Monday, February 16, 2009

Ruminations 16: Fundamentalisms and Authentic Expressions of Faith

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions. Though each can be read independently of the others, they are intended to be read together and against each other.

It has become commonplace for the combatants to point to authentic and inauthentic forms of the religions of their adversaries. Christians and Muslims suggest which variants of Judaism are legitimate expressions of Jewish aspirations in Israel; Christians and other Muslims suggest which variant of Muslim practice and belief represent an "authentic expression of "pure" Islam. But all of these judgments are fundamentally illegitimate.  It is only the faith community itself with the authority and authenticity to express itself as it pleases. It is for the rest to accept.  And that is sometimes hard when the faith community expresses a belief in the violent suppression of its neighbors and adversaries. Yet acceptance is the first step in determining the legitimacy of response to the authentic expression of religious sentiment and the actions undertaken thereunder.

In the course of the religious wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries it has become commonplace for the combatants to point to authentic and inauthentic forms of the religions of their adversaries. Thus, for example, there is a distinction made by the non-Muslim West, between extremist fundamentalist Islam and what are described as its legitimate variants. Likewise, Muslims and their friends in the West enjoy distinguishing between Zionism and more acceptable forms of Judaism. Global leaders also make a point of painting as illegitimate forms of Christianity Christian "fundamentalism" as expressed in any of the many variations of Christianity.

But all such expressions are completely illegitimate. It is only for the faith communities themselves to make those determinations, It may indeed be true, from a Muslim perspective, that the religious values of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Mullahs are legitimate forms of Islam. It may as well be legitimate for the Christian and Jewish faith communities to view particular manifestations of belief and belief-in-action as exceptionally legitimate. But outside the faith community, such judgments are expressions of prejudice, or opportunity.

In the face of this truth, other faith communities (and non-faith communities) must show both respect for the beliefs of others, and an equal measure of respect for their own. That requires both refraining from opining on the theological disputes within other faith communities, and drawing on their own to determine the extent to which the legitimate expressions of others are threatening to their own, or to a global community in which certain values are privileged and others despised. It is never appropriate to suggest that a particular expression of a religion, even an established one, is wrong. It is always right to suggest that such an expression presents a danger to the values and dignity of others.

No comments: