One of the most common slams made against modernist (Yavanayāna) Buddhism is that it is “Protestant.” I’ve previously written about how there’s more to Buddhist modernism than this, and about the curious quasi-theological assumption that having Protestant influence is seen as a bad thing. At the same time, I’ve been realizing that there are close links between Protestantism and modernism. Not too surprising, perhaps, since the two emerge out of the same historical context, the Europe of the past 500 years – but I think their similarities may go deeper than that.
One of the more interesting elements of teaching at Stonehill was explaining Protestantism to a student body composed largely of ethnic Catholics. I remember giving a lecture on the history of Protestantism and having a student ask, “But what do Protestants believe?” It was a great question, for in my focus on history I’d neglected to say much about, say, the relative emphasis on the Bible or on Mary. The fault was mine for naïvely assuming it would be something students already knew. And so in later versions of the course, I gave students a much more detailed account of the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, and in turn these differences became much clearer to me myself.
I particularly came to realize how evangelical Protestantism – the growing Protestant wing of which fundamentalist Protestantism is basically a subset – is basically a more extreme form of Protestantism itself, “more extreme” in the sense of being much more characteristically Protestant and less Catholic. And what I found central in evangelicalism specifically but to some extent in Protestantism generally is something analogous, and perhaps even homologous, to modernism.
This central thing might be called single-mindedness: the tendency to focus on “what’s really important,” at the expense of the ancillary details. That’s the attitude behind all the ugly modernist architecture: the most important thing is to give people a comfortable, hygienic, convenient place to live. You can do without all those frivolous aesthetic details; focus on the big stuff, and people will learn to like it, as they should.
This same tendency seems to me to underlie evangelical Protestantism. The really important thing is the saving power of Jesus Christ; the rest, one might say, is gravy. And so evangelicals typically congregate in highly modern buildings, most notoriously the “megachurches” like Lakewood Church in Houston, a former sports arena, and often play rock music in their services. You don’t need the beauty and mystery of a centuries-old cathedral and its incense and pipe organ; you need Jesus.
The older, non-evangelical streams of Protestantism, such as Anglicanism and Lutheranism – usually referred to in the US as “mainline” – do not take this extreme approach. They still meet in the old churches, pray in an older style. And yet I think their founders, too, had something of the modernist tendency to privilege the big picture over the details. For Luther as I understand him, Christian tradition had become needlessly packed with irrelevant accretions. History still mattered to him – but the history that mattered was the history recounted in the Bible, not anything that had happened since then. All those sacraments and rituals were of a piece with selling indulgences. One may note that Luther derives a great deal of his thought from Augustine, and Augustine shares some of this same single-mindedness of focus. Augustine in his work expresses a worried ambivalence about liturgical music – he’s all for it if the lyrics bring people into Christian tradition, but he’s worried that it will be counterproductive if people start enjoying the music for its own sake. (And while many of Augustine’s views did become part of official Catholic tradition, they were typically tempered by the more worldly Aristotelian views of Thomas Aquinas.)
This kind of single-mindedness is not confined to Christianity or secularism, either. This single-mindedness is also the most prominent feature of the Salafi or Wahhabi strain of contemporary Islam. At first glance, Salafi tradition is as opposed to modernism as can be, for it claims that Islamic tradition was perfected in its first few centuries and every following innovation is worthless or worse. But the Salafis share with the modernists a single-minded disdain for the details of established tradition. And aesthetically the two come to look very similar. In recent years the Saudi Arabian state, which officially endorses Salafi Islam, has deliberately destroyed most of the historic sites of old Mecca and Medina, partially to make room for more infrastructure for pilgrims, but just as much because of Salafi ideology. People offered veneration and prayer at many of those sites, such as the grave of Muhammad’s mother. But to a Salafi, such activity is idolatrous, associating partners with God and compromising his unity. Better not to have them around. (Evangelicals, I might note, often take a similar attitude to many Catholic traditions, especially the reverence for Mary.)
Further musings on philosophical single-mindedness next week.