May 25, 2014
Philosophy, theology, religious studies, comparative religion–endangered species? Certainly religion and spirituality are not dead issues in today’s world. Rather, they are its driving forces, whether we are speaking about sectarian politics, militancy, or the economy. This latter, at least where I come from, means capitalism, which is the dominant denomination both consciously or unconsciously faith-driven. The issue in this book however is, “Can the ways we look at and study reality survive their secular appropriation and at least contribute to our cultural understanding and acceptance of each other, if not arrive at some more universal commonalities?” After Appropriation is the result and aftermath of a conference that brought philosophers and religious studies to face this question.
Religion is, on one hand, all too thoroughly appropriated by power, politics and money and, on the other hand, too easily dismissed by those who find it “unscientific.” Some adopt a private spirituality or opt for active or passive nonbelief in their disgust for “organized religion.” Eleven university professors have expressed themselves this wide-ranging anthology. They raise questions about the relevance and viability of philosophy and religious studies both in the academic environment and the world at large, as well as explore directions for potentially creative synergies across traditions. The array of writers is decently ecumenical and willing to bite the bullet when it comes to facing the crisis in these disciplines. The collection makes solid attempts to avoid colonialism, syncretism, and sectarianism without the writers abandoning their own values, beliefs, or religious adherence.
That being said, there is no question but that these disciplines are in trouble even in academe. While public discussion of religion is frequently avoided as inflammatory, the Internet is alight with it. Sectarianism, proselytism, and militancy seem easier to find than ecumenical dialogue. In this text it feels like there is more philosophy than religion. This is not surprising, as their relationship has always been a stormy one. Prevailing cultural philosophy has often transformed the shape and expression of religious beliefs, while religions have given rise to philosophical extensions of their values. Much blood has been spilled both literally and figuratively in this relationship. Medieval Western philosophy served as the “handmaiden” of theology. In more recent times philosophy has looked more like religion’s henpecking femme fatale. The minds of powerful figures such as Aquinas, Descartes, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard housed the tumultuous couple.
In other parts of the world no such distinctions of disciplines were made, yet thinkers could often find themselves engaged in conflicts with believers for the acceptance of their ideas. Such esteemed traditions as those of Confucius and the Dao remain at war in an epistemological no man’s land even as countless followers seem to marry both in everyday life. In Chinese “philosophy” reasonableness dominates rationality, as one of the contributors put it.
These are some of the dynamics reflected in this reader’s reactions. After Appropriation was not an easy read, though this reviewer bears degrees in both disciplines as a result of having lived for some years in both “countries” –and spoken both languages. The editor is kind to the nonprofessional reader, by providing a page long synopsis of each contributor’s chapter—short bios are found at the end of the book. Here I will highlight elements of sections that struck me most insightfully.
The first three chapters plunge the reader into the cold bath of “strangification,” a strategy of going to the other side of reality, necessary on both sides if we are going to really engage other kinds of religious and philosophical discourse. We are severely hampered in this endeavor by the fact that others’ original insights remain fogged in due to language, despite the best bricolage that translators and interpreters are able to cobble together. Even before encountering the strange other, the philosopher is already likely to be a stranger and gadfly to his or her “world.” The provocative seeker of wisdom and indeed the philosophic profession itself is always in danger of a Socratic death from the powers that be. When it comes to comparative philosophy the struggle is internal as well. It is one's identity and one’s own values that are engaged and must be at risk in the elenctic entente.
After describing and recommending strangification, attention is turned to the relationship of the mind and senses, the instrumentality of how we know what we know. Here the Sanskrit sense of manas is used to express what we tend to think of as the mind as it draws upon sensed data to create inner meaning, a kind of “sixth sense” that tells us what things are, what they are for, and what we might do with or about them. The author calls upon seven areas of experience that, he contends, argue for the functioning of manas. I found this less than convincing, but at the same time questioned my judgment, feeling that somehow the author's perceptions and my own were perhaps themselves the products of our differing cultural sixth sense attempting to study itself. My feeling was that this treatment proposed a less integrated theory of human understanding than we are capable of.
Islam has had an on-again/off-again relationship for the study of religions other than itself. Despite the stresses of fundamentalism, today’s Muslim scholars are increasingly doing fresh work in this field, despite obstacles. Whether we are speaking about the historic Crusades, the aftermath of the Reconquista, or about drones and suicide bombers reported in today’s news, a history of religious warfare between Christianity and Islam all too easily overshadows the Koranic injunction, “O mankind! We created you from a single pair, of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other.” (4:48). A later chapter also looks at the work of the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, better known to the West as Averroes. It positions the man in his life context as a jurist in the Islamic society of 12th century Al-Andalus. In particular it examines work of his that focused on sharia law, a side of his story that does not figure either in the respect shown to him as a vehicle of classical wisdom to the West or in his condemnation as a heretic.
Ethics, morality, faith, salvation and enlightenment—are they friends or enemies? Here adopted strangification is tested most strenuously. Is faith beyond morality, the source of morality or undermined by the sense of righteousness it generates? Does our morality enslave us or free us? Nietzsche Kierkegaard, Confucius and the Dao weigh in on this. Is ethics the foundation of philosophy or vice-versa?
How does Judaism reconcile its traditional thinkers and philosophers with contemporary trends? This discussion also introduces the issue of feminist philosophy, which will be addressed extensively by the editor in the final chapter. Influenced by traditional stereotypes, one is tempted to see philosophizing as a masculine endeavor and piety as a feminine addiction. How does contemporary social change surrounding gender roles challenge both doing and living both philosophy and religion? If it seems like the reviewer is asking questions rather than reporting solutions it is largely because the text is fraught with these dilemmas, frantically trying to escape from too many either/or’s.
Another question. Can philosophy continue to be a womb of science or is it simply an empty, dry cocoon to be blown away by the winds of change? Certainly philosophers were engaged in understanding the world long before discrete disciplines were created for such sciences as psychology, physics, astronomy, etc., One of the most fascinating chapters of this work discusses the relationship of philosophy to medicine both from a classical Western perspective and classical Indian philosophy. Prominent philosophers in the past were often popularly recognized for their healing expertise more than for sagacity in other domains. They also created the terminology that came to distinguish these sciences from each other. Study of health and illness are a powerful, necessary human side of understanding our reality and our purpose. What we are is forever a question of philosophy and religion, no matter how powerful the scientific researches and discoveries into the nature of our beings and how they are wired.
A rather unique chapter compares religious texts, the 14th century Hindu Essence of the Three Mysteries and The Treatise on the Love of God by a 17th century Catholic Bishop. Union with God is the theme of each. This “side-by-side” comparison highlights both the similarities and the differences of perspective on what many people see as the object of faith and purpose of life or connection with the Infinity of the divine. The Christian text parts ways with the Hindu one on its emphasis on the role of sin as a human obstacle to the natural affinity of the soul for God. There is an additional comparative study of the “Phenomenology of Awakening,” which examines the Buddhist writings of Zhiyi in the framework of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, a discussion whose complexity and terminology would limit its accessibility to specialists.
There is a very short treatment of the role humor plays in philosophy and religion. While there are strong traditions of humor in Judaism and Islam as well as Buddhism, the grim frown of post-Reformation Christianity might profit from the spiritual advice of country and western singer, Reba McEntire, who insists that, "To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone." While misdirected humor can be as painful as the political correctness that proscribes it, its interruption of normal consciousness may in fact be salutary if not salvific.
Though a large part in this book depends on access to traditions not one's own, the question of exegesis and its many traditions is largely implicit and perhaps undervalued in the search for contact with the original sources. We commented earlier on the bricolage involved in translation. The penultimate chapter of the book looks at a particular process, Laksana, in Indian exegesis and the circumstances under which it is useful, admissible in that it does not betray the source document in its efforts to reconcile of inconsistencies. While the discussion primarily concerns the use of Laksana in interpreting Indian philosophy, it also suggests caution in the application of exegetical principles in other philosophical and religious contexts.
The final chapter by the editor herself could serve as a launching site of an entirely new set of studies in which women's rights are explored in religious contexts as human rights. This would not just involve the analysis of current feminist philosophy and theology, but a careful exploration of traditional sources where traditions, both religious and philosophical, can be perceived as vehicles of oppression. The leading question here is whether multiculturalism in its respect for diverse traditions is not in cahoots with strains of suppression of women's human dignity.
Only today I heard a televised Taliban elder explain the importance of protecting society from Westernization and the dangers of contaminating women with Western feminist ideals while moments later Obama expressed his personal acceptance of gay marriage. Can one accuse Western human rights’ doctrines of perpetuating colonization? On the other hand, cannot respecting and protecting minority rights (including religious rights) conflict with and in fact contradict the exercise of women's basic human rights. The context here is Canadian, and, whether multicultural rhetoric and policy about aboriginal peoples or immigrant groups, raises the question as to whether colonialism is or is not alive and well when diverse groups diverge in their treatment of women. Debates about a secular state allowing even voluntarily accepted, mediation by Orthodox Jewish elders, applications of sharia, submission to ecclesiastical tribunals or fundamentalist Christian practice bring forth strident voices on either side.
Joy does not favor the condemnation of religion or its gender differentiations per se but suggests a mediator role for scholars of philosophy and religion. While the definition of what is private and what is public is being argued out, strategies are needed to reduce the violence against women that is supported or excused on religious grounds whatever the tradition. The bizarre confluence on gender issues between the Vatican, Islamic governments, and the fundamentalist Christian right in the debate on human and women's rights lead us to a paradoxical tolerance of intolerance. Not surprisingly, the book closes with a finger pointed at cultural essentialism and the demand that “culture” as a concept, if not stripped of all validity, be radically redefined in a fluid and evolutionary sense. Clearly, the “clash of civilizations” may continue to be about gender politics for a long time.