In autumn 2011, Kentucky politics was enlivened by an incident over Governor Steve Beshear’s participation in a Hindu ceremony for the Diwali festival and the attack by Senator David Williams, his Republican challenger in the upcoming elections, on the Governor’s descent into “idolatry”. This led to a discussion on the RISA (Religion in South Asia) internet list in early November, with thread header: “Hinduism has become an issue in Kentucky politics”.
After drawing attention to the event, a list member sent in an article presenting the Hindu American Foundation’s protest note: “Hindu Americans Shocked By Kentucky State Senate President's Intolerant Remarks”. Suhag Shukla, HAF’s managing director and legal counsel, said: "The words of Sen. Williams are not only an affront to Hindu Americans, but all Americans as he conjures up the lowest sentiments of exclusion and bigotry. He’s shown he’s ignorant and intolerant -- two qualities that we hope Kentuckyians will reject at the polls.” We learned that Williams was trailing Beshear by a nearly 2-1 margin in the polls, that he criticized the Governor for sitting cross-legged with a “dot on his forehead” in a ceremony that he described as “polytheistic”, and that he “disparaged” the “Hindu gods”.
I commented: “As usual, the HAF isn't getting the real import of this salutary incident. Candidate David Williams is reminding us of the essentially unstable and merely provisional nature of ‘interreligious dialogue’. He is only stating the proper Christian position: polytheism, idolatry and all the other heathen stuff that Hindus are guilty of, leads to hell and away from salvation. Christian love requires that Christians refuse all compromise with the devil (the horned antigod with his trident, elsewhere known as Shiva) and tell Hindus on every occasion that only Jesus can save them. Liberals and liberal-talking HAF Hindus may call that ‘hate’ (yes, of false religion leading fellow-men astray) and ‘intolerance’ (yes, of sin masquerading as openness), but it is only unadulterated Christianity. Any respect paid to false religion may cause people not to find the way to salvation, which in the Christian perspective is the most horrible thing you can do to them. As a student for the Catholic priesthood once told me with a little hyperbole: ‘We should not talk with the heretics. We should burn the heretics!’
“To be sure, there are Christians, not just the Kentucky Governor but also Church officials, who play the game of interreligious chumminess. While HAF seems implicitly to applaud such exercises, it ought to realize that the difference with the likes of candidate Williams is mostly only one of manners, or rather, of tactics. Those Christians who mean it, don't represent a Christianity recognizable to its founders, which was a radical religion, but a made-up religion mixing some elements from Christianity with modern liberalism. As for the others: the biggest player of this game, the Catholic Church, has openly stated in successive encyclicals that the diplomatic exercise of interreligious dialogue does not nullify the duty of all Catholics to propagate Christ. In this approach, interreligious dialogue itself is only one front in the missionary offensive. The much-touted dialogue pioneer Bede Griffiths with his ‘Christian ashrams’ and saffron robes explicitly justified his approach as the remedy for the limited inroads that the mission had made into Hindu society.
“I am not at all against interreligious dialogue, but I want to be clear about the inevitable finality of real dialogue. It is to transcend the viewpoints from which the participants start. Either one religion has the exclusive truth (as claimed by the founders and ideologues of at least Christianity and Islam), and then all open-minded participants will eventually leave their own religion and embrace the true one; or all the doctrines that constitute the separate identities fall short of the truth and have to be transcended. Now, in the decades that interreligious dialogue has been a big thing, numerous people have crossed or transcended religious boundaries, but not in the dialogue forums, on the contrary.
"There, all participants merely defend their own religion, at most reformulating their religion to bring it in tune with the fashionable values, pronouncing absolute bunkum with a straight face, e.g.: ‘The Bible is against slavery’, ‘Mohammed was the first feminist’, ‘the Buddha preached a social revolution’, ‘the Veda too is monotheistic at heart’, ‘caste is totally un-Hindu’. If you hold the claims made in this context against the light of the real traditions and their real history, a candid observer can only conclude that, while religion-in-general remains a valid project, each of these specific religions have to shed a lot of harmful baggage that is bound up with their self-declared essence (or is there a Christianity without the Bible, an Islam without Mohammed?). They have to shed what is most distinctive about themselves. The Kentucky officials' participation in a Hindu ceremony is to be welcomed to the extent that they do sincerely outgrow basic Biblical assumptions, the ones which Williams has helpfully restated, such as the evil nature of polytheism and ‘idolatry’.
“At the ‘Religion in Asia after 9/11’ conference in Jamia Millia 2009 (featuring all the usual suspects: the Dalai Lama, Mark Tully,..), Hindu liberation theologian Swami Agnivesh spoke at a session called ‘Is interreligious dialogue the solution?’ and cut out all the crap in his first sentence: ‘No. Interreligious dialogue has not yielded any meaningful results. It is time we tried something else.’”
My opening line disparaging the HAF as simply not understanding the stakes, “as usual”, was based on earlier experiences with the clumsy performance of Hindu-American organizations in debates and struggles such as the one about the California textbooks (which gave a hostile outsider account of Hinduism, contrasting with the insider accounts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and the fairly respectful account of Buddhism) in 2005-2009. However, a few weeks after this exchange on the RISA list, I met the new HAF at the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion and its RISA subdivision in San Francisco. No less than five HAF members were present to follow and to report on the sessions pertinent to Hinduism or to the position of the Hindus in American society. To my satisfaction, Hindu Americans are getting their act together at last.
“Believers don’t care a fig”?
Professor L. sent in some helpful polling data about how the majority of American Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims answered in the affirmative to the claim that "many religions can lead to eternal life". In detail: “Hindus 89%, Buddhists 86%, Jews 82%, Catholics 79%, Orthodox Christians 72%, historically Black churches 59%, Evangelicals 57%, Muslims 56%, Mormons 39%, and Jehovah's Witnesses 16%, = 70% of Americans in all.” For Hindus and Buddhists, this position is only natural, so it is no wonder that they are in the lead.
To these data, I replied: “This mainly proves that people cannot be reduced to their religious denomination, that their opinions aren’t effectively dictated by their church’s official teachings.” Lapses from orthodoxy by the flock have always been a headache for Church leaders. Many baptized Christians have retained or adopted views and attitudes that are properly Pagan, such as the acceptance that other religions may be just as salvific as the one to which they themselves happen to belong.
I had to agree with the professor’s observation that “we all know that many religionists don't really care a fig for what their Pope, synod President, acarya, mullah, etc. says, or may give only lip service while thinking and doing something else.” And I added: “Exactly. But then, while people cannot be reduced to their church’s official teaching, neither can the church’s teaching be reduced to what its contemporary members give as their opinions. Good to hear that 79% Catholics grant salvific power to other religions; but still, Catholicism doesn’t.”
The evils of essentialism
A Professor P. from Maryville TN was sharper in his reply to my position: “I wish to take a stronger stand against Dr. Elst’s remarks than [Prof. L.]’s more measured response just has. Ignoring the fact that the HAF statement that apparently provoked Elst’s reaction neither implicitly or explicitly references interreligious dialogue, I believe his latest post really crosses a line and portrays a religious tradition in a way that has no place in an academic forum like RISA-L. There is nothing scholarly or even minimally informed about his caricature of Christianity. It is pure polemic: utterly ahistorical, essentialized, two-dimensional, and bigoted. I object in the strongest possible way.”
Before reproducing my actual reply, we should first clarify some terminology. My view that Christianity at most tolerates other religions but does not respect them is denounced as “a-historical” and “essentialized”. In academic circles, you can expect to score if you denounce an opponent in these terms. But do they apply?
That Christianity merely tolerates the existence of other religions but does not really grant them legitimacy, is a consistent fact easily verifiable on both ends of the concept “Christianity”: in its doctrinal foundation and in its practice today. Yes, even today, when Christians claim to have freed themselves from medieval cobwebs, we see that in missionary frontline states like India, Christians still denounces Hinduism as a “false religion” or even “devil-worship”. Papal encyclicals keep on reconfirming the Catholic Church’s claim on a monopoly of access to salvation. This is just factual.
But by “a-historical”, the professor probably means something else than “in conflict with the facts of history”. This can be deduced from the juxtaposition with “essentialized”. What he objects to, is that I don’t treat Christianity as merely a set of phenomena conditioned by and evolving through history, but as having an “essence” that remains the same throughout its history and offers resistance to change-inducing influences from historical developments. “Essentialism” is now the central bogey of fashionable postmodern discourse. Not being a follower of fashion, I consciously stick to an essentialist view of the major religions. And so do the legitimate and acknowledged leaders of those religions.
For clear thinking, every concept used should have a clear definition, a criterion that allows us to separate the phenomena covered by the concept from those that fall outside the domain of the concept. That criterion marks its essence.
The attack on essentialism is most visible in the numerous attempts to blur or block the debate on Islam. When people link the facts of Muslim terrorism and of Muslim oppression of non-Muslims with doctrines laid down in the Quran, Hadith collections and the corpora of Islamic jurisprudence, they are told that they are guilty of “essentialism”. Yet, in Muslim circles everyone agrees that Islam does have an essence. While there may be a grey border zone, there is an undisputed core of what constitutes Islam both in Mohammed’s time and today, starting with monotheism and the belief in Mohammed’s final prophethood. I challenge Professor P. or anyone else to find me one self-conscious Muslim who would deny that there exist ideas (say, polytheism) or practices (say, idol-worship) which are intrinsically “un-Islamic”, which fall outside Islam by their essence. What the anti-essentialists do, is to arrogantly overrule the consensus of all doctrinal authorities in Islam from Mohammed till today.
In the case of Christianity, a few more lines will be needed to capture its essence than in the case of Islam, but it still has self-consciously endowed itself with a clear essence, chiefly the Nicene Creed. And this includes exclusivism, the belief that there is no salvation outside Christ. Baptized people who play to the gallery, who affect and perhaps also interiorize liberal attitudes of religious pluralism, objectively place themselves outside Christianity. Christians may have changed, i.e. absorbed modernism and gotten estranged from the defining Christian doctrine, but this doctrine itself has not.
In my opinion, Prof. P.’s overreaction is at least partly the psychological consequence of his sneaking realization that he is standing on very shaky ground. He can only get away with his denial of Christian exclusivism on that particular RISA forum because its dominant agenda is to belittle and criminalize Hinduism and hence to blunt all Hindu (or, in my case, pro-Hindu) criticism of Christianity and Islam.
Reply to Prof. P.
Now follows my RISA reply to Prof. P., dd. 6 November 2011:
“I’ll have to write a proper paper to explain my position vis-à-vis these various Christian positions, and time is running short now before taking the plane across the pond [i.e. from Belgium to San Francisco, where the AAR annual conference was about to take place]. So, just a few parting shots on this admittedly sensitive topic.
“The gestures of interreligious chumminess, with the Kentucky governor pronouncing a Diwali sermon, are fine for politicians or ordinary laymen. Such gestures don’t bring religions together, but they bring people closer together, and that is good. They may even make people realize that those others whom scripture taught us to see as benighted or unclean or agents/prisoners of the devil, aren’t all that different from ourselves. That exactly is what David Williams sees as a danger, for it blurs the radical Christian distinction between the doomed and the saved. The governor, on the other hand, may not see a conflict between his own Baptism and hobnobbing with idol-worshippers, but the Baptist missionaries in India certainly do.
“Re: ‘There is nothing scholarly or even minimally informed about his caricature of Christianity. It is pure polemic: utterly a-historical, essentialized, (...).’ The religions under discussion are by their own self-understanding ‘ahistorical’ and ‘essentialized’. Religious doctrines do define an ‘essence’ of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc., implying criteria which allow them to discern insiders from outsiders, the faithful from the infidels, the ‘real’ from the ‘nominal’ church members. The postmoderns who ‘problematize’ this straightforward fact are themselves outsiders to the religions and project or impose their own secular categories onto it, i.c. their allergy for ‘essentialism’. Now I personally don’t care for these essences, don’t throw stones at me, I am merely being respectful of the essentialist self-understanding of accredited religious leaders/ideologues.
“Some religious doctrines are also essentially and ostentatiously a-historical. I am aware that in the Catholic Church, the Holy Ghost can inspire the Council or the Pope to introduce non-Biblical novelties, much to the indignation of Protestants, but even the infallible Pope doesn’t treat the old-time religion lightly. Likewise for Muslims. Once in a debate on Islam I proved a point by quoting from the Quran, to which my opponent answered: ‘But the Quran is already an old book, it has little to do with today’s Islam’! But he was a pro-Islamic non-Muslim, for a Muslim would never have dismissed the Quran like that. The whole point of Islam, practically its ‘essence’, is that it takes the Quran as divinely revealed and valid until Judgment Day, exactly as all-important today as it was in Mohammed’s day. I don’t think any accredited Islamic authority will deny or doubt this, because by his colleagues’ reckoning he would place himself outside Islam if he denied the permanent validity and centrality of the Quran. Hindus, whose Vedas according to the texts themselves are merely human products composed by poets situated in time and space (unlike the Quran), spoil it by likewise claiming that their Vedas have been divinely revealed on Creation Day, unchangeable and valid forever.
“As for ‘scholarly’, I readily admit that my understanding of a scholar’s proper job in interreligious dialogue is miles away from that of many nice people here. For scholars it is proper to not just clothe this superficial bonhomie in academic jargon, but to see through it. The commendable desire to be nice to our fellow-men should not stand in the way of the scholar’s duty to be tough on ideas. While Obama was doing a politically sensible thing when he went to Cairo and pleased his Muslim audience by praising their religion, a dialogue between Christian and Muslim scholars should have a different agenda. Thus, instead of hollow jubilation that ‘after all, we both give a special place to Jesus’, they had better say: ‘Alright, we see Jesus as the son of God, saviour from sin, and resurrected after dying on the cross, while you deny each of these core beliefs. On each of these points, either your position is correct or ours is, tertium not datur. The two positions are logically irreconcilable, so let us not waste time anymore by leaving half of us in error, let us see if we can decide from the sources which of them is the right one. We being scholars, it goes without saying that we will abide by the scholarly findings: if the Islamic position proves right, we will accept it and drop our present belief, and if ours proves right, you will convert to our side.’ That would be the old-school approach, simple logic, valid in all sciences worth the name, but so far purposely shunned in interreligious dialogue. What immense service scholars would render to mankind if they could strip religion of all its deadwood like this, instead of further legitimizing the status-quo.
“Hope we can discuss it in San Francisco. As the song goes: ‘I lost my faith in San Francisco...’
“KE, non-affiliated Orientalist”
The issue was not decided by us scholars on our little debating forum. The discussion petered out as we were getting ready to catch our planes for San Francisco. However, just before leaving, the news from the real world out there provided me an opportunity to add a tongue-in-cheek little coda. The elections were won by the liberal governor Beshear and lost by his sincerely Christian challenger:
"Remember Kentucky governor Steve Beshear taking some flak over his participation in idolatry from righteous Christian David Williams:
Skipping some later rounds in this debate, we can now comment on its happy ending:
"Like in a heathen ordeal, this victory may be taken to provide divine justice. It proves that the many false gods bestow more favours on their faithful than a lone true God can muster. At least in the case of politicians, those notorious peddlers of falsehood.
“KE, non-affiliated Orientalist”