Open and Dynamic Societies

I'm reading Walter Russell Mead's fascinating book God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (Knopf, 2007). I'll be writing a review for Congregations, so a full review here will have to wait till that is published. However, the book is full of interesting ideas that warrant comment.
Mead believes there are certain characteristics that mark the Anglo-American identity that has fueled their rise to dominance in the modern world. Part of this is rooted in an adoption of capitalism, but there are other elements to this. These characteristics haven't always made either the Brits or us very popular -- "Why do they hate us?
However the world might look at us, there are social/psychological factors within our culture that have made our adoption and use of capitalism so easy. Borrowing from Henri Bergson and Karl Popper, Mead speaks of open/closed societies and static/dynamic societies.
Britain and the US have, since the turn of the 18th century, essentially been open/dynamic societies.
  • In a closed society, people know their place. Custom, morality, law reinforce this sensibility. There is an instinctual nature to religion.
  • In an open society, tradition and custom have lost some of their force. The human drive for change fuels life. Women, for instance, have greater opportunities and latitudes. (pp. 192-193)
Now, every society has a mixture of both, but when openness dominates society moves forward -- on the road west according to Mead. The history of Anglo-American society describes the ebb and flow of this westward journey.
The other side of things is the contrast between static and dynamic society. Here religion is key. There are essentially two kinds of religion -- static and dynamic.
  • Static religion is "the call of instinct, is the force that holds the member of a closed society fast to its precepts and traditions. Socrates was executed for subverting religion; organized religion frequently led the ideological and political resistance to capitalism and democracy in modern European history. In much of the world we can still see static religion seeking to enforce conformity on societies increasingly stirred by capitalist influence" (p. 195).
  • Dynamic religion is that force that calls people forward to embrace change and open society. It involves "a feeling of restlessness and unease, a yearning for new experiences, a voice in the head shouting warnings or commands, visions, dreams, or ideas." Expressions of dynamic religion include mysticism and tends to be visionary. It can even carry people beyond traditional religious structures. (pp. 195-198)
Dynamic religion has it's dangers, but according to Mead it is this dynamic religion, not always orthodox, that has driven/fueled modernization rather than secularism.

An enlightened modernity did not overcome entrenched customary religion in the Anglophone world. Rather dynamic religion infiltrated and supplemented static religion in the religious life of the Anglophones. Goldilocks was able to follow her westward path through dark and threatening woods because, like the Magi before her, she was following a star." (p. 199)

I know that for many religious progressives there is a love/hate relationship with capitalism and even with the Anglo-American ideals. And yet . . .


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