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Rajiv Malhotra

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The Importance of Debating Religious Differences

Posted: 05/14/11 04:37 PM ET

I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. --Gandhi

In most liberal circles, discrimination on account of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and race is rightly denounced. Human diversity is not only widely accepted in these domains but also celebrated. Of course, the journey is by no means complete, and it has been long and tough for those who pioneered it. In my own work, I'm inspired by feminists who courageously challenged masculine paradigms on gender, African-Americans who heralded their unique culture and identity rather than becoming subsumed as subordinates or an exotic addition to a "universal" culture, and leaders of the gay rights movement who undermined the prevailing hegemony on sexual orientation.

In each of the examples above, alternate perspectives challenged head-on the dominant discourse, categories and frameworks that were well entrenched as normative and "universal."

But in interfaith discussions, we still shy away from making similar bold challenges to the established worldview. Rather, what is frequently espoused is the mere "tolerance" of other religions. In an earlier blog I explained the important distinction between tolerance and mutual respect, and the need to advance from the former to the latter. Mutual respect requires appreciation of what makes other faiths distinct from one's own; anything less is empty rhetoric. Such an approach compels thinkers to uncover differences, take honest risks and reject the politically correct but eventually unproductive stance that "all religions are the same." Indeed, my own experiences with the Jewish community, as recounted in an earlier blog, have shown that many cultural misunderstandings can be resolved through the forthright articulation of religious differences.

Many of my writings explore this huge resistance in the public square to uncovering and embracing religious differences. I use the term "difference anxiety" to describe the psychological distress that stems from viewing differences as problematic rather than natural. There are deep-rooted reasons for this anxiety, a topic I explore in detail in my forthcoming book, The Audacity of Difference. Suffice it is to say here that any productive interfaith dialogue must first acknowledge and accept the distinctiveness of the spiritual, cultural and historical matrix of each civilization,and challenge the Western penchant for claiming universalism for itself.

China and the Islamic world offer counter-examples to the claim that globalization must mean Westernization. Weming Tu of Harvard makes the point that Chinese civilization has its own paradigm for modernity based on Confucianism, and that this is not contingent on China's Westernization. Islam, too, has its own alternative worldview including a distinct theology, sociology and political framework.

A resistance to articulating and understanding differences, religious and otherwise, also comes from many Indians who are remarkably Eurocentric in their views. One hears many modern Indians ask: Aren't we all really "the same"? What's wrong with a "universal" point of view? Isn't it wonderful that millions of Westerners practice yoga, and Indian cuisine has gone global? Additionally, fashionable academic constructs such as "post-modern," "post-racial," "post-religious" and "post-national" seem to announce the arrival of a flat, secularized world that is not differentiated by peoples' histories, identities and religious points of view.

My own enthusiasm to this confluence of cultures is balanced by the fact that this fusion does not always preserve diversity and is often inequitable. What remain intact are many structures that support power and that privilege the mythological, historical and religious beliefs of the West.

I use the term "digestion" to describe the widespread dismantling, rearrangement and assimilation of a less powerful civilization into a dominant one. Like the food consumed by a host: what is useful gets assimilated into the host while what does not fit the host's structure gets eliminated as waste. The West superimposes its concepts, aesthetics, language, paradigms, historical template and philosophy, positioning these as universal. The corresponding elements of the digested civilization get domesticated into the West, ceasing to exist in their own right. The result is that the consumed tradition, similar to the food, ceases to exist whereas the host gets strengthened. In harvesting the fruits of other civilizations, the West has often destroyed their roots, thereby killing their ability to produce more bountiful harvests. Native Americans and European pagans are among numerous examples of such previous digestions into the modern West.

This process is often rationalized as the inevitable "march of civilization," with the West positioned as the center of the world and the engine driving it forward. The non-Western civilizations are considered relevant only as sources "discovered" by the West (as in "our past") or as theaters in which the West operates ("our civilizing mission") or as threats to Western interests ("our frontiers").

Every civilization deserves a seat at the table as an equal and as the subject rather than only as the object of inquiry. Every religion and its assumptions, must like all other areas of human knowledge be subject to critique on a level playing field. None, however powerful and well-funded, ought to be exempt from scrutiny or be privileged to set the terms. In the realm of interfaith gatherings, we need forums where non-Christians may challenge the "universal" concepts being applied to all world religions, in the same manner as women, African-Americans and homosexuals have already achieved in their respective domains. I predict that in five years there will be such mainstream inter-religious discourse in which it will no longer be considered too controversial to challenge one another audaciously in the quest for honest understanding.

The Audacity of Difference uncovers several profound metaphysical distinctions between dharmic and Western assumptions. This is not about superiority or inferiority but about positioning religious differences as humanity's multifaceted experience and a shared resource.