Setting the frame

The first work is Clifford Geertz’s article ‘“Internal conversion” in contemporary Bali’ (1973). Here he describes and analyses social transitions relating to changes in attitudes of different social groups of Indonesian Balinese society towards a local Hinduism. Those changes took place in the 1950s and early 1960s. Geertz talks about three main aspects of that process – ‘the intensified religious questioning, the spread of religious literacy, and the attempt to reorganize religious institutions’ (Geertz 1973: 189). I think it is worth adding some specific traits of this process – attempts ‘to segregate religion from social life in general’ (ibid.: 184), the systematization and interpretation of sacred texts (i.e. the creation of dogma and creed), the unification of ritual activity, and the organization of institutional control over local religious life (the local ‘Ministry of Religion’, qualifying examinations for priests, and a religious school). To include those processes into a more general conceptual scheme, Geertz uses Max Weber’s dichotomy of ‘traditional religion vs. rational religion’ and names the transformation he writes about ‘the rationalization of Balinese religion’ (ibid.: 181).

Why did the rationalizers of Balinese religion choose those particular ways for their activity? Geertz did not give us a clear answer to this question. He seems to think about this issue in terms of general laws of religious rationalization, as when he writes about some ‘social and intellectual processes which gave rise to the fundamental religious transformations of world history’ (ibid.: 189) and compares indirectly the case of Bali with ancient China and Greece. However, I think that we have no need to look for some general laws and remote parallels for understanding modern and post-modern religious transformations. Probably, the Balinese know what they have to do to reform their religion because they have a bright and obliging model of a ‘proper religion’ not so far from them. I mean Islam.

Geertz notes that the Balinese are ‘a people, intensely conscious and painfully proud of being a Hindu island in a Muslim sea, and their attitude toward Islam is that of the duchess to the bug’ (ibid.: 181). But Muslims are a powerful majority in Indonesia, and they control all state institutions including the state Ministry of religion. The Balinese do not want to convert to Islam and they do not want their religion to be considered by the majority as a local and ‘wild’ one. They try to make their religion respectable in the eyes of their neighbours (and in their own eyes). In this context the outer model determines their activity and the Balinese have to accept the majority’s rules of the game and communicate with that majority to achieve their aims. Geertz provides an example of such communication:

The Muslims say, you have no book, how can you be a world religion? The Balinese reply, we have manuscripts and inscriptions dating before Mohammed. The Muslims say, you believe in many gods and worship stones; The Balinese say, god is One but has many names and the ‘stone’ is the vehicle of God, not God himself. (Geertz 1973: 188)

I would like to note that in these circumstances the Balinese have no opportunity to reply: ‘So what? There are many religions without any holy scripture and there are many polytheistic religions.’ It would break the rules of the dialogue and destroy it. But the dialogue is very significant for them. Through it arise Balinese Holy Writ, dogmatics, theology, unified rituals, and religious institutions. Such conversation does not necessarily take place in the form of direct contacts: religious reformers can imagine this discussion, but they have to imagine it quite correctly.


2 responses to “Setting the frame

  1. Pingback: Setting the frame | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/05/15) | The Reactivity Place

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