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Christianity is the Religion of Imperialism

Saba Mahmood is a very talented scholar who has assimilated a post-colonial sensibility. She has learned to look at the world through the eyes of those who have been the pedagogical objects of European colonialism. The literature on Orientalism is vast; and the evidence suggests that Europe cannot easily shake off the deep-seated assumption that its way of life and scholarly products are the Archimedean point for comprehending the entire world. Tomoko Masuzawa (The invention of world religions [2005]) demonstrated provocatively that the idea of “world religion” is an intellectual construction that implicitly assumes that Christianity is the only universal religion that breaks free from locale and particularity.

Even in its secular modern form, it is supposed to be superior to all other ways of life, suffused as they are by a non-Christian religion. Mahmood (“Can secularism be Other-wise? In M. Warner, J. VanAntwerpen and C. Calhoun [Eds.]. Varieties of secularism in the secular age [2010]) begins her critical questioning of Taylor’s A secular age (2007) by declaring that he “delineates his object of study: a coherent religious tradition, coextensive with a spatial geography, whose historical unfolding can be plotted without accounting for non-Christian religious traditions that have coexisted within that very space of ‘Latin Christendom’” (p. 285).

Mahmood raises two salient points. For one thing, Latin Christendom is not as homogenous as Taylor makes out and, secondly, it is not understandable without grasping its encounters with others in new worlds. “These encounters,” she observes, “did not simply leave Christianity untouched but transformed it from within, a transformation that should be internal to any self-understanding of Christianity. Omission of this story is akin to the omission of the history of slavery and colonialism from accounts of post-Enlightenment modernity—an omission that enables a progressivist notion of history and normative claims about who is qualified to be ‘modern’ or ‘civilized’” (p. 286). This is devastating and intriguing commentary.

Many thoughts are now triggered. Early Christianity (embodied in St. Paul) shapes its self-understanding in relation to the Jewish and pagan other. Over time, its apologetics take form in the often violent encounter with Islam (as well as receiving Aristotle) through the medieval period. When Europe ventures out to colonize the world, its own self-understanding is imbricated with its sense of civilizational superiority. That is, Christianity becomes yoked to its twin: civilization. One cannot have one without the other. To become Christian is to be civilized (in sensibility and moral outlook). But if we reject the idea that Christianity is a universal essence that floats above history and culture, we can see the power and impact of Mahmood’s critical insights. The iconic French explorer Jacques Cartier (who arrived in Canada in 1534) naturally assumed that Catholic Christendom ought to be extended to the entire world. He was relatively unaffected by the dogmatism of the counter-reformation and the new rationalism. His mystical faith made little distinction between natural and supernatural worlds.

Although this latter belief placed him on common ground with native peoples, he had “no doubt that the line between France and Canada, between civilization and savagery, was sharply drawn and that civilization was on the march” (R. Cook, “Introduction.” In H.P. Biggar, The voyages of Jacques Cartier [1993], p. xv). Cartier could not conceive of “equal and different.” The native people he encountered had no government and no culture or religion to speak of, so Cartier simply assumed that he had the right to claim the land for France. He had the right to seize the land from native peoples and protect and promote “Catholicism against the threat of ‘wicked Lutherans, apostates, and imitators of Mahomet’ and to ‘these lands of yours,’ ‘your possessions,’ and ‘those lands and territories of yours’” (as cited, Cook, 1993, p. 38).

Explorers like Columbus and Cartier did not see who and what was before them; the discordance between what was before them and their mental categories opened the door for new ways of seeing and being in the world. But even through European Christendom was fracturing irrevocably, the Christian cosmography did not yet allow for a radical acceptance of the other. Indeed, we would have to await the fullness of the scientific revolution and the blooming of the enlightenment—as well as significant resistance from those deemed as objects of Euro-pedagogy—to accomplish the corrosion of Euro-superiority and deepen its self-critique.

Mahmood’s powerful core idea is that Christianity’s self-understanding was increasingly shaped by its “enmeshment in an imperial world order” (p. 287). Missionary work, then, was “important to developments within Christianity and to many of the central ideas and institutions of Latin Christendom” (ibid.). Mahmood points out that missionaries shaped educational systems, bringing in forms of western-styled rationalism and ways of thinking about the world. Mahmood states that in the period from 1858-1914, the zenith of colonial power, every corner of the globe was penetrated by Christian missions. “Importantly, these missions did not simply pave the way for colonial rule (as if often noted) but played a crucial role in shaping and redefining modern Christianity to fit the requirements of an emergent liberal social and political order in Europe” (p. 287).

In a sense, western Imperialism empties out the primal message of Christianity, replacing the content with core values and practices of Euro-centric notions of superiority and rationality. In Canada, the creation of residential schools was the instrument to empty Indigenous spirituality of its power and to fill the vacuum with new content, appropriate to the Native’s destined role as subordinate and deracinated humans.

For Mahmood, Taylor fails to “acknowledge the immense ideological force the ‘empirical history’ of Christianity commands in securing what constitutes as the properly religious and secular in the analytical domain” (p. 289). But this securing, Mahmood argues, comes at great cost. It is to “engage in a practice through which the ‘North Atlantic’ has historically secured its exceptionality—the simultaneous uniqueness and universality of its religious forms and the superiority of is civilization” (p. 290). Western secular modernity, then, retains traces of its Euro-Christian origins.

This latter phenomenon occurs, for example, in the way France’s arrogant understanding of the precise role any existing form of religion ought to play. The sovereignty of the secular state provisions the power to “regulate religious life through a variety of disciplinary practices that are political as well as ethical” (p. 293). We see this process played out in contemporary Quebec with its controversial Bill 21 which prohibits public servants from wearing religious headgear and other symbols.

“To inhabit this founding gesture uncritically (as Taylor does), by which the West consolidates its epistemic and historical privilege, is not simply to describe a discursive structure but to write from within its concepts and ambitions—one might even say to further its aims and presuppositions. The fact that Taylor sometimes inhabits this discourse ironically (evident in his acknowledgement of other possible accounts one could give of secularism) does not undermine the force of this discourse but only makes it more palatable to a post-imperialist audience” (ibid.).

This is tour de force criticism.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.