Thursday, April 23, 2015

Medieval versus enlightened

Thanks to the anonymous medievalist who wrote this to Dan Savage:
I've been reading your column for years (19 years?), and I love it. "Savage Love" has been a major part of my coming to terms with my sexuality after a very religious upbringing. And I hate to complain about something that probably seems pretty minor, but hopefully my reasons will be compelling. You recently advised GTBHF about , and you referred to his very conservative upbringing and the "medieval version of his faith." I'm a medievalist, and this is one of the things about our current discourse on religion that drives me nuts. Contemporary radical Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all terrible, but none of them are medieval, especially in terms of sexuality.
I'm not saying that the Middle Ages was a great period of freedom (sexual or otherwise), but the sexual culture of 12th century France, Iraq, Jerusalem, or Minsk did not involve the degree of self-loathing brought about by modern approaches to sexuality. Modern sexual purity has become a marker of faith, which it wasn't in the Middle Ages. (For instance, the Bishop of Winchester ran the brothels in South London—for real, it was a primary and publicly acknowledged source of his revenue; and one particularly powerful Bishop of Winchester was both the product of adultery and the father of a bastard—which didn't stop him from being a Cardinal and Papal Legate.) And faith, especially in modern radical religion, is a marker of social identity in a way it rarely was in the Middle Ages.
The thing that really screwed up a lot of us religious kids was that engaging with our sexuality destroyed our religious identity: we stopped being Christians or Muslims when we started having sex, or sometimes, just started desiring to have sex. (Jewish identity is somewhat different, though my Haredi friends would perhaps find a similar situation.)
The Middle-Eastern boyfriend wasn't taught a medieval version of his faith, and radical religion in the West isn't a retreat into the past—it is a very modern way of conceiving identity. Even something like ISIS is really just interested in the medieval borders of their caliphate; their ideology developed out of 18th and 19th century anti-colonial sentiment, and much ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Judaism and Evangelical Christianity developed at the same time. Even the radical Roman Catholicism of someone like Rick Santorum is surprisingly modern.
...The common response in the West to religious radicalism is to urge enlightenment, and to believe that enlightenment is a progressive narrative that is ever more inclusive. But these religions are responses to enlightenment, in fact often to The Enlightenment. As such, they become more comprehensible. The Enlightenment narrative comes with a bunch of other stuff, including concepts of mass culture and population. (Michel Foucault does a great job of talking about these developments, and modern sexuality, including homosexual and heterosexual identity, as well—and I'm stealing and watering down his thought here.) Its narrative depends upon centralized control: it gave us the modern army, the modern prison, the mental asylum, genocide, and totalitarianism as well as modern science and democracy.
Again, I'm not saying that I'd prefer to live in the 12th century (I wouldn't), but that's because I can imagine myself as part of that center. Educated, well-off Westerners generally assume that they are part of the center, that they can affect the government and contribute to the progress of enlightenment. This means that their identity is invested in the social form of modernity.
However, for those on the margins, for the excluded, the feeling is much different. Some governments have taken advantage of that: the Nazis made national identity part of a progress narrative in order to involve lots of struggling, middle-class Germans in their cause (despite Germany having become a nation only recently); the Soviet Union did a similar thing with the oppressed Russian peasants (despite Marx saying that a mostly agricultural society wasn't ready for Communism). Radical religion is doing something similar: it offers a social identity to those excluded (or who feel excluded) from the dominant system of Western enlightenment capitalism. It is a modern response to a modern problem, and by making it seem like some medieval holdover, we cover up the way in which our social power produces the conditions for this kind of identity, and make violence appear as the only response for these recalcitrant "holdouts."

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