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  Number 277 | Agosto 2004
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Transforming the Idea of God Is an Urgent Task in Nicaragua

In discussing the ideas presented in his book Del Estado Conquistador al Estado Nación—which analyzes Nicaraguan political development from the Spanish Conquest to the resent day—its author explains why Nicaragua urgently needs to articulate a new vision of God.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

A Canadian sociologist has said that when he’s faced with a question that’s weighing him down and for which he can find no satisfactory answers, he writes a book. The question that motivated me to write this book is one we Nicaraguans often ask ourselves: how can we explain our country’s marked backwardness, the fact that it is currently the most malnourished country in the Americas and one of the most corrupt in Latin America and the world? Why we are the way we are and in the state we’re in was the question that propelled the exploration that concluded in the writing of this book. Why are we now, in 2004, closer to the condition we inherited from colonial times than to the nation-state model for organizing our country’s political development adopted by those who led us into independence? The incredibly low level of territorial penetration achieved by our state, the isolation of our Caribbean coast and the lack of ports on that side of the country despite almost 200 years of independent life are scandalous present-day realities. Equally scandalous are the low levels of legitimacy achieved by our public institutions and our high levels of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. But most serious of all is the fact that we’ve grown used to living with such realities.

How do we explain this
brutal backwardness?

The troubling question is how to explain this brutal backwardness that malnourishes, kills and prostitutes so many Nicaraguan women and men. Coming up with an answer necessarily involves mentioning the objective obstacles that have conditioned and held back Nicaragua’s development. One could mention the brutal clash of civilizations in 1492; the ethnic and racial divisions inherited from colonial times; the poverty of the Central American region within the Spanish colonial scheme in the Americas and Nicaragua’s particular poverty within Central America; its role as an exporter of slaves during the consolidation of Spanish power in the Americas; and the relations of dependency within which the Nicaraguan national state was established once we achieved independence from Spain. And one must surely also mention the intervention of the United States and the phenomenon of imperialism.

Certainly, all of these objective factors must be considered if we are to explain why we’re in the state we’re in and are the way we are. But the brutal backwardness we’re suffering, and to which we’ve become accustomed, cannot be simply or only explained by these objective obstacles because all societies in the world, including the currently most successful ones, have faced their own particular objective obstacles, sometimes great ones. In fact, modernity emerged in Europe precisely as the result of a great crisis in the 16th century, which involved a combination of an enormous number of objective, concrete problems when the territorial spaces of the Middle Ages overflowed, ideas and peoples flowed and circulated, a scientific revolution started up and beliefs were shattered by the Protestant Reformation. It was at that moment that we saw the emergence of what we now know as modernity: modern political thinking and the foundations of what was to become the nation state, with its democracy and civil rights. European modernity was not the creation of a peaceful moment, but of that great crisis affecting the different societies, during which the emerging re-thinking of history and of power developed the capacity to respond to and organize the effects generated by all those objective obstacles. It is very important to consider that a basic element at that moment was the reconceptual-izing of the idea of God.

So the existence of objective obstacles cannot be used to explain our backwardness. The answer must also include an analysis of how we Nicaraguans have responded to the obstacles we have faced in history and how we have conceived of power as well as of that history and our role in it. We have to include an explanation of the role the Nicaraguan way of thinking has played in forging our own history. This doesn’t mean, however, that ideas determine history, that history is the result of ideas. Ideas are not the only force that creates, articulates or organizes reality. But ideas, thinking, play a fundamental role in the organizing of reality. And while we shouldn’t fall into subjectivism, we should also not fall into the trap we fell into in the eighties: a crude mechanical materialism that undervalued ideas, thinking, beliefs and values, in the conviction that the economic organization of society determines how we think and speak and our ideas about history and God.

“Resigned pragmatic” political thinking

How have we Nicaraguans thought about the phenomenon of power throughout our history? What has been the nature of Nicaraguan political thinking, the thinking with which we’ve faced the objective obstacles that history has thrown in our way? This book argues that, throughout its history, Nicaraguan political thinking can be characterized as “resigned pragmatic.” Concepts are an attempt to synthesize complex phenomena. The concept of “resigned pragmatism” refers to a way of thinking that leads us to accept reality as it is and encourages us to adapt to it. This way of thinking has no transforming volition, is not scandalized by reality into trying to transform it, to try something new. Quite simply, it sees reality and accommodates to it. In Nicaragua, the long-term historic trend or norm can be synthesized as this concept of resigned pragmatism.

If we review the discourse of Nicaragua’s elites—and the book’s main contribution is to gather the voices of different Nicaraguan actors throughout our history—we can see the nature of their cosmovision and how they have used and manipulated power. We can see how their political thinking has pushed us toward accepting reality as it is and, further still, adapting ourselves to it, as perhaps best proposed by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Alfaro, one of the governors during the period in the second half of the 19th century known as the Thirty Years of Conservative governments. Chamorro believed that “the good politician is he who knows how to temper himself to circumstances.” The whole of Nicaragua has lived tempered to any emerging circumstances, particularly those in its international context. That way of thinking comes right up to date in the self-satisfied discourse of current President Bolaños, which is so removed from the national disaster we’re experiencing.

Tempering to circumstances
is rooted in providentialism

This characterizing of our political thinking leads to another even more important question: why does our thinking have such a resigned pragmatic nature? Where does this way of thinking about power and history come from? The answer offered by this book is that resigned pragmatism—which covers not only Nicaragua, but the whole of Latin America—is rooted in the providentialism that has dominated our religious culture. No matter how hard I try, I can find no other root. I have found important evidence in the political discourse of the elites to demonstrate that this way of viewing power and history, our way of tempering ourselves to circumstances, is linked to providentialism.

Providentialism is a vision of history that encourages us to believe that God organizes each of our movements, is responsible for what happens to my uncle, to me or to Nicaragua as a society, and everything that happens in Iraq and the rest of the world. In that vision of history, God is the regulator, the administrator, the auditor of everything that happens. This was confirmed in the colonial 18th century by Pedro Ximena, who talked of a God that “links the centuries and events, has the fate and destiny of his creatures in his hand... foreseeing in the immense succession of days the happenings that must beautify the annals of time, combining all deeds.” Ximena termed any system that questioned this idea of God “blasphemous and abominable.”
Examples abound throughout our history. Following the Managua-destroying 1931 earthquake, President José María Moncada told the National Congress: “I ask for your most sincere and patriotic cooperation. This is not the hour for passion, but rather for meditation and reflection. We have been hurt by Nature; there is no criticism to be made, because that would amount to criticizing God.” And this is an elite talking to the elites. So it would be wrong to state that the elites just use providentialism to manipulate the masses. The fact is that they are as imbued with providentialism as the masses and simply have different ways of manifesting it.

A survey published in Nicaragua in 2002 showed that 97.1% of those responding accepted the phrase: “God is the supreme judge; we depend on Him and He will judge us.” And many today effectively attribute the 25 deaths in the recent Musún landslide to divine will, also automatically accepting that those who survived are alive today due to “God’s will.” And let’s not forget—no matter how ridiculous it might appear—that a central element of the current government’s agricultural policy has been the dedication an annual day for to praying to God to send us rain.

Two moments of rupture:
The Zelaya and Sandinista revolutions

In the book I argue that providentialism and resigned pragmatism have been strengthened by the role the United States has played in our history, and that we Nicaraguans have superimposed our mental dependence on a providential God onto that role. More recently, we’ve done the same with the role played by foreign cooperation. Our governors want foreign cooperation to resolve our problems, assume that it should fight our poverty. This reflects the profound irresponsibility toward history that accompanies both the Nicaraguan elites and the masses who are resigned to their misery. It is always others, not ourselves, who are the guilty or the benefactors. This way of thinking and acting is profoundly linked to the providentialist roots that feed the resigned pragmatism orienting our political culture.

The book tries to offer a characterization and establish tendencies, and by establishing them, it points to moments of rupture. There are fundamentally two such moments: the 1979 Sandinista revolution and Zelaya’s Liberal revolution, which ran from 1893 to 1909. Both moments were beacons in the fight to overcome the limits of reality and expand the horizon of what is possible. While recognizing this effort, however, it should also be recognized that in both cases the forces that promoted these radical changes, or important sectors among them, also ended up tempering themselves. The case of today’s official Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the concrete case of Daniel Ortega provide good examples. This leads us to think that the transformations promoted were not profound, but rather reactions to the reality. The 1979 revolution gives the impression that there was not a new and different way of thinking able to transcend providentialism and resigned pragmatism, which is why the idea of tempering to what is possible has ended up predominant.

There’s a feeling that the revolution did not come to power with the necessary knowledge of Nicaragua’s cultural and religious reality, a reality the FSLN was also part of. It didn’t come to power with a new vision of Christianity and of God, but rather imbued with providentialism. It had an incredibly mechanical determinist and materialist vision that fell apart when reality was imposed on the weakness of the Sandinista elites’ way of thinking. And when that happened, they tempered themselves to circumstances. So much so that they are now even organizing masses to celebrate July 19!

A lost opportunity

The revolution represented a change in the direction of Nicaraguan political thinking. But the opportunity was lost, for many reasons. I think one reason is that the revolution did not have the theology, the Christology to dismantle providentialism. We replaced religious providentialism with historical providentialism. During those years, History, not God, was responsible for changes. And if you asked questions or expressed doubts, the answer came back, “The problem, compañero, is that you don’t understand history!” But they never explained it to you! The dogma was “believe in history.” But it was a providentialist vision of history, and that’s why at the moment that reality crushed the thinking upon which the Sandinista philosophy was built, resigned pragmatism and providentialism emerged again. This doesn’t mean that everyone in Nicaragua lives crushed by the weight of providentialism and resigned pragmatism. We’re talking about tendencies here, but when over 90% of the people currently admit to believing that God regulates everything in their lives, we’re talking about a major trend. I think the same question, asked during the full revolutionary fervor of 1985 would have thrown up different results.

Resigned pragmatism encourages us to assume that the politically desirable should always be subordinated to the circumstantially possible. Among the dominant groups, this is expressed in an attitude of indifference to the poverty and the social marginalization of the masses. And among the marginalized groups themselves, it manifests itself in the fatalistic attitudes adopted by our poor regarding their own misery. Both the indifference of the elites and the fatalism of the masses express a sense of irresponsibility in relation to history. Modern thinking and modernity were essentially the expression of a new faith in the capacity of individuals, of men and women, to build history.

Being modern does not imply abandoning God

It is important to point out that modern political thinking did not and does not necessarily deny the existence of God. It simply elevates humanity to the role of co-participant in the eternal act of creation. And that’s something that must have pleased God, because it‘s got to be better to be the Creator of thinking people that act in history than of a flock of sheep waiting for their God to decide. Being modern does not imply abandoning the idea of God, but it does mean reconceptualizing the relations involved between God, history and humanity. And the Europeans did that: they thought about and reconceptualized that relation by taking on the power of the Church, which refused to accept such a new way of understanding the world. They thought and kept on thinking, and by thinking they found God in the dignity of each individual citizen.

One great problem we have in Nicaragua is that we’re not responsible for our history. The elites do not assume responsibility for the condition of the poor and the poor feel that their poverty is part of a divine plan. The current National Development Plan is a representation of resigned pragmatic thinking, accepting the given reality and making us think that our history is nothing more than the result of the conditions growing out of and articulated in the international context in which we move.

Where will this way of thinking about God, history and the relation between God, history and humanity lead us? What will be the culmination of the providentialism and resigned pragmatism that has dominated Nicaraguans’ religious and political cultures? It would be a mistake to think we can carry on like this for centuries and centuries, that we’ve hit rock bottom and this is the way we are and how we’re going to live. That would be a fatal error, because the world is changing at an accelerating rate.

The rationality of globalization

The concept that best synthesizes the changes being experienced by humanity in this uncertain 21st century is “globalization,” that much-used and abused concept that nevertheless manages to capture some of the complexity of the phenomena we’re currently living through. The 21st century is dominated by that concept, that idea, that process and by its accompanying ideology. Globalization is the name we use to refer to those trends shown by the national political, economic, social and cultural structures integrating around the axes of transnational power. That’s what globalization means: a tendency in which everything national starts to coordinate around the axes of transnational power. The kind of power consolidated through globalization tends to be de-territorialized. That’s why South American sociologist García Canclini, referring to the complex situation facing anti-globalization protest movements, stated that these days David can’t find Goliath.

Globalization is not simply the establishment of de-territorialized structures of material power or free trade treaties or new international agreements, however. These are just the concrete and material expressions of something more profound. Globalization is also a way of seeing the world, a radical re-definition of good and bad, fair and unfair, a rationality. And in the 21st century, the century of globalization, we’re not only going to see more free trade agreements, but, above all, we’re going to feel—because it can’t be seen—the weight of that new rationality: the instrumental rationality of the market, which is being increasingly consolidated.

Discussing the market’s instrumental rationality implies talking about a specific way of seeing and understanding reality, of defining what is good and bad, what is fair and unfair and, ultimately, what is legal and illegal. Globalization institutionalizes a new way of seeing reality. That is the tendency. Good and bad are going to be defined, or established, in accordance with the market’s values and vicissitudes. The National Development Plan (PND) and the Central American Agenda for the 21st Century—formulated by INCAE with support from Harvard University—express this new rationality very clearly. The PND talks of identifying development poles in Nicaragua so the state can concentrate its limited resources there. And when asked the big question of what will happen to the people in the poorest zones, government officials respond that they will have to move to other zones, where the market is successful. In effect, social policy loses the Christian sense expressed in the idea of social solidarity and the state’s social responsibility to the poor. It has already been determined in the PND and the Latin American Agenda that good and bad, just and unjust, legal and illegal will be determined by the market’s vicissitudes and values. And this is just a miniscule, microscopic, expression of something gigantic and more profound happening on a global scale.

The Vatican is reinforcing
the providentialist vision

We Nicaraguans are entering this century and this logic armed with a resigned pragmatic and providentialist vision of power and history; a vision that in my view is being increasingly reinforced by the Vatican. The providentialism that the Vatican is currently promoting is expressed in the scandalous number of saints canonized by the present Pope, greater than the number canonized in the 500 preceding years. They already total 482, including the recent canonization in May 2004 of Italian Gianna Beretta Molla. Even after doctors warned her that her life was in danger from an inter-uterine tumor two months into her pregnancy, she decided to continue with the pregnancy and died in 1962, leaving behind a husband and three children. John Paul II has talked of “her supreme sacrifice” and praised her for responding “to the divine call.” When he canonized her, he said that her “valiant decision” was a model for all women.

The Vatican is making an effort to re-consecrate the world based on a providentialist idea, because it only canonizes people who “perform miracles”; in other words who confirm the direct intervention of a providential God in human history. To maintain its power, the Church has unfortunately decided to re-consecrate the world and re-institutionalize providentialism. It has decided that its power can be more easily reproduced through the regeneration of providentialism, and this coincides, in a perverse way, with the way the global market operates.

When the Vatican launched its frontal attack on liberation theology, fighting its structural visions, condemning the idea of structural sin and reconstituting the idea of sin as an individual act, the Catholic Church lost the very instruments and language with which to battle savage capitalism, to go beyond a simple denunciation and confront the global market. The Church cannot currently undertake this task by “converting” the Bill Gateses and bankers of the world. And even if it does convert them, doing so has no effect on reducing the consequences of capitalism. In liberation theology, the Church had the instruments and the language with which to confront the power structures being consolidated, but chose to attack and destroy it.

It’s outrageous that the PND
isn’t an emergency plan

If we look to the future, we see the market’s instrumental rationality consolidating itself with every passing day. Our technocrats and politicians even tell us of a plan “to develop the country” whose fruits will be seen in 25 years’ time, stating that people will have to move to other places and knowing that many will die. This rationale has so much weight that they happily go off to Mass after telling us this. And if someone argues that something else should be done, they ask, with a smug smile, what else can possibly be done. Because what is possible is what there is today, which amounts to “tempering oneself to the circumstances.” Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Alfaro is alive in the minds of the Nicaraguan technocrats and politicians of 2004.
They say that what they’re doing amounts to modernity. It’s not evil; it’s a perverse innocence. They don’t realize—we don’t realize—that modernity can’t be imitated. Modernity was a creative, rebellious spirit in response to a certain reality. And Nicaragua’s current reality invites something equally creative and rebellious because people are dying. Wait 25 years? It’s outrageous that the National Development Plan isn’t proposed as an emergency plan. It’s outrageous that we’re not living under an emergency economy in Nicaragua. When there’s a war, you have to implement a wartime economy. When a country is starving, you have to implement an economy aimed at overcoming the hunger. But this is not happening in Nicaragua and if we were to propose something to this effect to government leaders, it would sound ridiculous. There’s something deep down that makes us the way we are; something that has accustomed us to seeing history as something we can’t control.

What we’re seeing is the market’s rationality being institutionalized everywhere and the Vatican overseeing the world’s accelerated re-providentialization. The very demographic changes affecting the planet are going to contribute to its re-consecration, because some people are already indicating that by 2050 the Catholic population will be mainly concentrated in Africa and Latin America. And given current tendencies, the providentialist form of Catholicism currently predominating in those two continents will end up prevailing.

What does the future hold for Nicaragua?

What might happen in Nicaragua as a result of this terrible combination of market-promoted instrumental utilitarianism and providentialism? If nothing is done, we might end up experiencing the reality depicted in Gioconda Belli’s sociological novel Waslala, which portrays a 21st–century Nicaragua that has already disappeared as a country. In this vision, the name Nicaragua no longer has any political or moral connotation; we are merely a territory used as a radioactive waste dump by the most developed countries and as a center of operations by all kinds of smugglers. It isn’t too hard to imagine this happening as you read the novel, given the extended presence of drug trafficking in the country and the state’s unwillingness to forge Nicaragua into a nation.

If we already superimpose our providential vision of God onto the role played by the United States, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that we will also superimpose that vision onto what we call globalization. Our politicians are actually doing it already; they refer to globalization like the reincarnation of the medieval God, claiming that it won’t let us do certain things and forces us to do others. Globalization, they tell us, is a fact. But it’s not a fact; it’s an historical process whose consequences will be determined not only by those pushing it, but also by those fighting for an alternative way to globalize the world—and certainly by those who neither promote not fight it but simply resign themselves to the form in which it’s presented.

Christianity and the market:
intrinsically incompatible

The institutionalization of the market’s instrumental rationality requires either destroying or totally falsifying Christianity. Because these two rationales—those of Christianity and the market—cannot coexist. They really can’t. For the global market to be institutionalized and its instrumental rationality to prevail in the world (and this is not just happening by accident, there are enormous forces pushing in that direction); for good and bad to be determined by the market and not by ideas of justice having to do with our religious and ethical traditions; for the market to regulate not only labor markets but even who lives and who dies, who lives in a poor country and who in a rich country, the market needs either to destroy or to finish the job of falsifying Christianity. Because Christian rationality, which is substantive and based on principles with an absolute value (“Thou shalt not kill,” full stop! “Thou shalt not steal,” full stop!), cannot coexist with an instrumental rationale that needs to institutionalize the market’s utilitarian values as the regulators of life and history.

The way these two intrinsically incompatible rationalities—that of capitalism and that generated by Christianity—managed to harmonize themselves in Europe’s case has to do with democracy. Democracy, democratic thinking, was an attempt to reconcile the market’s instrumental rationality and the substantive rationality generated by Christianity. The fundamental element in developing democracy is the development and consolidation of citizens’ rights, which served to counteract the inequalities naturally generated by the market. But social rights and the welfare state institutionalized in the 20th century are under constant attack in all countries of the world. And the democracy that served as a way to achieve a more or less adequate reconciliation between the market’s rationality and the rationality of the Christian tradition is currently in crisis. In Nicaragua, it doesn’t even exist! We only experience a kind of theatrical democracy.

What order will the market rationality impose on such an unequal world as the one we live in today, where over half of all human beings try to survive on under a dollar a day? Providentialism could act as the opium with which to impose order, to keep us happy. We could also experience new forms of militarism. Capitalism doesn’t need democracy; it has historically demonstrated the capacity to coexist with different forms of order, including democracy, fascism and militarism.

Two possibilities:
One passive, one active

This is the uncertain world we are entering. But with what mental and cultural tools are we Nicaraguans venturing into this 21st century? We could end up experiencing the prophecy of the novel Waslala in real life, kneeling before a providential God without realizing that such a God is only the disguise donned by the invisible hand of the market. That could be the sad future of our country, regulated by the vicissitudes of the market and mentally located by us, its inhabitants, in a world regulated by the idea of an administrator, auditor and manager God.

The other possibility, the more difficult and yet more necessary one, obliges us to push history along a different path, to transform our idea of God, to seek and find another possible God. Traveling that path we would transform both our religious culture and our political thinking to get ourselves out of the misery in which we’re living. The fact is that a modern state cannot exist within a pre-modern religious culture, nor can democracy exist within a providentialist religious culture. And nor can the rule of law and a lay state exist within a framework of religious values that pushes us towards thinking that God determines everything.

The fight for a lay state

It is perhaps necessary to point out that it would be a serious mistake for a country like Nicaragua to assume that a lay state can be achieved by simply separating the spheres of political power corresponding to the state and the Church. It is important to fight off the imposition of Catholic Church authorities according to their own interests, particularly those related to reproductive health and education. But while this is an important political fight, it’s not enough in itself. Let me repeat: it is impossible for a lay state to exist within a providentialist and pre-modern religious culture.

If the fight for a lay state avoids the ideological battleground, it is avoiding the central issue. This means that those fighting to modernize the Nicaraguan state have to enter into the field of theology and Christian doctrine, their interpretations and manipulations. They have to dig out religious truths and values hidden behind empty dogmas and rites. Ignoring the profound religious providentialism conditioning the behavior of Nicaragua’s elites and masses weakens the struggle for a lay state as it has been expressed so far. It also makes it a minority struggle. It just isn’t viable to try to impose a lay state on a population submerged in a world dominated by the most magical and reactionary interpretations of Christianity. But taking God out of the equation is not the way either. A lay state is one that finds “a place for God” in a plural, democratic and modern society.

Education is a key element in successfully taking on providentialism. In Nicaragua we talk about educational reform every day. But we never think—and the state has no capacity to—about the educational programs implemented in our country’s seminaries, which form the priests who will then stand up in the pulpits to “format” children’s minds in a framework of values that over the years will prove more important than any Liberal, Conservative or Socialist ideology we decide to defend. Because any political thinking in Nicaragua is like a thin skin precariously floating on an ocean of providentialism and resigned pragmatism.

There’s a fundamental need to articulate a new vision of God. There is also the valid option of stopping thinking about God altogether. As a believer, I don’t propose that option and don’t think it’s necessary. I see no contradiction between God and democracy, between God and modernity. There are very great consistencies between certain ideas of God and social justice and solidarity, which are so needed in the world. What I am convinced of is that in countries such as Nicaragua, new opportunities of life could depend on the way we conceive of God and the role God plays in history. And that’s why I believe that no task is currently more urgent in Nicaragua than transforming the idea of God.

Nicaraguan political scientist Andrés Pérez-Baltodano is a university professor currently teaching in Toronto, Canada, and a researcher associated with the Central American University’s Institute of Nicaraguan and Central American History.

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