Archive for January 2008
Comments on “A Common Word between Us”
In October of 2007, 138 Muslim leaders, clerics, and scholars published an open letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI titled, A Common Word between Us and You. The letter was unambiguously positive and well motivated. The summary of the letter states succinctly (and correctly): “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” Historians may well look back on the publication of this letter as a pivotal event in reconnecting Christian and Muslim cultures.
It is obvious that one benefit to be achieved by greater unity of Christians and Muslims is their cooperation in remedying injustice, poverty, violence, hatred and other social problems in the world. But in a more fundamental way (and one related to these other issues) there is an opportunity to join in “raising the consciousness” of humankind. As a Christian psychologist and philosopher, it is natural that I should direct my comments to this latter issue.
To remedy the critical problems that face us, there must emerge a new level of understanding of ourselves as human beings, individually and collectively. If we approach things optimistically (the only view consistent with the premise of an all-Good and Providential God) then we should expect to already see signs of this emergence. Several features in A Common Word that pertain to this are addressed below.
Surrender to God
The very word “religion”, derived from the Latin root, ligare, to bind, denotes the re- establishment or strengthening of bonds between man and God. At the psychological level what is sought is a radical transformation of the human mind. Concerning this St. Paul wrote:
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)
The mental transformation St. Paul refers to, this sine qua non of religious life, can be understood as a radical change from self-centeredness or egoism to God-directedness. Obviously, a fundamental tenet of Muslim religion is the need for surrender to the will and guidance of God — the very meaning of the word Islam. This basic reorientation of the human soul or personality away from egoism is also fundamental for Christians, who refer to it with terms like humility and poverty of spirit. This idea is emphasized throughout the Bible. In Proverbs it is written:
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding./ In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5)
In the prayer that Jesus Christ taught, the Lord’s Prayer, Christians ask of God: Thy will be done (Matthew 6:10, Luke 11:2). In the biblical drama of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a central theme is the final submission of his will to that of the Father; at a symbolic level, the crucifixion signifies a death of personal willfulness which the individual Christian should emulate.
We may also note that the phrases, Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven, which appear prominently in the Gospels, could be interpreted to mean a state of mind in which one is ruled by the promptings of God — that is, to mean “being ruled by God” or “submitting to the reign of God.” The writings of Christian saints and Doctors attest again and again to humility as the foundation of Christian virtue.
All this leads to a conclusion that some may take as utterly bold but others as perfectly ordinary: that to be a true Christian implies that one is “Islam,” in the sense of the latter outlined above.
This inner state of humility or Islam, Christians and Muslims agree, is the natural, intended form of human psychological functioning. To the extent that we are not in this state, we are in a fallen condition. We cannot expect to make much progress in any sphere of life, personal or social, until it is corrected.
Jihad as Inner Struggle
There appears to be broad consensus by Muslim scholars that the main meaning of the term jihad in the Qur’an refers to an inner personal struggle to attain this state of surrender to God. The importance of this struggle is similarly recognized by Christians. St. Paul wrote:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places]. (Ephesians 6:12)
This spiritual warfare is a prominent feature of Christian life. To pursue the metaphor of warfare, to prevail against ones enemies one rightly ought to use all resources available, including, and perhaps especially, allies. Christians and Muslims, then, would appear to have much to gain by seeing themselves as allies in the inner jihad of personal spiritual development.
The Religious Meaning of Heart, Mind, and Soul
A Common Word refers to the Great Commandment of the New Testament:
Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: / And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this [is] the first commandment. / And the second [is] like, [namely] this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Mark 12:29-31)
Yet what are the heart, mind, and soul? It stands to reason that the better one understands these things, the better one can employ them in the love and service of God. Although these words appear frequently in the Bible and the Qur’an, we are hard-pressed to define or explain exactly what they mean.
For example, in the passage above, are the heart, mind, and soul presented as mutually exclusive parts of human nature, or do they overlap? How is it that, in various passages, the heart is referred to in a way that suggests it may not just feel and desire, but may also will, choose, think, and be illumined?
And what is the nature of the mind? Does it have different levels? Is there validity to the Platonic distinction between higher (noetic) and lower (dianoetic) levels of mind? What is the relationship of the mind to such subtle concepts as wisdom and conscience?
What is the nature of the soul itself? And what is the relationship of soul to spirit?
These are questions that vitally and profoundly affect us, and ought to stir our greatest interest. Yet, to judge from what has yet been written, we appear to know very little about them.
It therefore seems very significant that the authors of A Common Word chose to refer to this subject, with particular emphasis on the meaning of the heart, in their letter. Perhaps this is an opportunity for our two traditions to collaborate, drawing on their different perspectives and cultural heritages, on formulating a new and deeper understanding of human anthropology and psychology.
In previous eras, such as during the thriving of Muslim culture in Cordoba, Muslims, Christians, and Jews collaborated freely on philosophical, theological, and scientific research. Elsewhere in Europe, the great Christian theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, borrowed much from Muslim philosophy and the works of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina; Muslim scholars were viewed by Christians with great respect.
Doctrine and Revelation in Theology
Finally, we should consider how both Christians and Muslims have struggled throughout their histories to understand the proper relationship of doctrine and personal revelation in theology. Sometimes this is referred to as the issue of Faith vs. Reason, but, in truth, no terms we use exactly convey the nature of the tension or difficulty here. It is as if human beings have two levels or realms of knowledge — one associated with reasoning, and one with direct personal experience.
Few would disagree that the most important dimension of religion is experiential — words are as nothing compared to the direct encounter of the human soul with God. Yet at the same time we cannot entirely dispense with the need for systematic terminology and rational arguments in theology. Error may result from false experience, just as from false reasoning. The only acceptable conclusion is that both doctrine and personal experience are necessary in religion; but as yet we have not found an easy way to relate the two.
This, then, becomes a challenge for the present and future generations: how can we integrate the logical and experiential dimensions of our nature, so that we may love God with the totality of our being, and also more fully experience this life and God’s blessings here on earth.
A Common Word wisely downplayed the issue of doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam. It is possible that, motivated by charity, believing in God’s Providence, and led by God’s Spirit, we may have new insights by which we discover some of these differences are not so great as has previously been supposed. In any case, while the extent of differences is not clear, it does seem apparent that our religions are far more in agreement than disagreement.
We are privileged to live in this time of great opportunity to serve God by effecting greater cultural harmony. Let us approach the future of Christian – Muslim dialogue optimistically, placing our trust in God to lead us. Meanwhile, let us pray together for peace, the alleviation of poverty, and the advancement of people of all nations, never doubting the efficacy of our prayers.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. (Romans 8: 28 )
John S. Uebersax PhD
30 January 2008
On Religious Inclusivism and Exclusivism
John S. Uebersax
Here we make two main points:
- Religious inclusivism — the view that “all religions are but different paths to the same goal” — is often presented as a means to promote peace. However, if religions actually are true to varying degrees, then radical inclusivism merely tries to sweep genuine differences under the carpet; that might, in the end, promote more discord than peace.
- If different religions each wish to convert the other, the best way to do so to compete on setting an example of love, compassion, tolerance, peace, and good works. Positive examples would then cause members of the other religion to spontaneously convert. If approached in this way, religious competition could be seen as a positive thing.
Recently I did some reading on the subject of religious exclusivism. This issue concerns (a) whether one religion may be said to be true and others false, or (b) whether all the world’s religions are more-or-less co-equal alternatives. (A convenient review of the topic appears in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article titled “Religious Pluralism“, by David Basinger; among the more interesting of opinions expressed are those of Alvin Platinga, 1999.)
We are naturally motivated to study this question in view of the need to improve relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds
One view, which we may call radical inclusivism, is quite popular today. This opinion seeks to end religious conflict by suggesting that all faiths are merely different roads to the same goal.
While based on laudable intentions, this view unfortunately suffers from a subordination of truth to pragmatics. It reasons that, since it would be very convenient if all religions were equal, that this must be true. At least in its most naïve form, then, this view is simply wishful thinking.
If some religions are truer than others, we cannot deny this merely for expedience, nor would it likely achieve peace. Peace is not founded upon falsehoods: while outwardly people might assent to a lie, inwardly they would know it to be false, producing inner, and eventually outer, conflict. Stable and lasting peace must be founded upon truth and honesty. If members of one group really believe their religion is true and another is false, and if they love the others and genuinely wish for their welfare, then they should wish for the conversion of the others.
Therefore, for example, if Christians truly believe their religion is superior to Islam, and if (as Christianity teaches) they love Muslims, then they should wish for the conversion of Muslims. This is not achieved by an “all roads lead to the same place” view. Such radical inclusivism would instead seem to imply either disregard of Christian doctrine, tepidity of faith, or lack of love. This is why I am rather astonished to see legitimate Christian philosophers arguing for radical inclusivism, or at least (as in the case of the eminent philosopher John Hick) promoting it without even remotely addressing the issues raised above.
Now, logically, Christians should be prepared to accept that Muslims may feel the same way towards Christianity. Where, then, does this leave us? What hope is there if two great religions, Christianity and Islam, each lay claim to exclusivity?
We should not give up too easily. Here we have been careful to use words like “wish to see the other converted” rather than, say, “aggressively try to convert the other.” There is a reason for this distinction, and it is the gist of my argument here.
Suppose that members of one faith were compelled by conscience or duty to seek the conversion of another. If so, then since this would have to be seen as God’s work, one ought to pursue it by the most effective means possible. But, by far, the most effective means of changing another is by setting a good example. A good example is efficient — it simply involves acting in the same way that your religion teaches you to act for your own salvation; no additional ‘cost’ is involved. And it is immensely powerful: human beings are instinctively impelled to imitate any good example they see.
If you wish to convert another, then, demonstrate by your kindness and compassion the action of God’s grace upon you. Demonstrate that God works through you. Win the hearts, minds, and souls of others through your good works. Contrarily, if you treat others harshly, if you try to convert them with aggression or violence, you will succeed only in showing that you are not a person of God. You will make your religion seem less, not more attractive. This principle, in fact, is an explicit Scriptural tenet of Christianity, though insufficiently acknowledged or practiced.
This simple logic, something apparent even to a child, shows the way out of the exclusivism–inclusivism impasse. To have two exclusivist religions does not necessitate conflict. Rather, if two exclusivist religions were completely sincere, the stage would be set for a positive and productive competition. To have an ‘opponent’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Is it not true that positive competition spurs on the finest of human achievements? Let us, then, confound the professional philosophers who wish to make this issue more complicated than it really is, and state things simply: let Christians and Muslims engage in a friendly competition to see who can extend greater kindness to the other.
In summary, we have here refuted two popular myths prevalent in the current debate on religious pluralism:
- That radical inclusivism necessarily breeds peace
- That exclusivism necessarily breeds conflict
We have further suggested that maintaining some degree of exclusivism is ethical and appropriate if a religion truly considers itself superior. Having two exclusivist religions ought to lead to a positive competition, promoting love and tolerance, leading more directly to peace than an artificial or pretended inclusivism.
We hasten to add, so there is no misunderstanding, that the kind of moderate exclusivism envisaged here is one where a faith considers itself superior, but also allows for the possibility that members of the other faith may be saved without formal conversion. This view, which could as easily be called a position of moderate inclusivism, is or approximates the position of the Catholic Church towards Muslims.
Basinger, David. “Religious Pluralism“. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007. (Retr. Jan. 18, 2007).
Hick, John. “Islam and Christianity“. Lecture to the Iranian Institute of Philosophy, Tehran, March 2005.
Platinga, Alvin. Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”. In The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity (Philip L. Quinn & Kevin Meeker, eds). Oxford University Press, 1999. Reprinted from The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith (Thomas D. Senor, ed), Cornell University Press, 1995.
The thing about prayer is that everybody knows it works, but they act otherwise.
The problem is not that prayer doesn’t work, or only works sometimes; it’s that people forget to pray. Scripture teaches, the saints affirm, and I am personally convinced that prayer works. And it always works.
You are not just some lump of clay who utters a few words, thinking God might hear, and then weakly hopes God might choose to act on them. You are a divine, immortal being, made in God’s image and likeness. Further, if you are properly on the spiritual path, you are a Son of God. Your prayers are not minor things, then. They are, or are meant to be, immensely powerful cosmic forces.
God always hears; and He answers all well-motivated prayers.
What is well-motivated? That means, principally, that the impetus for the prayer comes not from you, but from God. You, to be sure, must apply your will in prayer; prayer involves an active effort of faith and will. In some sense, your will is probably instrumental in making happen what you pray for. But if the prayer is well-motivated, working beneath or within your will is God’s will, moving yours.
If you pray for something entirely selfish — like to win the lottery — chances are that God’s will is not at work in the prayer. But if you pray for another person, and out of genuine concern or compassion, then God is likely at work. Then pray fervently, believing not just that your request will be granted, but that you act on God’s behalf in making it.
People sometimes wonder why we’re put on earth. Theories include that we are here as punishment, as purification, or as education. But perhaps the most important reason we are here is to assist God. We are unique beings — part material and part divine. On that basis we have a special role in making things happen here. Our prayers have a unique efficacy — we can accomplish things that angels cannot.
When you pray for another, the person is always helped. Sometimes the help is not recognizable: God’s wisdom and foresight are infinitely greater than ours. But if you request benefit or help for another the prayer will be answered — and in ways better than you could have planned or imagined.
It’s truly a wonder that people don’t take advantage of this tremendous resource, prayer. It’s like a person who lives in direst poverty, oblivious to a purse full of gold coins that they hold. If one could see how valuable and effective prayer truly is, ones life would be transformed. One would pray all the time, and for everyone.
So be moderate in most things, but not in prayer. Pray for small things and great things. Pray for those around you; for whoever is in need. Make prayer your vocation.
Most of all, pray now for world peace. Pray sincerely, and with full confidence.
When I came to Europe to visit I hoped I’d to find many good ideas I could take back to the US — new concepts and paradigms for the future. What happened is almost the reverse — the experience made me see appreciate the importance of our leadership role.
Yes, we have difficulties and make mistakes. But these occur in part because of our unique position. We are the oldest modern democracy on earth. It’s a continuing experiment, and we’re still working the bugs out.
What’s happened lately is that our society has become fragmented. We’ve lost a sense of common vision and destiny. What I’d like to see pull us back together is the common recognition that the world needs us. It needs us not as policeman, bully, or authority figure, but instead to demonstrate that a modern industrialized democracy can work.
While we obviously tend to emphasize most our own problems, the truth is that the rest of the world is, to a large extent, in worse shape. The needs of the third-world are obvious: hundreds of millions lack food, health, and education. But even in Europe the standard of living is often far lower than Americans suppose. In the large cities, for example, many people are crowded, lack employment, and, worst of all, lack hope.
No force on earth is as powerful as the force of compassion. If Americans realized how much good they could do for others by renewing America, then I think they would muster the will and resources to make it happen. Sometimes you can accomplish far more working on others’ behalf than you can for your own sake.
The most important thing we can do for people around the world is our setting of a positive example. If we do that, if we show that a modern democracy can work; that a society can reap the benefits of technology, and still be sustainable; that we can not just reduce chronic stress, but achieve a better quality of life than our ancestors knew; that we can replace the The System with a government of the people, by the people and for the people; and, most importantly, that people with diverse needs and interests can cooperate — then the rest of the world will follow our example.
This is our mission and our destiny. Let American’s take it to heart! We should approach our renewal not just thinking about how much it will benefit us alone, but also about its benefit for others who need our example. Despite our mistakes, other countries still look up to us. They admire our success and our freedom. Let’s not let them down!
See TJ’s Great Books List!
[An updated version of “Why Vote Third-Party?” is here on my main website. (April 2015)]
For busier readers, here is the argument in outline form. The original article, slightly longer, follows. After that are links of interest.
- Today we effectively have a staged elections, in which the Establishment (a.k.a. the System, the power elite, the military-industrial-banking-oil-media-complex), presents two status quo (Republican and Democrat) candidates.
- To prevent voters from voting for a non-Establishment (e.g., an independent, Libertarian or Green Party) candidate, the Establishment uses a divide-and-conquer strategy: (1) choose Republican/Democrat platform issues that polarize voter opinion as closely as possible to a 50/50 split; (2) have horrible, frightening candidates for both parties; (3) by this means, manipulate voters such that, to keep the more feared candidate from winning, they must vote for the other candidate; (4) crucial to this strategy’s success is to have several ‘hot-button’ issues (healthcare, gay marriage, taxing the rich, etc.), to scare voters on both the left and right, and for news media focus on these issues so as to maximally inflame emotions.
- As a result, virtually everyone (98% in the 2012 presidential election) votes for the Democrat or Republican candidate, maintaining the Establishment power elite. Nothing changes: wars, poverty, bad economy, no jobs, poor quality of life, continued erosion of values and morale. Wealth transfer continues from citizens to corporate owners.
- Nomination of horrible Republican and Democrat candidates also means many voters will simply not vote, which again works in the Establishment’s favor.
- The racket will continue as long as it works; it will stop working when a substantial proportion of Americans vote for independent or third-party candidates.
- Voting for the Democrat or Republican candidate cannot be justified on the principle of choosing the lesser evil. Regardless of which mainstream candidate is elected, the short-term (say, 4 to 6 years) outcome will be more or less the same. Nothing much will change as long as the two big parties, and the same Establishment interests they represent, control our country. But voting for independent or third-party candidates now will potentially hasten the arrival of a time — perhaps 10–20 years hence — when we do have a real choice, and real issues. Thus, the genuine ‘lesser evil’ choice is to vote for a non-Establishment, even though one knows that the candidate won’t be elected.
- Voting for an independent or third-party candidate, therefore, will not throw your vote away. It will make a definite statement, both to the Republican and Democratic parties, and to your fellow citizens.
- Even though they represent the same vested interests, there is enough rivalry between the Democratic and Republican parties that, if third parties receive a sufficient proportion of the vote, they will begin to modify their platforms, making more concessions to citizens.
- Further, voting for third-party presidential candidates will help third parties reach the critical threshold of 5% of the popular vote — at which point they will qualify for public campaign funding assistance.
Every nation gets the government it deserves. ~ Joseph de Maistre
Deserve better! Resist demagogy! Fight back!
Why Vote Third-Party
My goal here is to convince you of sound reasons to vote for a third-party candidate — ANY third-party candidate — in the presidential election.
The reasoning is simple:
First, it should be evident to all that the Democratic and Republican parties are ‘in cahoots’. There’s not much real difference between them. Together they form a duopoly with absolute political and economic power. They distract public attention by arguing about superficial differences, obscuring the fact that they agree on the major issues like:
- the BIG GOVERNMENT model is the only option
- America needs a huge military budget
- war is not insane
- no term limits
- the ‘war on drugs’
Then why not just vote third-party? Here’s the reason many people give: “If I vote for a third party, wouldn’t that throw my vote away?“.
Let’s dispel that myth once and for all. First, if one thing is plain, it’s that you have thrown your vote away if you vote for the Democrat or Republican candidate. The two parties are basically the same, and regardless of which party is in power, things don’t improve. Recall that it was both the Democrats and the Republicans who rushed into the Iraq war, waving the flag, without a plan.
The truth is, the Republicrat duopoly has arranged so that we have a Democrat for one or two terms, then a Republican, and then back again. It’s a sweet system where both parties win. Neither is out of power for very long.
Consider also how both parties together have succeeded in making you feel you have to vote against someone. In 2000, for example, you may not have liked Bush much, but felt you needed to vote against Al Gore, or vice versa. That, I propose, is precisely what the two parties want. They have, by picking the right issues, managed to completely polarize the American public into two camps, split almost 50/50. Further, they’ve set the tone of American politics as one of constant acrimony and argument. Far too much attention is spent criticizing the other camp, and not enough on presenting new, positive ideas. It’s a divide and conquer strategy. By polarizing the American public, the Republicrat power coalition has kept people too busy fighting with each other to see what the real problem is. It’s the old case of ‘let’s you and him fight’.
This makes each person think, “My vote is essential to prevent the other party from winning; I can’t afford to vote for a third-party candidate, or someone with original ideas.” But considering the dearth of good ideas among the current Republican and Democrat candidates, it’s evident that, whichever wins, we’ll be stuck with another bad president for at least another four years.
This November, then, you’ll have two choices:
1. Vote for the Democrat or Republican candidate, in which case you truly will throw your vote away, or
2. Vote for a third party candidate.
In the second case, it’s true your candidate will not likely win. But you haven’t thrown your vote away. If enough people do this, then the Democrats and Republicans will get the message. By the time the next elections come around, they will be thinking about adopting some of the ideas from the third parties. Further, any vote for a third party encourages the founding of new third parties, with valuable new ideas.
The potential for positive change in America exists. What we must do is create a climate in which these ideas will come to the fore in public discussion, and find implementation as social policy. Third parties can meet this vital need.
Therefore, here are two suggestions for you to consider:
1. Investigate the current third party candidates. Read their platforms and identify any promising ideas they have. In just doing this you will have broken free from the mind-conditioning of the two-party system. You will be actively contributing to making American a true democracy. Then, just consider voting for the candidate whom you would like to be president, not worrying about the issue of ‘throwing your vote away.’
2. Most of all — though this is really a separate issue — approach the election with a positive attitude. This shouldn’t be about whom you dislike or disagree with. It should be about developing positive vision of the future. Pay particular attention to noticing how the big-party candidates (and their buddies, the news media) try to manipulate public consciousness by eliciting anger and hatred — and then don’t oblige them.
- Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Winning
- The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Third-Party Voting
- Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative
- The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)
- The Commission on Presidential Debates: A National Scandal
Other Contemporary Articles
- Essays About Third Parties
- The Myth of the Wasted Vote – Charles L. Hooper
- 3rd Parties: What They’re For and What They Do – Rick Gaber
- Vote Third Party – Vote For Change!
- George Washington’s “most solemn” warning on the baneful effects of the spirit of party, from his Farewell Address
- William Ellery Channing (1780–1842) on the perils of the partisan spirit
- Free and Equal – Election reform to end partisan duopoly
- Independent Political Report – Frequently updated source for third-party news
- Open Debates – Open the presidential debates to third-party candidates
- OpenSecrets – Money in politics: see who’s giving
- Resources for Third Parties and Third-Party Candidates
Third Party Websites
- Constitution Party
- Green Party
- Libertarian Party
- Peace and Freedom Party
- Prohibition Party
- Reform Party
- Socialist Party