Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Culture: In Defense of Ecumenism

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've stated before on this blog that I think leadership and culture have a lot to do with whether people get along with one another or fight, and that Canada is a classic example of what happens leaders and tradition encourage people to figure out how to live together.

Therefore, I don't have much patience with people that insist on emphasizing differences between people, because I find that it just tends to undermine attempts to create, well, peace and order (if not good government). I don't know what his underlying agenda in doing so might be, but Stephen Prothero of Boston University provided a classic example in a recent Christian Science Monitor commentary.

I don't really disagree with any of the facts that Prothero presents as he argues that it is a "dangerous myth" to believe in a unity of religious faiths. It is true that religions offer distinct solutions to distinct problems, as he explains. Why wouldn't that be the case? To me, he undermines his entire presentation with this sentence: "The world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law."

Isn't that the whole point of the ecumenist movement, that despite different cultures (which is really what his five enumerated areas represent), the underlying ethical standards are largely the same? Is it really "ignorant" to realize that religious cultures are very different in expression, but hold some things--what people like me would argue are the really important things--in common?

The statement that really kills me is this one: "Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another." Really? (Never mind that most of what I know resides in my head, not my bones, since we must allow literary devices.) I have the exact opposite "gut feeling"--it seems to me most religions basically exist to help individuals cope with what they experience in their lives, providing a moral compass no matter what is around them, and that is fundamentally similar.

Prothero asserts that my perspective is ignorant, and that "like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous." However, his version of dangerous seems to be that it prevents discussion and learning that would otherwise make the reasons for religious conflict more clear. I don't see how believing in a unity of ethics leads to a lack of dialog. It seems to me people don't talk to people that are different when they are told by leaders that the "others" are a threat, not because they think the "others" are the same.

Interestingly, if Prothero's real purpose is to create more discussion of the differences between religions, I completely agree with him. I don't expect a "magical" detente between Christians and Muslims, for example--I expect people to talk to one another and do a lot of hard work. I agree with him that the problem is often ignorance, but I believe that by dialoging and debating with people from other perspectives, one is far more likely to regard the "other" as members of the same human race and therefore not to be feared or attacked. Exactly how that is "dangerous" is beyond me.

I daresay Stephen Prothero needs to spend some more time in Canada and see some practical examples of peace, order, and good government.

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