The Gift of Difference

[This post by Brad Hirschfield is part of a roundtable discussion on the new book Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism by Rajiv Malhotra, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]

Being Different is a bold attempt to harness the insights and inspiration of dharmic tradition which is almost always limited, at least in popular conception, to being about personal issues, and applies those insights and wisdom to larger social policy and perspective.  It is an attempt that reminds us of the profound wisdom which can be found in that tradition – wisdom whose preciousness is directly related to its being different from what most people have come to expect from the Judeo-Christian worldview that has most significantly shaped the popular and political cultures of the United States and much of the western world.

Rajiv Malhotra has, in fact, written a wise and important book – one whose greatest contribution is to wrestle with genuine difference not simply as something to be overcome, but as a gift to be cherished.  Malhotra argues that ignoring difference in favor of a Pollyannaish, if well-intentioned, flattening of distinction, is not only foolish but arrogant and even dangerous.  I could not agree more.

As one who spends a fair amount of time in both the inter-faith world and the world of public affairs, I regularly see the limitations of the approach where differences are ignored or explained away out of the belief that if we could just locate our “fundamental commonality”, all would be well and the world would be at peace.  Not quite!

In fact, pretty much all people tout the value of commonality, until they find it impossible to locate, and then they typically lash out at those with whom they disagree.  Having believed that they have charted a course which honored that which is common to all people, those who run “off course” are seen not simply a different, but as somehow flawed in their own humanity, or even less than fully human.

Malhotra devotes himself in this book, to getting beyond that flattening-for-peace impulse, and to the nurturing of a world-view which can tolerate, and even respect, genuine difference and unresolved distinctions.  If there is any weakness to Malhotra’s argument it is that he too easily finds the solution to the flattening of difference, and the cultural superiority complex, which usually comes along with it (again, typically well-intentioned) on the part of those doing the flattening, in one particular tradition – his own.  That is problematic, but it should not distract one overly much from the most importance insight in the book i.e. that unresolved difference can be a remarkable gift and is certainly necessary to appreciate.

Don’t get me wrong.  When I place fundamental commonality in quotes, as I did above, it is not because I don’t think that such a thing exists – I do.  But I also believe that fundamental difference exists right alongside it, and that the two together are what make us who we are – a people, as communities and as spiritual traditions.

To be sure, there are limits to the appreciation of difference and the book does little to help us determine where that line falls, and what to do when it has been crossed.  For example, it is not enough to explain, as the author does at the end of the book, that we can know how to distinguish between those issues over which we will have confrontation and those over which we will not by sighting the Bhagavadagita story of Arjuna.

Mr. Malhotra explains that this story serves as a model because “Arjuna is not simply fighting for his side, but for justice and broader establishment of dhama, one that is in line with the ritam (inherent nature) of the cosmos.  The adversaries’ fight is not due to any righteousness in their cause but to ignorance, attachment and greed”.  The problem?  Change a few words and the same claim has been made by most religious terrorists across history.

They too believed what Arjuna believed and simply saying that they were wrong but Arjuna was right, doesn’t work.  In fact, to hold that belief would render this otherwise fascinating book rather useless, which I do not think is the case.

Being Different solves fewer problems than it imagines, but it remains a rich and wonderfully challenging read – one which opens doors into a deeply humane and powerful process – that of finding the greater peace which comes with enhancing our ability to experience the gift of difference.

Visit the Patheos Book Club on Being Different for more conversation here.

Listed three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis, and recognized as one of our nation’s leading Preachers & Teachers by Beliefnet.com, think tank President, talk show host, interfaith activist, and diversity expert Brad Hirschfield is the author of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism(Harmony, 2008).

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