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Critical Studies of Religion

“How ‘to talk religion’? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day?”

Derrida 2002. Acts of Religion, p. 42.

This Derrida quote was above the abstract I sent in for the 23rd ISAPS conference, recently held in Vienna. My paper was titled “Bantu Philosophy” and the problem of religion in intercultural philosophy today. Going by the comments and questions after presenting my paper, I think I succeeded to bring some fresh questions to the debates on Bantu Philosophy, the 1945 publication by Placide Tempels, a Franciscan missionary in what then was called the Belgian Congo. Tempels’ book, which first appeared in Dutch and was later translated to French and English, kicked off the many debates on the existence and nature of African philosophy. Is philosophy localized, or universal? Was his presentation of a culturalized ontology a well-meant first attempt at intercultural dialogue, or can it not be taken outside of the colonial context in which Tempels worked? Or could both be true? In my presentation I wanted to go into another matter: Tempels’ attempt to sketch a solution to the loss of religiosity in what he called the age of industrialization – in the colonialized part of Africa where he lived as well as in Europe.

Although he culturalized ontology, Tempels still spoke of religion in the singular – a thing which we nowadays find hard to do, according to Derrida. Now there is much talk of religions, in the plural: we speak of the dialogue of religions, or their confrontation. To talk of religion, in the singular – to ask whether there is any meaning in religion as such, seems an obsolete question. Especially in philosophy. This would imply, namely, to discuss religious anthropology in a transcultural manner: to ask what human beings share in terms of religious desire. Tempels now, did exactly that. For him, ‘Christian doctrine’ was about receiving as a reality ‘the strengthening of life’. For him religion was all about

‘the aspiration towards the strengthening of life, the raising of it, the taking of it into the supernatural, its participation in the constant intensification and internal growth of our life through union, living union, with God.’ (80)

This rather unusual wording of what he saw as the essence of Christian religiosity he derived from his construction of what he saw as ‘Bantu ontology’ – which would be an ontology of ‘vital force’. In his view the people he had come to live amongst in the Congo had understood life, human life, and life in general, as a continuous possibility of intensification or decrease in vital force. Cursing another is meant to decrease his vitality, blessing her or him does the oppositie. Tempels’ initial motive to investigate and describe what he saw as original Bantu culture had sprung from his observation that all missionary work in Africa had actually failed, as European culture was brought over to African peoples in its new, materialistic and spiritually empty version, while religious teachers had never tried to understand the soul of those they aimed to convert, and therefore had not really conversed with them.

In the end however Tempels made an unusual double hermeneutical move – to first interpret what his African interlocutors taught him in terms of a metaphysics of life force, and to secondly reinterpret in its terms the languishing catholic metaphysics of salvation. This made him take Christ as the enhancer of life force per se, and as the counterforce in an age which, he feared, was about to empty the human person (African and European alike) of its soul, seeing progress solely in terms of industrialization and economic expansion. This was not just a hermeneutical circular movement avant Gadamer, as it simultaneously upheld the neo-scholastic claim to metaphysical knowledge of ultimate divine reality. Thus Tempels culturalized and contextualized what was supposed to sustain and transcend the contingent phenomenal world.

In my presentation I asked whether we should see this in the light of his confused non-professional philosophy (Tempels just took the two years of philosophy required in the study for the priesthood), or whether in the end his work contains elements for an answer to Derrida’s question: how to speak of religion without fear and trembling. If it does, perhaps some light can be shed in the discourse which only speaks of religious difference, without seeing how religion should be analyzed in a contextualized manner – as intrinsically related to the political and economic struggles that disturb our present times.

If we follow that road we could see that any philosophical search for truth (post – cultural relativism) has to move through analyses of the political and the economical. In Tempels work we see the beginnings of such a move – where he relates religion (in the singular: be it Christianity or traditional African religiosity) to the historical situation of industrialization and colonization – a situation that advertizes itself as civilization, but Tempels doubts this. He tries the idea whether it might not be better in a sense for Europeans to let themselves be taught by those they allegedly came to civilize.

‘We get the impression that these masses want to rise from their alleged lowliness, clothing themselves in the knowledge of their own lore and in their conception of the world; and thus standing before and looking down upon the small group of Westerners […]” (73).

To state, as Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha does in his article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica , that Tempels remained bound to a colonial outlook because he saw Christianity as superior to traditonal African religion is too fast a conclusion to my view. His Christianity did not speak (as traditionally was done in European religious discourse) of salvation of the eternal soul, but of a continuous intensification and internal growth of life through union with God – which to my view is a Christianity which had been transformed through its contact and dialogue with ‘Bantu philosophy’ – with his observation that ‘there is to be found in the depths of the Bantu soul an aspiration, an irresistable allurement towards an infinite strengthening of life.’ (81) This is not just a reformulation of traditional Christian ‘talk of religion’ – it is quite another talk. Of religion, across cultural and theological difference, positioned over against what Tempels saw as the false progress of industrialization and the only materialistic ‘development’ through colonialism.

 

 

Philosophy is as such a secular profession, taking the attitude of wonder and reflection towards any phenomena it takes in consideration. Sometimes this is seen to create a tension with the search for wisdom that has been present in philosophical tradition over the ages – a tension which can bring thinkers to take religious, agnostic as well as atheist approaches. Whatever one’s specific approach or subject matter, however, the critical instruments provided by philosophical reflection, allows us to gain fresh insights. Also in matters of bible studies, religious studies and theology.

Two weeks, ago, on the 16th of November, I was one of four speakers who were invited to comment on two newly published books on religion in the Netherlands. Religion in the white, Christian section of society, that is – which sociologically gives a distorted image, of course – because while the traditional white protestant and catholic churches are in constant decline, black migrant churches, as well as mosques and islamic communities are thriving.

The traditional churches, however, see so much decline, the authors of both books think, because European christianity has emptied itself from most spiritual practices and experiences – having adapted itself to the stifling influence of the Enlightenment and its consequences. For theology these were either a focus on ‘belief’ as confessing something to be true, or on unearthing the historical basis of the bible from a secular perspective. In my contribution to the book presentation, I suggested, in line with an article I published in 2015 (see below for reference), to circumvent the Enlightenment, and baby-jesus-2reread the gospels as shamanist literature.

Such an approach tunes in with what post-Enlightenment Christians search for, often in non-European religious traditions, to wit: a reevaluation of intuitive knowing, of ritual practice, and religious trust or faith. My own path, which I now call shamanistic, has been inspired by experiences in my childhood that have led me to search to express  these three elements in words, in philosophy. One of the most important philosophers who provides a basis for stretching philosophical discourse to that intent is William James (1842-1910), most well known as the founder of the psychology of religion, with his work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes there how we live in a tangible, empirical world on the one hand, but experience (sometimes) that this is surrounded and influenced by a wider, spiritual reality.

Building philosophically on the work of James, and having studied anthropologists’ works on shamanism and on the shamanistic Jesus, I came to reread the gospels in a kind of direct manner, detouring the critical reflections that sprang from the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ stems from Siberian language and originally refers to mediators between the everyday and the spiritual world in that region, the term has been globalized in our day, and is used as well for new spiritual movements that open up traditional knowledge for individuals in modern societies, as for spiritual practices of peoples that are still in touch with traditional ways of living accross the globe.

With respect to the gospels, several researchers have attempted to reread them in a shamanist framework. For instance the South African anthropologist of religion Pieter Craffert, who shows in his book The Life of A Galilean Shaman (2008) that shamanistic practices were alive and well in the society in which Jesus lived. Or theologian Marcus J. Borg, who in his Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1994), using a Jamesian language, describes Jesus as ‘a spirit person’ – someone for whom the ‘screens of consciousness’ that keep the everyday and the spiritual domain apart, are unusually permeable. And there is the theologian who practices trance journeys himself John J. Pilch, who in his book Flights of the Soul (2011), on spiritual experiences in the bible, describes the testing of Jesus by Satan, as fitting the traditional route of a shaman to be: ‘Jesus demonstrates that he has acquired the necessary ritual skills to deal with and control the spirit world.’ (Pilch 2011, p. 116)

In my article “The ‘Shamanic’ Travels Of Jesus and Muhammad: Cross-cultural and Transcultural Understandings of Religious Experience”, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, I discuss this and other literature and go into some of the shamanistic events in the gospels. To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit. When he subsequently starts to tour the country, and console and heal people in spiritual and physical need, he shows shamanistic qualities all the time. He passes through an angry mob that cannot touch him (protected by the power of the Spirit) in Luke 4: 29-30, and has power over demons according to Luke 4: 33-36. Also in Matthew and Mark do we find a wealth of shamanistic stories, such as Jesus’ expulsion of demons from some possessed persons in Matthew 8:28-34, his healing of a possessed man in Matthew 9:32-34, a possessed girl in Mark 7:24-30, and a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31-37). This last story, moreover, presents a description of specifically shamanist practices by Jesus, who puts his fingers in the ears of the man, and touches his tongue with his own spittle. Even today we can find practicing shamans to breathe or spit over a patient – as an exhalation or a secretion of saliva are understood to serve as a vehicle for the healing spirit that is called to assistance by the shaman.

In the seventeenth century theologians in Europe turned against the belief in spirits as well as spiritual practices, like the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker, who proposed to read the bible in a rational manner in his work De betoverde weereld. Although his motive, to get people to take more responsibility for their own moral agency, instead of blaming their evil actions on possession, was in line with the teachings of Jesus too, who stress that those cured should turn their lives around toward the good and away from evil – the effect of centuries of rationalist theological works has been that European christianity has lost its appeal for many people, as they don’t find much spiritual appeal or healing there. So in my talk at the book presentation I proposed that, next to the inspiration the ex, or post-christians get from non-European religions, they might as well try to read ‘around’ the Enlightenment, and try to let the gospel stories about the shamanistic Jesus inspire them. This Jesus makes trance journeys, associates with spirits, heals people from his shamanistic inspiration, and shows them ways to more free, loving and just ways to live.

The photo is from the nativity scene my dear parents made, before I was born.

This post is a reworked version of my speech at the book presentation in Dutch, which can be found here.

 

IMG_3595A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to speak at the Spinoza summer week, in one of the most rural and quiet places in the Netherlands. The theme of the week was Spinoza and Jewish tradition. A subject which I didn’t know very much about, but I interpreted it more widely, to be able to present my textual interpretations of the Ethics, the Short Treatise and the Theological-Political Treatise on Spinoza’s ideas about going beyond religious traditions, and still recognizing the importance of religion for human beings.

One of the benefits of giving the lecture was being invited for the one-day Spinoza tour through North and South Holland (the two provinces by that name) to see all the places where Spinoza lived, in his short life (1632 – 1677). Today I did the tour, with four other interested people, and our guide Jossi Efrat, a passionate narrator. DueIMG_3542 to his great knowledge on the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam (we started out in the Portuguese synagoge over there) and our many questions, we lagged behind on our schedule, and had to skip the end, in the end, which would have included the two houses where he lived in The Hague and the New Church, where he was buried.

This is not a very philosophical post, I agree, but I allow myself this because it is summer, and I promised to two of my co-tour-walkers to write a post about it. It was a day with many impressions. After seeing the place at the Waterloo square, where once a house of the Spinoza family had stood, and the earlier synagogue where the ban against Baruch had been spoken, we went to the Jewish burial site at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, where I was able to say a siIMG_3565lent salute to the remains of the woman who had given birth to this great thinker: Hanna Deborah. She died when Spinoza was six, and he was raised by his father’s third wife.

We took to the road once more, and came to the newly restored lovely little house in Rijnsburg where Spinoza lived after leaving Amsterdam, possibly because it provided him more opportunity to be in contact with scientists and philosophers at Leiden university, possible also because of his contacts with the Collegiant community (freethinker protestants). I had been to the Rijnsburg house before, the first time when I was still a student, so it must have been thirty years ago. I was invited by the secretary of the Spinoza society, back then, Theo van der Werff, who helped me through my dissertation years like a living pre-internet search engine, finding books and articles and bibliographical details. And providing a lot of support toIMG_3579o. Being in the little house once more was great. Anyone looking for a beautiful seventeenth century philosophical atmosphere should go there sometime. Although most of the interior is not original but reconstructed. For booklovers there are two bookcases filled with old leatherbound books, one the reconstructed library of Spinoza.

Finally we went to Hofwijck, the little palace of the Huygens family, where Spinoza worked together with son Christiaan on his scientific experiments, conducted supposedly in the attic. Some of the original instruments can be seen there. Our guide took us through difficult-to-find paths to show us how Spinoza had walked from the house where he lived in that time, in the village of Voorburg, along the Vliet, a canal connecting several cities, to Huygens’ place. Hard to find because nowadays a railway and a highway IMG_3603are built atop the old infrastructure.

Like I said, we missed out on the The Hague traces of Spinoza, which I however had also walked in the past. They mark the most political phase in Spinoza’s life, as he was involved in the struggle for the highest power in the Netherlands of those days, which was not just about the potential power of the Orange family, but also, which interested Spinoza more, about a more secular society or one in which calvinism had more prominence. Thinking beyond religious traditions, a society where everyone could think or believe as he liked, was one of the things Spinoza was most passionate about. One of his reasons being, I think, very much pro-religion: because belief that is based on duress cannot be true belief…

Although we steeped ourselve in Dutch society and politics of three centuries ago, I am still of the same opinion as I was in my PhD years: that reading Spinoza is to be advised for anyone who wants to develop his/her reflection on religion, freedom, and harmony in society.

 

The research I did for my PhD thesis on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the late eighties and the early nineties, left me with an aversion for the idea of an esoteric philosophy. I had set myself to reading the works that were seen as authoritative studies on the TTP in those days, and among them were those that made a lot of work of discovering the esoteric philosophy that would be hidden in the so called exoteric texts of Spinoza. I could understand that the deep and difficult roads travelled by Spinoza inspired readers to imagine that there would be something even deeper and more mysterious between the lines – hidden kabbalism for instance. The problem was, however, that those same interpretators ignored some very obvious and explicit things Spinoza said about religion. It didn’t make sense, as he had risked a lot to be so open about what was important to him.

Just the other day, however, the idea of an esoteric philosophy came up in another context. I was attending a lecture of a Dutch colleague, who was speaking about studies he had done which were somewhat outside the field of ‘official’ academic philosophy. He said that he would not write the insights they had given him down until he was more certain about what he wanted to claim, and he joked this to be (for now) his esoteric philosophy. The idea not to write on things before one can give more than just an opinion on them is close to my heart, so I could relate to his statement very well. It reminded me of the ten, fifteen years that I worked to say something well-founded on what I have called here anim(al)ism, a concept I am still exploring further. It is a broad term for relating with the world while recognizing ourselves to be among animals as among relatives, and even among other non-human souls, and to be able to communicate with them in other ways than the rationalist and empiricist epistemologies recognize.

I thought that I had come far in this respect. Until just yesterday, when I had an unexpected experience. I was with academic friends, the theologians with whom I have been sharing research on ethics over the past 15 or more years, in our research group on theological ethics. Being, I think, the only non-theologian by training in the group, I am always very careful not to claim anything ill-founded on religion, and because of that I try to stay very close to my personal discoveries in the field. One of the nice colleagues asked my views on ‘revelation’ – which made me quite uncertain. As a philosopher one tends to think of Heidegger and Husserl on hearing that word, but I was certain that he was hinting in another direction – and he was, more in the direction of Karl Barth. I could not position myself in the academic theological debate on the matter, but still wanted to answer him meaningfully. I tried to word very carefully how my intuitions on ‘anim(al)ism’, on shamanism, and my encounters with the different ‘Abrahamic’ and some Asian religions had formed my views, and how this all made me see the Christian idea of ‘revelation’. I confessed that I had thought about this for quite some time, and would love to write more extensively on it, but wouldn’t know how to ‘sell’ the plan – being an academic philosopher and not a theologian of Christianity.

Then, slowly, it dawned on me… there was some esoteric part in my own philosophical existence too… but I don’t like that. Speaking and writing have a different format, and academic writing has quite a few demands which sometimes forces one to let some part of one’s thinking remain ‘esoteric’ for now. The aim is to study, however, just as long as necessary to be able to write one’s insights down properly, in a discussion with the relevant and knowledgeable authors. So much still to be done!

 

It is almost two years ago that I started this blog, and I started, with deliberate intent, with Feuerbach. Referring to his Philosophy of the Future, I articulated my conviction that philosophy should come out of the ivory tower and concern itself with the global problems that face us humans and our fellow earthlings. Mentioning the common prejudice about Feuerbach of writing religion off in a simplistic manner, I suggested to come back to that topic some other time. Now is that time. And there are two reasons for it. One is the confusion, around the world, on so-called ‘islamic’ terrorism. The wars for self-rule of certain islamic groups are mistaken by many as a direct expression of their religion, which in its turn is understood in an essentialist manner. The other reason is that we discussed, recently, in our Africana philosophy reading group, Faith of our Fathers, by Mumia Abu Jamal. In this book, the writer researches the history of spiritual life of those who were taken as slaves from Africa to the Americas and their descendants. In so doing he takes a Feuerbachian approach to religion – seeing it as something constructed by humans to give expression to their desires in an idealized and transcendentalized way.

Feuerbach critiqued Christian religion as it was prominent in his day from a humanist and a socialist perspective. This we see when he wrote in lecture XXX of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion: ‘Christians call it blasphemous or inhuman to deny the existence of a hereafter and so deprive the unfortunate, the wretched of this earth, of their one consolation, the hope of a better world to come. Herein, they still believe, lies the moral significance of the hereafter, its unity with the divine; for without a hereafter there would be no retribution, no justice, no reparation in heaven for the misery of those who suffer on earth, or at least of those who suffer through no fault of their own.’ The hope for a better life after this one for the poor and the oppressed is a false lead in the eyes of Feuerbach, for it detours the belief in the possibility of a good life here and now, which is what people actually desire. Not riches and luxury, but just the necessities to live a human life, necessities which are withheld from many. In such a situation, where religion detracts the poor from their normal desires, Feuerbach sees ‘atheism [as] positive and affirmative; it gives back to nature and mankind the dignity of which theism has despoiled them; it restores life to nature and mankind, which theism had drained of their best powers.’

In the work of Abu Jamal, we see a different outcome, however, of a similar critique of religion. He describes how the slaves of African descent in the Americas, who were forced or enticed to convert to Christianity, saw it as inauthentic. To them it was the religion of their cruel white owners, who used it as a means to subdue them not only corporally and emotionally, but also spiritually. Still, Abu Jamal describes, those who did convert, made their own variety of it, as well as they rediscovered/invented their own versions of islam. Characteristic of these new, African-American religions is that they intimately connect the concepts of spiritual release and this-worldly freedom. Religious speech of freedom and salvation in heaven for the slave was just a means to cover up and justify cruelty. So the new religions of the slaves and their descendants combine worship with engagement for change towards a more just society. This goes also for small initiatives like the ‘natural’ religion of John Africa, which combines a love for nature with a rejection of industrial capitalism. Just one citation of this little known prophet: ‘You see, air is the necessity of God, but pollution is the accessory of civilization ’cause industry is an excess of life.’

When Abu Jamal writes that ‘no religious system exists in a vacuum [as it is] by its very nature, a carrier of culture’ we are reminded of the ideas of Feuerbach. And also in his words that ‘spiritual projections of what is seen as the greatest conceivable good become culturally crystallized as heaven, while most horrific visions find expressions as Hell’. Still there is a – slight, but significant – difference. Feuerbach was convinced that established religion would – in modern times – better be replaced by a humanistic and engaged philosophy. So that the human race could come of age and take responsibility for its own desires and their projections. Abu Jamal, who wrote his book in the isolation of his prison cell sees religions as cultural creations, but as creations that answer to the injustices of the world. He would not want to know better than the ‘poor’, who create and invent these religions, but recognizes the many different expressions the longing for deepest notions of the good must take – these expressions are ways of taking responsibility.

Now I have to return to my point about ‘islamic’ terrorism – and will show how the above analyses can help to fight confusion. The quotation marks not only aim to signify that terrorism that claims to be religious shows inauthenticity – like the false Christianity of the slave masters. They also indicate that we should not understand ‘islam’ as an unambiguous signifier. There are many (greatly differing) islamic traditions, like there are many versions of Christianity, Buddhism, etcetera. According to our writers, religions are not only cultural carriers, and therefore adapted to different localities and ethnicities – they are also creations and projections of human beings trying to express their desire for the highest good. It doesn’t make sense to debunk them as ‘unenlightened’ projections. It helps to see them as elements in the struggle of human beings to express their longing for a real freedom and a real good life. As difficult as it is to create, together, a world with that kind of freedom and goodness, one can as well maintain that the object of our longing is transcendent, promised by the One who is beyond our world. This should not mean that human beings should honestly maintain that the realization of that object can be postponed to the beyond. It should still be done here and now. Making war can not be part of the effort, therefore, for destroying happiness and peace in actual lives is creating parts of hell here and now.

When debates have very strong emotional overtones, I tend to stay out of them. That is the survivor in me, who doesn’t want to get caught up in spheres where words are not safe from being misinterpreted. So I stayed out of the Black Pete debate, that has been getting headlines in the last few years. When sitting in a café with my beloved a few years ago, a little blonde girl of about five years old, pointing at him and his red baret, asked her parents: ‘Is that Zwarte Piet?’ I noticed that he was a bit disturbed, but his love for children overtook the emotion, and he answered the parents, who did not know how to react, with a smile: ‘she is a child, she doesn’t know.’ As the discussion about the racism represented by the figure of Saint Nicholas’ helper gained momentum, I noticed that his tolerance for similar incidents diminished. Recently protests against the blackface character led to 90 arrests, and he asked me to use my (small) public voice to say something on the matter, so I will try.

One of the problems in the debate is that my small country, which is mostly known abroad for its socker players and its tulips, and perhaps as a trading nation with much tolerance for different lifestyles, is now suddenly news for a cultural tradition which formerly was practically unknown internationally. From times immemorial, on the fifth of December the Dutch celebrated this Saint who is supposed to come from Spain each year, with some moorish characters (who, I understand, were added about 150 years ago) as his helpers, in the privacy of their own international unimportancy. This brings many Dutch, who mostly enjoyed the celebration when they were children themselves, or who do so through the eyes of their own children, to react to any criticism by saying that nobody understands, and that you should live here to do so. The point is that they are right mostly, in the sense that most international coverage of the matter contains ridiculous mistakes, like saying that ‘Sinterklaas’ belongs to Christmas. The downside of this is, that those Dutch discussants never arrive at what is at stake in the criticisms: that the depiction of the helpers of the ‘good and holy’ man helps to sustain overt and latent racism in our society.

While in the turmoil also some neo-fascist groups surface, who address the gut feeling that ‘our’ traditions are under threat in the globalizing world, and that ‘we’ should defend them no matter what, there are also moderate voices who understand that living traditons always change, so this one can too, but who also remind us that we should not forget that it is a children’s celebration, and that it is wrong that protesters against blackface Pete disturb the festivities. This is to my taste a very suspicious argument. It reminds me of those news items from warring groups or nations, who try to post as many pictures of wounded or dead children as possible – to gain sympathy for their cause. If they want sympathy, they should put more effort into ending their war. Dictators also love to pose for the photographer with children on their arm. So, no, don’t come to me with ‘innocent’ children to defend practices that are hurtful to co-members of our human race.

Then there is the argument that the dressing up is playful and innocent, and has nothing to do with racism. This argument is not acceptable to anyone who knows anything about symbolic messages, for it focusses only on the supposed intentions of the impersonators. If those whites who blacken their faces once a year have no racist intent, then the practice itself is not racist, is the idea. This is as untrue as it gets of course, because messages cannot function without context and without those who receive and interpret them. Intention is only one aspect of communication. There might be subconscious intentions too, by the way, but let’s not focus on those for not complicating the matter to much. The activists against Zwarte Piet, most of them from the formerly Dutch colony of Surinam, often get the accusation that they interpret the message wrong. That they see images of colonialism and slavery when those were never intended. Well, if we would accept the good intentions of all the pro-Piet-people, there still is the issue of context. If you happen to be black in our society those images may very well be obvious. Of course official slavery and colonialism is over. But their remnants are not. Or perhaps they are not just remnants, but practices that go on under different guises. To all those who want to deny this I suggest to listen to some stories of those who are in the position to know from first hand experience.

To sum things up, I have come to the conclusion that a) the protests against the Zwarte Piet character are justified. They do not want to spoil a children’s celebration, they want to change it so that it can include all of its citizens. b) foreign journalism which doesn’t check the facts leads to many dead-end discussions, and leads away from what it all is really about. c) one should watch out for neo-nazi’s posing as defenders of cherished traditions and d) take racism in our society seriously.

So what about the celebration itself? What is it about? I must confess, when I think of my own childhood memories, that our family was not representative of most people in dealing with Saint Nicholas. Where most children were told that the Saint and his helpers were real (in a literal manner), and that the presents they brought really came from Spain, this was not the case in our home. When I was old enough to understand anything, I think about age five, I was told that we as a family bought the presents for each other, and that we made the traditional poems accompanying them, as well as the famous wrappings disguising gifts to be unattractive things (the most popular is perhaps to put a gift in some stuff that looks like poo). But I was also told that this was to be a secret we kept for each other. At Sinterklaas eve you give anonymously – and your only reward will be the happy face of someone if you chose the right gift. By being thus an early accomplice to the Saint, I did not go through the phase that others did, mostly at around age seven or eight, of discovering ‘that it all was not true’. I often think this to have been the reason that I didn’t go through religious doubts about whether God exists or not which most of my christian peers experienced. From that early age I was taught that symbolic reality is true and not true in differing ways at the same time.

While at age five I was being treated as an adult in the matter of the most famous Dutch celebration of giving, I was never particularly interested in the figures of the Saint and his helpers. Their ‘arrival from Spain’ (which I knew to be nonsense) was just the announcement of the start of the season that we bought our presents, wrote our poems, made our ‘surprise’ wrappings, and hid all of them for each other. It was a season of positive suspense, culminating in an evening full of wrapping paper, poem reading, traditional sweets, and happy faces. All the same, some of the racism latent in the descriptions of Zwarte Piet rubbed off on me. Not from our family interpretation of the celebration, but from songs and stories learned in school and from picture books. Back in those days the public character was mainly designed to frighten children – as an assistant for parents who had trouble disciplining their offspring. When you were good, he would bring presents, when you were bad, he would take you to Spain in a bag. Or even make sausage out of you. Although I knew this to be nonsense, as we at home were ourselves the givers, and Saint and his helper were just symbols for our doing so, I could never completely ignore public culture, and developed a latent fear of dark faced people, which I had to consciously unlearn when I was an adult. So in my experience there is no innocence in any tradition. But tradition is neither an undifferentiated reality. It is what one makes of it. Declare all children and adults to be together in a yearly celebration of giving. And make clear that giving as such is a way to transcend ordinary reality – by adding some mysterious figures who are not really real. But cleanse them as much from the negative aspects of normal reality. This is an idealist argument, I acknowledge that. It supposes that one can learn and promote justice and peace in human relations. So be it. At this time of the year.

IMG_2251[1]The effects of a colonization last longer than one can imagine. This struck me about seven or so years ago, when a secondary school was about to be chosen for the further education of the children. Nowadays schools present themselves to parents and children on special ‘open days’. It was on such a day that I sat in a class with some twenty twelve year olds and a few parents, when the French teacher asked the pupils which French words they already knew. ‘Why are these words part of our (Germanic) language?’ she asked. The answer was: ‘Because these words come from Latin, and we were once colonized by the Romans.’ I realized later that the effects go further than words – in my country parents who want the ‘best’ education for their offspring choose the ‘gymnasium’ – a school that not only prepares for university, but adds to that the learning of ancient languages, Latin and Greek – languages that, obviously, never can be spoken in real life, and haven’t been in use as scholarly languages for three hundred years.

This was the first step in making me understand the discomfort which had always been lingering in the back of my mind, especially while studying philosophy – when my teachers exclaimed triumphantly how the ancient Greeks had invented all the sciences and wisdom that are at the basis of ‘civilization’. Especially philosophy. ‘But how about Indian philosophy?’ asked some student who was a practitioner of classical yoga and who had studied the Veda’s. Well, Indian philosophy was not really philosophy, for it was not separated from religious mythology. It could better be described as wisdom. No, real philosophy, and a really scientific outlook, dawned only in ancient Greece. That was what the Romans told us – I now knew, for Greek philosophy was a great source of inspiration to them! My fellow student, who wrote a paper on possible Indian influences on Plato, left the program after two years, for she saw what we learned as untruths.

Just last week I was led on a search by reading a French African post on the internet, on the Egyption roots of Christian and islamic religion. The post was all but academic, but referred to some seemingly serious literature (works by a coptic scholar, named Al Assiouty, whom I had never heard of) – so my curiosity led me on. Al Assiouty’s works were not readily accesible, but I found this great article which made use of them, in the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies. The article attempts to show the fruitfulness of what is called the afrocentric or ‘Diopian’ model. This model is named after the Senegalese scholar Cheich Anta Diop, who shook up the learned world by his claim, some sixty years ago, that the ancient Egyptians (who, as I learned in my colonized education, were in some minor aspects precursors of the Greek revolution of science) were not semi-white, but black. As it goes with good models – they lead to new findings which not only affirm them, but which on the way change so many other things one thinks one knows. Eric S. Ross, the writer of the article, gathered many sources and data to attempt to reverse the view that ‘Africa has been […] in a passive role, as simply receiving Islam.’ Aiming to show, instead, that through the centuries, and before it was even around, Islam has been influenced by black African theologies, among whom the most well-known, those of the ancient Egyptians.

Ross clearly indicates who taught the European thinkers from the nineteenth century onward the false idea that African peoples knew no real civilization, since they would have had ‘no history’ (sic): Hegel. He cites: ‘[Africa] is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.’ The ancient Egyptians are comfortably declared by Hegel to belong not to Africa but to the ‘Asiatic or European World’. Ross sees a political ground for Hegel’s obvious lie (and if ‘the world’ had not been fooled so succesfully it would have given more attention to the tragic loss of so many medieval African manuscripts in the Malian struggles some time ago): the ‘great thinker’ had come up with a good reason to justify enslavement of Africans ‘as a means of bringing them out of the ahistorical night into the day of self-conscious history’. That was the same time that the ‘anthropological age’ began: Africans were studied by Europeans from the outside – observing their customs and traditions, neglecting their proper philosophical, scientific and religious historical records. What Ross does is rare for the combination of his skills are rare – he not only masters English and French (being able to read an author like Al Assiouty), but also several African languages and Arabic. Since he not only has a PhD in Islamic religious studies, but is also a geographer, and an associate professor in the latter discipline in Africa (Morocco), he has been able to visit many historically important sites, and to link places, oral histories, and written ones. A lot of the sources, he himself states, are to be checked and researched – the merit of the article lies a.o. in making such checking and researching possible by bringing them together.

The article is not just about religion, but also about general history and about philosophy. It states that not only early Islam and early Christianity owe a lot to the ancient Egyptians, but also the so called ‘Greek miracle’ – for ancient writers themselves relate how Greek thinkers ‘traveled to Egypt to learn in its temples’ – among them Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras, who studied in the temples of Heliopolis, Memphis and Thebes. But – there it was – Plato himself, the great ancestor of Western philosophy ‘spent thirteen years as a student in Heliopolis.’ This provides new possibilities to explain how Plato’s works so strongly influenced, through neo-platonic thought, all ‘abrahamic’, monotheistic, theologies of the middle ages – passing on ancient Egyptian (black – remember Diop!) theological views.

This reading relieved me to a greater extent of the slumbering discomfort about what I learned in university, for it now showed clearer its partiality. The interesting thing about afrocentrism is that it strives for a higher level of objectivity for all, by starting out from a partial view (‘centrism’) – and promises good results in doing so. It invites readers and researchers to question partialities by adding new ones to the combined sources from where our questions come. Here I have one question with regard to Ross’s article – while it presents sources that show Africa’s influence in Islam, it does not explain much about the nature of this influence, apart from the Egyptian monotheistic inspiration. His remark that African Islam’s characterizaton as ‘syncretist’ goes back to the distorted Hegelian view of African peoples as ahistorical and primitive remains rather formal – for so long as some of its typicalities (the large role it gives to saints, holy places, and quasi-magical practices of healing) are not also related to the central inspirations of monotheism. There is more in this direction, however, in other work of his (see below), which I will perhaps discuss another time.

The article ‘Africa in Islam: What the Afrocentric Perspective can Contribute to the Study of Islam’ can be found here.

Eric Ross keeps a very interesting blog.

His PhD thesis can be accessed here.