously charged conceptions of what everything, everywhere is always all about propelling themselves to the center of cultural attention. From northern and western Africa, through the Middle East and Central Asia, to South and Southeast Asia, a vast, motley collection of ideologies, movements, parties, programs, visions, personalities, and conspiracies announcing themselves as authentically Islamic, have entered the competition for societal hegemony--or, in some cases (Iran, Afghanistan, perhaps Sudan), more or less ended it. On the Indian subcontinent, the place for which the word myriad could have been invented, religious nationalisms, subnationalisms, and sub-subnationalisms jockey in a "million mutinies now," scramble for sway, domination, and the right to prescribe the public morality. Yugoslavs, alike in everything but their memories, seize upon religious differences previously unstressed in order to justify their opaque hatreds. The papacy globalizes, reaching out to shape secular society in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Hispanic America. Orthodoxy revives to return Russia to Russianness; prophetic seripturalism revives to return America to Americanness. There are, of course, places where religious views, received or renovated, seem to play little role in public affairs (China, perhaps, or Ruanda-Burundi, also perhaps). But there are more than enough where they play a prominent one to take that fact as a sign of our times.
Reading this sign, unpacking its meaning, or otherwise accounting for it, determining why it is so and how it has become so, what it tells us about how things stand with us these days, is, of course, a different thing altogether. Given the long tradition in the social sciences--one that even Weber was apparently not powerful enough to break--of looking everywhere for the explication of religious developments but to those developments themselves, there has been over the last two or three decades a great outpouring of theories and explanations invoking political and economic, sociological and historical, in some eases even mass psychological, "madding crowd" circumstances as the underlying forces pushing, determining, causing, shaping, driving, stimulating--all those things "forces" do--religious developments. (The Iranian revolution, in 1979, probably marks the return of religion to an important place on our professional agenda, though such matters as Partition, the Kuala Lumpur riots, Vatican II, Martin Luther King, and the recrudescence of the Irish troubles should have alerted us earlier.) "Religion" is everybody's favorite dependent variable.
There is nothing in itself so very wrong with this. Despite the encouragement it gives to the besetting sin of sociological study, favorite-cause analysis ("it all comes down to"...the personalities of leaders, the strains of modernization, historical memory, mass poverty, the breakup of tradition, inequality, geopolitics, Western imperialism...), it has led to suggestive interpretations both of particular cases and, less often, of the phenomenon in general. There is little doubt that the Milosevics, Karadzics, Tudjmans, and Izetbegovics, to say nothing of the homeboy subcontractors who killed in their names, were, and are, manipulative personalities, driven a good deal more by the vanities of earthly glory, ambition, calculation, jealousy, and self-infatuation, than they are by religious, or even ethno-religious, enthusiasms. Equally, it is altogether clear that "Political Islam," as it has come, misleadingly, to be called, whether in the form of Algerian radicalism, Egyptian clericalism, Pakistani militarism, Malaysian traditionalism, or the harassed and scattered progressivist movements that somehow manage to persist just about everywhere, feeds on stagnation and poverty and represents an effort on the part of Muslims finally to engage the demands and energies of the modern world. And the rising tide of communal conflict in India, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia is, in significant part, surely a response to attempts to build strong, centralized, national states in those polyglot, polycultural, polyreligious countries.
All that is well and good. But at the same time Karadzic would not have been able to stir up fears of what he called, with blithe anachronism, "The Turk" in Sarajevo or Tudjman to stir up Croats against the large Serbian minority in Zagreb by plastering the town with "God Protects Croatia" posters, if there wasn't something already there to be stirred up, even in those (then) cosmopolitan, relaxed, and generally secular places. Without a widely diffused sense among the Cairene or Karachi masses of Islam abused and neglected, the Prophecy unheeded and the Prophet demeaned, movements to restore and purify it, and confound its enemies, would have little attraction. And without worries in all sorts of groups, of all sorts of sizes, and all sorts of faith--an anthology of devotions--about politically enforced spiritual exclusion, repression, marginalization, even elimination, state-building would seem unlikely, just by itself, to bring on communal riot. To leave religion out of all this, save as a symptom or index of "underlying," "real" dynamics, is not so much to stage the play without the prince as without the plot. The world does not run on believings alone. But it hardly runs without them.
There is, however, a problem in invoking, as I have just been doing to catch your attention, examples in which mass violence is involved--James's "extremer eases...yielding the profounder information" (an uncertain principle, in my view). Reliance on such notorious instances obscures the generality and pervasiveness, the mere normality, of what is going on by confusing religious contention, which is marked, widespread, and intense enough, with religious fury, which is focused, generally sporadic, and often enough the child of accident. Not every place is Algeria or Sri Lanka, Beirut or Vukovar, Kashmir or Ulster. Twenty million Muslims migrating to the European Union over the course of several decades have caused considerable tension but, so far at least, only scattered brutality Christians, Hindus, and Muslims have existed in arm's-length peace in Indonesia for fifty years (they have murdered one another for other reasons), though that may now at length be ending. Ethiopia, since the end of, first the Emperor, and then the Dergue, seems, more recently, to have managed its religious variety at least reasonably well. The concentration on violence--riots, assassinations, uprisings, and civil war--valuable in itself for understanding how such things happen and what might be done to hinder them from happening, as well as for showing to what red hells our sightless souls may stray, gives a misleading picture of religious conflict by representing it in its most pathological forms. There are profounder matters at work than mere unreason, to which, after all, all human enterprises are subject, not just those concerned with the Meaning of Everything.
Among such profounder matters is surely what has come to called "the search for identity." As "identity polities," "identity crises," "identity loss," "identity construction," the term identity has doubtless of late been much abused, pressed into the service of one cause or another, one theory or another, one excuse or another. But that in itself attests to the fact that, for all the jargonizing and slogan mongering, and for all the partis pris, something important is afoot. Something, something rather general, is happening to the ways in which people think about who they are, who others are, how they wish to be portrayed, named, understood, and placed by the world at large. "The presentation of self in everyday life," to invoke Erving Goffman's famous phrase, has also become less of an individual matter; less a personal project, more a collective, even a political, one. There are, just about everywhere now, organized efforts, sustained and assiduous, sometimes a good deal more than that, to advance the worldly fortunes of one or another variety of public selfhood. What we have here is a contest of kinds.
Again, not all these kinds are "religious," even under the most extended sense of the term. When someone is asked "who," or more precisely "what," he or she "is," the answer is as likely to be ethnic ("a Serb"), national ("an Australian"), supernational ("an African"), linguistic ("a Francophone"), or even racial ("a White"), or tribal ("a Navajo"), and all sorts of combinations of these ("a Luo-speaking Black Kenyan") as it is religious--"a Baptist," "a Sikh," "a Lubavitcher, .... a Bahai," "a Mormon," "a Buddhist," or "a Rastifarian." But, also again, not only are religious self- (and other-) identifications increasingly prominent in public square, "secular" discourse, but some extraordinarily powerful ones, "Hindu," for example, or "Shi'i," have taken on an aggressive world-political currency only rather recently.
The question is, why have religious kinds, and the tensions between religious kinds, come to such prominence? Why have communities of faith become, in so many instances, the axes around which the struggle for power--local power, national power, even to some extent international power--swirls? There is, of course, no single answer to this question, none that will fit the United States, Turkey, Israel, Malaysia, Peru, Lebanon, and South Africa equally well, and the scramble of the so-called New (that is, post-Meiji) Religions in Japan is a phenomenon in itself. But some tentative suggestions and observations may be offered in the way of a preface to exacter and more comprehensive discussions still to be developed of what one can only call the religious refiguration of power politics.
The first such observation is that, as just noted, it is not only religious identities, but ethnic, linguistic, racial, and diffusely cultural ones, that have grown in political salience in the years since decolonization shattered the outre-mer empires, and most especially in the decade or so since the fall of the Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War shattered the great power relationships in place since Teheran and Potsdam. The strongly binary, not to say Manichaean, East-West alignment of international power balances and the overmastering side-effects that alignment had everywhere from Zaire and Somalia to Chile and Cuba, and within states as well as between them (think of the Philippines, think of Angola, think, alas, of Korea and Vietnam), has largely dissolved, leaving just about everyone uncertain about what now goes with what and what does not--where the critical demarcations lie and what it is that makes them critical.
This disassembly of the post-Wall world, its scatteration into parts and remainders, has brought more particular, and more particularistic, forms of collective self-representation to the fore--and not just in Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, for example, where the effect is clear and direct, but generally. A proliferation of autonomous political entities, as unlike in their temper as they are in their scale, "a world in pieces," as I have called it elsewhere, encourages circumscribed, intensely specific, intensely felt, public identities, at the same time as such identities fracture, in their turn, the received forms of political order that attempt to contain them, most notably these days the nationstate. The projection of religiously defined groupings and loyalties onto all aspects of collective life from the family and neighborhood outward, is, thus, part of a general movement very much larger than itself: the replacement of a world tiled with a few very large, ill-fitting, analogous blocks by one tiled, no more evenly and no less completely, with many smaller, more diversified, more irregular ones.
That, of course, is nowhere near the whole of it. Not only are there counterforces at play (economic globalization is ritually invoked as one such, though the recent disarray on the Asian Rim, the accelerating problems in Latin America, and the fumblings of the European Union may begin to make clear that interdependency is very much not the same thing as integration), but there is much more going on than a mere hunkering down within castellated identities. There is increased mobility: Turks in Bavaria, Filipinos in Kuwait, Russians in Brighton Beach. It is not easy any longer to avoid encountering people with other sorts of beliefs than those one grew up with--not even in the American midwest, where your doctor may well be a Hindu, or in la France profonde, where your garbage man is almost certain to be a Muslim.
Thus, religious distinctions not only become, in many places, more fraught; they have also become more immediate. In a footloose world--what good are roots, as Gertrude Stein once said, if you can't take them with you?--simple, to-each-his-own physical separation no longer works very well. We have a great deal of difficulty these days staying out of one another's way: witness British confoundment in the Rushdie affair, witness American court cases about child betrothal, animal sacrifice, municipal creches, or ritual clitoridectomy. Differences of belief, sometimes quite radical ones, are more and more often directly visible, directly encountered: ready-to-hand for suspicion, worry, repugnance, and dispute. Or, I suppose, for tolerance and reconciliation, even for attraction and conversion. Though that, right now, is not exactly common.
As I say, one could go on this way, listing possible contributing factors to the prominence of religious identities in the dispersed, semi-ordered, political structure that has, for the moment anyway, replaced the magnificent simplicities of the Cold War. There is the "everything else hasn't worked" argument: successive disillusion with the ideological master narratives--liberalism, socialism, nationalism--as frameworks for collective identity, especially in the newer states, has left only religion as, so the slogan goes, "something which hasn't failed yet." There is the "evils of modernization" argument: the spread of the media, the ravages of development, commerce, and consumerism, and, in general, the moral confusion of contemporary life have turned peoples toward more familiar, more deeply rooted, closer-to-home ideas and values.
And so on. But, the validity of these and similar notions aside (and they remain for the most part unresearched suggestions), there is a more fundamental issue to be addressed if we are to get a handle on what is happening to spiritual life at the end of what some have called, not without evidence, the worst century yet. And this returns us, as I suppose was inevitable, to James's concern, if not necessarily to his way of formulating it: What is going on, to quote him again, in the "recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character' of those caught up in religiously conceived and religiously expressed struggles for meaning, for identity, and for power? What has become of "the pinch of destiny," now that it seems so much in the world? "Experience," pushed out the door as a radically subjective, individualized "faith-state," returns through the window as the communal sensibilty of a religiously assertive social actor.
Communal, yet personal. Religion without interiority, without some "bathed in sentiment" sense that belief matters, and matters terribly, that faith sustains, cures, comforts, redresses wrongs, improves fortune, secures rewards, explains, obligates, blesses, clarifies, reconciles, regenerates, redeems, or saves, is hardly worthy of the name. There is, of course, a great deal of sheer conventionalism about. Hypocrisy, sanctimony, imposture, and self-serving--to say nothing of swindle and simple nuttiness--we have always with us. And there remains, I suppose, the haunting question of whether any faith, however profound, is anywhere near adequate to its ends. But the view, which seems to underlie so many analyses of religious expression in these neo-Nietzschean, will-to-power days, that our driving passions are purely and simply political, or politico-economic, and that religion is but mask and mystification, an ideological cover-up for thoroughly secular, more or less selfish ambitions, is just not plausible. People do not burn a Mughal mosque they take to be sited on Lord Rama's birthplace, seek to revive pre-Columbian rituals in Mayan pueblos, oppose the teaching of evolution in Texas and Arkansas, or wear headscarves in l'ecole primaire simply on the way to some pragmatical and exterior material end. To rework, and perhaps misuse, Stanley Cavell's celebrated Wittgensteinian title, they mean what they say.
The problem, however, is that if the communal dimensions of religious change, the ones you can (sometimes) read about in the newspapers, are underresearched, the personal ones, those you have (usually) to talk to living people in order to encounter, are barely researched at all. We simply don't know very much about what is going on right now in James's shadow world of immense wings and unfleeable storms. And as a result the Weberian interworking of religious convictions and practical actions, the impartibility of belief and behavior, tends to be lost sight of: the two get separated out again, as "factors," "variables," "determinants," or whatnot. The whole vast variety of personal experience, or, more carefully, representations of personal experience, that James, on the one hand, so exquisitely explored, and, on the other, so resolutely walled off from those "dictators of what we may believe," the public, the social, and the everyday, is not only isolated once more from the convolutions of history--it goes unremarked altogether.
Or almost. As an example, a small and preliminary example I can recount only schematically here, of the sort of work that remains to be done in this area and the sort of understandings that can be gained from it, I want to turn, in wrapping this up, to a recent study by a young anthropologist, Suzanne Brenner, of the reactions some, also young, Javanese women displayed after they suddenly adopted an emphatic form of "Islamic" dress, called after the Arabic for traditional women's clothing, jilbab. (The article, "Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and 'The Veil,'" discusses not the familiar mid-eastern veil--hijab--which Indonesian women do not wear, but a headscarf and long gown--jilbab.)
Indonesia in general, and Java in particular, have long been religiously variegated to an extraordinary degree. After nearly a millennium of Indic influence, especially on Java, where large and powerful Hindu, Buddhist, and Hindu-Buddhist states arose from the fourth century, it experienced, after 1300 or so, also mainly via South Asia, a strong incursion of Islamic piety, Sufistic in the first instance, and, as time passed and middle eastern connections developed via the pilgrimage and otherwise, orthodox Sunni. Finally, or at least finally so far (who knows what is coming next?), after the seventeenth century, when the Dutch arrived, it was subjected to Christian missionizing, both by Catholics and by the various sorts of Protestants that the Netherlands has always been so fertile in producing. The result, by the time of Independence in 1950, was, again most particularly on Java (where seventy-percent of the population lives), the co-presence of all these faiths, plus a scattering of indigenous ones, differentially distributed through a complex social structure. Eighty or ninety percent nominally Muslim --or, as the Javanese ironically say, "muslim statistik"--the island was, in fact, a forest of beliefs.
In the late seventies, and growing in force through the eighties (the present situation, like so much in Indonesia right now, is not entirely dear), an intensified seriousness, amounting to a new rigorism, began to appear among some of the more self-consciously Muslim Javanese--"an Islamic resurgence," as it has come to be called--stimulated to some degree by the so-called "return of Islam" generally across the world, but for the most part homegrown, internally driven, and locally focused. There have been a number of expressions of this heightened seriousness--the proliferation of new devotional organizations, the expansion of religious education, the publication of books, journals, magazines, and newspapers and the appearance of a class of, often foreign-educated, Islamic-minded artists, intellectuals, and politicians associated with them, the critical reevaluation and reinterpretation of local traditions from a Quranic point of view, and so on. But one of the most striking, and most controversial, of such expressions has been the adoption by a growing number of young women, most especially educated young women, of mideastern style clothing: a long, loose fitting, monochrome gown, reaching to the ankles, designed to conceal the shape of the body, and a long, winding sear f, usually white, designed to conceal the hair and neck.
Such dress (the aforementioned jilbab) had occasionally been found before, especially among older, pious women, especially in the countryside. But the adoption of it by younger, urban women--a sharp contrast to the form fitting, low-cut blouse, tightly wrapped sarong, and carefully arranged hair the vast majority of Javanese women traditionally affect--stirred opposition, suspicion, puzzlement, and anger. Intended as a statement, it was taken as one. The women found themselves criticized as "fanatics" or "fundamentalists," often by their own families and their closest friends, some of whom tried strenuously to dissuade them from making the change. ("Why didn't you bring your camel, too?" one girl's enraged father asked her.) They were gossiped about as self-righteous, hypocritical, magically malignant. They were sometimes discriminated against in the job market, and Suharto's "New Order" state instituted dress code regulations (or tried to, in the face of angry demonstrations) designed to discourage them. Occasionally they were even physically attacked, stones thrown at them, their shawls torn from their heads. The decision to wear the jilbab, Brenner says, was not one to be made lightly:
The remarks that women made about the psychological and practical obstacles to [adopting the jilbab] that they encountered indicated that it was a decision that required much soul-searching, determination, and even stubbornness on their part. [Wearing the jilbab] marks a woman as "different" in Java, where norms of behavior are very strong and where defying convention has immediate repercussions for an individual's relationships with others. Donning jilbab often leads to a marked change in a young woman's social and personal identity as well as to a potential disruption of the social ties on which she has hitherto relied.
Brenner interviewed twenty women who had made what she calls the "conversion" to jilbab. Most were university students or recent graduates in their twenties. All resided in the large central Javanese court cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta, where religious diversity, even syncretism, has always been particularly marked. Most came from middle or lower-middle class backgrounds. Many grew up in religiously undutiful households. All were active in organizations and devotional groups connected with "the Islamic Resurgence." "The women who spoke to me," Brenner writes,
were intelligent, strong-minded people who consciously and intellectually struggled with the contradictions of everyday life and who had their own, highly personal reasons for choosing the routes they had chosen. Most women chose [to wear jilbab] partly out of religious conviction, insisting that [it] was a requirement ... of Islam. Beyond this, however, their narratives exhibited certain themes that showed that adherence to religious doctrine was not the sole impetus .... Their motivations...were simultaneously personal, religious, and political .... [Even] the most personal and emotionally laden stories of conversion to jilbab contained within them elements of a larger story that encompasses the contemporary Indonesian Islamic movement.
Brenner has much to say about the connection of all this to Indonesian political developments, to modernization, to the broader movement to reinvigorate Islam, to the revision of gender definitions and expectations, and to the search for personal and collective identity in a rapidly changing world. But for us, what is most to the point is the sort of answers she got when she started asking these young women James-like questions about what becoming a jilbab wearer amounted to personally, what it felt like, as something lived through, undergone, "experienced." Intensified self-awarness, the fear of death, the panoptic surveillance of God, a sense of rebirth, a regaining of self-mastery, all the familiar inflections of the pinch of destiny--who am I? what am I supposed to do? what is to become of me? where does finality lie?--appeared, as if on cue.
"Each of the women...indicated that changing her clothing in this
way" Brenner writes, "changed her feelings about herself and her
actions." For several women the decision...had been precipitated by a profound anxiety;
that anxiety had then given way to a feeling of relative calm and a sense of
renewal after they had begun to wear jilbab. The immediate cause of the
anxiety...had been an overwhelming fear of dying and...what death might mean for
them if they had failed to fulfill the requirements of Islam. The new awareness
of sin they had acquired had led them to a deep distress about how they might
suffer in the afterlife as a consequence of their own sinning .... They
experienced deep confusion, self-doubt, and a sense of being out of control.
Donning jilbab... alleviated their anxieties about death and [gave] them a new
feeling of control over their futures in this life and the next.
And she quotes, from a popular magazine, the inspirational words of a young film actress, about to give birth: "I was terrified. I was really afraid I was going to die. Because if I were to die, what would be the price for all my sins?" Images of her past, of being drunk, of wandering about at night, of frequenting discotheques, of appearing nude on the screen, came before her eyes. It was, she said, "as if [she] heard 'the whisper of heaven' at that moment."
This may be more than a little formulaic, as indeed many, if not most, of James's accounts of spiritual renewal are, for we are again dealing here not with experience simpliciter, whatever that might be, but with representations of it offered to the self and others, to tales about it. And, as with James's accounts, the tales recur and recur:
One day Naniek [one of Brenner's informants who resisted pressures from
friends to wear jilbab] was suddenly overcome with the fear that she would die
even though she was not ill. She realized that there were teachings of Islam
that she had not yet observed, including the requirement to wear jilbab .... She
woke up in the night in terror, thinking, "What can I do? I don't have any
She confides in her brother, who buys the material for her, and a few days later (she recalled the exact date) she began to wear jilbab. As soon as she accepted it, wearing Islamic clothing became easy for her, and "the clothes just came by themselves," even though she had little money. Her fears of death subsided.
And, yet another commentator, writing in an Indonesian-language mass market book called Muslim Women toward the Year 2000, designed apparently to instruct such women in what to feel, invokes the rebirth imagery explicitly:
The most important...question for a woman who is aware in this day and age is "who am I?" With that question, she tries to understand with full awareness that she cannot remain the way she is now .... She wants to be self-determining .... She wants to develop herself. She always aims to be reborn. In that rebirth, she wants to be her own midwife.
Brenner has other testimony of the emotional correlates of this change of clothing which is a change of the way of being in the world: worries about living up to the demands of the new dress, intensified concerns about minor transgressions, and the feeling of being constantly under exacting moral surveillance, not just by God and conscience but by everyone around, searching avidly for failings and lapses. But perhaps enough has been said to make the point: in what we are pleased to call the real world, "meaning," "identity, .... power," and "experience" are hopelessly entangled, mutually implicative, and "religion" can no more be founded upon or reduced to the last, that is, "experience," than it can to any of the others. It is not in solitude that faith is made.
Other beasts, of course, other mores. The responses Brenner elicited from these Javanese young women seeking to become more Muslim are hardly what one would get from Indian Hindus, Burmese Buddhists, French Catholics, or even other sorts of Muslims. In Morocco, where I also worked, the Indonesian responses would be seen as unscriptural, sentimental, antinomian, or worse. Men rather than women, the aged rather than the young, uneducated peasants rather than educated urbanites, Africans, East Asians, Americans, Latins, or Europeans rather than Southeast Asians would surely produce quite different pictures--quite different because quite differently constructed, in quite different situations, out of quite different materials. The movement of religious identities and religious issues toward the center of social, political, and even economic life may be widespread and growing, both in scale and significance. But it is not a unitary phenomenon to be uniformly described. There are as many varieties of "religious experience," or, again, expressions of religious experience, as there ever were. Perhaps more.
This, in conclusion, returns us to the question of James's usefulness to us now, to the double sense, I remarked in beginning, that the Varieties seems at once dated and exemplary, suffused with a period atmosphere and a model of the sort of work that, like Brenner's, seems cutting edge, the next necessary thing. It is a cliche, but like many cliches nonetheless true, that major thinkers, like major artists, are both completely engulfed in their time--deeply situated, as we now would say--and transcendent of those times, vividly alive in other times, and that these two facts are internally connected. Certainly this is true of James. The radically individualistic, subjectivistic, "brute perception" concept of religion and religiousness, which his location as heir to New England intuitionism and his own encounters with the pinch of destiny led him into, was complemented by the intense, marvellously observant, almost pathologically sensitive attention to the shades and subtleties of thought and emotion they also led him into.
It is this last, circumstantial account of the personal inflections of religious engagement that reach far beyond the personal into the conflicts and dilemmas of our age, that we need now. And for that we need James, however other his age or his temper now may seem. Or at least we need the sort of inquiry he pioneered, the sort of talents he possessed, and the sort of openness to the foreign and unfamiliar, the particular and the incidental, yes, even the extreme and the brainsick, he displayed.
We have had massive, continental shifts in religious sensibility before whose impact on human life, we now see, was, despite their raggedness, radical and profound, a vast remaking of judgment and passion. It would be something of a pity were we to be living in the midst of such a seismic event and not even know that it was going on.
'The pinch of destiny': religion as experience, meaning, identity, power, in: Raritan: a quarterly review, vol. 19 no. 4, pp. 1-19.
cf. Available light: anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton/N.J./USA: Princeton University Press, pp. 167-186.
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