Friday, April 30, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: omnibus meditation

I took a course while at Catholic U. called "Issues in Interreligious Encounter." Our prof explained he chose the word "encounter" because it's more representative of how various religions meet and mix. Dialogue is a subset of encounter. Dialogue is more formalized and self-conscious; it usually involves arrangements and programs and agendas, hidden or exposed. Interreligious encounter, on the other hand, happens everywhere. It's more than just dialogue: it's when people of different faiths meet and marry, for example. It's when the Methodist church up the street joins a synagogue in a volleyball fundraiser for the poor. It's when a mixed group of Christians shows up on Chongno Street to watch the huge Buddha's Birthday parade, then goes and sits ch'am-seon at Chogye-sa (a major Buddhist temple) out of respect for a different religion (I was with two Korean Catholics last year, and we did this).

Recently, I placed a few long comments in a thread over at Joel's site. Joel had written a thoughtful reaction to his viewing of "The Passion of the Christ," and I'd added some thoughts about the theology of Satan's dominion over the earth, something that many (but not all) Christians subscribe to. As the thread progressed, I mentioned I was a modern mainline Protestant (Presbyterian) whose church doesn't engage in the archaic talk of sin, evil, devil, etc., and this is how one unidentified commenter reacted:

Hmm sounds like Kevin just really believe [sic] in whatever he feels like each day. You have a bright future in American Politics.

Does your church believe in the Bible? If so, does the "modern day" change what God has said?

I decided not to respond to this because it was plainly obvious the question was framed emotionally and was fishing for an emotional response. I also refrained because I've done enough troll-bashing on other blogs (sorry, Brian), and I feel guilty about wasting all that space, even though I'm completely unashamed about getting small-minded and mixing it up with pious assholes.

My previous conviction, years ago, was that people like this commenter could be found only among the religious conservatives. The arrogant, bigoted thinking, the blinkered mentality, the mental inflexibility, the unawareness of the irony of "holy assholery"-- surely it's only the religious fundies who act this way! As it turns out, though, fundamentalism, because it's an attitude/orientation more than a set of beliefs, can be found everywhere. Religious (or political, etc.) liberals can be just as stubborn, dogmatic, and self-righteous in the way they approach discussions. They can be just as easy to offend, just as insecure, and just as liable to switch to attack mode. This means we're looking at an overall human problem, not a problem specific to religious belief.

The desire to argue one's convictions is a complicated thing. Most of the arguments we make or accept are not universally accepted, I think, and since major religious systems rest on arguments and beliefs that aren't universally and unquestioningly accepted, then there's room in all religious traditions for a great deal of doubt and insecurity. When someone comes along and questions your core beliefs (or even your not-so-core beliefs), it can shock you into defensiveness. We see this in politics all the time. For me to have expressed my opinion that Satan is a "big old myth" was enough to motivate this commenter to insult me, as if I'd attacked him/her personally.

The truest measure of faith is often whether one feels the need to get defensive about one's beliefs. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wisely noted that we don't see mass demonstrations where people insist that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Why? Because we already know this in our bones, deeper than breathing. It's such an assumed reality that it doesn't need to be argued for. No one owns this truth; everyone simply accepts it.

But what about the idea that Jesus died for all our sins? This isn't universally accepted, which is problematic if you're a certain kind of Christian. You might feel that a large section of the world is laboring under a delusion. You might feel it's your duty to correct this situation.

What about the idea that the universe was created by a personal God? This, too, was an assumed reality in many cultures, but as various traditions came into contact, the realization dawned on humanity that certain beliefs simply aren't universal. A great deal of Enlightenment skepticism arose as a result of travel and colonialism: close (often uncomfortably close) contact with various cultures made Europeans aware that one triune God was not a given in all parts of the world (and of course, European Christian contact with Islam was providing the same realization).

We often argue because we're insecure. It's a way of dealing with our doubt: shouting it down by shouting at the people who expose what's doubtful about our beliefs. Very few of us soldier on in life with absolute confidence about our rightness; for most of us, our rightness needs occasional defending.

At events like the 1893 and 1993 Parliaments of World Religions, many (if not most) of the attendees, especially in 1993, were liberal-minded. These people were already temperamentally open to meeting people of other traditions and exchanging ideas with them. But is a convention of the religiously liberal the only possible way to dialogue? Should interreligious dialogue exclude those backward, bigoted conservatives, those doctrinaire fundies? I'm tempted to say yes, but no, it shouldn't. I'm a religious liberal, and I'm also a religious pluralist.* While I find many aspects of religious conservatism unpalatable, I'd be a very inconsistent pluralist if I closed off the possibility of dialogue with religious conservatives.

[*NB: Don't equate religious pluralism with religious liberalism, or religious conservatism with religious exclusivism! It's possible to be both pluralist and conservative, for example: S. Mark Heim is living proof of that. At the same time, however, it's undeniable that there's a great deal of overlap between conservatives and exclusivists, and between pluralists and liberals. Heim might be a conservative pluralist-- he's an evangelical Protestant-- but many of his fellow evangelicals aren't happy with his pluralism. I'd like to think of myself more as a nondualistic pluralist than as a liberal pluralist, but I'll accept the label "religious liberal" because my religious views differ-- often radically-- from traditional Presbyterian theology.]

One of the funnier aspects of interreligious dialogue is that religious exclusivists and pluralists accuse each other of squelching human diversity while proclaiming themselves defenders of that diversity. Many religious exclusivists, arguing for the purity, rightness, and superiority of their own tradition, see pluralists as attempting to mush the various religions together into some sort of watered-down whole (in reality, there are so many different forms of religious pluralism that this accusation holds little water). Religious pluralists see exclusivists as steamrollering diversity by claiming their particular faith to be the only true and correct one. The exclusivist call to "mission," for example, implies the eventual destruction of other competing faiths: "...every knee shall bend and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

Both of these views are ridiculous when you think about it. The subtext of both views is the fear of monoculture: all humans marching in lockstep, fundamentally oppressed, stultifyingly dull. But as my prof pointed out in that interreligious encounter course, monoculture simply isn't possible (are you listening, you antiglobalization idiots?). If we assume that, say, Christianity were to take over the whole world... what then? You can bet your ass that Christanity would fracture into thousands of sects, each acquiring local characteristics, each evolving over time in unexpected ways. Diversity would appear once again because the impulses to freedom, flourishing, and difference already reside in the human heart. Monoculture isn't sustainable. Fear of it is fear of a straw man.

But while speaking strongly in defense of one's views can be a sign of fear and insecurity, this isn't always true. Many apologists craft their apologias out of a sense of urgency, or because they feel that silence on an important matter would be morally wrong. Many people feel the need to dialogue not because they are arguing for the rightness of their own faith, but because they see the lack of mutual understanding as extremely dangerous. Arguments and apologias can also provide ways to test the boundaries of one's beliefs, seeing how they succeed or fail in a wider setting than that of one's in-group.

To dialogue well is to be, as Thich Nhat Hanh contends, both well-rooted in one's own faith and open to being changed by the Other. I submitted in previous essays that it also means accepting the risk of being reinterpreted by the Other, such as when Kenneth Leong comes along and calls Jesus a true Zen master, or when certain Hindus declare Jesus to be an avatar of Krsna-- claims that won't be taken well by all Christians, just as many Buddhists and Hindus might not appreciate the inclusivistic idea that it's really the Christ who's working in and through their religions. I think that dialogue has to start with compassionate listening, but this isn't the same as spineless head-nodding and unheeding agreement. I don't think dialogue should always have prescribed goals, nor should it always be about "working toward" anything or aiming for agreement. At the same time, it's a big world, and there's nothing wrong with goal-oriented dialogue now and then, to the extent that goals can provide purpose and structure. While we might not be able to forge agreements regarding deep differences in dogma and metaphysics, it's still possible to find thematic commonalities, to look across the table of dialogue and realize that we-- all of us-- share a basic humanity, as well as a fundamental connection to the rest of the cosmos.


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