Keynote Lecture by Professor Gavin Flood, Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion, Oxford University & Yap Kim Hao Visiting Professor of Comparative Religious Studies, Yale-NUS College at the 4th SRP Distinguished Lecture and Symposium
Keynote Lecture One by Professor Gavin Flood, Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion, Oxford University & Yap Kim Hao Visiting Professor of Comparative Religious Studies, Yale-NUS College at the 4th SRP Distinguished Lecture and Symposium on “Western Perspectives on Dialogue in a World of Conflict and Violence”
22 September 2018, 1040hrs
Grand Copthorne Waterfront, Singapore
Western Perspectives on Dialogue in a World of Conflict and Violence
The theme of this lecture series, “Dialogue in Asia and the West: Interreligious Relations in a World of Conflict and Violence” expresses a deep concern at both local and global levels for the place religions have both as cause of conflict and violence and as resolution to that conflict. Dialogue is clearly an important element in the resolution of conflict, in shaping the future of plural societies, and in building a better world. But before we get to the importance of dialogue we need to understand something about religion itself, or religions themselves, in relation to violence and conflict. Behind the theme of the lectures are a number of other questions, particularly why are religions so often implicated in violence despite a rhetoric of peace? Why are there so many different religions? Why have they not resolved their differences by now? Are religions still relevant to global politics and the future of humanity? And I am sure you can think of other important questions. I cannot, of course, answer these here but wish to make the point that the issue of interreligious dialogue is complex because of the very nature of religions and their ambiguous relationship to conflict and violence. In order to formulate an understanding of dialogue and its importance for the future in resolving conflict and violence, we need analysis of where we are, what religions are, and how they see themselves in the modern world.
As my old teacher John Bowker recently wrote in a book called Religions Hurt, the question of differences between religions is extremely urgent, partly because of the violence done in the name of religion. In the UK for example, in 2017 there were three horrific attacks in three months in Manchester and London from people claiming some connection with Islam. And throughout the world religions are implicated in some way with conflict and violence – between Israel and Palestine, between Sunni and Shia, between Christian fundamentalism and the secular state in the USA, Hindu extremists lynching “cow killers” in India, Ethiopian Christians targeted by Moslems in Egypt, and Buddhist violence against Moslems in Myanmar are the ones that come to mind. Of course, as Bowker observes, religions are not the sole cause of these conflicts but to deny that they are implicated in this violence is simply false. Religions can and do have a direct influence on conflict and violence and are not simply an excuse for conflict but can be integral to that very conflict. Hindu mobs killing of “cow killers” is of course not simply because the cow is revered as sacred by most Hindus, but is linked to poverty, caste, levels of education, and maneuvering by political elites, but to deny the religious component, the Hindu worldview, is to ignore and important component of the situation. Extremist Christians who justify killing doctors to defend the rights of the unborn in the USA, or the suicide bomber who justifies her action through reference to the lesser Jihad and the Quranic command to defend Moslems, are acting in accordance with their true belief about the nature of their religion and the nature of the universe itself; what is demanded of them as religious people. Now we might say, as many do, that these are perversions of Islam or Christianity, but it is nevertheless the case that violent acts are given religious justifications and their perpetrators are deeply saturated with religious conviction. Many secularists, with some justification one might say, ask why are religions always fighting each other and why are they now killing us? So, my first point, is that religions are implicated in conflict throughout the world and that religion is not simply a rhetoric that covers purely political motivation. Now to address these issues, I will organize my remarks under three headings, tradition, modernity, and dialogue, as I think we can only appreciate dialogue as it develops in the context of modernity and tradition, the conflict between which so often gives rise to religious violence.
Although there is a long history of religious violence going back hundreds of years, violence and conflict involving religions today is bound up with contemporary, global conditions, and in particular, I would posit, the development of modernity, globalisation, and secularism. There has been a shift in what Charles Taylor calls the “social imaginaire”, the collective imagination of what our values are and what we deem to be a good society or a society that fosters human flourishing. This social imaginaire of modern, global societies can conflict with traditional religious imaginaires and cultural values. There are historical roots to this, particularly in what I have called the religious cosmological model (RCM) in contrast to the Galilean Mathematical Model (GMM) of understanding the world. The GMM is the scientific way of explaining our lives, based on what is measurable and quantifiable. It claims that it can explain the cosmos, where explanation means the location of a cause, and rejects religious accounts of the universe, as we see with the recently deceased Steven Hawking. On this account, the universe is a material, measurable and quantifiable entity that can be explained without reference to any supernatural origin. There is no God in heaven, there is no evidence of such an entity, but nevertheless the universe is controlled by universal laws and mathematical rules, predictions can be made about it, that it is the job of science to discover. Galileo is arguably a key figure in the origin of this worldview that leads through to Robert Boyle to Isaac Newton. The Galilean mathematical model of the universe has replaced the religious cosmological model since the 17th century. A second understanding also begins to develop that places emphasis on humanity, the humanist perspective from the Renaissance with figures such as Erasmus that comes to articulation in the eighteenth century, especially with the philosopher Emmanuel Kant whose later lectures on anthropology exemplify this approach. What is important in the human case is not mathematics but understanding human reality in terms of our motives, cultures, and language (although Kant himself, curiously, did not emphasize language so much). This emphasis on the human, the development of humanism is associated with ideas of progress and also emphasizes individualism and equality. In contrast to both the scientific and humanistic understanding of human life, the religious cosmological model seeks anchorage in the past, and offers a certain fixed order in the universe, a hierarchical order in which all things have their place. In this traditional worldview, there is a graded hierarchy of beings, in Abrahamic traditions and some kinds of Hinduism with God at the top and below him arranged ranks of semi-divine beings such as angels, down to demons, humans, and other life forms. This pre-modern worldview has been linked to theocracy and provides a justification for polities with a king or emperor understood as a manifestation or representative on earth of a higher, transcendent source. In the UK the last echo of this is with James 1st and the doctrine of the divine right of kings that his son Charles inherited and lost his head for. This religious cosmological model is found in pre-modern Europe, India, and even in China with the emperor as the representative of heaven on earth. To illustrate this old worldview that we find in traditional religions, let me tell you a story.
In 1194 a young man who lived in Oxford called Edmund, used to go to church in Osney Lane, which is still there near my college Campion Hall, and had a brother called Adam who was the Abbot of a Benedictine monastery at Eynsham some five and half miles away. Now Edmund became sick – he fell ill with quinsy, a throat infection – and was taken to his brother’s monastery where he became a monk but remained very ill for over a year in days before antibiotics. According to the written account, he collapsed on Good Friday 1196 and during this state of coma had a vision. He met St Nicholas who took him to the other world where he perceived the suffering of those in Purgatory, including the old abbot of the monastery who had misused funds and behaved immorally, and a drunken goldsmith from Oxford who owed him money. From Purgatory St Nicholas took Edmund up to heaven where he perceived Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels and blessed souls. There was even a higher heaven that Edmund was not allowed to go into. St Nicholas returned Edmund to his body and he woke up on Easter Saturday, recounted his tale, which was written down in Latin by his brother Adam as the Monk of Eynsham (Visio monachi de Eynsham) and translated into Middle English, French and German some three hundred years later. There are thirty-three manuscripts of this text remaining, which bears witness to its popularity. Now this was one text among others called vision literature in the middle ages. Edmund’s story well illustrates the RCM. Edmund and his fellow monks and lay citizens live in a world in which there is a hierarchical fixed order, with God at the top, Christ as mediating, and below him angels, blessed souls, and then the suffering in Purgatory, with our material world of humans, animals, and plants, being part of this natural order. Furthermore, this is not simply a hierarchical order but an eschatological vision of the purpose of human life and the redemption of souls from sin. In other words, the moral order is deeply implicated in the very structure of the cosmos. With the rise of the GMM this understanding of the world becomes shattered and the cosmos itself divorced from an ethical order in the social imaginaire: morality becomes with Kant an internal, even though objective, structure.
This fundamental model of a hierarchical universe with different classes of being arranged along a vertical axis is common to traditional religions and there are numerous examples from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Chinese religions, although here the cosmological hierarchy is less complex and more orientated towards the human social imagination. The point I am trying to make is that religions carry with them this implicit cosmological model into the modern world. Indeed, we might contrast what I have called the RCM model with modernist social values of the humanist perspective as well as the scientific, mathematical understanding (the GMM) that in many ways are its direct opposite. Developed, technologically advanced countries such as Singapore, Europe, the USA, China, and so on, are built upon cultural values and a social imaginaire that, developing in reaction against the RCM, is very different and even opposed to it. There has been a process of what Max Weber called disenchantment, and what Charles Taylor calls the great disembedding (Taylor 2004: 50), in which societies are taken out of their cosmological niche and in which there is the development of emphasis on the individual and individualism as a value along with the idea of progress (and technology). Individualism as a value means that we no longer participate in a cosmological, hierarchical order, but rather modernity emphasizes the individual, equal to other individuals in societies that articulate an ideal of equality (although whether equality is realized or not is a different matter).
In older societies religious life is inseparable from social life; how we behave, our comportment towards others, is rooted in the cosmological visions of the religions we are born into. Once there is a separation of religion into the private realm away from governance in the public realm, an intellectual move that was precipitated by John Locke, then religion gradually loses its full participative nature and religions are left with a certain backward glance or nostalgia for that participative understanding of the RCM. This is one reason for violence and religious conflict in developed countries, when religions such as extremist Islam or Christianity wish to assert the centrality of religion in the realm of governance; religion is not a private matter but a matter of public, social concern and the ordering of society in accordance with divine ordinance.
So, for affective dialogue we therefore need to appreciate the force of traditional cosmological models and the force of the sense of participation in an order greater than the individual. This can be a wrench for communities as they move into the twenty first century and there is some degree of paradox in Islamic State or Daish advocating an ideology that harks back to the early middle ages while yet using the latest technologies to promote its values. The situation is complex. Traditional religions often seek to be rooted in the past – a feature of fundamentalism and literal interpretations of scripture that deny the very idea of interpretation – whilst using modernity to promote that view. I might suggest two important reasons for religious violence (although there will be others) firstly that the conflict between values of modernity that emphasize individualism, egalitarianism and progress sharply contrast with traditional values of the RCM that emphasize participation, hierarchy, and the need for salvation. Secondly that those who promote religious violence do not appreciate the historical depth and sophistication of their traditions, that the promoters of religious violence implicitly and explicitly reject the notion of interpretation. Let us look a little more deeply at these ideas in relation to modernity.
If the values of modernity include individualism, equality, and progress, then these potentially conflict with traditional religious values of participation, hierarchy, and salvation that we find in the RCM. But there is not necessarily a conflict here in that people can hold on to religious values in their personal life while still participating as a citizen in the wider cultural values of modernity. Modern societies can be understood as containing two important axes central to their functioning, firstly they have legal systems, there is legal axis in modern societies and a developed legislature, and secondly, they have systems of centralisation, modes of governance and bureaucracies in which there is variable centralisation of power and functions, in different degrees at different times. While of course the system of law has power, it is conceptually distinct from direct governance and the centralisation of power. If we examine these two axes, legal framework and centralisation of power, then we can see the extent to which traditional religious values can fit into the modern state. Indeed, modern states might be mapped onto this kind of structure in which the two axes generate different kinds of political ideology. Thus, a strong legal system or legislature in combination with strong centralisation generates a more authoritarian political system whereas its opposite, a weak legislature and weak or no centralisation generates the opposite political perspective, namely anarchy (Peter Kropotkin’s overly optimistic view of human nature). A strong legislature but weaker centralisation generates the kind of democracies that exist in Europe with varying degrees of centralisation, while strong centralisation and weak law generates dictatorships, where the will of the dictator is greater than the power of the legislature, as we have in North Korea and perhaps some African countries (Figure 1). This is simply a model or heuristic device, a typology that offers us a way of understanding the place of traditional religions in the modern state and there is no necessary value judgement contained within it. Thus, a religion with a strong legal dimension – such as Jewish law or Islamic sharia, or even Catholic canon law – might, and does, conflict with secular law, and strong centralisation in combination with strong legal framework within a religion, as in Roman Catholicism, might conflict with the secular state, as we find with Catholicism regarding abortion, in Ireland recently for example, and divorce. In countries such as Iran there is a mapping of religious ordering of society onto secular governance, thus a strong legalism is not separate from religious legalism and clerics have a lot of power to influence how the society conducts itself.
The second thing to observe is that we can separate out power from authority. Thus power, the ability to influence others and cause them act, is important in the state but for citizens, while they acknowledge state power and conform to it, might revere a different authority, namely the authority of tradition and scripture which itself is believed to articulate a higher authority. Secular states from Singapore to the UK demand weak power of tradition – religions cannot dictate policy in our countries – but accept strong authority of scripture or tradition so long as it is restricted to the private realm or to smaller communities and does not interfere with governance. Sometimes these conflict as when one interpretation of authoritative scripture conflicts with secular law, as was a case two years ago when a couple in the West Country in the UK refused to allow a gay couple to take a room in their hotel on the grounds that homosexual marriage went against their Christian faith; they were fined by secular law for discrimination. Religions with weak centralized authority and weak canonical authority, such as Buddhist meditation traditions or modern Paganism, sit well with secular states. One would have thought that Falung Gong would be in this category, but because of its direct confrontation with the Chinese state, it is considered a threat. Traditions with strong centralized authority and strong canonical authority, such as Catholicism, potentially conflict with the secular state, although with strong centralisation in the religious or religiously informed state such as Saudi Arabia, religious and secular authorities are more aligned. Islam clearly as strong canonical authority but degree of centralisation varies and is probably weaker than Catholicism. So, the clash with the secular state comes when secular law conflicts with religious law.
Transposing our model on to religion itself (fig. 2), we might say that if there is a distinction between religious law and authority, which might include an institution, a sacred text, or the charismatic authority of a teacher, then some religions are orientated more towards religious law, such as Orthodox Judaism, some with a strong sense of law and a strong sense of scriptural authority, such as Catholicism and Islam, some religions will have very little emphasis on law but strong emphasis on authority, such as traditions that rely heavily on the charismatic authority of the teacher or master, where the teachings of the guru are sacrosanct, such as the Sant tradition in northern India, and some religions will have no law and little authority, the DIY religions of late modernity such as modern Paganism or the New Age religions.
Conflict between the state and religion comes when religions that embody the older cosmological model, the RCM, articulated through religious law and authority conflict with the modern state that embodies values of individualism, equality and progress. Religious violence can result in the clash of values entailed. If this is a first reason for religious conflict and violence then a second reason is the lack of the idea of interpretation in fundamentalist traditions. There is a strong sense in which the sacred scriptures do not need interpretation, that scripture is self-interpreting and that in fact interpretation is a human projection onto the revealed word. We see this anti-hermeneutical position within some forms of Protestantism and Islam and religious violence is often perpetrated through scriptural sanction. Of course, the idea of sola scriptura, the scripture alone interprets itself, is a keystone of Luther’s Protestant reform, but even he recognized the importance of the Church in bearing witness to the text. But in the modern world, this doctrine or its equivalent can have dangerous consequences, especially because those who reject the idea of the interpretation of scripture do understand that that too is an interpretation.
Such a plea for the importance of interpretation or hermeneutics is not saying that only philological or text-historical study of religious sources is important, although it is, but also that traditions themselves must promote more robust defense of interpretation against its fundamentalist detractors within the tradition. Religions can do more to police their boundary against the misinterpretation of scripture in the belief that it is returning to the original intention of God. Islam, for example, has a strong hermeneutical tradition and some contemporary Islamic philosophers such as Abdolkarim Soroush refer to their own work as Hermeneutics and promote engagement with modernity through the interpretation of scripture (Dahlen 2003). Not only analysis of why religious violence happens, we also need religions themselves to counter extremism through challenging literalist interpretations of scripture through education and bringing into the modern world the depth and sophistication of traditional theological hermeneutics, be it in Christianity, Islam, Judaism or even Hinduism.
Now what has all this got to do with dialogue? I think these ideas about types of tradition in relation to types of contemporary state are central in reflecting on the possibilities and limitations of dialogue and dialogue’s effectiveness to produce outcomes. Religions need to engage with each other at more than simply a superficial level, as Paul Hedges has pointed out, especially in relation to Muslim-Christian dialogue (Hedges 2010, 2015), beyond merely gaining knowledge of each other (although even that is important). In my view, for effective dialogue in the modern world to take place, at least four of conditions have to be fulfilled.
Firstly, there needs to a degree of political stability within states that is not based on authoritarianism but rather in which power is distributed over a range – or at least two – institutions, such as a presidency, parliament, judiciary and so on, which provides checks and balances. There needs to be distributive power in a state providing checks and balances against a single source of dictatorial authority.
Secondly, dialogue necessarily entails the idea of shared public sphere, an idea that developed originally in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. John Locke was important here but also Kant in his understanding of Enlightenment as autonomy, self-rule, rather that heteronomy, rules by others. The idea of the public sphere developed in modernity by Habermas and Taylor, a ‘space of reasoned communicative strategies’ to use Habermas’ phrase (Habermas 1989) in which members of a society can meet through the communicative media of print (newspapers, magazine, journals, books), electronic media – twitter, facebook and so on – face-to-face encounters in meetings – and institutions such as the university that incorporates all of these modes. Dialogue in the modern state entails the use of these media and so entails the shared, public sphere that has been developing over the last few hundred years. Within the public sphere people can form a common opinion about something and what we might call a dialogical community emerges through the use of media while accepting certain shared values of open communication, desire for progress through social action, and genuine desire to understand and learn from others. The philosopher Salvatore calls this public realm a third sphere alongside economics and the political system (Salvatore 2007). The shared public sphere allows the development of the language of dialogue.
To engage in dialogue, religious practitioners need to speak the same language, or share a language of understanding that draws on cultural values that both parties agree to, namely a framework ensured by the modern, secular state and developed within a framework of human rights. When tradition argues against human rights in favour of reverting to the RCM model, while we can understand this as an antidote to the wrongs of modernity, we nevertheless have to be cautious. When a theologian such as John Milbank argues against human rights, we can see that this is a critique of secularism and the ills of the modern world that have produced colonialism, the breakdown of the family, and social inequity, but the language of human rights has been won through long struggle at international level and we to be cautious about abandoning it.
Thirdly, for dialogue to be effective, the participants need to acknowledge distinctive cultural and religious values and this recognition of distinctive cultural values in other traditions and other people, or rather more especially recognizing the legitimacy of other values, entails a degree of critical distance from one’s own values and tradition. Recognizing the legitimacy of the values, beliefs, and practices of others entails the ability to put ourselves in their position, to see the world from a different perspective, to have empathy. Dialogue requires openness to the other and the willingness to learn. Examples of this are Francis Clooney’s comparative theology or Peter Ochs’s scriptural reasoning. For Clooney comparative theology involves in particular reading texts across traditions. So, if Theology is faith seeking understanding, that understanding comes from the outside, from another tradition. We need other traditions to gain fresh insight into one’s own. Peter Ochs’ scriptural reasoning in which Jews, Moslems and Christians read each other’s scriptures together in small groups over long periods of time, thereby forming friendships as crucial to the process, is a good example of interfaith dialogue but dependent upon support by educational institutions such as UVA and Cambridge University. This involves not only my willingness to engage with someone else and another tradition, but their willingness to engage with me and my tradition. Indeed, there might well be limits to dialogue, and the areas in which dialogue is most needed, are the areas that are most difficult and where conflict and violence are the norm. Interreligious dialogue at an intellectual, university level with people such as Frank Clooney or Peter Ochs is intellectually challenging but there is no real risk. But where dialogue is most important is in areas of conflict with fundamentalist traditions, although that term is contested, especially those which wish to impose their will on others through violence. In other words, where dialogue is most needed is where it is most difficult to achieve. There is little point in dialogue discussing metaphysical abstractions, such Moslem theologians arguing for the oneness of God against Christian theologians arguing for God as a trinity; these fundamental doctrines are not negotiable having been arrived at often through centuries of reflection and discussion. But areas of ethics in contemporary contexts, what human goods are, how we can achieve a better world, are clearly areas in which constructive dialogue could occur. And rather than open ended dialogue without a specific goal, a particular dialogical focus with a measurable result would be preferable. For example, interfaith dialogue concerning the content of a particular Religious Education syllabus in a particular school, or ideally dialogue that would result in the alleviating of political tensions such as between the Buddhist and Rohingya communities in Myanmar.
Religious violence, it seems to me, most often takes place in traditions where there is a high degree of authority, often charismatic authority of a particular teacher who offers a particular interpretation of the tradition and the law. We saw this with Osama Bin Laden and now his son, highly charismatic figures who interpret religious law to suit their own authoritarian agenda. Or at a different level, dialogue between Buddhists and Rohingyas, to use this example again, is crucial for stability in the region and the flourishing of those communities, but the powerful group, the Buddhists, need to shift attitudes to accept diverse cultural values.
Returning to our diagramme, dialogue needs to function in the secular state in which there is a strong legislature or legal framework that ensures human rights. While a religion might desire to return to the safe boundaries of the Religious Cosmological Model, as fundamentalists do, dialogue about this can only happen in politically stable conditions in which there is a strong legal framework ensuring the rights of others, including the right to form opinions counter to the cultural values of the wider society. Now there are views, not only actions, that some secular states deem to be so dangerous and counter to the state’s cultural values that they are illegal and punishable through the courts, such as holocaust denial in Germany or racist views in the UK. The point is, that dialogue can only take place within a legal framework that limits ideology and that allows the cultivation of good will towards the other.
Fourthly and lastly, there are policy implications of dialogue in the need for education about cultural and religious values (therefore need for Religious Studies to have religiously educated population). As John Bowker has repeatedly observed so few politicians have read Religious Studies at university that they do not appreciate the importance of religion in conflict and violence and the centrality of religion in the history of civilizations. Effective dialogue entails knowledge and understanding of who we are dialoguing with, and such knowledge can effectively be generated through education – religious studies programmes such as RSIS for example. And this entails investment in Humanities education, something which is under threat in my own country, but seems to be actually happening in Singapore where there is investment in humanities education.Now all of this, and this is really my last point, the need for dialogue to function within a framework of the secular state with legal safeguards for human rights and the rights to have a range of opinions while operating within a shared framework of cultural values or social imaginaire, might be called religious humanism. Religious humanism is not a contradiction but the idea that people committed religiously in one way or another can act and reflect within the public sphere in a thoughtful and considered way that intellectually engages with the other in dialogue. Religious humanism lays emphasis on humanity and the diversity of human experience while advocating certain enlightenment values of reasoned debate and tolerance of others’ views. So the best we can do is that the perspective of religious humanism is fundamentally against religious violence and conflict and while it has no solution in itself, it does claim that change has to come from the transformation of religions into forms that necessarily modify attachment to the RCM, the religious cosmological model, to absorption of contemporary knowledge about the world gained through science, acceptance of the values of the public sphere of truth speaking, and acceptance of diversity, that religious humanism doesn’t mean that everybody should become more like us, but that people can be very different from oneself while also participating in the public sphere of dialogue. But I do not wish to disparage the RCM but rather recognize the insight that we are part of a wider cosmos. While we cannot go back to Edmund’s worldview, we nevertheless need to take the insight implicit in his vision that human life has meaning in a much broader, cosmological context and that the journey of life is one in which all the different stories of which we are a part become knitted together as we move into an unknown, but exciting, and in my view hopeful, future.
Last updated on 24/09/2018