Friday, January 30, 2004

religious pluralism on Tacitus

Tacitus saith (paragraph breaks added to give you a breather):

Earnest grad student John Kearney suggests that the English naming of the Muslim god as "Allah" rather than "God" helps [perpetuate] the notion that this god is different from the God of Jews and Christians. That notion is, in his view, false. But are there objective truth claims to be made on such matters? Is the sameness or difference of a deity a provable assertion (in this life, anyway)?

As a Christian, I'm not inclined to view the Islamic god as the same God that I worship -- too many behavioral differences. This tends to raise hackles, both among Muslims with a vested theological interest in promulgating a contrary notion, and among the politically correct for whom denial of any religious claim (excepting, usually, those of orthodox Christianity) is synonymous with bigotry.

But this makes no sense. Nonassent to unsupportable assertion is, at worst, impolitic, but this is not the same thing as a moral wrong. And besides, I'm willing to apply the principle in the other direction: why should a Jew (or a Muslim, for that matter), view the Christian God as the same deity as his object of worship? Trinitarian, no real divine temporal law, a sacrificial messiah -- not exactly a close match.

If those of other faiths want to deny the reality or identity of my God, well, it's on them, and that's why they're of other faiths. I would hope that the intellectual forebearance would be extended to me as well. Just because ecumenical concurrence is polite doesn't make it true.

If you were following the discussion in previous posts here and on Ryan's blog, then you've heard something like this before: exclusivism doesn't have to lead to violence (Tacitus uses the phrase "intellectual forbearance" in this regard). But with Tacitus as with others who've argued this, the glossed-over factor in this discussion is secularism. This, not "enlightened exclusivism," is in my view what keeps people of different religious traditions from killing and/or subjugating each other.

I don't think it's legitimate to talk about religious beliefs as if they have some sort of a priori reality and are somehow abstracted from their social context. The secularism of the American nomos is what provides an "ambient tolerance" and fosters an egalitarian pluralism not possible in most other places in the world. To ignore secularism's role in religious tolerance is to miss the crucial reason why exclusivists aren't more openly at each other's throats.

As for the specific issues Tacitus raises here (one God or many?)... much depends on your angle of approach. If you approach the question theologically, you'll find people who'll argue that all the Abrahamic faiths are referring to the same God. But others, equally theologically, will argue that's not true. Some Christians, for example, insist on perpetuating the falsehood that Muslims worship a "moon god." And Tacitus' argument that the various monotheisms have mutually foreign conceptualizations isn't new. Maybe Mavrodes's reading of Hick is right and we're looking at a spiritual marketplace that is, effectively, polytheism.

Others will approach the question from a more mystical or philosophical angle, and plenty of other angles besides. A walk through the comments section of this Tacitus post shows a pretty representative cross-section of various views.



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