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REVIEWS

 

 

Robert Carter and Sheldon Isenberg editors, The Ideal in the World's Religions: Essays on the Person, Family, Society and Environment.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.

 

These essays allow the reader to participate at arm's length in an Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace conference (August 20-27, 1995) on the theme "Realizing the Ideal." The essays, despite their common denominator, fall into five rather different categories. The result is almost five different mini-books, entailing a major or minor shifting of gears as one moves from one to the other.

The first section deals with broad and basic issues in ecumenical dialogue: how dare a member of one religion make criticisms about another without reverting to the imperialist condescension of the past? Should we assume that all religions have the most important things in common? If they don't, can they still mutually affirm one another? Can we take each other's religions seriously without sloughing off loyalty to our own? The questions are important and unavoidable, and several answers offered here strike me as truly ingenious, penetrating, and promising. Francis X. D'Sa sketches the basic problem of religious chauvinism as being a religion's inability to heed it's own innate drive toward universalizing its truth by token of clinging to its own "scandal of particularity," the historical conditions in which its revelation was received. A religion understandably fears dissolving, losing its distinctive identity, if its message becomes so universal as to merge with the general ideals of humanity. But if it seeks universalization by means of universal conversion, we have a dangerous situation such as historically has begotten both imperialism and religious war. D'Sa makes a brilliant suggestion when he invokes the analogy (or is it a mere analogy?) of the hermeneutical task within each religion as it extrapolates from an ancient text, anchored in the original historical context, seeking to find guidance for new situations, for new generations, in a new age. The gap between the writer's and original readers' Sitz-im-Leben and that of modern interpreters and their communities of faith poses a challenge to all religions which they all accept already. They know, in the one case, they must make a great leap into an unanticipated future in which the applicability of the original revelation has become problematical. They have no choice. What D'Sa suggests is that the religions might as well recognize as an identical challenge the present situation where several equally sophisticated and devout religions face each other. While the proper response to superstition or moral degeneracy on the mission field might once have been evangelism, it must today seem absurd for, e.g., Christians to demand that Buddhists, adherents of an equally venerable and noble religion, convert. Of course the religions have hitherto felt justified in seeking conversions because they were ill-informed about the other faiths, accepting caricatures and disparagements: if a Hindu were really no more than a demon-cultist (see popular screeds like Bob Larson's Hippies, Hindus and Rock and Roll), then he could only benefit by changing over to Christianity. The tactic is essentially the same as that whereby a nation's wartime enemies are caricatured to the point of dehumanization: if Japanese troops are sub-human monkey-men, then an American need not scruple to shoot them. Interfaith dialogues such as the one that gave birth to the present collection of essays may be seen as peace conferences seeking to establish, first, a state of detente, then of lasting peaceful co-existence, and finally--who knows?

It is always a treat to read Ninian Smart's latest thoughts on the world's religions, and his essay here, "Measuring the Ideal: Christian Faith and the World's Worldviews," is no exception. Much more can and must be made of Smith's suggestion that future religionists will regard all the faiths not as competitors but as a smorgasbord of resources to be drawn upon to season and spice one's own faith.

The second section, dealing with the Ideal as it applies to the individual, is both informative and truly edifying. Several insights will challenge any reader's spirituality as well as providing hope that interreligious unity is far more than a pipe-dream. How wonderful that there are already holy tales upholding interfaith solidarity as a virtue. The famous Buddhist-Jainist-Sufi parable of the Blind Six and the Elephant is one. The martyrdom of Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur who gave his life to defend the religious freedom of Hindus, with whose practices he certainly disagreed, from the persecution of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is another. Both are worthy of ceaseless commemoration in all faith communities. It is a new thing to build up an ecumenical sacred lore praising the virtues of ecumenicity!

Let me confess, though it cannot count as much of a criticism, since no symposium can cover every single base, that I missed the discussion of a few issues relating the religious ideal to the individual person of faith. For instance, it would have been interesting to read something on the Sufi ideal of the Perfect Heavenly Man (such as we find in Sayyed Hossein Nasr's essay "Who Is Man?" in Jacob Needleman (ed.), The Sword of Gnosis, Penguin 1974). Likewise, Bultmann's denial that Paul's dialectic of the indicative ("If we live by the Spirit...") and the imperative ("... let us walk by the spirit") constitutes an appeal to an ethical ideal but is instead a piece of apocalyptic existentialism (e.g., Bultmann, The Old Man and the New). And Eli Chesen (Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health) raises a caveat not considered here: how does one avoid suppressing personal emotional growth while consciously attempting to shape oneself into conformity with a heteronomous religious character ideal?  Erich Neumann (Depth Psychology and a New Ethic) raises a very significant question from a Jungian perspective: does the old ethic of perfection actually inculcate the very evil it seeks to suppress? Should we not rather seek to balance the Shadow and the Persona? It is a fruitful topic.

The third section, that on the Ideal Family, strikes me as diffuse and weak in its impact. Anthony J. Guerra's "The Puritans and the Family" is informative, clearing the reputation of the Puritans from charges that they constituted a kind of Orwellian Anti-Sex League. An essay on the history of Roman Catholic teaching on the family is moderately interesting, though not too surprising. (One wonders for whom Joseph Martos thought he was writing: "The doctrinal letters of the New Testament, sometimes referred to as epistles..." "Great Christian leaders and thinkers of the second through the fifth centuries are sometimes referred to as the Fathers of the Church..." Has Martos adapted his essay from old Pre-Cana class notes?)

Jean Higgins's "The Healing Role of Religion in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party" strikes me as a refugee from the days before Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, when literary studies were simply fodder for moralizing, or for author biography. One can overhear the editors choosing the contents for this book: "Well, it sort of fits the theme."

Sections four and five, on the social and environmental ideals, largely smack of a kind of apologetics, as various writers delve deep into Christian and Buddhist traditions to demonstrate, against popular opinion, that these religions do too have something good to say about social and ecological ethics. One often gets the feeling in such essays that their authors are trying to resolve their own crises of faith. They are committed to a particular religious identity as well as to a particular socio-political agenda. They first fear that the two may be incompatible (as Mary Daly, once a Roman Catholic, finally decided, when she gave up working for equality for women in the Church as being as pointless as seeking equality for blacks in the Ku Klux Klan!). But a search of the traditions and documents, usually neglected corners of these, furnishes sufficient proof-texts to ease the conscience. It is clear that these Christians and Buddhists are committed to social and ecological activism. That's what they think is right. Presumably that's what they are going to do. So what is the urgency of digging up a religious license to engage in these things? Do they really need to wait for permission? Are they trying to cover themselves? Are bishops looking askance at them for their social involvements? (As to this last possibility, it has been suggested that John Dominic Crossan's sudden shift from postmodern literary criticism to historical Jesus studies was an apologetical attempt to provide a Jesus-prooftext for social radicalism once the Vatican had distanced itself from Liberation Theology.) Or would they really be prepared to drop their social activism if they could not find scriptural citations? What sort of game is being played here? Nonetheless, it is interesting to see what such investigations turn up, especially the Buddhist creation narrative and theory of government which Francisca Cho dredges up from the Agganna Sutta.

Michael L. Mickler's "The Ideal Society and Its Realization in the Unification Tradition" is another of Mickler's unflinchingly honest reports to outsiders on the Unification Church and its bumpy evolutionary path. Many religious scholars who have trouble sporting the hats of both historian and believer (see Van Harvey's great 1969 book of that title) could learn a valuable lesson from Mickler, who knows that the best apologetics for one's religious movement is complete and total openness, warts and all.

Victor Ehly's "From Cane Ridge to Human Community" might fit better in the book's first section, the one about the presuppositions of interfaith dialogue, since his intriguing autobiographical reflections suggest what many of us have come to suspect: a la Joseph Campbell, one is perhaps best able to approach and appreciate the riches of the world religions after the disappointment of personal faith. Renan once observed that, in order to write the history of a religion, one must have formerly belonged to the religion and equally one must belong to it no more. Lacking the former, one can never know what makes the religion tick. Without the latter, one has no hope of objectivity. Ehly's disillusionment with Evangelical Revivalism and with Southern Episcopalianism pushed him from any internalized religious identity to an omnivorous interest in all religions--as an outsider. Such is the experience of many of us. But then it is all the more remarkable that most of the contributors to this volume are walking that tightrope between academic agnosticism on one side and faith partisanship on the other. That is a difficult path, and probably the only path forward in interreligious evolution.

 

        

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