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Globalization Challenged: Conviction, Conflict, Community
Convictions matter. At least our own convictions - the affirmations, commitments, and practices that are central to our personal and social identities - matter to us. Yet because we live in an era of unprecedented global interaction, the convictions of people everywhere also matter to all of us whether we know it or not.
We all read about - and probably know personally - people who are passionately convinced that their convictions are absolutely right and all others are unquestionably wrong. We also have friends, neighbors, and colleagues who decline to debate such convictions and call for a stance of tolerance toward them all. But in an age of globalization, neither of these positions is viable-even if both may have been serviceable in more provincial times.
The standoff between these two positions is illustrated in our everyday experience and etched into our awareness through the media. We see fervent convictions in the headlines. The perpetrators of the horrific tragedy of September 11, 2001, are an extreme example, even among extremists. But there is an ample supply of others: for instances across a range of traditions, think of recent conflicts in Ireland, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka. Over against this awful carnage, we cannot but sympathize with the call of Western secular liberalism: religious and other ideological views should be tolerated but must remain private convictions that do not shape public outcomes.
To be blunt, in this secular liberal view religion and its ideological equivalents must be kept in the closet. Individuals may decide to participate in communities based on authorities that are not generally accessible. But such individuals should not expect their private preferences to determine public policies.
This secular liberal view has been the predominant one in U.S. history. Fervent conviction has typically found expression privately or in small supportive communities. More public testimony and larger-scale evangelism have at times been prominent in our history, in particular in awakenings or revivals like those of the middle of the eighteenth century. In our own time, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews united in pressing for the civil rights of African Americans and in advocating disengagement from Vietnam. More recently, Evangelical Christians have become a core constituency of Republican electoral strategy and have thereby gained substantial leverage for advancing their positions on such issues as abortion and public expression of religious beliefs. Yet even with this growth in influence of the so-called Christian Right, the more characteristic American pattern has been one of reticence in imposing particular views on the broader public.
The words of William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming” resonate through the intervening decades and are hauntingly apt for our own troubled time: certainty, corroboration of views that opponents dispute. But the word is deployed to identify perpetrators of what is taken to be evil as often as it is used to designate advocates of worthy causes.
At a time when terrorism has become so salient a threat, it is hard to argue against any attempt to keep passionate conviction under whatever control is available. Yet attractive as the plea for tolerance may be, it cannot appeal only to virtues of openness to all views and acceptance of multiple perspectives. Instead, any viable response to our current challenges must also be prepared to acknowledge, engage, and appraise the core values that animate and motivate all parties to the controversies.
This requirement is admittedly asymmetrical. It accepts the fact that more than one perspective may be worthy of attention, which means it rejects any claim to exclusive truth without further debate that allows appeal to generally accessible authorities. At the same time, this approach recognizes the extent to which personal convictions not only express private preferences but also legitimately influence public policies.
To return to Yeats’s poetic formulation, neither a lack of all conviction nor an overflow of passionate intensity is adequate. Passionate intensity alone does not settle the matter - if only because there are multiple candidates who can base their claim on this consideration. And the lack of all conviction is not only unfair as a characterization of secular liberal pleas for tolerance but also in any case incapable of holding its own against passionate intensities.
THE NEED FOR COMPARATIVE APPRAISAL
The imperative that results from this standoff calls for a more robust public appraisal of views that we in the West have relegated to the status of private preferences for too long. We all know that personal convictions have social ramifications. We can no longer afford the luxury of pretending this is not the case, even if the alternative is less comfortable than an ethos that simply tolerates any and all positions.
In an age of globalization, this need for more robust public appraisal is all the more acute. Appeals to allegedly absolute authorities somehow are less dispositive or immediately compelling in the face of competing claims that seem similarly grounded. The invocation of inerrant texts loses some of its punch when the Bible of the Fundamentalist Christian confronts the Qur’an of the Wahhabi Muslim or the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhist. The retreat to inaccessible private experience - “you just have to know Jesus” - is less overwhelming as a strategy when it encounters the very similar maneuvers of other pietistic and mystical traditions.
The context of globalization presses us toward a comparative perspective that entails public attention to what otherwise might remain private. This comparative perspective is almost unavoidably critical-and at its best is also self-critical. As we become aware of comparability among ostensibly quite disparate communities, we also cannot help noticing the enormous variety within nominally unified traditions. This variety is evident historically: even the most stable traditions change over time. But there are also great differences even at a single point of time-including, of course, the present.
We see this variety in our own communities both over time and in the present. Consider fourth-century Catholic Christianity in North Africa, fifteenth-century Christian Orthodoxy in Constantinople, eighteenth-century Deism in England. Or recall an Evangelical Baptist and a high church Episcopalian whom you may know. Or think of the enormously rich and diverse streams of Jewish tradition simplified as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.
Similar and if anything even more variety is evident in Hindu and Buddhist communities. In the case of what we homogenize as Hinduism, the diversity is all the more remarkable because it developed for most of its history within the single (admittedly large and variegated) country of India. In contrast, Buddhists moved out from India across Asia and more recently to Europe and America and developed a virtually limitless array of permutations and combinations with other traditions.
Along with Buddhism and Christianity, Islam is the third great missionary religion in human history, and it too has become rooted in a remarkable range of cultures. Islam has resisted complete indigenization, in particular through its refusal to allow the Qur’an to be translated from Arabic to local languages. Yet there is still great diversity in Islam, far more than is suggested by our tendency to identify it almost exclusively with the Arabian Peninsula. After all, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and India has the largest Muslim minority of any country. And even within the Arabian Peninsula, there is the considerable diversity and tension that the division between Sunni and Shia communities represents.
PUBLIC RELIGION AND SELF-CRITICAL SECULARISM
All of this diversity within religious traditions calls attention to a fact too easily overlooked in periods when the prevailing ethos calls for tolerance: religious people themselves have almost never deemed their convictions to be private preferences that can be divorced from deliberations about public policies. Instead, they have engaged in vigorous debate among themselves as to the most adequate understanding of their shared traditions because they believed it to be of utmost importance to be right in their convictions. And they have also been prepared to be public advocates for what their convictions imply for society as a whole.
At a time of social antagonisms that are in part religiously based, this public face of religion is perhaps unwelcome. Surely the world would be safer if such fervent convictions were kept out of the public square. But this option, so attractive to secular liberalism, is-to repeat-simply not acceptable to those whose deepest convictions would be relegated to the status of private preferences without any relevance to public policy.
As challenging as is the insistent presence of religion and its ideological equivalents in public life, it also represents a great opportunity because the recognition of disagreements within a nominally unified tradition opens the door to self-criticism. This process is in fact always under way. But greater awareness of it can encourage support that allows muted or minority or suppressed views to be voiced with greater vigor.
An example of this encouragement that is especially attractive to the West at the moment is the call for proponents of moderate Islam to become more vocal over against their extremist coreligionists. There certainly are such moderate voices: Muslims who affirm jihad as the struggle to live faithfully, who exemplify peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims, who reject suicide bombing and other forms of terrorism. As in other religious communities, there is a contest always under way for the right to claim the designation “Muslim.” This internal contest should not, however, obscure the extent of common ground across a great range of Muslims in opposition to prevailing trends in the West. Indeed, in this respect Muslims also speak for large numbers of religiously serious adherents to other traditions.
Here we return again to the contrast between passionate intensity and lack of all conviction. Even those of the religiously committed who oppose exclusionist extremism and hostility to all outsiders are often strongly critical of what they see as the cultural domination of the West. That this cultural domination may come in religious as well as secular forms only amplifies and intensifies the opposition: for the religiously committed person, unqualified secularism may well be resisted in any case, but pervasively secular views advanced with rhetorical flourishes from another religion is doubly unattractive. Thus, even in the view of the religiously committed who oppose exclusionist extremism and hostility, to accommodate passively to the hedonism and materialism of secular Western culture is to lack all conviction. The sense of such accommodation in turn generates further support for the passionate intensity that the most extreme positions represent.
Just as we encourage debate within the Muslim world, we must, therefore, also welcome vigorous criticism of prevailing trends in the West. Only if we resist our own tendencies to provincialism and triumphalism will we be able to acknowledge, engage, and evaluate the multiple streams in our own traditions. And on that basis, we can perhaps also recognize points of contact with the very different perspectives of the outsiders who criticize and even attack us.