Sunday, January 25, 2004

"The Passion" and religious pluralism

Ryan of Ryan's Lair posts on the controversy over Mel Gibson's "The Passion." He takes issue with two rabbis who were offended by Gibson's supposedly negative portrayal of the Jews, saying:

Two points. It seems pretty likely that men living in the Middle East around the turn of the millennium were sporting beards and had brownish eyes. I don't see how that could possibly be slanderous. I guess we'll have to wait to see the movie in February to know if this charge has any merit.

More importantly, the crux of the anti-Semitism charge is that the movie contains a scene which directly quotes from Matthew 27:25. For Christians who take the entire Bible seriously, you cannot simply ask them to pretend Matthew 27:25 doesn't exist. Literalist Christians cannot repudiate a Biblical passage. Period. If you try to fight them on this, you will lose.

This is a really big deal- these two rabbis seem to be saying that if you are a literalist Christian who accepts the Bible in its entirety as the word of God, you are anti-Semitic. If you think events happened as described in Matthew 27:25, you are anti-Semitic. That puts pretty much all of my moderate-to-conservative Protestant family squarely on the side of anti-Semitism.

In the above, Ryan says "you cannot simply ask them [biblical literalists] to pretend Matthew 27:25 doesn't exist." Yes and no. One of the issues we're dealing with here is the extent to which one's beliefs constitute a choice. As I work my way through The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, I see that different authors have different perspectives on this issue. Some seem to think that one's beliefs really aren't a matter of choice; others feel differently. I personally feel that, if you're amenable to reason and capable of providing a reasoned defense of your beliefs, then it's very likely that you've made a choice to continue believing as you do. Otherwise you're an unthinking dittohead. I personally see no moral value in the dittohead stance, though I'm aware that many have adopted it.

If belief is a matter of choice, it's a matter of reasoned discussion. One can hope to persuade: certainly, this is the exclusivist's hope when he crafts an apologia, so why can't it be the pluralist's? Belief, to the extent it involves choice, is also a matter of introspection and intrareligious dialogue. Thinking Christians do spend time agonizing over difficult-to-reconcile scriptural passages, creeds, sermons, and the like. Many arrive at conclusions that go against the "party line" of their faith-- for example, untold numbers of Catholics use birth control because they've reasoned that the Church's stance is medieval (I happen to agree).

The issue is even more complicated than this, however, because so-called "literalists" may pay lip service to the idea that all the Bible is literally true-- but in practice, literalists are no different from the rest of us in how they pick and choose scriptural passages to justify their stance on various issues. The fundamental dishonesty of the literalist is his refusal to recognize this fact after it's been pointed out ("Who, me? Interpret? I'm just conveying God's word!"). Anyway, I'd disagree that literalists apply their literalism in a wholesale and consistent manner to the Bible. Theirs is not a non-hermeneutical stance, because no such stance exists. To say that literalists "cannot repudiate a biblical passage," then, is only partially correct: the fact is that literalists do tend to ignore the scriptural passages that don't favor their agenda-- this is why there are different camps of literalists, some at odds with each other. So beyond scriptural non-repudiation there is selectivity, there are layers of interpretation and rhetorical stratagems-- the same discursive arsenal found in the non-literalist camps.

Ryan also says, "If you try to fight [literalists] on this, you will lose." I think this is true for most literalists. As a result, the fight to pry people away from their literalism can't be taken to them directly. And at some point it will involve children-- the ones most likely to be receptive to new ideas. That's not good or bad; it's just the nature of such fights.

Ryan continues:

I don't buy it. Not for a minute. This is America. We are not in Egypt. Matthew can be read literally without necessarily leading to blood libel. This whole thing stinks of condescension- it implies that Christians who have read Matthew countless times before will suddenly become anti-Semitic after seeing the events in Matthew depicted on a screen. It implies that Christians weren't reading carefully before. It implies that Christians couldn't possibly have a literalist faith that's compatible with civil discourse and harmonious living with the Jewish community.

Ryan's worry about condescension simply shifts the problem from one sector to another: in this case, Ryan seems to be affirming the exclusivist's right to be exclusivist while denying the Jewish critics the right to their own perceptions and judgements about Gibson's film. I think "condescension" and "arrogance" issues may be played out in the overall pluralism discussion. In the meantime I'd have to ask why the rabbis' perception is a priori illegitimate. Ryan's concern that his family has been unfairly labeled is justified, but is his perception any more or less justified than the rabbis'?

As for the question of "harmonious living"...

There are too many worldwide examples of religious communities that live in conflict, and where they do live together, they have often struck uneasy compromises that are punctuated by occasional flareups, and the religious communities are often in positions of gross inequality (as has traditionally been the case in Muslim-dominated societies). In America, where secularism provides a "neutral ground" and enforces a certain level of pluralism (or at least tolerance of pluralism), we're insulated from this harsh reality, which is found throughout much of the rest of the world. It would be facile to credit "enlightened exclusivism" with harmonious living. Instead, I'd give most of the credit to the American secularist ethos and its concomitant (but often fragile) pluralism.

So-- my two cents:

If a Biblical literalist decides to burn a cross on my front yard because he thinks he's literally following the Scriptures, he's going to end up with that cross up his ass. Alterity, my balls.

A good question for critics to ask themselves is whether "pluralists" constitute a homogeneous group. My own readings lead me to believe they don't, which makes them a lot harder to identify, classify, and critique than down-home exclusivists. As for exclusivists, who are much easier to identify as a group, the excuse that "they're just being honest about their faith" doesn't cut it, except in the most remote academic sense. What, exactly, does that excuse mean? That it's OK, morally speaking, for cross-burners to burn their crosses? That all religious behaviors, no matter how outrageous or oppressive or deadly, are OK? That sounds an awful lot like the postmodernist's radical affirmation of pluralism-- to the extent that it becomes little more than mushy relativism. Alterity for alterity's sake! In the meantime, clitoridectomies are being performed... but I suppose we should reserve judgement and not pronounce such practices backward, yes? Sorry, but as an interested participant, I can't agree to this-- especially if it were my daughter or sister in question.

Now that I'm struggling through Alvin Plantinga's interesting and frustrating defense of exclusivism in The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, I'm beginning to see where this particular anti-pluralist argument lies: in a very parochial domain, that of "justification," "rationality," and "warrant." Plantinga rebuts what he sees as pluralist accusations that exclusivists are somehow unjustified in believing as they do, especially if they've been exposed to other forms of belief and continue to be exclusivist. The upshot of Plantinga's argument is, "The pluralist can't accuse the exclusivist of arrogance without being hoist on his own petard." Plantinga wants pluralists to reconsider their charge that exclusivism, of itself, is a necessarily arrogant, oppressive, irrational, unjustified, unwarranted attitude.

The problem is that, by Plantinga's own argument (which I'll detail in a subsequent post), if exclusivism is safe from the accusation of arrogance, and pluralism shares the same epistemic and moral plane as exclusivism, then the accusation that pluralists are arrogant also fails. I'm sure Plantinga realizes this; as I said, his argument is very parochial-- his only purpose is to rebut the typical accusations made against exclusivism, not provide a wider, "objective" justification for the rightness of exclusivistic beliefs. But I'm amused because Plantinga has given pluralists the ultimate insulation against the countercharge that their pluralism is itself somehow arrogant and oppressive. By claiming epistemic and moral parity-- and nothing more-- Plantinga inadvertently reminds us that the substantive discussions lie elsewhere: outside the paltry issues of warrant and justification. Thanks, Alvin.

Plantinga's argument conveniently glosses over the issues implied in normative beliefs, and doesn't deal at all with the hegemonic nature of most traditional religious truth claims. He doesn't seem to understand that the exclusivist isn't merely content to continue believing what he believes-- not if his set of beliefs includes a missionary impulse, which it often does, especially in the case of the Abrahamic faiths. For the monotheistic exclusivist, contrary to Plantinga's misleading formulation, it's not just a matter of "I'm right and they're wrong"; rather, it's "I'm right, they're wrong, and I'm going to get them to change." Simplest evidence of this for an American: the Jehovah's Witness' or Mormon's knock on your door. Make no mistake: They want to change you.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, NRSV; emphasis added)

A religious studies student who's worried that pluralism will steamroller religious variety needs to realize that monotheistic exclusivism explicitly intends this very extinguishing. In the above passage, the goal is clearly stated that the whole world needs to become a believer in Christ.

If you think exclusivism's so hunky-dory, wait'll it comes your way, then we'll talk. I deal with this in Korea a lot, especially from my Christian relatives who have trouble understanding why I'm not studying at a Presbyterian mission school and preparing to spread the gospel to all those misguided Buddhists and shamanists. For an example of where Christian exclusivism can lead in a "civilized" country like Korea, read this account by Dr. Frank Tedesco.

It may be true that, as Ryan says, "This is America. We are not in Egypt. Matthew can be read literally without necessarily leading to blood libel."-- but come on-- how about abortion clinic bombings, religion-motivated hate crimes, and the bigotry that flares up and turns into hatemongering websites like True: there are exclusivists who in their words and actions are not so extreme, but what happens when you press them on these issues? Some will shrug and chalk up any conflicts or inconsistencies to "divine mystery." Others will out themselves and take the firm stand that everyone else is somehow mistaken. Some might view the implications of their beliefs with discomfort when pressed. To the extent that an exclusivist is unwilling to look his own exclusivism in the face, I question whether the label "exclusivist" fully applies to him.

A so-called "multiculturalist" (in the current pejorative sense) would be someone who'd argue in defense of because, well, variety's the most important thing, more important than the question of actually taking a moral stand. Multiculturalism isn't the general pluralist stance. Pluralists make no bones about wanting change; they've evolved since John Hick began formulating his position in the mid-70s, their own arguments having been refined through the crucible of constant debate. My own pluralism at this point is more ethical than philosophical; I have a personal stake in people not killing each other and, more than that, truly and deeply respecting each other. Even if you discount American exclusivism because you think it's relatively harmless (I deeply disagree), you have to admit that exclusivists just about everywhere else in the world continue to spread suffering. Muslim exclusivism stands out as an especially shameful example these days.

I have no trouble with the idea that pluralism contains its own exclusivism and has the potential to generate its own arrogance. But the evidence of history is that exclusivists through the centuries are the ones most likely to be motivated to act violently in accordance with their beliefs-- they're led to more than just arrogance. America isn't Egypt on the whole, but you can bet that parts of it aren't so far removed from Egypt: cf., for starters, that recent exorcism case-- the dead child with the broken back. Such cases aren't rare in America, and US fundamentalism is on the rise.

[NB: by "such cases," I mean more than just exorcisms that leave children broken and dead. I mean the whole list of violent and intolerant acts perpetrated by religious exclusivists, as well as the various bigotries and prejudices found in exclusivist camps.]

Pluralism isn't fuzzy-minded relativism. It is, instead, a clear stance from a consequentialist point of view, declaring exclusivism to be on the whole wrong and immoral, as we see by its fruits. Questions of "warrant" and "justification" are irrelevant to the larger picture, the one provided by the evidence of history. To address pluralism, you first have to address the evidence against exclusivism. To adjudge exclusivism "harmless" is to be blind to what it's done, to what it's still doing. If anything mitigates exclusivism, it's Western secularism-- legislated tolerance. Without that as a fundamental part of the American nomos, you end up with Israel and Palestine. Plantinga is working hard to deny any necessary connection between exclusivism and the wrongs perpetrated by exclusivists. I see his point, but can't grant it fully because the evidence of history is simply too overwhelming. Plantinga's stance takes no account of history.

For people like me, who are interested in the real, practical issues of acute suffering caused by exclusivists (and aside from vague charges of arrogance, I don't think pluralists have been guilty of nearly the same harm), this is more than an academic question: it's about effecting change.

This pluralism question, by the way, is a perfectly integral part of the way religions interact and evolve. I think a lot of people who speak against pluralism tend to think of religions, wrongly, as somehow enjoying a "pure" or "wild" state that gets sullied or corrupted when pluralism enters the picture. This is an unjustifiably reificationist view of religions. I don't think it's at all legitimate, especially if religions are acknowledged to be living, dynamic, interdependent processes. Dialogue and encounter are facts of these processes, just as much as the attitudes of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.

More on this as I finish Philosophical Challenge.

[NB: This post has been revised, and may go through a couple more revisions. I want to thank Ryan for providing such a great jumping-off point for the discussion. Go visit his blog, folks.]


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