Chapter 6: Primal Vision And Modernization

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 6: Primal Vision And Modernization

Paper presented at the Madras Gurukul Seminar on Theological Implications of the Primal Vision”


The wording of the topic as indicated in the programme for me was, Primal Vision as a Critique of Modernization. I have changed it slightly to indicate that our goal is to critique both the primal and modern visions of human being and society in the light of each other and in the light of the theological vision of God’s purpose for the future of humankind. I do not think that we can get away from the fact that modernity has come to stay and that the task is to humanize it. Any idea of going back to the pattern or world-view of traditional societies either primal or medieval or even early modern is doing violence to the historical nature and social becoming of human beings. Human future both historical and eschatological is a valid theological category and so is the idea of historical development. Therefore any society we envisage for the human family should be post-modern in nature and form.

The theologies of Creation and Redemption point to the newness of the future of humanity. Human creativity building culture out of nature is inherent in Creation according to Genesis and this creativity remains an essential expression of the image of God in human beings bestowed in creation even when all human creativity has become perverse and come under divine judgment. And St. Paul interprets the new Adam Jesus Christ as belonging to a higher spiritual order than the original Adam of Paradise. It is therefore not wrong to interpret cosmos itself as a movement from mechanical matter through organic life to the spiritual human selfhood, and to interpret human history itself as the evolutionary or revolutionary enlargement of the human selfhood and its spiritual self-determination and its social and cosmic responsibility. I should add that such a historical approach is not wrong provided it is clearly understood that self-determination and responsibility whether in the early or later historical stages, has a tendency to get perverted by the false position of self-centredness in relation to God and others. So cosmic history does not experience fall till human beings appear, since matter, vegetable and animal do not have the spiritual freedom to fall. And every new stage of growth in creative selfhood is accompanied by a new fall; and even at the end of history, the New Testament speaks of a Last Judgment before the Kingdom is established. So in the course of history every growth in spiritual freedom and responsibility is not a growth from bad to good but from a lower capacity for good and evil to a higher capacity for them. And Divine Redemption is to be understood as necessary at every stage of the spiritual expansion of the human self-consciousness, more so at the higher stages of self-consciousness.

In this approach, there is a distinction between two theological criteria to evaluate societies. One is in terms of goodness and other in terms of the intensity of self-consciousness. Some societies may not have high sense of selfhood and the right of self-determination, but may show a great measure of social virtues; and others may have high sense of self and its freedom but may show greater perversity in human relations. The question is whether we can have some kind of a balance between goodness and self-determination in social ordering. It is here that I see the necessity of a synthesis between tradition and modernity in the development of peoples in our sinful world. Any society in history will need structures which balance enhancement of freedom and self-determination with checks on it by long-established legal and moral traditions of keeping power in the service of order and mutual responsibility, as well as creation of new structures of public morality.

Nevertheless it is important to recognize that God’s vision of the future of humanity is the Community of Persons in which persons have the highest sense of selfhood but are redeemed of self-centredness and therefore are also good and responsible; and the foretaste of it is the church, the community of people who know themselves to be forgiven by God through Christ and therefore forgiving one another and growing towards love which is the mark of perfection, as Col. 3 puts it. The pressure of the church in a society should help reduce the tension between spiritual freedom and social morality and therefore the influence of the church in society should produce a larger community which also may be spoken as a first fruits of the Future, God intends for human beings.


I have given this rather long theological-sociological introduction because it provides a framework for us to consider the relation between primal and modern visions of reality and society and to see what kind of a spiritual framework will help develop a post-modern society.

The forces of modernization need not detain us. But I would just mention them, namely the science-based technology which gives power to humans to control and engineer with material, social and even psychic forces to achieve purposes and goals for the future chosen by humans; the revolutionary social changes produced by the revolts of the poor and the oppressed in all societies; and the break-up of the traditional religious integration of societies and their reintegration by the State. They have no doubt produced a global society and revolutionized all traditional societies one way or the other Since however modernization has brought with it a good deal of dehumanization betraying the promises it held forth, the spiritual vision behind it is now under challenge. The criticisms come from all the traditional visions of society including the primal tradition. Our concern in this study is with the spiritual vision behind modernity and the nature of the critique which primal vision brings to it and to evaluate the same from a Christian theological view-point and to see how the spiritual vision of post-modern society may incorporate what is valid in it.

The spiritual vision of modernity as we know it in ideology and practice has emphasized three aspects of realty, namely progress through differentiation and autonomy of individuality; the concept of the world as history moving towards the Future through the creativity of human rationality; and the ethos of secularism as the basis of social ordering. At all three levels modern vision challenged and even broke the primal vision.

The primal vision is that of what may be called Undifferentiated Unity. John Taylor’s Primal Vision, a study of African culture speaks of “a total unbroken unity” of the cosmos as characteristic of African spirituality. In it there is the vision of a spiritual continuum within which the dead and the living, natural objects, spirits and gods, the individual, clan and the tribe, animals, plants, minerals and humans form an unbroken hierarchical unity of spiritual forces; and the human self is not an individual self but an extended universal self present and actively participating in all parts of the totality. This is generally descriptive of the primal vision everywhere I presume.

Modernity is a spirit that seeks to break up this vision of an unbroken continuum to produce individuals and groups conscious of their individual selfhood and different from other individuals and groups. It emphasizes the difference of humans from gods and nature; it also separates religion, society and government and the functionaries within them and gives them autonomy to function according to the laws inherent in each. In one sense the discovery of human individuality was necessary for the development of human rights, the economic individualism orientated to profit and free market produced the modern economy; the separation of human being from nature coupled with the autonomy of the world of science helped the development of technology; and the autonomy of different areas of life like the arts and the government, each to follow purposes and laws inherent in it, did make for unfettered creativity in the various fields. Of course, now we have become conscious of the destructive effects of these developments and therefore of the one-sidedness of the vision behind it. It is this one-sidedness we have to correct because we do not want to give up the human achievements of the modern period. So it would not be right for primal vision to ask for a return of humanity to the traditional undifferentiated unity. But it is right to criticize the spirit of modernity for its exaggerated individualism which made the individual a law unto itself and deny any moral or spiritual responsibility to the social totality and destroying even the traditional egalitarian community-values to further the power and interests of the individual in isolation.

Here the theological understanding of human being as person-in-community must help develop the incorporation into modernity of certain traditional cultural values in the pre-modern spiritual vision. Also in the face of the ecological disaster created by the modern ideas of total separation of humans from nature and of the unlimited technological exploitation of nature, it is proper for primal vision to demand, not an undifferentiated unity of God, humanity and nature or to go back to the traditional worship of nature-spirits, but to seek a spiritual framework of unity in which differentiation may go along with a relation of responsible participatory interaction between them, enabling the development of human community in accordance with the Divine purpose and with reverence for the community of life on earth and in harmony with nature’s cycles to sustain and renew all life continuously.

One may take up the modernist vision of world-as-history as contrasted with the primal vision of world-as-nature. The latter sees social life as a cycle like the cycle of natural seasons which is the basic framework for life; therefore nothing new enters the scene, and any creativity that affects the harmony of life and nature is considered a spiritual evil. Since every point in the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the centre, there is nothing radically contradictory in life and therefore all things and values and gods are allowed to coexist without encounter. The situation has been criticized as productive of stagnation. But modernity has emphasized that human personhood involves freedom understood as creating new forms of nature and life in the light of future fulfillment of the meaning of life. Thus new ideologies of the Future and of being a chosen people and commitment to a mission in world history to bring about that future, taking sides and fighting to determine the world’s future in one’s own terms, have become essential expressions of the spirit of modernity. But this historical dynamism has brought with it the idea of conquest and the consequent results in absolutisation of State power, world wars and threat of nuclear holocaust quite unknown to traditional societies.

In such a situation even Pundit Nehru has said that it is better to have the spirit of paganism which tolerates many gods including an unknown god than to have a self-righteous belief in one god or ideology for the world. This of course is an argument for a return to primal vision. But it would amount to giving up the search for meaning, not only of one’s own life but also of the whole humanity and even the cosmos. Search for meaning is essential to human personhood. Therefore while the criticism of modernity with respect to its idea of history is valid, the answer has to emphasize the fulfillment of the meaning of history in suffering service, solidarity with the poor and forgiving love. Here the theological understanding of Christ as Suffering Servant and bearer of the ultimate purpose of history is of great significance.

In this connection I quote Nirmal Minz about the tribals of India awakening to their responsibility to world history through Christianity. He says, “They did not find themselves playing their role in the history of the nation or of humanity as a whole. But Christ has given them a right to claim a history which goes back to the creation of the world and of the human race, and they know now that their history is the history of the new Israel which is connected with the old Israel in and through Christ” (Tribal Awakening, Reprint, p.221). The theological anthropology inherent here is relevant, not only for the tribals but for all peoples.

Or take the third element in the modern vision, namely its emphasis on the secular ethos in contrast to that on the sacred ethos in all traditional societies. Modernity’s emphasis on secularism involves three elements- a) the desacralisation of nature which produced a nature devoid of spirits preparing the way for its scientific analysis and technological control and use; b) desacralisation of society and state by liberating them from the control of established authority and laws of religion which often gave spiritual sanction to social inequality and stifled freedom of reason and conscience of persons; it was necessary to affirm freedom and equality as fundamental rights of all persons and to enable common action in politics and society by adherents of all religions and none in a religiously pluralistic society; and c) an abandonment of an eternally fixed sacred order of human society enabling ordering of secular social affairs on the basis of rational discussion. There is no doubt that such secularism (or secularization to be correct) has enhanced the dignity and rights of personhood in the modern world. But many ideologies of secularism by aggressively denying any transcendent spiritual dimension of human person or society and interpreting human selfhood in the framework of a mechanical materialistic world-view cut at the root of its own humanism. It not only denied the sacredness of the human person and the religious dimension of human culture; it also had little recognition of the organic natural basis of life in general. The problem was not secularization but reductionist interpretation of reality by ideologies of closed secularism that brought about the problem. The emergence of religious fundamentalism and the political ideologies of religious communalism is often a reaction against such closed secularism.(This reaction to Closed Secularism was already mentioned in earlier essays.)

Primal vision is right to criticize the too neat compartmentalization of life into sacred and secular which is characteristic of the ideology of closed secularism: the sacredness of the human person and the sacramental and sacrificial view of all activities and functions of the human person go together so far as theological anthropology is concerned. In a society which is religiously and ideologically pluralistic, this view has to be mediated to public life through the church and other voluntary groups committed to it. What one may expect from the State and other public institutions is that they follow the path of secularism which is open to such mediation.

To the growth of such post-modern spirituality, the tribal peoples with traditional primal vision, can make a very significant contribution. But it depends upon their giving up both their uncritical acceptance of the present ideology of modernization identifying it with Christianity and any revival of primalism in a militant and fundamentalist way in the name of their self-identity, and evaluating both modernity and tradition in the light of Christian personalism i.e. the idea of human beings as persons in community, and all natural and social functions as sacramental means of communion in the purpose of God. This will help not only them but the whole national community to build up new indigenous idea and pattern of development incorporating what is valid in the primal critique of modernity gone destructive. No people can forget their cultural past. What they can do is to interpret it in the light of the present forces impinging on their lives so that the new pattern of life may be continuous with their cultural tradition. It will also be their contribution to the idea of post-modernism.

It is also necessary to insist that any pattern of development for the tribals and others who still have cultures and communities predominantly based on the primal vision of undifferentiated unity, world-as-nature and cosmic spirituality, should introduce differentiation and individuality, historical dynamism and secularism gradually and without violently tearing down but grafting on to the stabilities of traditional spirit and patterns of life and living followed by them In fact from my experience, I have found that modernized educated tribal leaders are the worst offenders in this respect.

Christianity which had in the past facilitated the process of modernization in several tribal communities of India is finding it difficult to cope with the destructive forces the process has brought into being. There is need of serious theological rethinking to build up the prophetic and constructive function of the Church in the present situation.