Sunday, June 11, 2017

Can exclusivist theology survive a plural planet?

Can a plural planet survive exclusivist theology?

An article in the Atlantic passed on a fascinating vignette of mutual incomprehension. Senator Bernie Sanders was questioning Russell Vought, a Republican nominee for a position at the Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders took issue with a piece Vought wrote in January 2016 about a fight at the nominee’s alma mater, Wheaton College. The Christian school had fired a political-science professor, Larycia Hawkins, for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Vought disagreed with Hawkins’s post and defended the school in an article for the conservative website The Resurgent. During the hearing, Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage that he found particularly objectionable:

Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.
“In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders told the committee during his introductory remarks. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backwards.”

The reporter is horrified; wasn't Mr. Vought, in a non-governmental context, simply stating a foundational belief held by his sort of evangelical Christian? Well, yes he was. And she correctly notes that other monotheistic faiths, Jews and often emphatically Muslims, also insist the human relation to God is only made right by acknowledging exclusive faith in and reliance on their particular One.

Meanwhile, Sanders obviously finds such a faith repugnant and incomprehensible -- and he's not alone. So might many non-evangelical Christians (still actually a majority of U.S. Christians) find Mr. Vought's theology "deficient." For any non-religious reader who is bothering to plow through this, for most U.S. Jews and many U.S. Christians including some evangelicals, religious faith is functionally non-exclusive: we have ideas and hopes about how the human/god nexus functions, but we're willing to leave to God how that gets worked out in particular. Belief leaves us with plenty to do that we can control without taking on sorting sheep from goats.

For example:
Most emphatically, we don't want politicians arguing the merits of these ultimate (or perhaps merely human) categories. So the question posed by the Sanders/Vought exchange is, can this kind of exclusive faith really co-exist with democratic pluralism?

Well, of course, it has. Though the idea that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation" is a right wing myth, most everyone who has ever led, or lived in, or fought for the country has claimed some kind of religious belief, however attenuated. We've embedded in the Constitution the rule that the state can't put a thumb on the scale for one sort of religious belief over another and that it can't interfere with our individual religious choices. Contentiously, and not always gracefully, we've managed the cultural conflicts that result when differing beliefs, non-beliefs, and religious institutions rub against each other.

But how is the increasingly cosmopolitan country and world we're becoming to deal with faiths whose core proposition is exclusive? Interestingly, the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- all defined themselves in reaction to some of the most cosmopolitan settings of their day -- ancient multi-ethnic Canaan, the far-flung Roman empire, and mercantile tribal Arabia. Drawing firm boundaries between insiders and outsiders was essential to survival amidst the clamoring throng of religious competitors -- and in some bounded arena, each faith won the day over others, if only for some long seasons.

But this isn't that kind of world. Neither Saudi Wahhabis nor our religious right are going to be able to impose their tribal stories on the rest of us. In an ancient time of imperial upheaval, a god-fearing visionary enjoined those seeking perfection to put away childish things. In our world, equal human value and citizenship cannot be bounded. That's a big ask, but a necessity for human survival.


Anonymous said...

Much to ponder here. I'll try to get back to you as soon as I can with some comments and questions.

Brandon said...

"Much to ponder here. I'll try to get back to you as soon as I can with some comments and questions."

I forgot to type my name in the name field.

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