Compassion in Religion – Some Reflections

Last Thursday, I attended the Compassion in Religion Conference at Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre (at Vancouver School of Theology) which featured as its keynote speaker, author and scholar Karen Armstrong (whose name, I found out, is pronounced like “Car-in” rather than “Care-in”). Armstrong is the author of a number of books on the subject of God (The Case for God, The History of God), Jerusalem (Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths), and Islam. Armstrong is also the recipient of the TED Prize (an award issued by the TED Talks) which grants the recipient “one wish to change the world” and a nice hefty some of $100,000 to see that wish to fulfillment (or partial fulfillment at least). In 2008, Armstrong wished for a Charter of Compassion. Since then, she has been hitting the road with her message that the religions of the world have at their core, the Golden Rule and that now more than ever, we need to reaffirm this principle of compassion in a cooperative setting.

The evening before the conference, I decided to find out a bit more about what the Charter was all about so I decided to listen to her 2008 TED Talk. I wish I hadn’t because, for the most part, her keynote address was pretty much the same.The conference also included some “storytellers” from Canadian Aboriginals and other major religious traditions on the subject of compassion. Finally, breakout group dialogues were facilitated by members of a class from SFU’s Centre for Dialogue.

A few reflections on the conference from my end…

Just how hard it is to accept the fact that there are other people in the world that think and believe differently from me. Now, I have come quite a long way (if I am able to step outside myself for a moment) in acknowledging and respecting the plurality of opinions and beliefs. In high school, not so much so. Democrats were “useful idiots” (and I had no real idea why, but that was just the buzz phrase that Ann Coulter’s title became). People of other religious traditions were flat out wrong. Even Catholics (who weren’t really Christians) were to be looked at with a degree of suspicion. After going to university for four years, my mind became a bit broader to allow for other people to hold to their convictions. But the problem, I am realizing, was that this broadness is just an idea in my head and I have only put it into practise to a limited degree within my own Western Christian tradition. It is a lot easier to think that respect for others is a good idea than it is to actually respect them and allow them to speak with conviction about what they believe (and to take them seriously, for that matter).

My aversion to certain expressions of liberal pluralistic religion. This is a bit strange considering the fact that I don’t consider myself necessarily conservative or orthodox. And, if one who spend a few minutes talking with me about theology or religion in general, “liberal” is probably the first word that comes to mind. I don’t like using the word “liberal” and “conservative” to describe religious positions because they don’t work very well and tend to ignore the more complex nuances of people’s spiritual and theological stances and journeys. Probably a better way to describe what I’m getting at when I say “my aversion to liberal religion” is that pluralisms’ which like to boil all of the world religions down to a common essence and then use that as some sort of “chief cornerstone” on which to build a new religion that transcends all religions do not sit well with me. I was quite glad, then, to hear Armstrong say herself that the Charter of Compassion is not her attempt to do just that. She stated that we must acknowledge differences while affirming the commonalities. I suppose my realization of this aversion I have emerged more out the storytellers who spoke and some of the group discussions. I am not saying that I think exclusivistic religion is the way to go. By no means! But particularities must be respected and acknowledged and protected. The stranger must remain strange. Inter-religious dialogue often runs to close (for my liking) to collapse the Other into the self, thus turning us into all the same. I don’t think that is realistic when we consider just how different we are from our own friends. Moreover, that removes the actual purpose of and impetus behind inter-religious dialogues. If the stranger is no longer strange, well, what’s the use of talking to ourselves?

My latent exclusivistic inclinations. I still have that desire to be “right” and to show the other that they are “wrong.” My initial feeling (and hope) is that this is a human problem in general. Epistemological humility is very challenging. The setting aside of our personal or communal agendas seems to test our inclination towards self-preservation of our individuality or our community’s uniqueness.

The inadequacy of many (mostly Christian) theologies of pluralism (that is, Christian explanations of the presence of and relationship with other religious and spiritual traditions). The exclusivistic interpretations of Christianity provide a rather simplistic explanation of the presence of other traditions: simply, other religious traditions are almost entirely untrue (though at the surface, they may have a truth like a belief in one God). Extreme forms of this interpretation may chalk the presence of other religious traditions as the work of Satan who is out to confuse the world and distract people from Christianity. This doesn’t sit well with me for reasons that are not worth going in to. It’s the more nuanced inclusivistic and pluralistic interpretations that still don’t seem to jive with personal experience and observations. On the one hand, inclusivistic interpretations still are exclusivistic in that they necessarily think of a particular group as having the fullness of truth while others have parts of the truth. There is still one truth, but all others participate in this truth. This is great from a theoretical perspective. But attempt to tell this to a friend from another tradition and you will still sound like the fundamentalist. On a practical level, inclusivism is patronizing (“Your tradition has truth in it!”) and at the same time hostile (“But only hints of it!”). We pay lip service to the Other with our left hand (or with the left side of our mouth!) and in one swift breath we rebuff the Other (with our right side of the mouth). Inclusivism is great within religious traditions but still bears the marks of being dictatorial and unbending outside. Inclusivism still views the Other as lacking something that we have. We have something that they don’t and we are in a position to point that out to them. We have power. And, if the other is really interested in truth, they will become one of us.

But if inclusivism is still unsettling to me, the opposite of exclusivism is still problematic in my thinking. It reduces difference to sameness. Many forms of pluralism like to acknowledge the diversity of religious traditions but at the same time they reduce religion to a few generalized, universal concepts that can all too often ignore the categorical differences between traditions. The Other is lessened, boiled down, contracted, pruned of their otherness. Pluralism expects the Other to trim themselves to fit into a pluralistic perspective of the world. Pluralism becomes the new exclusivism in that it excludes those that want to maintain their otherness. In the name of inclusivity, some have to be excluded.

Still reflecting; that is all for now.