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Comments on “A Common Word between Us and You”

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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

Written by John Uebersax

January 30, 2008 at 5:18 pm

A Reply to Osama bin Laden

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A Reply to Osama Bin Laden

John S. Uebersax PhD


Following the attacks of September 2001, Osama Bin Laden has delivered several addresses to Americans (e.g., October 2004; April 2006; September 2007). Since the American people themselves, and not their government or corporations, were addressed, and further since the people were the victims the attacks, I, as a citizen of the United States, feel it my personal duty to reply. My sense of responsibility is increased by the fact that I am a Christian, and so see things in religious terms, and because I am a psychologist, and therefore have some knowledge of the workings of the mind — including its misuse as exemplified by terrorism.

It is important to make a reasoned reply to bin Laden, and to the accusations and arguments of his several messages. Some may criticize me for attempting to reason with terrorists, but I disagree. Terrorists demonstrate by their actions an inability to think correctly; therefore it is all the more imperative that others demonstrate to them correct modes thought and action, and appropriate ways to resolve injustices. In any case it is foolish to not show respect for an adversary.

Others might see me as naive in presuming to write such a reply.  Had other citizens written reasoned replies, posting them online or publishing them, I would feel no need to do so.  However, as it is, the few replies I have seen demonstrate far more emotion than reason or good sense.  If only as a symbolic act, I feel it both worthwhile and important to demonstrate that Americans are intelligent and idealistic people, and concerned with the welfare of all people.

In writing this I depart from some of the formalities — or, perhaps we should say pretensions — associated with my academic, professional, and scientific background.  (Any readers who may know me professionally are asked to keep this in mind.)  Here I write only as a citizen, an elder (at least in a relative sense) and a gray-beard of my tribe, which has, in fact, been attacked.

The Reply

Certain themes have recurred in your (bin Laden’s) messages. Here I shall respond to several of these, paying particular attention to four general issues.

1. An eye for an eye

In your message of September 2007 (assuming it is genuine), you begin by justifying terrorism based on the scriptural concept of “an eye for an eye.”

There is a well-known saying: “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” Here is a case in point. You apparently believe that you act on God’s behalf in exacting vengeance; but the truth is that emotion has distorted your mind, making you unable to discern the true meaning of scripture. Your intentions, that is, are formed by malice beforehand; you then select whatever passages and give them whatever interpretation you please to support your prejudices.

The words of scripture permit many different interpretations. For this reason generations of learned and pious souls have searched to find the true meanings. You entirely disregard the opinions of these others, and presume to impose whatever meanings you find personally convenient. That is a sure sign of pride, and of not genuinely seeking to learn and do God’s will.

We could find a hundred other passages in the Qur’an or the Bible which make clear that terrorism is evil and contrary to God’s ways. For example, there is this:

Let not hatred of any people seduce you into being unjust. Be just, that is nearer to piety. (The Qur’an, al-Ma’idah 5:8).

And this:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Do not contend with people of the Book except in the fairest way. (The Qur’an, al-Ankabut 29:46).

Now it is generally understood by Muslims that Christians are included in the term “people of the book.” By what strange definition, then, could killing thousands of innocent non-combatants be considered fair? Fairness, according to the principle of “an eye for an eye” would be, potentially, to exact revenge upon the specific person or persons who committed a crime. Thus, if a man kills your brother, then, according to this principle, one could justify killing that man. This is far removed from applying the principle in an abstract and generalized way. Were any of those who died in the Twin Towers personally responsible for killing Muslims? And is it not certain in any case that at least some were wholly innocent? Many were not even Americans! To appreciate the gravity of your offenses and to see how inconsistent your acts are with the spirit of your own Qur’an, you should ponder the following:

Whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, it shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether. (The Qur’an, al-Ma’idah 5:32).

The choice of terrorism

In your October 2004 speech you described what led to your decision to pursue terrorism. Referring to the 1982 bombardment of Lebanon you said:

“I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy.” (Source: October 2004 video, Al Jazeera transcript)

And then you said:

In those difficult moments many hard-to-describe ideas bubbled in my soul, but in the end they produced an intense feeling of rejection of tyranny, and gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors.” (Souce: ibid.)

We should examine these statements closely. To witness such carnage is obviously difficult and produces strong and complex feelings. The strongest feelings are those of horror and of compassion and empathy for the afflicted. Compassion is stronger and more fundamental than any subsequent feelings of anger. Witnessing such destruction, the immediate natural human impulse is to say, “I wish that this did not happen, and I resolve for such a thing to never happen again!” And if this resolve is strong enough, the soul will struggle further with the hard-to-describe feelings you allude to, until the only real solution is reached: “I will embark on a campaign of peace, and so convert even my enemies from their evil ways; thereby I will insure that such things happen no more, and that no more people suffer this way.”

This is a difficult point in the deliberations of the soul, for we are not just guided by divine promptings, but prone to “demonic” influences as well. In this case, the latter infected your reasoning process, suggesting the path of revenge. Your thinking then became consumed by this single, incorrect idea, and you chose the wrong path. You chose, in fact, the very path most certain to produce more of the very suffering you wished to end. Is it not for this reason that it is written:

But (remember that an attempt at) requiting evil may, too, become an evil: hence whoever pardons (his foe) and makes peace, his reward rests with Allah- for, verily He does not love transgressors. (The Qur’an, Ash-shura 42:40)

And if you object to this translation, which some render differently, consider this alternative, the meaning of which is beyond dispute:

If a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah.

You should have seen in Lebanon in 1982 that your enemy is neither the United States nor Israel. Your enemy — the enemy of all of us — is hatred itself. And if one hates this enemy enough, one will stop at nothing to defeat it, even adopting the seemingly illogical plan of forgiving ones enemies.

This is the truest meaning of jihad or holy war: the struggle conducted within ones own soul to overcome the elements of baseness and egoism and to be conformed to the will of God, who seeks peace for His children. The insight that peace is the correct path, however, only comes with struggle. It is true that there are specific passages in scripture that refer to vengeance. But God has given us reason, by which we may see that these passages must be considered in the entire context of God’s word, which unmistakably teaches the way of peace.

Here, then, is a sign by which one may distinguish between legitimate punishment of injustice, which may potentially serve God, and the lesser species of malicious revenge: if one delivers just punishment, then one feels no hatred or anger, just as a judge may feel true compassion and sorrow for the soul of one he has been required to sentence; the judge keeps the humanity of the one sentenced foremost in his mind; if there is a more merciful option, he considers that one instead; he is willing, even eager, to distinguish between a reformable and unregenerate person. But if one feels anger and hatred in exacting ‘punishment’, this is not divine retribution but instead reflects only the workings of men and demons; it is malice disguised as justice.

We may also state things thus: terrorism places the motive of revenge ahead of the motive of serving God; it is a fundamentally wrong and unreligious mentality. A pious man does not rashly embark on a course of action and then stubbornly cling to it; that is like a sailor who sets his course once and then lashes fixed the rudder. The right way is to continually remain open to the subtle promptings of God’s spirit, which “goeth where it listeth” (Gospel of John 3 : 8 ) and to constantly search for the wisdom that comes from above:

But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.
This wisdom descendeth not from above, but [is] earthly, sensual, devilish.
For where envying and strife [is], there [is] confusion and every evil work.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, [and] easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace
(Epistle of James, 3:15-17)

2. Terrorism is counter-productive, making worse the very conditions it seeks to remedy.

From your messages it is not clear exactly whom among Americans you believe your enemies to be. Often you imply that you consider George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, and other members of the current administration your enemies. Yet other times you seem to blame the American people themselves for complicity in the Iraq war, and for the injustices of capitalistic imperialism generally. In any case, it seems that one of your expressed purposes is to drive a wedge between the American people and their government.

Americans are naturally critical of their government. Many or most would like to see extensive reforms. This interest long predates the attacks of September 2001. Terrorism, however, does not weaken the American government — it plainly strengthens it. When any country is attacked, demagogues capitalize on public fears to seize or increase power. Then, to remain in power, these individuals or parties characteristically prolong or manufacture conflict to maintain their control. Martial law — either formal, or informal as with the so-called “Patriot Act” — is invoked to weaken the power of citizens, instill fear, and suppress dissent. All of these things have happened, and predictably so, following the September 2001 attacks. And as long as there is a threat of terrorism, they are likely to continue.

You evidently fail to appreciate that many Americans are extremely dissatisfied both with the current administration and with the general political system. It should be no secret that Americans are oppressed by their own government. This is not evidence that Americans are bad or negligent. Nearer the truth is that because the United States is the oldest modern democracy and the most technologically advanced society on earth, we occupy the cutting edge of social progress. We feel the ‘growing pains’ of modern culture first. If some other people were in our place, they would have the same crises of democracy and culture that we experience.

Americans understand the need to change, but change is made difficult by the power of the existing political system. Now here is the question you must consider: does one punish those in prison because of the actions of the jailers? That can only have the effect of making their misery worse, weakening them, and making them less able to free themselves.

Terrorism does not stimulate the higher powers of others souls to understand and remedy injustice. Instead it perpetuates fear and ignorance; it deadens the spirit, producing a kind of individual and mass mental stupor; these things ensure further injustice.

There are Americans who are trying to change things. You mention, for example, the intellectual, Noam Chomsky. Many Americans, myself included, remembering the experience of Viet Nam, protested the Iraq war at the beginning, and have continued to do so. But the saner voices are drowned out by the beat of war drums — for which you and your fellow terrorists are responsible.

3. Terrorism fails to address the real problems.

You often complain of capitalism, ignoring the obvious benefits which capitalism has brought. If there is any country, Islamic or otherwise, where people are willing to forego cellphones, computers, video cameras, automobiles, and wide-screen televisions, I have yet to see it. All people seem attracted to the benefits of technology rightly used. The truth is that corporations have been instrumental in producing marvels of technology and improving our quality of life. It is not corporations per se that are evil, but corporations in the hands of amoral people that do harm. Therefore it is naïve and simplistic to say that corporations or capitalism are the problems. The problems, rather are those things that cause misuse of corporations and capitalism.

The System

There are two dimensions to this problem — material and spiritual. At the material level, we, as modern human beings, must come to grips with what, lacking a better term, we may call the System. Due to our technological sophistication the various institutions of society are interconnected more than ever. We have produced a vast social and economic machine. It is something unprecedented in history, and we have yet to understand how to cope with it.

Decades ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans to beware the military-industrial complex. He did not define what this was, relying instead upon the self-evident fact that such a thing existed. To this day you will find few scientists who claim to know exactly what it is, or to understand the laws that characterize it. But it surely exists.

Moreover, it is now apparent that this is something larger than the military institutions and government contractors to which Eisenhower referred. It also encompasses, among other things, the media, governments, corporations, global financial institutions, and the energy industry. It has further corrupted our educational institutions and led to an erosion of Christianity in the West; from your comments, it seems you would agree that a certain erosion of Islamic values has also occurred in many countries.

The terrible aspect of the System is precisely that nobody controls it. It is naive to think that George W. Bush or corporate heads direct it. Rather, the system is something larger and impersonal — something with the ability to misdirect the thinking of political and economic leaders. It is pointless, then, to hate George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, or any other specific person. The worst that can be said about such individuals is that they have let their thinking be distorted by the System. But since nobody understands the System, that is almost inevitable.

Now here is the thing to consider: global terrorism is itself part of this same System. What other conclusion can be drawn? Acts of terrorism strengthen, not weaken military institutions and government regimes in the victim countries; they reduce the freedom of the people, making them unable to defeat the System that rules their lives; they replace education, intelligence, and sober judgment — the means by which people may prevail against the System — with fear and hatred, things which feed the System and increase its domination.

The Devil

Beyond this is the spiritual dimension of the problem. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, the great apostle of Jesus, 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. (Epistle to the Ephesians, 6:12)

What this means is that beyond the actual institutions that cause injustice, Satan operates. That is the position of Christians. While we acknowledge that individuals or nations may harm us, we remain mindful that these are merely material manifestations of a greater spiritual enemy. It is unfortunate that some Muslim radicals refer to America as “the Great Satan.” Satan does exist, and he does wage war on both Islam and Christianity. But the United States is not Satan, and to equate the two is a certain mistake. Satan uses the government of the United States, just as Satan uses the governments of other nations. Satan uses any means possible to wage war on humankind. It is to be expected that he will seek most to corrupt the strongest governments, and so do the most harm.

4. Christians and Muslims should cooperate.

Satan’s obvious strategy is that of “divide and conquer.” Most of all he wishes to turn people of faith against one another. The response should be obvious: Muslim and Christian culture should make peace and abandon the hatred and violence which empower Satan. As “people of the book” we should be cooperating. Islam means surrender to God. Christians believe the same principle, but use other words, like “humility” and “poverty of spirit” to refer to it. Were a Christian to practice Christianity faithfully, to live by the words of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, then this person would also be islam in the sense of living surrendered to God.

You suggest that the current problems might end if America were to convert to Islam. Needless to say, that is a most unlikely proposition. Here is a more fitting one: since Christians and Muslims alike wish to see an end to the suffering and injustice that fuel international conflict, and since we have found that terrorism and war do not solve these problems, may we now try instead a much more potent remedy, and one more fitting for religious people? I refer to the remedy of prayer.

If every devout Christian and Muslim were to spend but a minute a day praying for an end to injustice and oppression, do you think God would deny this? And if not all, what if only half, or only one in ten prayed so? How much simpler this would be, and how much more to God’s glory, than incessant hatred and violence!

How much more starkly than this can the erroneous thinking that produces terrorism and war be revealed? Should one fight for ones religion, and then act as though one does not believe one of its most basic tenets: that God is faithful and responds to prayer?

To not see so obvious a thing we are surely like ones asleep. Let us awaken then and conduct ourselves with the dignity fitting people of God. Let us not doubt the power of faith and prayer. Let us not doubt that God will favor with peace those who truly follows His ways.


To summarize:

  1. Terrorism seeks to weaken oppressive elements of the American government; but it strengthens these elements.
  2. Terrorism seeks to redress social injustice; but it promotes injustice and delays solutions that peace and cooperation may achieve.
  3. Terrorism divides the Christian and Muslim worlds, which should be seeking to live in harmony.

May the Almighty and Merciful God grant clarity of mind that we may see the errors of violence and recognize how directly our problems may be solved through peace and cooperation.

Written by John Uebersax

January 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm

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On Religious Inclusivism and Exclusivism

John S. Uebersax


Here we make two main points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Written by John Uebersax

January 21, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Recognizing the Power of Prayer

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A CURIOUS thing about prayer is that everybody knows it works, but they act otherwise. It’s 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 weakly hoping 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 (women too). Your prayers are not minor things, then. They are, or are meant to be, immensely powerful cosmic forces.

Well-Motivated Prayers

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 behind it. 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.

Written by John Uebersax

January 18, 2008 at 2:38 pm

Renew America and the World Will Follow

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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!

Written by John Uebersax

January 16, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Why Vote Third-Party?

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thomas_jeffersonSee 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 candidates.
  • To prevent voters from voting for a third-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 emphasize hot-button issues to scare voters on both left and right and for news media 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

See the 2012 Third Party Presidential Debate Here!

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.

Be the change you want see in the world!


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