Friday, April 09, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday

It's Holy Week, and Friday marks the beginning of what the Catholics call Triduum, the three-day period of Jesus' Passion, death, and resurrection. Friday is usually the day of Tenebrae (darkness/shadows): it's the day Jesus died, and the whole world is plunged into darkness.

It's not a good day to be a Korean Christian trying to evangelize in Iraq.

Andi writes a great post on the ethics of komdo, and ably rebuts a commenter at the Marmot's who's sour about the current state of Korean Buddhism. I was thinking of responding to that comment myself, but Andi's done it better than I could, and it's more meaningful since she's a practicing Buddhist. Basic rule, folks: religions are as they are practiced. Across-the-board declarations about them are bound to be false because most such declarations aren't nuanced enough to capture the reality. Is Islam (Buddhism, Christianity, etc.) a religion of peace? Do all Christians necessarily believe Jesus literally rose from the dead? If certain Catholics are corrupt or pedophiles, does this mean the Roman Church is nothing but a haven for corruption and pedophilia? Beware, beware, beware facile observations about complex phenomena!

The Infidel makes some profound points in a recent post on religion, then finishes with:

Perhaps BigHo can speak more about the power of "broken-heartedness" as the glue that can hold western civilization together.

I'd have to know more about how the Infidel intends "broken-heartedness" to be understood, but I'll refer back to a long-ago September 2003 post that dealt with the "anthropology of fallenness" being touted by some thinkers as a reason why Christian culture has led more easily to liberal, secular society than Islam ever could. I ended up arguing against the thesis:

I think the argument that Islam lacks secularism is a strong one, and I agree with it. As things stand, the cosmos is divided into the House of Islam and the House of War, the latter of which, despite being a theological rubric, also includes secularism. But as we parse this further, I wonder whether it really comes down to a salvific anthropology of fallenness that exalts Judaism and Christianity over Islam. Christianity, certainly, grew into a powerful political force very early in its career (powerful in the full temporal sense of the word, not just symbiotically alongside kings), and it could be argued that it wasn't until the Renaissance-- or maybe the Enlightenment-- that something approaching what we nowadays call a "secular(ist)" viewpoint emerged: cf. any history of medieval Europe as evidence. Europe-- the West-- has long known nonsecularism. Even the term "atheist" has undergone a radical shift in meaning over the centuries; it did not mean "one who believes in no God" originally. The current meaning is a rather recent convention.

The article mentions the same biblical quote that Bernard Lewis has focused upon in books like Islam and the West: "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; unto God what is God's." (Mt 22:21, Mk 12:17, Lk 20:25) Lewis sees this as a prototype for what has eventually widened into the separation of church and state enjoyed (somewhat) in America today. I certainly see this separation as a necessary ingredient for religious pluralism in modern American society, and Lewis may be right to cite this biblical sentiment as a major root of secularism. Whether it's necessary to take the argument further back to the question of humanity's fallenness is debatable; Lewis has already provided a good point of departure.

The focus on fallenness as advantageous also ignores the flip-side of Christian biblical theology: Christ, as second Adam, reversed the Fall and redeemed humankind, so it is no longer entirely correct to assume we are incapable of perfection. Jesus himself is portrayed as demanding this: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Mt 5:48, the Sermon on the Mount).

A lot has been made, recently, of the anthropology of fallenness. I'm not quite sure I buy it. I think Lewis is on the right track to suggest there is at least one scriptural source for secularism; there are certainly other, nonscriptural, sources, many of which I would locate in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Islam needs secularism if it is to retain its dynamism. While it's true that plenty of worldly Muslims are, in their personal practice, already quite secular, I'm speaking more about what needs to happen on the governmental, societal, cultural level-- i.e., a publicly acknowledged and embraced secularism (not Saddam's pap, either). Acquiring/achieving this secularism is no less a tall order than what the article's author is suggesting; I don't have any easier proposals. My personal hope is that Muslim theologians will themselves begin, as a result of long and patient dialogue with people of other faiths, to reinterpret their own scriptures in light of what they learn through dialogue, and thereby create a hermeneutical window through which a brave cleric can step forward at some point in the near or far future and say, "Look! It's there in the scriptures! Allah wants us to reserve space in our hearts for the world, and not just for him!"

When I read the previous paragraph, I cringe. I know my proposal is unrealistic, idealistic, naive-- especially right now. But in the end, I don't particularly care how secularism arrives and installs itself in Islam; it simply needs to happen. Whether through a scriptural hermeneutics approach or through a reappropriation of the anthropology of fallenness, it matters little. But Islam's fanatical focus on God and God alone is unhealthy in the extreme; the radical separation of God from the mundane and the simultaneous absolute centrality of God play right into Ludwig Feuerbach's hands: religion can indeed cause alienation, and that's what Islam, at least in its past and current forms, seems to do so well. Alienation and suffering.

The more laws and restrictions there are, the poorer people become.
The sharper men's weapons, the more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are, the more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations, the more thieves and robbers.

--Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57

Could you apply the above TTC quote to the corpus of Islamic laws in the Koran, hadith, and shari'a? The above verses certainly explain much.

Let me take this opportunity to wish Jewish friends a happy Pesach-- it's been going on a while now, and I have dreams of munching on several varieties of charoset, one of my all-time favorite foods.

Let me also wish an early Happy Easter to all Christians-- peace be with you in this time of new life and joy.

UPDATE, 11:30PM: I shouldn't have to mention this, but since it's Religious Diversity Friday and one of my pet subjects is interreligious dialogue, I'll submit for the record that I don't think there's anything offensive about a Christian wishing a Happy Easter to non-Christians. When a Korean Buddhist bows in hapjang to me (that's gassho to those hailing from Japanese traditions-- bowing with palms together in front of the chest) and says, "Seong-bul hashipshiyo" ("May you attain buddhahood"), I'm not offended at all. Sometimes our offense-meter goes off the scale about all the wrong things. Not all openly religious gestures are attempts at conversion or arguments for one's religion's superiority. Sometimes people really are being genuinely nice, and are simply expressing themselves in the idiom of their religious tradition. So let me revise what I said earlier and, as a Christian, wish you all a Happy Easter, with peace and blessings to you and yours.


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