I began my college career with a World Religions class that exposed me to the major world religions. My professor boasted a Christian upbringing and background, but he was more of a universalist than a Christian in his theology and philosophy. The class focused more on the religions other than Christianity than Christianity, partly, I suppose, because most people sitting in a World Religion class in a small liberal arts college in Iowa already were acclimated to Christianity.
Western Civilization was another class I took. Western civilization, not surprisingly, dominates and colors most of the history of American thought since the United States is predominantly an extension of Greek, Roman and western European philosophy and ideology. My Jewish religion professor put that in context for me one day in a class on the Old Testament when he asserted that Judaism has roots in Eastern religion and civilization. (I was a thesis away from being a religion major.)
I will not repeat the context or expand on the details of that proposition. I have forgotten most of the details anyway. The take away I want to chew on with this piece is that we make assumptions about religion and the world based on how we have been acculturated and “indoctrinated” by our culture. Listening to the perspectives of “others” provides us valuable, different perpectives, even on the things with which we are familiar (like Christianity).
Our American view of the world is colored not only by Judeo-Christian sensibilities, but by the Enlightenment, materialism and “scientism” (science as the ultimate arbiter of truth). These cultural influences tend to discount the metaphysical world, assuming that truth is found primarily or exclusively in the physical, natural world. This history of western thinking also influences us to approach religion as we do the sciences and to assume that other, less scientific worldviews are inferior.
In that context, I want to review an address by Sri Lankan theologian, Vinoth Ramachandra, that was given at a Harvard forum titled Why Tolerance is Not Enough: Religious Myths. He ties the linguistic roots of the “isms” of religion to 17th century Europe and the idea of deism, which suggests that Religion has a common genus. As a consequence, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc. have come to be viewed as subspecies of one genus in the western world.
Ramachandra says that this uniquely western thinking gives rise to an assumption that there is a common, universal “religious experience” and a common moral fabric. Those who adopt this view (mostly European and American), perhaps unwittingly, “adopt a theoretical, privileged position outside of every specific faith community, trying to elaborate a general structure of religious truth that tries to establish a space for every religious tradition”; but Ramachandra says, nobody really believes in the separate religions traditions in this worldview. He calls this western approach to religion “uncommitted”; it speaks of openness, but it leads to no real substance or dialogue.
He asserts that the more we study the various religions, faith claims and practices, the more evident it is that the various religions are “embedded” in different and conflicting worldviews. “They embody radically different visions of human flourishing,” he says, and I agree with him. In spite of my professor’s assertion that ” all roads lead to the top of the mountain”, I could not reconcile the various world religions when I studied them in college.
This uniquely western view of religion instructs a western conception of pluralism that Ramachandra says is actually disrespectful. He asserts that it attempts to cast the world religions under a common narrative actually deny “genuine pluralism” by “not respecting the otherness of the other”.
He says this is the paradox at the heart of pluralistic philosophies and theologies of religion. He claims it is more intellectually honest to acknowledge the different worldviews and social practices, including the resulting necessity that there is a choice to be made to determine which is more truthful than the others.
As a side note, I think it is ironic that relativism in moral and religious thought has grown up side by side with ever increasing emphasis on science and rationalism. No one thinks that competing scientific theories can both be true. The fact that western culture tends to embrace relativism on the one end and universalism on the other end suggests that what is really going on is that we simply do not take religion very seriously.
The increasing emphasis on tolerance as a value of intrinsic important is an extension of that reality. Argument and disagreement, however, do not show lack of respect, Ramanchadnra says; it actually shows honor and respect. Engagement is more respectful than refusing to engage. Both demonizing others and claiming that all religions say the same thing is profoundly disrespectful.
“Tolerance is used as avoiding the dangerous act of exploring the world of others. We are, in effect, saying, ‘Leave me alone. Don’t examine and critique my world.’” Both relativism and the myth of “neutral secularity” are disrespectful to all religions because they do not take them seriously and dismiss them under the guise of “tolerance”.
Ramachandra says that we cannot really know what we believe and why until we have dialogue with others who are different than us. Others who are different are necessary for our own self-discovery. If there is metaphysical truth to be found, we should be taking the differences in thought, philosophy, worldview – and religion – seriously. We should not gloss over the differences. Thus, he says the evidence of a pluralistic society is not tolerance, but engagement.
Ramachandra says, “Tolerance raises important issues about power and control”, but it does not lead to any understanding or true pluralism. To the contrary, he observes that a “profound ignorance” prevails that needs to be dispelled.
For instance, most Americans and most Muslims do not realize that two-thirds of Christians worldwide live in the southern hemisphere. The majority of recent immigrants to the US are Christians, at least in name. They tend to be poor and concentrate in urban areas. Ramachandra adds that these growing urban congregations of Christian immigrants are leading to a “de-Europeanization of American Christianity”.
Similarly, most Americans identify Arabs with Islam. Most people would be surprised to know that there are more Christians in the Palestinian refugee camps than in the entire Israeli state. Most Americans would also be surprised to know that freed slaves from Jamaica brought Christianity to Africa before the first European missionaries arrived. We are also ignorant of the fact, he says, that the fastest growth of Christianity in Africa occurred in the post-colonial era. In fact, he claims that Muslims in Africa profited most from colonial rule, not Christians. I confess that I did not know these things (assuming they are true – I have not fact-checked them).
Ramachandra claims that, the ancient Persian Church experienced more martyrdom in the 4th century than the Church under Roman rule in the Roman Empire experienced in the first 300 years. He also says that the first Christians appeared in China and India centuries before the emergence of the power and colonial thrust of Europe. These facts, if true, betray the common understanding of the spread and interaction of Christianity with the world.
Ramachandra, who is Christian, says, “The Christian movement is the world’s most extensive and longest sustained engagement with human otherness. Wherever the church has been faithful to the Gospel, it has recognized the intrinsic worth of peoples and cultures long despised by the dominant religious and political elites.” The church has served the “dregs of humanity” wherever it has gone, and this is “the continuing story of the Christian witness in many parts of the world.” Ramachandra highlights that the idea of the incarnation of God in Christ in human form does not breed a sense of superiority; “it humbles”.
There is some truth to the saying, “familiarity breeds contempt”. It may also be said that familiarity breeds misunderstanding. We often do not question the things with which we are familiar. We think we know and understand the things with which we are familiar, but the perspective of some “other” exposes what we do not know or betrays what we think we know. As happens so often when we are exposed to different views, we learn more about ourselves and our own views are refined.
My experience of being introduced to the major world religions in college was truly significant. I was not (and still am not) religious, but I was interested in “truth” wherever it could be known. I embraced each world religion as we studied them, and I came to understand and learn things that I did not know about other religions and Christianity in the process.
I did not expect to find truth in one religion or philosophy, but I recognized that competing premises could not both be true. I was attracted to my professor’s universalism, but I could not reconcile the various world religions in any way that took them all seriously. While there are some similarities, they diverge on fundamental “truths”. My journey took me back to Christianity, but with much more knowledge and understanding.
I continue to seek engagement with “others” as I always learn something when I do. For me, it has been a journey that has rounded out and solidified my worldview, which is distinctly now Christian. At the same time, I am keenly aware that American Christianity, and even Western Christianity, is a distorted, limited reflection of the truth of Christianity. Religious truth is as important, or more important, to human existence as scientific truth. We should be more respectful to each other and take religious truth more seriously than mere tolerance entails.
In the end, we are all accountable ourselves to God. While the world religions cannot possibly be harmonized, truth is truth wherever it is found. Differences should be respected even while we must all determine for ourselves where truth seems to lie in fullest form. The Western view of that truth, even Christian truth, however, is not necessarily the most accurate or complete understanding. We have things to learn about ourselves from our foreign brothers and sisters in Christ and our neighbors who espouse other beliefs.