Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity by Valson Thampu

Reviewed by Peter Cowlam

You might posit, from an Hegelian perspective, and given the long-term goals of history, that reformations of one kind or another cannot be avoided. There can be no refining process otherwise. If the long-term goal of human history is spiritual as much as material, then an intractable problem occurs in the latter part of that equation. Humanity goes wrong, with its warring kings and its disputes over territory, and the tribal conflicts for supremacy over competitors and control of natural resources. A prophet arrives, in the guise of the human, and lives a human life, but it is written later must have been divine. In a very short span of worldly time that prophet has gathered followers, has ministered to those who will hear, and as part of the mission has delivered instruction as to the founding of a church, and has chosen disciples to begin that work of construction. The prophet returns to whatever divine realm is co-extensive with our earthly reality, and it is a mere band of humans left to carry on with the mission, and from it form a religion. If the religion survives, it becomes an institution, because that is the way we humans organise things.

The problem as Valson Thampu sees it is that we have found no way of practising religion other than through such institutions, whose presence is necessarily material – buildings, monuments, temples – and whose perpetuation is a hierarchy of those who are learned in the religion and officiate over its ordinances – bishops, priests and other clergy – or those who deliver the teaching, the evangelists and preachers. It might well be that in the beginning the laity is unlettered, and so must take on trust what is purveyed through official or sacred scripture. The prophet said this. The prophet said that.

That arrangement probably works well at the outset, but over time – long tracts of Hegelian historical time – what the philosophy envisages doesn’t quite come about, and the human soul isn’t perfected. We have not shaken off those warring kings and their disputes over territory, and now it’s a world of multiple religions or a single religion in its many denominations, all acting their parts in the political domain. As with any earthly power, all such factions vie with each other for possession and direction of the human spirit. To the medieval mind and the upholders of the one true faith (whatever that faith might be) war is justified as the duty to rid the earth of its infidels, and in so doing make of the earth’s environs a freehold fit for the God who is worshipped.

There are of course rebels, and dissenters, the more so the firmer is entrenched the politicisation of the religious institution. The sixteenth-century Reformation saw Martin Luther condemn the Catholic priesthood, which did not allow the individual unmediated exchange with God, but stood between those two parties and determined what their relationship would be. Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society. Valson Thampu calls for a similar reformation, conducted in both the material and spiritual realms. It is his contention that the human soul is perfectible, but that there is no religion and no political initiative on earth that will facilitate the adherent, acolyte or believer in attaining to that state. He points to the paradox of God in the twenty-first century, still said to be omnipresent, but in the way religion is practised is reduced to a supernatural being confined to the temple, church or mosque. The counter-argument has a different view of the concrete embodiment of our religions—

The temple, church or mosque ‘can serve as meeting places for people, but not presume to be exclusive habitats of God.’ 

The point being that if the priesthood really wished to teach us about God, that teaching would centre on a supra-parental being present in our lives everywhere and at all times. Faith has been tested and has failed if that is not the belief. Nor does the priesthood do much to demonstrate that its religion is the true religion (and not just a chant). As Thampu tells us—

‘We believe in only two possibilities: either all religions are one or none is true’ and so underlines the emotionally arrived at notion that the ‘“Priesthood,” [according to] Arthur Schopenhauer, “is born in hypocrisy.”’

We see already that Thampu’s argument is more with the priesthood, less with the religion. Religion he would like to see practised without priestly intervention, whose claims to truth are easily brushed aside (and it doesn’t necessarily take the Scottish Enlightenment to tell us so)—

‘David Hume has argued that each religion is a proof of the falsity of the other, because if each of them claims to be the true religion, then all the others must be false.’

If no religion is true, then there is no god at the apex of each religion, and if that is too harsh a reality for those inclined to believe, then faith promotes itself as faith in itself, not in God. That is a state of affairs that reduces the priesthood to the status of carpet-baggers, no better than commercial hucksters disinclined to offer any valuable contribution to the life of the polis—

‘Avoidance of physical work, as Thorstein Veblen points out, is the insignia of the priestly class. He observes that priestly vestments are designed with a view to excluding manual work: “the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place. Therefore, priestly class vestments are notoriously expensive, ornate, and inconvenient…”,’ with leisure a necessary ornament of priestly identity.

You see how we’ve been duped. This is faith as masquerade. It isn’t faith with reason, or a reason to believe. Nor is it a reason for Thampu to advocate that we don’t believe, when above all he wants to see in his fellow-human beings full scope for spiritual development. According to Marc D. Guerra (see his essay Christians as Political Animals), and his words quoted in Jon Elsby’s Seeing is Believing

‘…because human reason will inevitably be brought into collision with the objective reality of its own limits, hubristic claims of the absolute self-sufficiency of human reason and its adequacy to the task of establishing and grasping the truth in all its fullness, will be disappointed, and will therefore either have to be abandoned or will lead ineluctably to a universal skepticism, nihilism, and irrationalism.’

While we do not want blind faith in a career-driven, money-oriented priesthood, we should not embrace scepticism, nihilism and irrationalism either. Thampu’s remedy for all these ills dispenses with the priesthood altogether, with the individual communing with God in a both private and communitarian way. Private because one’s innermost experience is personal and largely unshared with others. Communitarian because faith in a God cannot be relativistic, where the kind of god I have created for myself suits my purposes just as much as the one you have chosen suits yours, the religion relegated from something shared, social and conducive to human flourishing, to no more than a lifestyle choice, apt to change anyway once we get bored with the wallpaper. As Thampu says—

‘The very first thing that we need to do is to wish passionately to be free and at peace with oneself. The second is to be willing to do whatever we can to achieve that end. The third is to acknowledge that the means for our liberation and inner coherence are at our disposal. The fourth is to realize that it is futile to wait to be liberated by some agency external to us, when everything required for us to liberate ourselves is ready to hand. We must resolve to be liberated, no matter what the cost; get up from where we are, and walk!’

And so Thampu picks up where Müntzer left off.

Valson Thampu, for over three decades, has been a voice of reason on issues of national importance in India, covering education, politics, religion and culture. Prize-winning translations from Malayalam are among his fourteen other books. Commencing his life of public service as a member of the faculty in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, he served as Principal from 2008–16. During this time, his interests grew, blossomed and covered the Indian sub-continent, a process of growth in which he followed in the footsteps of illustrious predecessor C. F. Andrews, who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Gurudev Tagore. Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity is published by Pippa Rann Books and Media.

Salt Desert Media Group Ltd (SDMG), UK, was established in 2019, and currently publishes under the imprints Pippa Rann Books and Media (PRBM) and Global Resilience Publishing (GRP). Pippa Rann Books and Media publishes books about India and the Indian diaspora, for everyone who has an interest in the sub-continent, its peoples and cultures. At a time of political challenge, Pippa Rann Books aims to nurture the values of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity that inspired the founders of the modern state of India. Titles on the Global Resilience Publishing (GRP) list explore how global challenges can be addressed and resolved with an inter-disciplinary and transnational approach. The imprint focuses on subjects such as climate change, the global financial system, multilateral and corporate governance, etc. In addition to its own publications, Salt Desert Media provides distribution services in English-speaking territories for several authors and publishers.

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