Friday, October 5, 2012

Between a rock and a hard place: A Civil Religion option for Fiji?

Published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday 3rd October, 2012

This week is a long holiday that extended from Saturday until today (Wednesday). Over the weekend was the harvest celebration of Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday. This year, Chuseok Day was on Sunday, September 30, but the holiday is observed for a total of three days (September 29 – October 1). It is by far the biggest and most important holiday in Korea. It is a time when family members from near and far come together in their hometowns in the countryside to share food and stories and to give thanks to their ancestors for the abundant harvest. 

Today, 3rd October is Gaecheonjeol, or Korean National Foundation day. This holiday celebrates the creation of the state of Gojoseon (ancient Korea) founded by Dangun Wanggeom in the year 2333 BC. Traditionally Gaecheon (which means "Opening of Heaven") refers to 3 October B.C. 2457, the date when Hwanung (the “Supreme Divine Regent” and son of Hwanin, the “Lord of Heaven”) descended from heaven to live with mankind. Along with his ministers of clouds, rain, and wind, he instituted laws and moral codes and taught the humans various arts, medicine, and agriculture.

It is interesting that these two holidays occur about a week before we of Fiji celebrate our national day marking our independence from Great Britain on October 10th 1970, while also remembering the signing of the Deed of Cession on October 10th, 1874. It is ironic that while the Deed of Cession is kept safely and copies of the text are well read, no one really knows the location or contents of the Instruments of Independence that Prince Charles presented to the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in Albert Park on October 10th, 1970.

Last week as I concluded my fortnightly meeting with my thesis supervisor, I wished him a happy Chuseok and shared my experience last year of spending Chuseok with the family of my Senior Pastor here in Korea. My supervisor asked me if we have any special thanksgiving holidays in which the extended family comes together. I told him about our long weekends during Easter and of Christmas and Boxing Day holidays, as well as Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday and Eid celebrations as well as Diwali and how many of us in Fiji visit each the homes of friends and families during these holidays regardless of our different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

He was quite moved by this and said that despite our problems, Fiji truly had something special.

I noted a comment made a month ago, by a member of the Constitution Commission, Professor Satya Nandan, that the new constitution of Fiji will need to be regarded as a sacred document - created for the people by the people of Fiji so that no one can destroy it.

As I reflected on my supervisor’s comment and Professor Nandan’s statement as well as a recent face-book discussion on the issue of Christian State versus Secular State for, in which I participated – I could not help but wonder if there is a third option for us in Fiji.

How does one invoke or develop a sense of sacredness about a document that may enshrine Fiji as a secular nation, given that the terms sacred and secular are often used to describe two distinct areas of life?

Essayist Peter Saint-Andre writing of the modern dilemma of sacred versus secular writes of a concept of natural religion argues that the concept of the sacred runs deep in the human mind, and that at least some "religious" concepts are potentially universal. We all share in our nature as human beings, and there is much more that we have in common than is peculiar to each one of us.

Saint-Andre suggests that not only can the sacred be secular, but also that the secular can indeed be sacred. He writes: “Who could deny the importance of either our material or our spiritual existence? Both are inherently vital spheres, thrown at war with one another by certain traditions within Western thought.” He calls for the development of what he terms called “natural religion,” and a positive bridging of the destructive gap between the material and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred.

So is there a way in which the sacred and the secular can meet in Fiji? I believe so.

Early last century, eminent sociologist, Emile Durkheim, developed a theory on “Civil Religion”. According to Durkheim, “to the degree a collection of people is a society, it will exhibit a common ("civil") religion.” In other words, a civil religion is what "unites into one single moral community”.

Robert Bellah, another eminent sociologist, writing in the 1960s defined civil religion as "the religious dimension that exists in the life of every nation through which it interprets its historic experiences in the light of its transcendental reality." Civil religion is comprised of a sacred system of beliefs, myths, symbols, and ceremonies that give meaning to the concepts of "nation" and "state."

 Bellah actually based his theory on the United States of America, which while being viewed as a secular state, at the same time holds to "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation," which is symbolically expressed in America's founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called "God," an idea that the American nation is subject to God's laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States.

Bellah saw these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions.

Those who support a Christian state may be interested to know that even Israel has a civil religion that connects Judaism and “secular” concepts of nationhood.

Consider the observation about the way that many of us celebrate sacred (holy) days (holidays) irrespective of our religious backgrounds. The many non-Christians who exchange gifts at Christmas, the non-Muslims who visit their Muslim friends and relatives on Eid, the non-Hindus who enjoy the dress, lights, sweets and fireworks of Diwali. Whether we observe that religion or not, we all celebrate it in some meaningful way – even if it means something different to us.

Consider our national unity in excitement, celebration during the Rugby Sevens World Cup in 1997 and 2005, and our nationwide jubilation and celebration recently when Iliesa Delana won Fiji and Oceania’s first gold medal at the Par-Olympics.

Consider also the pledge of allegiance and flag raising ceremonies common to most schools in Fiji. 

Whether imposed from above or emerging from society, civil religion presents an understanding of a society's role in history and each person's role as a citizen.

Perhaps this is a middle ground in which the sacred and the secular can meet.


“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


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