Modernity: Universality and Rationality in Religion and Politics

Modernity is best described as the quest to control epistemic and existential uncertainty with more empirical modes of knowledge in contrast to what we may think of as superstitious or spiritual knowledge.

Two features of modernity stand out above the rest: universality and rationality; unfortunately, they have been as destructive as they have been influential.

Let me tell you how.

In this blog post, I will analyze Enrique Dussel’s discussion of modernity in The Invention of the Americas and contrast it with M. Jacqui Alexander’s analysis of Afro-Caribbean spirituality in Pedagogies of Crossing. I will first explore two core features of modernity in Dussel’s work: (1) universality and (2) rationality. Then I will turn to Alexander and show how her understanding of the ‘Other’ relates to universality and rationality in contemporary life. Finally, I will discuss how these issues translate to a contemporary understanding of religion and politics.

Dussel believed that modernity originated with Columbus. Columbus’ authority and colonization dominated Latin America at the time with his ruthless subjugation of their people, culture, and religions. Therefore, modernity brought in a systemic subjugation by institutionalizing universality on moral and epistemological questions.

This can be seen from the way modernist philosophers discuss history. For many of the most important Western philosophers, Europe was superior to other societies around the Globe.

For example, the German philosopher, , argued that a universal history originated from the East but ended in the West with the educated bourgeoisie. Africa, and other less technologically developed continents, did not have an “evolved consciousness.” For Hegel, Christian Europe cannot learn anything from outside cultures, since it is its own “full realization.”

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Latin America, Africa, and Asia are not important for the “philosopher from Frankfurt,” writes Dussel. For Hegel, the Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh, was the result of a rational and deliberate process.

Whereas, as Alexander put it, African-based cosmological systems are the result of “the geographies of crossing and dislocation.”

In modernity, those who allowed for polytheistic spiritualities were exposing themselves to inferior thinking because of their disposition for pluralism and inclusivity. Dussel rightly calls Hegel’s thinking on this topic, some of the “most insulting pages” in philosophy.

The Problem With Universality

The main problem with this line of thinking is that it mistakenly assumes that Western universality is universal when, in reality, it is particular.

To borrow from Dussel, Hegel’s “European particularity” is wrongly taken as a “world universality.” The most obvious way to see Hegel’s reasoning invalidated is to question whether we agree with the same argument form but change the content within the premises.

If we are to question the practices and traditions that we are less familiar with simply because they are less familiar to us, then we should also question our own entrenched traditions.

Of course, to question ideas does not necessarily suggest that we must discard them. However, in an analysis of Afro-Caribbean religions, we cannot simply rely on “knowledge derived from books.” Empirical analysis only goes so far. In order to have any reliable grasp on them, we must step into the “unstable space of not knowing.”

For obvious reasons, this method of skepticism was not convenient for colonialism or monotheism. In order to maintain European hegemony over their colonies, colonizers had to dismantle these narratives of ambiguity especially when it came to a priori conceptions of truth that are prevalent among religions.

They did this primarily by institutionalizing universality into the state and the process of colonization, becoming, in the words of Hegel, “the fundament of the state.”

The Problem With Rationality

The second core concept that had come out of modernity is the principle of rationality. Dussel calls the spread of Christian dogma and colonization, modernization’s “touting” of rationality.

Afro-Caribbean religions, myths, and alternative philosophies of living were deemed as “primitive” and inferior to the ‘sophisticated’ rationality of European high-class society. This rationality only went so far. Many have poignantly pointed out the inconsistencies of Renaissance and Enlightenment rationality.

Needless to say, the scientific method and the aspiration for truth are not hopeless or pointless causes. In order to be effective, however, they must be grounded in the ability to question oneself no matter the seeming certainty of our conclusions.

This is one of the many ways rationalists failed to establish a thorough epistemic ethos through which they may compare themselves to other societies. Inadvertently, modernity rationalized the violence it was inflicting as a process of “civilizing” the Americas.

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What Happens to Universality & Rationality?

Universality and rationality, when utilized, classify those in other societies as ‘the Other.’ European conquerors considered everything that came from the indigenous as inferior.

The Indigenous world was “demonic,” “intrinsically perverse,” and “worthy of destruction.” The Aztecs and Incas, for example, testified to their inferiority because of their inability to “use Scriptures or know the philosophers.” Dussel writes that through colonization, the ‘Other,’ in this case, the colonized, is “obliged,” “subsumed,” “alienated,” and “incorporated” under the umbrella of modernity ‒ not as an end ‒ but as a means for economic expansion.

Therefore, at the crux of their relation to modernity, the Other is only sought for what they can provide ‒ not in who they are.

The Other, for Dussel, lives in a composed of “free subjects”; on the other hand, the colonizer arrives “completely limited” with their unquestioned dogma, tradition, and god.

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Alexander similarly discusses this relation of the Other to Western society in a modern setting. She recalls a troubling moment during her undergraduate degree at a predominantly Caucasian university campus in the United States. She writes that she witnessed a sudden change of her peers viewing her as a “stranger” after a racially-sensitive campus incident.

In her words, it was in this moment that she began to feel a “daily awareness” of “seeing myself as black.” In other words, she started understanding her relation to her peers as ‘the Other’; the negative perception of others understandably haunted Alexander.

In Alexander’s memorable phrasing, the “personal” became “political.”

This can be contrasted with Dussel’s discussion of Latin America and how the perception of their myths as demonic, paganistic, and primitive in contrast to the sophisticated European “universality” damaged their view of themselves. Most other cultures are viewed through the lens of the colonizer, alienating them in the process.

Therefore, at the crux of their relation to modernity, the Other is only sought for what they can provide ‒ not in who they are.

Personal & Experience vs Dogma & Formal Logic

Alexander furthermore helpfully contrasts the epistemic frameworks of modernity, particularly universality and rationality, with that of Afro-Carribean religions.

For those who adhere to being religious in the Global South before modernity became the predominant hegemony, personal experience and revelation were much more important than dogma and formal logic.

Alexander writes that the colonizer’s “mythology” must be replaced with the “knowing” of one another through active interaction and companionship. When Alexander discusses different dominant epistemes, she also criticizes the overwhelming tendency of the West to forget.

Experiences directly shape subjectivity, as Alexander argues. This is not only crucial to understanding other religions but also to arguments concerning feminism and colonialism.

The “epistemic frameworks” of modernity that I have been discussing had challenged the Other with a universality and rationality that was, in fact, a particularity and a deep irrationality.

Christianity & Colonization

Throughout most of Christendom, there was one conception of god. In this conception, god was presented as the masculine “Father”; he was monotheistic rather than polytheistic; he sought to convert the masses through evangelism.

In the Western conception of religion, there was an emphasis on (1) simplicity of doctrine and (2) conversion. Polytheistic religions were not exclusive and they rarely taught the necessity of conversion. African myths and religions were often much more “complex,” along with those in Central and South America. These were replaced by what Europeans deemed as the simpler and superior truth.

When it comes to Afro-Caribbean religions, such as Yoruba, Santeria, and Vodou, their formation was one of adoption of different practices and cultures in what Alexander calls “geographies of crossing and dislocation.”

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These religions are not as fixed as Christendom made Christian dogma to be. Afro-Caribbean religions also find ancestry and history very important. Whereas, for Western conceptions of religion, the emphasis is on the future, mainly the Kingdom of Heaven that will arrive.

For the mentioned Afro-Caribbean religions, there is a large appreciation of the past, not only in material terms, but also in metaphysical terms. In other words, Afro-Caribbean religions viewed the past not only for its instrumental value but primarily for its intrinsic value.

Alexander goes so far to speak from the position of one of her ancestors to explore her episteme. These Afro-Caribbean religions view the spiritual as epistemological and the political as spiritual. Alexander, therefore, argues that memory is important for metaphysical reasons and that from this relation true reasons for revolution may erupt.

Universality and rationality became dominant features of colonization by spreading the Christian message.

This was not done primarily to spread philosophy, however. It was done to enforce a narrative that would better create a hegemony over colonized subjects.

As Alexander argued above, this epistemic ethos has not escaped our modern political and religious dispositions; we continue to grapple with unquestioned dogmas and biases about our relation to ‘the Other.’

In order to abandon our epistemic shackles of universality and rationality, we must expose ourselves to different societies and engage with different modes of knowledge that primarily rely on exposure and experience rather than reason and science.

Universality and rationality became dominant features of colonization by spreading the Christian message.

This blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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