Saturday, January 28, 2012

An Orthodox theologian explains what he means by "Inclusivism" and "Tolerance"

"Isn’t it a little too much to have tolerance and delicate forbearance
preached by what is intolerance and cruelty itself?"

[from Religion: A Dialogue, by Arthur Schopenhauer, 1889]

Rev. Dr. George C. Papademetrious is a prominent Orthodox theologian who is especially noted for his involvement in inter-faith dialogue (see his official biography at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website). Father Papademetrious is a highly educated and exceptionally articulate man. When he writes about the relationship between Christianity and other religions he is not satisfied with glib, politically correct catch-phrases. Where he finds simplicity, he does not shy away from stating things plainly, even bluntly. And where he finds complexity, he insists on giving that complexity it's full due.

As far as I can see, there is no reason to doubt that Father Papademetrious has a genuine personal commitment to religious tolerance, and an abhorrence of all religious violence and persecution regardless of who the victims (or perpetrators) are. And he also possesses a clearly demonstrated interest in and sympathy for non-Christian religious traditions and their adherents.

But while Father Papademetrious' intelligence and humaneness shine through in his writings, this only makes it all the more jarring when one realizes the unambiguous import of what he believes to be the truth about all non-Christian religions. In particular, he insists that Christianity alone offers "salvation" and contains "saving truths". But somehow he makes this claim in the name of "tolerance" and "inclusiveness" (and also in the name of rejecting "exclusivism"). But Father Papademetrious is not here engaging in any deception or sophistry. He states very clearly what he means by "exclusivism", "inclusivism" and "tolerance". On close inspection, his definitions turn out to be rather counterintuitive, but they are not completely unreasonable, and they are presented in a very forthright and even well-reasoned manner, so there is no excuse for misunderstanding him.

An important source of Father Papademetrious' thinking on these matters is his essay An Orthodox Christian View of Non-Christian Religions. Therein he not only defines the three terms mentioned above, but also presents his definition of "pluralism" (which he also associates with the terms "syncretism" and "relativism").

Let's go through these four terms, one at a time, as defined by this noted Orthodox scholar:

Father Papademetrious defines "exclusivism" very precisely and narrowly: it only refers to the most extreme position that all non-Christians "will be damned because there is no salvation outside the visible Body of Christ, the Church".

Papademetrious' definition of "inclusivism" reflects and expands upon his definition of "exclusivism". While allowing that salvation is possible for non-Christians, Papademetrious (again very precisely and very narrowly) states that (1) the only possible avenue by which non-Christians can escape damnation is "through the mercy of [the Christian] God"; and also that (2) non-Christians do not attain salvation (if they attain it at all) through the agency of their non-Christian religious traditions, for such salvation is only conferred on the non-Christian "in spite of the religion he practices".

The definition of "pluralism" employed by Papademetrious follows inexorably from his definitions of "exclusivism" and "inclusivism". The simple truth is that he means by "pluralism" what most people naturally assume is meant by "inclusivism", namely that "the non-Christian may be saved by means of the very religion he practices, for nonChristian religions may also contain saving truths." This "pluralism" is rejected unambiguously by Papademetrious, thus categorically denying any spiritual value to any religion whatsoever other than Christianity.

It is clear from the above that what is included in Papademetrious' "inclusivism" is not non-Christian religions themselves, but rather selected individual adherents of non-Christian religions who are deemed worthy, at the sole discretion of the Christian God, of salvation in spite of their religious beliefs and practices. Likewise, Papademetrious' conception of "tolerance" toward non-Christian does not in any way involve any concession that non-Christian religions possess any spiritual value or "saving truths". In fact, Papademetrious makes a point of emphasizing that "Christian Truth is of highest importance in the Orthodox view of other religions," and that "Christ is Truth."

Even more can be learned from another paper authored by Papademetrious, which consists mostly of quotations from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople: Recent Patriarchal Encyclicals on Religious Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence. The most revealing of these quotations is the following:
"It is well known that every religion asserts that it holds within its belief system the absolute truth concerning God and the world, the latter of which also incorporates humanity."
Compare the above quote to one from the noted Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda in 1893 (link):
"I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth."
This, finally, brings us to the heart of the matter. The Orthodox Patriarch claims that all religions are the same because they all make exclusive truth claims, while the Hindu sage claims that all religions are the same because they are all true!

Vivekananda himself recognized and articulated this very point when he also said (link):
"All religions are, at bottom, alike. This is so, although the Christian Church, like the Pharisee in the parable, thanks God that it alone is right and thinks that all other religions are wrong and in need of Christian light. Christianity must become tolerant before the world will be willing to unite with the Christian Church in a common charity."
All of the above very nicely illustrates the mentality of what Egyptologist Jan Assmann has termed "the Mosaic distinction", according to which mentality all religions can be divided neatly into two mutually exclusive groups: the one true religion, on the one hand, and false religions, on the other hand. Most importantly, Assmann has clearly shown that this mentality is not a universal feature of all religions, but is rather one of the defining characteristics of a certain kind of religion: monotheism.

Here is how Assmann himself explains this in the first chapter of his book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism:
The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers. Once the distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or subdistinctions. We start with Christians and pagans and end up with Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Socinians and Latitudinarians, and a thousand more similar denominations and subdenominations. Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance and violence. Therefore, there have always been attempts to overcome the conflict by reexamining the distinction, albeit at the risk of losing cultural meaning.

Let us call the distinction between true and false in religion the "Mosaic distinction" because tradition ascribes it to Moses. We cannot be sure that Moses ever lived because there are no traces of his earthly existence outside the tradition. But we can be sure that he was not the first to draw the distinction. There was a precursor in the person of the an Egyptian king who called himself Akhnenaten and instituted a monotheistic religion in the fourteenth century B.C.E. His religion, however, spawned no tradition but was forgotten immediately after his death. Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory. Since memory is all that counts in the sphere of cultural distinctions and constructions, we are satisfied in speaking not of Akhenaten's distinction, but of the Mosaic distinction. The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as "paganism"? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in reality amount to nothing other than the distinction between "us" and "them"? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce "pagans" in the same way that every civilization produces "barbarians"?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation. We have to distinguish here between the "real other," who is always there beyond the individual and independent of the individual's constructions of selfhood and otherhood, and the "construction of other," who is the shadow of the individual's identity. Moreover, we have to realize that in most cases we are dealing not with the "real other," but with our constructions and projections of the other. "Paganism" and "idolatry" belong to such constructions of the other. It is this inevitable construction of cultural otherness that is to a certain degree compensated by techniques of translation. Translation in this sense is not to be confused with the colonializing appropriation of the "real" other. It is simply an attempt to make more transparent the borders that were erected by cultural distinctions.

Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translations. They belong within the emergence of the "Ancient World" as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations. The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. ... In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction I am speaking of [between true and false religions] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.

The Mosaic distinction was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn. The space which was "severed or cloven" by this distinction was not simply the space of religion in general, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this new type of religion "counter-religion" because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as "paganism". It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather "cosmotheism," rendered differed cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.
[pp. 1-3]
See related posts at this blog:
The Price of Monotheism in a nutshell
Are there two kinds of religion?
What is "Counterreligion"?
The Essence of Religion: Four Theories
Roman Catholicism (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Seven)
Charlemagne, Part Deux (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Six)
Charlemagne (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones