March 19, 2004
The topic this time was the clash of civilisations and the possible inevitability of war (in the context of desired avoidance of both and of modern spirituality -- an anti-war rally was announced at the end of the lecture). I found out in-lecture that this topic was to be interpreted as whether Islam was a threat to the west. The inverse question was never once asked ... although the lecturer thought it had been, by virtue of some specific points of negotiation and desired resolution having been raised. Not at all the same thing! and definitely not at all the direction from which he had approached what constituted "threat" from the other side.
The entire talk was based around rebutting and refuting a specific author's "religion-identity-basis for war" equation ... based upon the same structure that author had built. Yet to accept another's foundations and identified categories as a basis for debate is to legitimise those foundations and identifications in and of themselves. Afterwards, I found myself wondering why the lecturer had chosen to endorse that author's views while appearing to refute them. (I did ask him directly, earlier, why he had chosen that approach. He said that it was the direction that seemed most relevant to him.) If he saw any other feasible approaches that would not have created parallel a priori assumptions, he choose not to mention them ... and when audience members brought up questions realised within different conceptual structures, he answered them still from within his own monolith -- or, more accurately, that of the author whom he had been obstensively refuting. I have the real feeling that he shared no common ground, that he had (equally a priori) personally rejected any other evaluative criteria, and consequently that he was incapable of understanding any approach or issue which did not fundamentally partake of his own perspective.
He ended with that injunction by Rabbi Sacks (The Dignity of Difference) that we should endeavour to see God, not only in those familiar to us, but also in those different from us. Otherwise, we see only the reflection of ourselves. (Nietzsche would have said what we have self-created in our own image: man creates his God.) The lecturer neglected to mention the extreme reaction to Sacks' attempt to find a middle road both by observant Jews and by many foreign policy protesters -- although examining the basis for such reaction on both sides might have been far more enlightening to the overall theme of the series of talks. It has been said that effective compromise is that which makes both sides unhappy. Take with appropriate grain of salt.
Oh, irony. It was only three questions later that a young woman, Muslim, be-shawled, black, stood up and tried to explain what the lecturer had not, tried to show us her religion through her eyes as a religion of peace. Why associate acts of terrorism by a small minority only in one direction? Did not the Ku Klux Klan meet exactly the same conditions? and yet it is never seen generally as representative of Christianity in any way. She was almost in tears, she was so desperate. It is a universal human thing, to wish to be understood.
He acknowledged her statement, and went on to the next question. If she touched him at all, he showed nothing of it. The structures within which he had been working all evening -- while seeming to refute them -- allow for nothing of such touching.
Within the attempt to find that middle road while keeping faith with one's own religious structures, Sacks' injunction works perhaps as well as any, yet it still falls short. For this day and age, however: if we are to survive, we no longer have a choice, we must go beyond the acceptance of difference to the recognition of a common humanity in all. So long as the attempt is to see God within those we see as different from us, we will not -- cannot! -- see God at all.
No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilisation encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind ... In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths ... God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by any faith ...
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks