All Cultures Are Not One

Over at Stanford, things are heating up: a group of students are calling for a discussion about whether their college's curriculum should include a "Western Civilization" humanities requirement, and the fur has well and truly started to fly. As the editor of the Standford Review reports, in the past two weeks since the Review published its petition,
People writing articles in defense of the Western canon have been marginalized and silenced within groups whose policy priorities have nothing to do with curricular requirements. Signers of the petition have reported being personally called out in dining halls and student group meetings, and have been systematically contacted to justify their signatures, They have also been publicly branded as supporters of “racism”, “elitism”, “classism” and “hatred”. Finally, two members of the Stanford activist community have publicly announced that they have downloaded the list of signatories, and intend to use it against voters in case they “want to run for office”. 
The supporters of the petition for a conversation (not even yet a specific proposal, just a discussion about having such a requirement in the curriculum) point to all the obvious facts: that, in the language of the petition, "the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world" have had a "unique role" in "shaping our political, economic, and social institutions." That studying the sources of our culture in the Western tradition is not the same as saying that that tradition has had no limitations or flaws or that it is the only source of our institutions and ideals. That the ideals and institutions of Western civilization have had effects far beyond the regions that identify now as "Western." To little avail. According to their fellow students, to require study of the Western tradition is by definition to exclude other traditions, induce homogeneity, and "harmful to our campus well-being." And we wonder why we have so much trouble defending the study of the humanities in our schools.

I know what you think I am going to say at this point, but you're (probably) wrong. Yes, I believe that the West is the source of some of the most important institutions and ideals that the world has ever known, including some of the ones that the promoters of the Stanford Review petition have highlighted, much to the distress of their peers: free speech, rationalism, and individual liberty which in the authors' words "fueled the intellectual destruction of colonialism in Western and other societies." And, yes, it is maddening the way in which the critics of the proposal seem not to realize that the very criticisms they are bringing are often themselves products of the hated "Western" tradition, e.g. feminism, Marxism, anti-racism, all of which my students and I have talked about this quarter in our discussions of European civilization. But, pace some of my more conservative friends, I would argue that it is not these kinds of criticisms that are the root of the problem, at least not as such. (Self-criticism is one of the great strengths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as everyone who has ever recited the Miserere mei knows.) Rather, as I see it, the root of the problem in our defense of the humanities is yet another of our tradition's highest ideals: the willingness to see not just all human beings, but all cultures, more particularly (because this is really the root of the matter) all religions as essentially the same.

Even the Vatican promotes this ideal. As the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate proclaimed by his Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965, puts it:
From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
Which, surely, is all to the good in these fractious and perilous times when simply citing the criticisms that earlier Christians have made about, for example, Islam can become occasion for attacks on churches and death threats.

Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero would beg to disagree. As he argues in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (2010), fashionable as it has been since the 1960s to affirm "that all religions are beautiful and all are true," such refusal to engage the real differences between the religions tends directly to the detriment of actual understanding as well as of any real hope of peace. In his words:
[The idea, "as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, 'The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials'"] is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one. This wishful thinking is motivated in part by an understandable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise [not quite the way most Christian missionaries put it, but it is true they want all people to be saved through Christ--FB]. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves--practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths [again, something of a caricature; Las Casas did not see the Aztecs or Incas as inferior, and Gregory the Great famously described the pagan Anglo-Saxon youths he saw for sale as slaves as "angels" ("Non Angli, sed angeli")--FB]. The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink--call it Godthink--has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide.... One purpose of the "all religions are one" mantra is to stop [the fighting and killing to which adherents of different religions are moved by their differences]. And it is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that--faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.
Prothero goes on to reflect on how this well-intentioned desire for religious unity has left Americans in particular so uncomfortable with expressions of difference as to make them "allergic to 'argument'": like most Americans, his own students "see arguing as ill-mannered, and even among friends they avoid it at any cost." Rather than acknowledge the differences between religions or the cultures they have fostered, Americans would rather "pretend that these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, more moral." We tell world history as if religion did not matter, and we pretend that the great conflicts afflicting our modern world have primarily economic or political roots, whatever the religious motivations those involved in these conflicts invoke. Likewise with the arguments that erupt from within religious traditions. Those who would insist that all religions are basically the same prefer to pretend that "the differences between, say, Christianity and Islam are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don't warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them."

The result, as Prothero has shown here and elsewhere, is a profound ignorance on the part even of believing Americans about the complexities of their own traditions, never mind those of other parts of the world. Religion, in particular Christianity, is the great Unmentionable in our schools, leaving students at sea when confronted with the question how it was that the West became so open to other cultures in the first place or concerned itself with the effects of its expansion in the way that it did. More to the point, it leaves them at sea in understanding why any culture should value anything other than material development or power precisely because it is through religion that human beings express what they value most--and human beings of different cultures and religions value different things, not all of which are mutually compatible with the values of other cultures and religions. For example, the ideal of Christianity as expressed by the Apostle Paul, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), which arguably is the ultimate, if typically unacknowledged source, of the trinity of modern social justice concerns (race, class, and gender). Accordingly, when certain of the Stanford students oppose the Stanford Review's proposal on the grounds that their stories and voices are not included in the account of "Western civilization" that they have been taught ("dead, white, European, and male"), whether they realize it or not, they are speaking in terms of the ideal of Pentecost, that the gospel should be preached to all in their native language, so that all peoples, regardless of race, class, sex, culture, or politics might be included in the Church (Acts 2:1-21).

But to make such arguments requires us to make certain choices--and choices is the last thing that most humanities professors feel inclined to make. Not for themselves--we all have our specialties which we have chosen, often at great cost to the things we believe other people base their decisions on (prospects of material development, power). But oddly and devastatingly, for our students. Because, we say, we don't want to impose our beliefs on anyone. Because it is not for us to say what they should value (although, of course, we do, simply by refusing to say). Because we don't want to offend. Because there are truths in all traditions, although we cannot give our students any criteria for distinguishing truth from lies or even half-truths. To be sure, not all of us are so reticent: some, particularly those who feel called upon to serve as social or political activists, are quite open about their desire to teach their students particular ways of viewing the world. But the majority of us believes with Pope Paul VI that we live in a world where the paths to truth are multiple and regards all cultures and religious traditions as equal in their access to the basic truths, the "fundamentals or essentials," as Swami Sivananda would put it. (Full disclosure: I have chanted prayers to Swami Sivananda as guru and sat satsang with his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda about a year or two before he died.)

Noble, even Christian, as this perspective is, however, it has its costs, not the least of which being we leave ourselves no ground as teachers of the humanities on which to defend the actual content of our lessons. Perhaps the greatest cost is not, however, intellectual, but emotional, as the accusations flying now at Stanford illustrate. In refusing to make the argument for the values and ideals on which our universities were founded beyond just the "skills" that we purport to teach, we have abandoned our students to a world in which the only truths are personal and the only motivators political or economic. This is not to say that we should become evangelists ourselves; we are teachers, not preachers. It is to say, nevertheless, that we need to reexamine our own core beliefs, including our insistence that if the truth is out there, we have no idea how to find it other than through our unexamined faith that the only differences in cultures or religions are "non-essential," if not even real.*

To be continued...

*Unless, of course, they come from the West. Then they are diabolical.

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