Religion and Difference

David Weinberger gets what jillions of folks can’t see: that it’s only to be expected that religious disagreements may go all the way to the roots, even when the disagreement seems to involve really nice and friendly people. I suspect the Dalai Lama is a snazzy guy, probably beats the dickens out of many of my bishops for sophistication and profondeur, but so far as it’s been given me to understand the world, Buddhists just have the deal wrong. Nicely wrong (when they’re not using government military power to coerce native peoples into submission), but they still miss an important boat.
It doesn’t bother me to say this because, as far as it’s given me to understand Buddhism, a good Buddhist has to think that I’ve misconstrued the nature of the universe. And rightly so.
Not that this means Buddhists and Christians can’t get along, can’t agree on things like “It’s better not to slaughter indigenous peoples to shore up the nation-state,” can’t play football (the world kind, not American football) (not that a Buddhist couldn’t play football, though I don’t understand why they’d want to). They will just disagree about lots of important things. And again, that should be okay. Especially when Christians (and here I’m picking on my sisters and brothers because they have a claim of accountability on me and I on them) remember that they’re supposed to turn the other cheek, endure suffering rather than inflict it, be wronged rather than wrong someone else, and so on.
Again, Weinberger wonders how the very idea of universal truths works: “Finding a universal ground for all religion reduces us to mouthing abstractions so vague as to be meaningless and ignores what is most distinctive and most important about each religion.” My way of putting this in an argument with a colleague who believed fervently in universal truths was, “I’ll agree that we believe in universal truths when the truths in question are so universal that you’ll let me tell you what they are.” Of course, Max wouldn’t let me define what the universal truths were; he wanted both universality and the whip hand in defining the universal truths. Does that smell fishy to anyone else? “You have to believe in universal truths, and let me tell you what they are.” This kind of arguing often comes from people who slag the writers who taught me a lot about thinking (Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Irigaray, that bunch) for complicity with the forces of reaction and fascism— presumably because these theorists don’t subscribe to the dogmas of universal reason.
There! Got that off my chest. Still haven’t found a copy of “Alive (For Once in My Lifetime,” though.
By the way, David Weinberger ascribes the aphorism, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted” to Dostoevsky; a little Googling, though, would have suggested that this expression doesn’t appear in the most common translations of Dostoevsky’s works, though the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” appears in John Fowles’s The Magus and William S. Burroughs (“Apocalypse,” there assigned to Hassan i Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain), and, most memorably for me, Jim Carroll on his Catholic Boy album (“Nothing is True”) (I’ll bet you can find that on the Internet).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *