Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Kind of Religion is Buddhism?, Continued

When we look at Buddhist or Taoist cultures, for instance, we don’t see enduring bureaucratic apparati generated in order to hunt out ‘heretics,’ torture them into ‘confessions’ of their errors, and murder them by way of ‘rendering to the secular arm’. Why not? This isn’t to say heretic-hunting appears nowhere else - a species of it exists in some forms of Islam, for example. But why did the institutional Inquisition arise in the West, in Christianity? Why was it extolled as a fine contributor to ‘social stability’, even by influential ‘secular’ intellectuals? I realise that these may be uncomfortable questions, but it seems to me valuable to inquire. We need to understand and avoid such institutions, which we also see in modern totalitarianism. We must beware of the temptation to generate or adhere to an ideocracy - especially in times of economic and social disruption. As Sinclair Lewis put it in the title of his 1930s novel, It Can Happen Here. The West has a great legacy that emphasises not centralised power, but decentralisation, subsidiarity, federalism. This is the legacy of cherishing individual liberty, a very precious contribution to the world, and one I would like to emphasise.
[Arthur Versluis, in a November, 2007 interview with Amol Ragan for "Battle of Ideas"]

I have just started reading Arthur Versluis' 2006 book The New Inquisitions: Heretic Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism, which I was drawn to because Versluis sets out to show "how secular political thinkers in the nineteenth century inaugurated a tradition of defending the Inquisition." (!) Versluis is a leading American scholar of Esotericism and is Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at MSU.

In The New Inquisitions, Versluis asks difficult and uncomfortable (to some) questions about (1) the nature and origins of state sponsored ideological repression during the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and (2) the relationship, if any, of that pattern of ideological repression in that time and place to modern totalitarianism.

From what I can tell, Versluis is himself a Christian, so it is hardly his intention to attack Christianity. He is a careful scholar who is guided first and foremost by his desire to understand his subject better, wherever that desire may lead. And so Versluis does not shy away from things that some Christian scholars might prefer to avoid or, worse, attempt to misrepresent.

In fact, Versluis seems to be motivated precisely because he is a Christian Esotericist who sees his own spiritual "lineage" as being rooted in various forms of medieval mystical Christianity. Of course it needs to be emphasized that Versluis is a scholar writing as a scholar. He is not primarily writing to defend his own religious point of view, but is genuinely interested in a better understanding of an important scholarly question: the intellectual origins of modern totalitarianism.

Versluis honestly seems to think that "heretic hunting" only appears in certain forms of Christianity and not in others. He appears to think that "heretic hunting" and the Inquisition were fundamentally new phenomena in Western Christendom during the so-called "High" Middle Ages, and previously had not been associated with Christendom.

But even Versluis' view still boils down to a clear distinction between, on the one hand, Christianity and Islam as religions that do give rise to "enduring bureaucratic apparati" of repression, and, on the other hand, religions like Buddhism and Taoism that do not. For this to be true it need not be the case that every group of Christians everywhere throughout all of history have been, to a person, rampaging persecutors. It need only be that case that there is a pattern of persecution associated with Christianity (and Islam), and that this is pattern is far less evident or even absent in other religions.

I'll close with another quote from a another religion scholar, Bernard Faure:
The claim that Buddhism is a tolerant religion is based on the fact that Buddhist history does not show the kind of fanatic excesses familiar in the histories of Christianity and Islam. Opponents of the Buddha may have been labeled as "heretical masters," but (in part for lack of an ultimate authority) the accusations of heresy rarely led to physical purges . . . . But [any such] cases are the exception that proves the Budhist rule, and they underscore the contrast with the practices of Inquisition in Christianity.
[Buddhist Warfare, p. 218]
For more on this quote from Faure see this previous post. Also see the first post on What Kind of Religion is Buddhism? and also this post on Buddhism as an example of Religions of the Library.

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