Ecology of Desert Religions

Two really interesting items in the latest Harper’s. Full citations with links as follows:

Richard Rodriguez, "The God of the Desert: Jerusalem and the Ecology of Monotheism," Harper’s Magazine Vol 316, No. 1892 (January 2008): 35-46.

John Gray, "Faith in Reason: Secular Fantasies of a Godless Age," Harper’s Magazine Vol 316, No. 1892 (January 2008): 85-88.

Rodriguez’ piece is participant narrative. Gray’s essay is a review of recent books on contemporary and historical problems of secularism by Charles Taylor, Olivier Roy, and Mark Lilla. The TLS  had something similar from early December 2007: Jon Habgood, "God Debates: The So-Called New Atheism is Little More Than a Step Backwards to the Old-Fashioned Atheism,"  Times Literary Supplement  (12 Dec 2007).

Rodriguez associates the desert with emptiness, and Jerusalem, "at the centre of the world", with both; his "curiosity about an ecology that joins three desert religions" dating "from September 11, 2001, from prayers enunciated in the sky over America on that day." He simultaneously bridges and parses naturally occuring worlds and their human-constructed outgrowths, eliciting a fascinating broad-stroke panorama of symbol and paradox:

The theme of Jerusalem is division. Friday. Saturday. Sunday. The city has been conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, garrisoned, halved, quartered, martyred, and exalted – always the object of spiritual desire; always the prize; always the corrupt model of the eventual city of God.

Those divisions generate boxes, some authentic and some not – their razed and vacated contents metaphors for Jerusalem’s own surrounding ecological context:

All the empty spaces of the Holy City – all courts, tabernacles, tombs, and reliquaries – are resemblances  and references to the emptiness of the desert. All the silences of women and men who proclaim the desert God are references and resemblances to this – to the Holy City, to the hope of a Holy City. Jerusalem is the bride of the Desert.

The desert is also emblematic, of monastic asceticism, of a dead language, of gaps and cracks in the built world:

The desert resembles dogma: it is dry, it is immovable. Truth does not change. Is there something in the revelation of God that retains – because it has passed through – properties of desert or maleness or Semitic tongue? Does the desert, in short, make warriors? That is the question I bring to the desert from the twenty first century.

The concentric elisions of Jerusalem in the desert – empty urban spaces sprouting from an environmental void – are a twinned and attenuated ecological vacuum in which human communities, amazingly, still manage to coalesce and thrive. One of Rodriguez’s informants describes this locus of activity as "the umbilicus", he notes, "by which term he means the concentration of God’s intention on this landscape." Shades of network theory. "Underfoot," he continues, punctuating the conversation with anecdotal meaning, "is a large anthill – a megalopolis – then a satellite colony, than another, then another, the pattern extending across the desert floor."

Rodriguez’ interpretation is useful, I think, for its discussion of ecology as something more than just a contextual accumulation of the elements. Understanding the primal environmental impetus to belief formation and concept development is especially salient to getting at the foundations of more-or-less mature ideological systems, and an obvious lynchpin for unpacking processes of radicalization. But I’d hesitate to go so far as to suggest that Rodriquez’ landscape of the barren, of the hyper(un)real, reduces the complex to the simple.

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