The Stakes in Inter-Religious Relations

Those who follow this blog may have noticed a recurrent theme in the discussions. It is a disagreement over whether religion is primarily a personal path that each individual pursues with whatever resources or companions are amenable, or a community endeavor that requires some level of exclusive devotion and commitment to a community.

Related to this discussion has been the assertion I commonly hear that a religious figure (say Jesus) or a religious text (the Bible) may simply be different things to different people. One person can worship Jesus as God, another person can follow Jesus as a great moral example, a third can follow Jesus as a teacher of inner enlightenment, and a forth can follow him as one of many avatars of God’s creative power. For one person the Bible is a source book of spiritual wisdom, for another the normative expression of true faith in Christ.

But there is a problem with this laisse-faire attitude toward a variety of beliefs about Jesus, (or Muhammad, or the Buddha). Religious beliefs, whether held by individuals or communities, are ethically consequential. They determine human behavior. Let’s take Jesus, although similar points could be made about Muhammad, the Buddha, Hinduism, Taoism, and Judaism.

Communities that worship Jesus as God (to take merely one part of their communal life) have spent unspeakable wealth, and innumerable human lives to build churches and establish communities for whom worshipping Jesus as God is the central purpose. And this continues up until today. You simply don’t find these resources spent on cathedrals or churches by those who see him primarily as a moral example, a teacher of enlightenment, or an avatar.

Nor would you expect to. Different understandings result in different actions.

So when we talk about worshipping Jesus as God we are not talking about just one of many possible ways to interpret the man in the realm of personal belief. We’re talking about the ways in which whole civilizations spend their human and material resources. We’re talking about creating whole social classes, and perpetuating vast social hierarchies. We’re talking about innumerable wars of purification and conquest. We are talking about how a religious claim is acted out in the world.

Similar things have happened because of the claim that Muhammad is God’s final prophet, that the Buddha was the enlightened one, that Siva dances the world into being and destruction, that Rama came to earth in this or the place, and that the Will of Heaven was manifest in this or that dynasty in China.

When tens of thousands of Aztecs died defending the sanctity of their god-king against Spaniards who wanted to extend the reign of their god-king can we really speak of a matter of choosing between different personal opinions about the meaning of these religious figures?

Of course for many people the reason that religious belief needs to be relegated to the realm of the individual is to deprive it of the ability to make hegemonic claims on a society. What this fails to recognize is that some personal beliefs by their nature demand social organization and expression. The apostles of Jesus had beliefs that demanded that they both form a community ans share their gospel universally. (In part they specifically believed he had told them to do this.) Muhammad’s revelation was similar, as was the Buddha’s enlightenment.

So even personal belief has consequences. If you believe that knowledge of Jesus’ death on the cross as God incarnate is essential to the salvation of every single human neighbor you have then of course you will not only evangelize, but organize. The same is true if you believe that God’s perfect will for humanity is revealed in the Qur’an, or that the 8 fold path is the only means to escape suffering or samsara.

Anyone can share in a belief or can deny its truth. But he or she must at least recognize that believing or denying belief may entail momentous claims around which whole societies are either redeemed or laid waste. Just because one’s personal beliefs pertain only to one’s individual self doesn’t mean that all religious belief is so limited.

Ethically the stakes are too high to dismiss the consequences of even personal belief as merely personal.

And what about the domain of personal belief unassociated with social power? It is important to recognize the price individuals have paid for their personal belief outside the tolerant modern West. For most of human history, and for the vast majority of humans living today, choices about who to worship and where to worship are choices between living in safety and security or living in fear of rejection, violence, and death. Christians in the Arab world, Shi’ites in Pakistan, Hindus in Sri Lanka, and Buddhists in Tibet have not been choosing whether to spend an afternoon at the mosque, the synagogue, the church, a meditation group, or a yoga studio. Converts outside the West haven’t just chosen among many equally possible opinions. What is at stake for them is often whether their whole life has been wasted on a lie and will end in a bloody death.

Can such choices be dismissed as merely between one of many paths to the same goal, or one of many channels of the same universal truth? It is one thing to respect a choice you don’t agree with. It is another dismiss a choice as ultimately inconsequential.

There is an all too casual arrogance in accepting the validity of a person’s faith while simultaneously robbing it of its actual cost and existential significance. In this respect I prefer the anti-religious vitriol of the New Atheists to the suffocating smugness of the New Age. At least the atheists understand what’s at stake in religion.

It is almost certainly impossible for humans to come to a final consensus on religious truth. That would take a transcendent perspective we do not possess. But respecting religious difference requires that we never dismiss religious claims as a matter of personal opinion or faith. The ethical consequences of religious belief are as important (and almost as immediate) as the consequences of believing in democracy, freedom, and human equality.

Although we may have learned the wisdom of bringing our religious differences into the realm of words rather than the field of battle, it is no service to humanity when those words dismiss rather than engage our differences.


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