by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Two Ages - America's Role in the Technetronic Era"
The crucial breakthrough in the development of human self-awareness
on a mass scale came with the great religions - the first universal
syntheses that simultaneously expanded man's vision both vertically
vertically, to define in extended and complex
terms man's relationship to a God that was not a small group's alone
horizontally, to articulate a series of imperatives
that governed man's obligations to man on the grounds that all
shared the divine spark
Universalism thus emerged as a state of
mind even at a time when man was still provincial and isolated in
mutually exclusive social-cultural compartments.
Accordingly, the birth of the universal religions represents the
appearance of humanity qua humanity.
The assertion of man's equality
before God in terms of his spirit, his conscience, or his soul, laid
the basis for the transcendental importance of the human being and
for the much later assertion of the equality of men in their
political and social dimensions.
In that sense, proselytizing
Christianity, which universalized the more limited Greek and Judaic
tradition, was a particularly revolutionary force and was viewed as
such by established authority, in spite of the distinction it made
between equality before God and obeisance to Caesar on Caesar's
If human history can be said to involve both a struggle and
an evolution toward the progressive liberation of man, then the
attainment of equality before the supernatural was the first major
step on that road.
But early man could neither control nor comprehend either himself or
Both were essentially a mystery, a given to be
accepted, whatever the pains of life might be.
As a consequence, the
distant future became a much more intense object of preoccupation
than the immediate present.
The inability to cope effectively with
disease, plagues, infant mortality, a short life span, or natural
disasters such as floods and crop blights prompted man to seek
refuge in all-encompassing definitions of his reality.
These in turn
provided at least partial justification for the view that human
endeavor was futile and for the necessity of accepting events with
By taking refuge in an autonomous, distant, divine future,
man relieved himself of the obligation to struggle intensely with
the present under circumstances he was neither intellectually nor
practically prepared for.
Even the notion of "free will" - a central component of the most
activist of the great religions, Christianity - basically
involved an inner act of conscience necessary for the state of
grace, rather than a point of departure for morally motivated
No stress was placed on the struggle to improve
external conditions, because the unstated assumption was that they
could not be fundamentally improved.
The emphasis was on the inner
by riveting his attention on the universal and the divine
future, man could master the present by simply ignoring it.
social action was matched by maximum commitment to the supernatural.
To meet the central need of their time - mainly, to provide man with
a firm mooring in a world which could not be comprehended -
and to assert firm control over man's spirit,
crystallized into dogmas and were organized into institutions.*
The more individually
demanding the religion, the higher was the degree of
(This has prompted the
analogies made by a number of scholars between Islam and
Christianity on the one hand and communism on the other.) 5
institutionalization came more activism (the
Crusades and the 'holy
wars' of Islam) and the exercise of muscle by religious organizations
on their environment.
Power was asserted, however, to extend the
conquest of the spirit, not to effect social change.
institutionalization of belief thus combined two functions:
the zealots' self-defense mechanism against a non-believing
it was a tool for
sustained proselytizing, one designed not only to win over
adherents but to overcome the inertial resistance of the
masses, who were largely indifferent to spiritual
Although Christianity has been the most activist of the great
religions and has thereby laid the basis for the subsequent secular
revolutionary movements that have dominated Western history, the
process of institutionalization - and hence the emergence on the
part of organized religion of a stake in the status quo - has tended
to mute the radical message in the Christian concept of history:
movement toward salvation "on earth as in Heaven"...
Thus in practice the
Christian churches have gradually come to accept social
stratification and even to benefit from it (as in Latin America),
and some Lutheran varieties have even come to sanction in dogma
concepts of racial inequality that are at extreme variance with the
initial egalitarian revolution represented by the new Christian
relationship between God and man.
The other great religions have been more passive - both in practice
and in theory.
Buddhism does not contain imperatives for social
change but offers salvation from reality.
nirvana did not serve as a springboard for temporal activism.
Similarly, Islam's dominant strain of
fatalism has worked against
the presence of at least that element of tension between "eternal
peace" and "heaven on earth" that is so strong in Christianity and
that has prompted its repressed activism. 7
* I do not propose -
nor do I feel qualified - to become involved in the debate among
Marxists, Freudians, and Jungians concerning the autonomy and
the functionality of religious development. My concern here is
with the emergence of a conceptual and institutional framework
for defining man's relationship to his reality.
† An extreme example is provided by the Catholic Church's
insistence on celibacy. As one scholar has noted, "Celibacy
ensured for it an exclusive loyalty of its personnel that was
unavailable to other modern religious institutions. It often
contributed to its amazing capacity to resist secular authority.
It is worth noting in passing that churches with married
priesthoods, be they Lutheran, Anglican, or Greek Orthodox (the
latter allowing marriage only for the lower orders of priests),
have not been able to stand up against secular authority in a
way comparable to that of the Catholic Church. The Protestant
and Orthodox churches have typically been servants and
appendages of secular authority. They rarely could afford to
resist it. One reason for this was precisely that their clerical
personnel was deeply involved in the mesh of civil social life"
(Lewis A. Coser, "Greedy Organizations," European Journal of
Sociology, Vol. 7, 1967, p. 206).
5. See, for example,
Sociology and Psychology of Communism, Boston,
6. In this connection, interesting data are provided by Jacques
Toussaert, Le Sentiment religieux en Flandre a la fin du
Moyenage, Paris, 1963.
7. "The writer knows of no instance in present day South Asia
where religion has induced social change" (Myrdal, p. 103). See
also Teilhard de Chardin, pp. 20911, for a discussion of the
passivity of oriental religions, and Kavalam M. Panikkar, Hindu
Society at Cross Roads, Bombay, 1955.