Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Adventures with a Sri Lankan myth-buster

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
In Faiths in Conflict? : Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World, Vinoth Ramachandra explores the profound challenges to the integrity of global Christian witness in the church's encounter with two major religious traditions, Islam and Hinduism, as well as the considerable forces of pluralism and secularism in their various forms. In addition to working with these challenges, Ramachandra investigates aspects of the Christian faith that not only make it unique amongst other religions, but also how those unique resources position the Christian faith to be a compelling gospel in our late modern world. Much like the Newbigin text I just reviewed, this book holds up quite well despite its being over ten years old. Especially in the final chapter on secularism and the nation-state, his reflections make use of the work of William Cavanaugh and Charles Taylor, among others, who are still very much pushing out these questions on secularism and democratic capitalism in our post-9/11, post-global economic crisis context.

What strikes me in his reflections on Islam and Hinduism is how Western myths so often rush in to provide conversational frames. With Islam for instance, the “clash of civilizations” argument forwarded by Samuel Huntington in the early 1990s has quite often been the frame for post-9/11 conversations on “Islam” and “The West.” Ramachandra dryly quips that while “Huntington's civilizational paradigm has the merit of simplicity” (15), it is precisely that merit which is the argument's greatest weakness. No civilization is as self-enclosed as Huntington proposes, for as the author states, “cultures and civilizations, far from being sealed into watertight compartments, have always interpenetrated and borrowed from each other” (22). Indeed, Muslim contributions to Western thought and earlier Christian contributions to Muslim cultures have been “largely ignored by Muslims, Western Christians and secular writers alike” (24).

So to suppose that there is such a thing as monolithic, hermetically sealed things called “Islam” and “The West” is to be duped into an Enlightenment-inculcated habit of philosophical idealism, a habit which puts on historical blinders. It also assumes the nasty habit of Orientalism which creates binary opposites of us/them, normal/strange that too easily lead to good/evil distinctions through which violence is often the only conceivable response when a threat is perceived. Such attitudes can be illustrated in a paraphrase of a statement made by our last president, “The terrorists are coming for us because they hate freedom.” In a culture such as ours, bound as it is to this habit of othering in such a way, prominent news commentators lose their jobs for admitting publicly that they get scared when they see what appear to be Muslims on planes, or Americans organize to vehemently protest the construction of Muslim cultural and worship centers in communities across the U.S.

Contra these impulses within Western life, Ramachandra joins other postmodern thinkers in suggesting that such weighty matters as religion are not so easily construed, despite these “political myths” gaining “a certain reality” (19) once propagated. Rather, he suggests that “(r)eligions are total worldviews; and, like other worldviews, they embody themselves in distinctive socio-ethical practices” (42). Those distinctive socio-ethical practices presuppose communities inhabiting space and time and are shot through with cultural weight and history/stories, all of which fight against attempts to abstract an “essence” or “values and principles” out of the concrete expressions of ancient religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam. To respect these religious traditions, even our own, it behooves us to pay attention to their particularities from start to finish, from their holy texts through their historical rises and falls and on to their present, varied expressions around the globe. To settle for easy abstractions that gloss differences is intellectually lazy, disrespectful, and potentially violent.

Vinoth Ramachandra; photo by Ian Britton (CC lic.)
Ramachandra's strong theological insights, most focused in “The Jesus Enigma” chapter but sprinkled throughout the book, make use of solid Christian scholarship from folks like N.T. Wright. It's inspiring to me that a lay theologian such as Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan Christian trained in nuclear engineering in Britain, is able to pull all these disciplinary strands together – philosophy in various modes (e.g. political, linguistic), biblical studies, and theology – in compelling ways. Continuing the train of thought from the earlier discussion of worldviews, Ramachandra speaks of conversion as an ongoing process of “the word of Christ (which) penetrates the intellect, emotions and attitudes of an individual in such a way that everything that makes him what he is - his past, his network of relationships, his work, his thought-patterns and moral processes - are given a new direction: namely, towards Christ” (134, emph. mine). In other words, conversion takes ahold of our entire socially-constituted being. We are turned inside-out and upside-down, as is our way of looking at and interacting with the world.

On the subject of individualism, Ramachandra joins scholars such as Stanley Hauerwas who fight against such Modernist, “me-focused” construals of the self. While articulating his vision for a secular political order which respects religious traditions and communities, Ramachandra states that “to be fully individuals, we must be socially constituted” (161). Against privatized construals of religion, Ramachandra warns of stripping the “political dynamite” from the gospel of Jesus Christ, for to do so “is to transform the church from being the body of Christ, the sign, pledge and agent of his kingdom, into simply another voluntary association of like-minded individuals” (89, 163) In the epilogue to the book, Ramachandra sounds strongly Hauerwasian when he concludes that, “(t)he world does not set the agenda for the church … nor does the church set the agenda for the world. Rather, the church as the body of the risen Christ, is the agenda for the world… The church influences the world most when it seeks to be truly the church, and not a political or evangelistic organization” (171). This statement doesn't trivialize evangelism or the socio-political nature of the gospel, but rather sets the epistemological and ontological priorities straight for Christians.

Perhaps the section most damning to the status quo for comfy Western Christians (or Westerners in general) is Ramachandra's busting of secularist myths in the fifth and final chapter: The myth of the benign peacemaker (the modern nation-state), The myth of the empty shrine (religious tolerance), and The myth of Archimedean autonomy (the view from nowhere). These seem to get at the most sacred doctrines (sic) of the Enlightenment and their socio-political progeny, i.e. modern nation-states. These political orders were willed into being by profound intellectual and subsequently conflictual political shifts in late medieval and early modern Europe. The first myth, nation-state as benign peacemaker, functions as both the creation myth for the state and ongoing justification myth, as seen in current American rhetoric about its military intervention in the civil war in Libya. What this myth allows is a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence” by way of “ultimate loyalty (being) transferred to the sovereign state” (151). The second myth, the “empty shrine” as religious tolerance, functions to relegate “religions” to a status subservient to the state by casting them as personal, inward matters having no significant bearing on public life. Ramachandra points out that “(i)t is dangerous for Christians to fall for the 'empty shrine' myth” because “(t)he shrine, after all, is not empty. It only looks empty,” (154, see Cavanaugh link below) having been replaced by democratic capitalism, itself a modern construction with demonstrably religious qualities. Finally, the fourth myth, Archimedean autonomy as “the view from nowhere,” is a pervasive habit that we've already explored in such things as essentialist/abstract construals of “Islam” and “The West.” All of these secularist myths, Ramachandra shows, exhibit attitudes and inculcate behaviors on par with the religions that they seek to subjugate. This leads to Ramachandra's aforementioned proposal for a secular political order that is more honest with itself in this regard in addition to allowing a clearer and stronger voice to be heard in the public square from various religious traditions.

So how to bring a conclusion to this scattershot review of a complicated but important book? The metaphor of myth-buster seems an appropriate summation for both this book and Ramachandra in general. Indeed, his most recent book, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping our World, speaks volumes just in its title and subtitle. In a podcasted lecture on death and dying from 2003, Stanley Hauerwas introduced his presentation by calling it “theology in the genre of cultural criticism.” This also seems an appropriate characterization of what Ramachandra does in this book. By engaging Scripture and tradition with a diverse cast of thinkers from Augustine and Aquinas through de Tocqueville and on to Chomsky and Cavanaugh, Ramachandra comes off as a deft intellectual and theological virtuoso.

But how does this work in a congregational context in North America, steeped as we are in these Western myths and habits? Well, it doesn't, really, at least not directly. This is material that I encourage pastors to grapple with intellectually, but then find ways to internalize the learnings and work at in simple, biblical, liturgical, and missional ways in the congregation. Finding these kinds of embodied practices go further to teach work-a-day Christians what it means to be church, living more faithfully into our calling as Christ's ambassadors of God's Kingdom to this crazy world (knowing that God is working “out there” as well), rather than complex intellectual gymnastics, valuable as they are in their own way. By God's Spirit, may the cosmos-shifting nature of Christ's gospel surprise us again and again, causing the scales to fall off our eyes to then engage in humble and costly Christian witness.

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