Cultural Psychology

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Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)


Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love

While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Cousin, M. Victor. Classification of philosophical systems. In: Cousin, Course of the History of Modern Philosophy. 2 vols. Vol.1. Tr. O. W. Wright. New York: Appleton, 1852 (repr. 1866); pp. 343-364. French philosopher, Victor Cousin (1792–1867), somewhat like Sorokin, saw a recurring historical pattern of alternation among philosophical schools of Sensualism, Idealism, Skepticism and Mysticism — all rooted in human nature and hence perennial.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015


Notes: On the unity of world religious culture

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I recently ran across the following quote from 20th-century Christian author, C. S. Lewis in his book, The Abolition of Man. These remarks preface an assemblage of quotes that relate to what Lewis termed Natural Law, which he more or less equated with ancient Chinese term, the Tao:

The idea of collecting independent testimonies presupposes that ‘civilizations’ have arisen in the world independently of one another; or even that humanity has had several independent emergences on this planet. The biology and anthropology involved in such an assumption are extremely doubtful. It is by no means certain that there has ever (in the sense required) been more than one civilization in all history.

This is a very important point to remember. Sometimes we act as if Christian culture and Muslim culture are two different things. In truth, they are not distinct. This might be true concerning some (but by no means all) of their religious doctrines, but it is most definitely not true of their religious cultures, broadly defined.

Take but one example. Christians prefer certain postures of prayer, and Muslims prefer others. In Hinduism and Buddhism still others are to be found. Are these postures efficacious only for a particular religion? Or are these postures collectively the proper spiritual heritage of all humankind? The latter seems far more plausible.

But if that is so, should we not study each others religious cultures, and freely borrow from one another. Do not mistake that for syncretism, the mistaken notion of producing a bland, watered down world religion which glosses over doctrinal differences. Our concern here is rather with practices, not doctrines. And the model is a more complex one. The suggestion is that the spiritual practices of our most ancient ancestors, say those of the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Indians, are now found scattered throughout the modern religions of the world, each retaining a subset. We are then not seeking to produce a new religious culture, as much as to reclaim an old one.

As I write this, the Muslim children are playing ball outside in the pool of Anspach fountain, drained for the winter, in St. Catherine’s place. Their teacher, leading the play, is a young Belgian woman, scarcely more than a girl herself. I do not speculate on the significance of this, except to vaguely consider that it has <i>some</i> meaning. It has happened; it is part of the Tao, and is worthy of comment on that basis alone, and for this reason: I planned originally to write something else — in fact, to quote a poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi, for the express purpose of participating in a mingling of cultures, and by that simple action, to further it. Here is the poem, chosen before the events outside my window began:

I used to be shy, you made me sing.
I used to abstain now I shout for more wine.
In somber dignity, I would sit on my mat and pray,
now children run through and make faces at me.

The children have not made faces at me, but they have enjoyed themselves playing as I wrote this.

Finally, here are two quotes cited by Lewis:

Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good.’ (Roman. Cicero. De Off. i. vii)

This is obvious enough, and needs little comment. Another is this:

‘Man is man’s delight.’ (Old Norse. Hávamál 47)

This simple statement speaks volumes. How many of modern misfortunes have come from our constant attempt to improve upon nature, and to seek something beyond what is already given to us. We imagine that one day in the future, when all problems have been solved, then humankind may have happiness. We seek to be rich, to have automobiles, and wide-screen televisions.

In truth, technology has already succeeded. We have beaten most of the diseases that afflict humankind. We are no longer at the mercy of the weather. We can feed everyone, if we simply try. Having conquered these enemies, who do we not enjoy the blessings that God has given us? Foremost among these is the gift of life itself. And second is the gift of others. God, in his kindness, has designed us so that little, if anything, on earth gives us more pleasure than to see the smile of another, to see the sparkle in their eyes. This is what truly makes us happy, and it is all free.

This blog entry is not as so rigidly organized as the others; consider it poetry, if you like, just writer’s notes.

Written by John Uebersax

February 18, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Notes: On how the people in America and in Gaza are brothers and sisters

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On how the people in America and in Gaza are brothers and sisters

A logical proof:

1. I am an American currently living in the center of Brussels. Perhaps half of the dealings I have each day are with Muslims from countries like Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, whose shops I visit and whose services I use. These are my neighbors, my colleagues, and my friends. If they are treated unfairly it is impossible for me to ignore that. Human beings are such that they are psychologically incapable of ignoring the suffering, unhappiness, or oppression of those around them. The natural instinct is to help others and to be concerned for their welfare.

Therefore the Muslims from these countries in Brussels are my brothers and sisters. It is impossible to think otherwise.

2. The European Muslims are brothers and sisters with the Muslims in their home countries, and in other Muslim countries, including Gaza.

3. Therefore if the European Muslims are my brothers and sisters, then so too are the Muslims in these other countries.

4. But I am still an American, and brother of the people there. That is hardly a bond that distance can abolish. Therefore, by this series of links (as if it were not apparent for other reasons), Americans and the people in Gaza are brothers and sisters.

So now I ask my younger brothers and sisters: please stop the quarreling. Americans: try harder to help the people in Gaza. At the very least, pray for them and take the time to learn of their difficulties. People of Gaza: stop sending missiles into Israel; re-examine the Hamas regime; work constructively to make your difficulties known, so that Americans and the rest of the world can help redress them.

Written by John Uebersax

February 18, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Notes: the spiritual children of Abraham should not battle each other

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Some entries in this blog are formal articles. Others, like this one, take more the form of working notes, outlines for later development, or ‘thinking out loud’. Some are complete, and some are just sketches. For now I will label such entries as ‘Notes’.

I am aware of and distressed by the current suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. I am also deeply concerned by the terrorist tactics of the Hamas political regime. And, naturally, I am concerned about the threat of Muslim terrorism in general.

As a religious person who seeks to love and serve God and neighbor, I must try to act in some way to improve things. How? Naturally I must look to God first, that I may do His will in this and all things.

Sometimes God makes plain to us what we should do. Other times He allows us to use our reason to decide this. In the present case, reason informs me that God has given me certain skills, interests, or “talents.” Among these are philosophy. But that I mean not the lesser things — scholasticism and sophistry — which have perenially passed themselves off as philosophy, but true philosophy — philo-sophia, which means the love of God’s wisdom. I am also trained as a psychologist.

Let met then humbly devote my skills, such as they are, to address the current problem by means of a logical analysis or scholia. I present this as a series of short propositions and conclusions.

1. Many Muslim terrorists call America the Great Satan, or hold opinions similar to this. Some apparently hold similar views towards the state of Israel.

2. It is clear from these statements that these Muslim politicians and activists believe Satan exists, and makes war against the Muslim people.

3. If Satan exists and wars against Muslims, then surely he must also wage equally malicious war against the other spiritual children of Abraham, namely Christians and Jews.

4. History shows that a very effective means Satan has for warring against religion is by political oppression.

5. In the broadest sense, political oppression occurs both within a country and by means of one country oppressing another.

6. Just as Palestinians are oppressed internationally, the faithful religious of the United States and Israel are oppressed domestically by their own governments. In each case, People of the Book should recognize Satan at work.

7. When terrorists attack the United States, or when Hamas launches missiles or mortars into Israel, their destructive actions are indiscriminate: they harm the righteous and unrighteous citizens of those countries alike. If military jihad could be justified at all, then it would have to be directed exclusively against the agents of oppression, and not harm other innocent people — but this is not possible. This leads us to our first preliminary conclusion: that terrorism as military jihad is unjust, because it harms innocent people.

8. Further, the inevitable consequence of terrorist attacks is to strengthen the central government of the attacked countries. This leads to further oppression of the devout religious communities within the target countries. Moreover, the central governments of these countries, which are effectively machinelike, beyond human control, and, if one may be so bold as to say it outright, often tools of Satan — these governments use terrorist actions as an excuse for more oppression. This leads to our second preliminary conclusion: that terrorist jihad is counterproductive, because it leads to more, not less, suffering of God’s children.

9. People of the Book believe that Satan works in conjunction with an “army” of daemons. Scientifically, we do not know what daemons are. Whether they are disembodied entities, or something else, is not clear. At present, the word “daemon” is a placeholder term for a range of phenomena that we observe but to not fully understand. We use the word daemonic to describe states of mind in which a person is “seized”, and in which they act irrationally and impulsively, especially in a violent way. It is also characteristic of daemonic states that people cannot clearly scrutinize their own motives.

10. From all the preceding, points, it would appear that terrorist actions are daemonic, not holy. They do not reflect the wisdom of God, which comes from above, and which is recognized by qualities of peace, gentleness, patience, and insight.

We then conclude this: any logic by which people, through desperation, suffering, anger, or resentment, reach the conclusion that they must engage in a military jihad must be immediately recognized as false, and daemonic in origin. Yes, the suffering is unjust and unfair. It must stop! But to act violently is certain not to end the misery, but to continue it. Further, armed aggression does not harm the sources of oppression, but is displaced onto other innocent victims. Finally, we must recognize that as long as people respond to suffering with violence, then Satan will produce more suffering.

Even (or especially) the most fundamentlist Muslims, Christians, and Jews should admit that the real enemy is Satan. Then why not face the real enemy, and wield against him those weapons which he most dreads: holiness, peace, virtue, and trust in God? Do the young men who brandish machine guns and grenade launchers consider themselves courageous? That is not courage. Courage, the true way of jihad, is found in the battle to acquire virtue, and the struggle to follow the more difficult path of peace.

People in America — the awake and decent ones — want to see peace and justice for the Palestinian people. The people in Gaza need to understand that we are all suffering together, although in different ways. The corporate-dominated media do not tell Americans the truth. Americans are, in any case, beaten down by their own political system, and barely able to act to change things.

Despite all these difficulties, we have the one tool at our disposal which Satan cannot remove, namely prayer. Indeed, Christians believe — and I would be greatly surprised if Muslims did not also believe it — that prayers are rendered even stronger when made in the midst of suffering.

Written by John Uebersax

February 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm

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