Engagement or provocation? Going too far in faith critiques

Our times are characterized by an increasing religious diversity that manifests itself in religious conflict, even violence, as well as … Continued

Our times are characterized by an increasing religious diversity that manifests itself in religious conflict, even violence, as well as in powerful engagement, mutual critique and cooperation. Powerful engagement and mutual critique are crucial to combatting religious conflict and helping to prevent violence. But how far is too far in critiquing another religion? Are there any limits?

One limit, and there should be no disagreement on this one, is deliberate distortion or even dishonesty in presenting the views of another religion. Even accidental distortion is out of bounds–it means you have not done your homework about another religion. If you don’t know, don’t pontificate. It doesn’t help and it increases the likelihood of religious conflict. Deliberate distortion is provocation–it is designed to further conflict, not resolve it.

Another limit is dismissive or gratuitous characterizations of another religion. These kinds of comments also fuel conflict rather than resolving it. Am I going to want to engage a commentator of another faith if she or he is being dismissive, even insulting about my faith? Let’s take this approach off the table too. It closes doors to understanding rather than opening them.

But beyond that, what about vigorous engagement? Shouldn’t that be on the table, so to speak? Certainly it should–but here let’s come clean about some profound religious differences and how they affect the way different religious leaders engage each other in debate.

There’s a lot of “coming clean” that needs to be done by religious leaders who engage in critiques of other religions. Differences among religions matter and we need to “come clean” about that as Steve Prothero has helpfully pointed out in his book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World–And Why Their Differences Matter. As Jay Tolson noted in his review, “if the devil is in the details, the point of Prothero’s useful book is that God is, too. Which is to say that the particular and often problematic features of a religion — from its core narratives and rituals to its arcane points of theology — are at least as important to its followers as those qualities that it may share with other religions.” The differences matter regardless of who is doing the critique, whether a Christian conservative, an atheist, or a progressive Christian theologian.

Yet, while religion is not one, God is another matter. God, in my Christian belief system, is infinite and thus the “oneness” of God cannot ever be fully known because infinity is beyond human understanding. But, in the mystery of the divine being, God is one because infinity cannot be divided. That’s the difference between a religious studies approach as taken by Prothero, and a theological approach such as my own.

Theological differences matter as well in the approach of different religious leaders to the critique of other faith traditions. When I look at another religious tradition, I hold open the possibility that I can learn something of the infinite God. God, in my theological view, can be self-revealing to other traditions and this is part of what infinity means.

Others, however, look at other traditions and see heresy. Their belief is that the revelation they have received is the complete and only truth. In this perspective, no other faith tradition can be a source of religious truth and it contains only falsehoods.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that one’s critical engagement of a different faith tradition will be different, profoundly different, if you approach another faith as a possible way to learn something about the infinite God, or if you are convinced that all other faiths (and some within your own faith) can only be expressing falsehoods.

Here’s what I recommend: we all need to honest up front about our beliefs regarding the possibility of God’s self-revelation being possible in another faith, or not. The possibility of revelation being potentially present in other faiths doesn’t mean there is no scope for critique. Far from it. But if you believe there is nothing in other faiths that can be of God, you should state that up front. That’s a way of “coming clean” about your theological commitments and how they influence your critique. Then it’s “reader beware” and those who read the critiques can judge them accordingly.

This is new territory for many; setting up some mutually agreed upon criteria might be a very good thing. No lying or distortion, no gratuitous insults, do your homework, and be explicit about how your faith commitments influence your critiques. Those are my suggestions.

  • WmarkW

    I’ll repeat some of what I said under Susan BT’s earlier post:”Faith” is the willingness to believe without the need for evidence. So is “prejudice.” The former term is usually reserved for unfounded beliefs we respect, and the latter for unfounded beliefs we don’t, but their meaning is the same.The three Abrahamic traditions attribute much of their greatness to their scriptures. We must be honest in noting that NOT ONE WORD of any of those three collections is anything that a solid philosophical thinker of its period couldn’t have come up with. And we’re left with the likelihood (99.99999999999999%) that such an individual, and not a supreme intelligence, was their author. Any tradition that holds, IN ANY WAY, that the superiority of its revelation is some sort of claim over the rights or minds of those who disagree, is engaged in simple prejudice that one’s own traditions are superior.One MIGHT learn from anyone. But look at the historically Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Hindu, and Confucian worlds. It’s not hard to narrow the preferable choices.

  • twingirl

    @WMARKW said: ‘ “Faith” is the willingness to believe without the need for evidence. So is “prejudice.” The former term is usually reserved for unfounded beliefs we respect, and the latter for unfounded beliefs we don’t, but their meaning is the same….The three Abrahamic traditions attribute much of their greatness to their scriptures. We must be honest in noting that NOT ONE WORD of any of those three collections is anything that a solid philosophical thinker of its period couldn’t have come up with. And we’re left with the likelihood (99.99999999999999%) that such an individual, and not a supreme intelligence, was their author.’ My, that sounds profound, friend! What sources are “we” using for defining and evaluating FAITH, friend? Webster defines FAITH as “Belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of someone or something”. In which case, it appears you believe in secular philosophy and statistical probablity as the highest or only sourcees of truth. Since philosophy has no means to prove that anything beyond human thought exists, how does it know “faith” is unfounded, especially with such exacting statistical precision! Are you trying to make a case for atheism by arguing that philosophy trumps any other perception of truth? If so, “we” have a problem, based on your definition of prejudice, in such an argument that “faith” is “unfounded”: people of faith don’t view it that way. Many thoughtful people consider the idea of revelation or inspiration to be a potential source of truth; they even have criteria for evaluating the evidence. That is certainly the belief of the three major religions you mention: all respect tradition and/or Scripture as having value, truth, or being trustworthy. Scripture defines faith in ways similar to Webster: (Hebrews 11:1)”The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, then gives a list of “solid philosophers of their period”, who were commended for that insight over thousands of years, even until today.

  • twingirl

    BurfordHolly said: “The Bible says politics and religion is the practice of the Beast.” Do you mean that political regimes that force any one brand of religion on other people, especially on pain of death, is described in the description of the Beast in Revelation 13? It certainly sounds like that to me.

  • BurfordHolly

    It’s not the faith that’s the problem. It’s mixing in politics that takes religion into the gutter, and, no matter what their denomination, those are the poeple that are the enemy of all men.The Bible says politics and religion is the practice of the Beast.

  • StevenTAbell

    Thank you, Susan, for saying something that needs to be said over and over again. And yet even in this carefully constructed article, it’s hard for you to get beyond your particular-if-common concept of god as an indivisible oneness. Holding a useful interfaith conversation with a hard-polytheist heathen like myself requires at least an implicit recognition of something beyond and behind anyone’s specific model of religion. It’s hard to talk in those terms, but it’s worth acknowledging the need to move in that kind of space, which is what I think this article is trying to get at.Steven T Abell

  • Kingofkings1

    Dr Thistlethwaite,As in all things, and especially in matters of religion, one does not have to agree with the other, but diregarding, belittling and insulting the other, is not going to get you far – either with your adversary, or with the god you believe in.