OCTOBER 22, 2001
The Intellectual's Responsibility and the Ambiguity of Religions of the Book, part I: The Clash of Civilizations and/or Global Reflexivity
-- William Schweiker
In response to the events of the eleventh of September, the University of Chicago has sponsored a series of lectures and discussions titled "9/11: Its Causes and Consequences." The following issue of Sightings is the first in a series of three adapted from an address, "The Intellectual's Responsibility and the Ambiguity of Religions," delivered at the second of these gatherings by William Schweiker, Professor of Theological Ethics, at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
My purpose today is to clarify what I take to be the demand and possibility of our day. I am bold enough to think that we are living amid a kind of rupture in human time. It is a moment in which we can deploy our greatest powers to humane purposes or allow this moment to swallow hopes and ideals. No longer can we be complacent about the calling of the intellectual; there is a demand and possibility that requires the best of our minds, hearts, and will.
These articles are an exercise in comparative religious ethics. I will try to isolate a shared pattern of moral thinking seen in the so-called Religions of the Book. Much more needs to be done in order to carry out the comparison in full than I can supply in three short articles. Important and subtle differences between these traditions would need to be noted, as well as their complex and diverse strands of moral and legal reflection. What is more, I am not an expert in Islamic and Jewish ethics. My competence is in Christian and Western philosophical ethics. Granting these limitations, it is important to see points of contact and areas of shared concern, among these great religions if we are to meet the challenges of our day.
As uncomfortable as it might be, I need to begin with a note of realism. No matter what beliefs and doctrines are held, as actually lived out by real human beings, every religion is profoundly ambiguous. The religions are forces of life, justice, creativity and spiritual empowerment. But they are also forces of death, tyranny, ignorance, and moral failure. We cannot and ought not deny or ignore this fact. In my judgment, it does not help our situation to exempt any tradition from the full range of its actual expression by real people in real life. We have to confront and repent of the moral ambiguities and even failures of our faiths. What then are we to do? Part of what we can do is to try to isolate within patterns of moral conviction those points most open to distortion. Let us begin with how best to understand our situation. It is a situation that is riddled and racked by the problem of religiously motivated terrorism.
In all moral reflection it is important to grasp and also assess how a situation is defined, interpreted. In fact, one of the most morally important things we do is to describe situations. Recently, a host of thinkers, including Samuel Huntington, have spoken of a "clash of civilizations." Part of our job is to assess this description of our situation. This description means that the forms of conflict we should now expect on the global scene are not just political and economic, but profoundly cultural. When the present world situation is described in that way, it has profound implications for how we think about human interactions and even political policy. It should also be clear that how the situation is defined betrays orienting values and beliefs and ideals. That is, the description of any situation is fraught with moral convictions or at least convictions about how best to understand social realities. That is why any "description" of a human situation is ethically important; it articulates orienting convictions and values.
Is the idea of a "clash" of civilizations really the best description of our situation? To be sure, there is plenty of cultural and religiously driven violence in the world. We know this all too well. And in some respect the forms of conflict we see are not just economic or political, but profoundly cultural. The description of a "clash of civilizations" has some merit to it. It tells us that there are forces working on the global scene more subtle, powerful, and pervasive than specific nations or particular economic systems. Put differently, we have to start seeing the world scene in new ways.
I suggest that the real force of the new insight is that the global field must be understood as a "space of reasons." It is an arena in which human beings are motivated to live and act and relate in certain ways. In this light, it is obvious that religions and cultures are spaces of reasons; they are about how to live in a certain way. The religions, indeed whole civilizations, motivate human behavior because they are complex means of making sense of life.
While it seems true that people act in certain ways due to matters of belief and value that are bound to their very identity as people, the idea of a "clash" of civilization is not really right. First, there is, as theorists of globalization say, a "compression of the world" that brings with it an awareness of global interdependence and increasing conflict. The idea of a "clash" of civilizations misses something found in the interdependence, namely, global reflexivity. By global reflexivity I mean the ways in which cultures or civilizations act back upon themselves with respect to information coming from other cultures or civilizations. Reflexivity is rooted in the wondrous human capacity to be aware of oneself in the midst of act and to be able to make adjustments, to learn, in that very process.
We see reflexivity on the world scene in music, style, cuisine, and, I believe, in religion. World religions are constantly changing through their presence in global reflexive dynamics. Human rights are a good example of how the religions are adjusting in various ways to ideals and values moving within global reflexivity. But religions and cultures have been interacting and adjusting to each other for a very long time. Indeed their own identities are constituted by these reflexive interactions. This is especially true of Christianity and Islam given their history of mission, conquest, and empire.
Reflexivity can be violent, of course. One way to react to information coming from another culture is to try to destroy that culture because of the fear that one's own identity will be changed through interaction, which, of course, is exactly the case. Reflexivity can also be seen as part of the ongoing, complex way in which cultures do define and understand themselves. This is the second reason why the description of our situation as the clash of civilization is not ultimately helpful. It assumes that the only way in which cultures can and will respond to the infusion of information from other cultures is through conflict. This fails to see that we have choices to make, that it might be possible to work for more peaceful and exciting forms of reflexivity.