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Passionate Conviction and Inclusive Community

Nov 19, 2013

This essay is based on a lecture given at International Christian University, Japan, on September 17, 2013.

Conviction in a Pluralistic World

Convictions matter. At least our own convictions—the affirmations, commitments, and practices that are central to our personal and social identity—matter to us. Yet because we live in an era of unprecedented global interaction, the convictions of people everywhere also matter to all of us whether we know it or not.

We all read about—and probably know at least a few personally—people who are passionately convinced that their convictions are absolutely right and all others are unquestionably wrong. We also have friends, neighbors, and colleagues who decline to debate such convictions and call for a stance of unqualified tolerance toward them all. But in an age of globalization, neither of these positions is viable—even if both may have been serviceable in more provincial times.

The standoff between these two positions is illustrated in our everyday experience and etched into our awareness through the media. We see fervent convictions in the headlines. The perpetrators of the horrific tragedy of 9/11 and their imitators since then are extreme examples even among extremists. But there is an ample supply of others: for examples across a range of traditions, think of recent conflicts in Ireland, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka. Over against this awful carnage, we cannot but sympathize with the call of Western secular liberalism: religious and other ideological views should be tolerated but must remain private convictions that do not shape public outcomes.

To be blunt, in this secular liberal view, religion and its ideological equivalents must be kept in the closet. Individuals may decide to participate in communities based on authorities that are not generally accessible. But such individuals should not expect their private preferences to determine public policies.

At a time when we hear so much from right-of-center political figures—whether Tea Party Republicans in the United States or the governing coalition in Japan—it is worth remembering that this secular liberal view has been dominant in much of the world in recent decades. While fervent conviction can indeed emerge in ideologically fueled mass movements, it has more typically found expression privately or in small supportive communities. As for the U.S., more public testimony and larger-scale evangelism have at times been prominent in our history. But even with the growth in influence of the so-called Christian Right, the more characteristic pattern has been one of reticence in imposing particular religious views on the broader public.

In his very different setting three generations ago, William Butler Yeats captured our situation in his poem "The Second Coming":

The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

For Yeats as for us, "conviction" is a telling word. Its Latin stem means to overcome, to conquer, to be victorious. "Conviction" is the state of being persuaded, convinced, convicted in the sense of having any doubts rebutted. Yet "conviction" also refers to the act of finding someone guilty of an offense, convicted of a crime. So the word connotes confidence, certainty, corroboration of views that opponents dispute. But the word is deployed to identify perpetrators of what is taken to be evil as often as it is used to designate advocates of worthy causes.

At a time when terrorism has become so salient a threat, it is hard to argue against any attempt to keep passionate conviction under whatever control is available. Yet attractive as the plea for tolerance may be, it cannot appeal only to virtues of openness to all views and acceptance of multiple perspectives. Instead, any viable response to our current challenges must also be prepared to acknowledge, engage, and appraise the core values that animate and motivate all parties to the controversies.

This requirement is admittedly asymmetrical. It accepts the fact that more than one perspective may be worthy of attention, which means it rejects any claim to exclusive truth without further debate that allows appeal to generally accessible authorities. At the same time, this approach recognizes the extent to which personal convictions not only express private preferences but also legitimately influence public policies.

To return to Yeats' poetic formulation, neither a lack of all conviction nor an overflow of passionate intensity is adequate. Passionate intensity alone does not settle the matter if only because there are multiple candidates who can base their claim on this consideration. And the lack of all conviction is not only unfair as a characterization of secular liberal pleas for tolerance but also in any case incapable of holding its own against passionate intensities.

The Need for Comparative Appraisal

The imperative that results from this standoff calls for a more robust public appraisal of views that many at least in the West for too long have relegated to the status of private preferences. We all know that personal convictions have social ramifications. We can no longer afford the luxury of pretending that is not the case even if the alternative is less comfortable than an ethos that simply tolerates any and all positions.

In an age of increased global awareness this need for more robust public appraisal is all the more acute. Appeals to allegedly absolute authorities somehow are less dispositive or immediately compelling in the face of competing claims that seem similarly grounded. The invocation of inerrant texts loses some of its punch when the Bible of the Fundamentalist Christian confronts the Koran of the Wahhabi Muslim or the Pāli Canon of the Theravada Buddhist. The retreat to inaccessible private experience—"you just have to know Jesus"—is less overwhelming as a strategy when it encounters the very similar approaches of other pietistic and mystical traditions.

The processes captured in the buzz word "globalization" press us toward a comparative perspective that entails public attention to what otherwise might remain private. This comparative perspective is almost unavoidably critical—and at its best is also self-critical. As we become aware of comparability among ostensibly quite disparate communities, we also cannot help noticing the enormous variety within nominally unified traditions. This variety is evident historically: even the most stable traditions change over time. But there are also great differences even at a single point of time—including, of course, the present.

We see this variety in our own communities both over time and in the present. Consider fourth-century Catholicism in North Africa, fifteenth-century Christian Orthodoxy in Constantinople, eighteenth-century Deism in England. Or recall an Evangelical Baptist and a high church Episcopalian whom you may know. Or think of the enormously rich and diverse streams of Jewish tradition simplified as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.

Similar and if anything even more variety is evident in Hindu and Buddhist communities. In the case of what we homogenize as Hinduism, the diversity is all the more remarkable because it developed for most of its history within the single (admittedly large and variegated) country of India. In contrast, Buddhists moved out from India across Asia and more recently to Europe and America and developed a virtually limitless array of permutations and combinations with other traditions. In particular in China and Japan, Buddhists have blended their beliefs and practices and more or less amicably lived side-by-side with Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto traditions.

Along with Buddhism and Christianity, Islam is the third great missionary religion in human history, and it too has become rooted in a remarkable range of cultures. Islam has resisted complete indigenization, in particular through its refusal to allow the Koran to be translated from Arabic into local languages. Yet there is still great diversity in Islam, far more than is suggested by our tendency to identify it almost exclusively with the Arabian Peninsula. After all, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and India has the largest Muslim minority of any country. And as has become urgently evident in recent years, even within the Arabian Peninsula there is the considerable diversity and tension that the division between Sunni and Shia communities represents.

Public Religion and Self-Critical Secularism

All of this diversity within religious traditions calls attention to a fact too easily overlooked in periods when the prevailing ethos calls for tolerance: religious people themselves have almost never deemed their convictions to be private preferences that can be divorced from deliberations about public policies. Instead, they have engaged in vigorous debate among themselves as to the most adequate understanding of their shared traditions because they believed it to be of utmost importance to be right in their convictions. And they have also been prepared to be public advocates for what their convictions imply for society as a whole.

At a time of social antagonisms that are in part religiously based, this public face of religion is perhaps unwelcome. Surely the world would be safer if such fervent convictions were kept out of the public square. But this option, so attractive to secular liberalism, is—to repeat—simply not acceptable to those whose deepest convictions would be relegated to the status of private preferences without any relevance to public policy.

As challenging as is the insistent presence of religion and its ideological equivalents in public life, it also represents a great opportunity. This recognition of disagreements within a nominally unified tradition opens the door to self-criticism. This process is in fact always under way. But greater awareness of it can encourage support that allows muted or minority or suppressed views to be voiced with greater vigor.

An example of this encouragement that is especially attractive to the West at the moment is the call for proponents of moderate Islam to become more vocal against their extremist co-religionists. There certainly are such moderate voices: Muslims who affirm jihad as the struggle to live faithfully, who exemplify peaceful co-existence with non-Muslims, who reject suicide bombing and other forms of terrorism. As in other religious communities, there is a contest always under way for the right to claim the designation "Muslim." This internal contest should not, however, obscure the extent of common ground across a great range of Muslims in opposition to prevailing trends in the West. Indeed, in this respect Muslims also speak for large numbers of religiously serious adherents to other traditions.

Here we return again to the contrast between passionate intensity and lack of all conviction. Even those of the religiously committed who oppose exclusionist extremism and hostility to all outsiders are often strongly critical of what they see as the corrosive individualism and secularism of the West. Passive accommodation to the hedonism and materialism of secular Western culture is in this view to lack all conviction. The sense of such accommodation in turn generates further support for the passionate intensity that the most extreme positions represent.

Just as we encourage debate within the Muslim world, we must, therefore, also welcome vigorous criticism of prevailing trends in the West. Only if we resist our own tendencies to provincialism and triumphalism will we be able to acknowledge, engage, and evaluate the multiple streams in our own traditions. And on that basis, we can perhaps also recognize points of contact with the very different perspectives of the outsiders who criticize and even attack us.

I realize that focusing on critical questions directed to ourselves invites the charge that I am blaming victims instead of perpetrators. For that reason I state explicitly what I hope would go without saying: I in no way whatsoever defend or condone the terrorist violence. At the same time, I think that all of us can more effectively counter the threat of terrorism if we combine pursuit of our self-declared enemies with a willingness to address social patterns deplored not only by those who attack us but also by vast numbers of others, including even many of our friends and allies around the world.

Individualism and Western Liberalism

Perhaps the most central instance of those patterns is the celebration of individualism without adequate attention to the communities it presupposes. This tendency is often reinforced with vigorous advocacy for unfettered markets and unimpeded capital flows. Indeed, laissez-faire capitalism is frequently presented as integral to the traditions of individual freedom that in turn elicit much of the convinced antagonism to secular Western culture.

The flaws of individualism as it is represented in modern Western free-market ideology and mass culture are evident even if current patterns are evaluated in terms of their own historical antecedents. Central to this patrimony are the powerfully influential figures of John Locke and Adam Smith in Britain and Immanuel Kant on the Continent. Yet none of these thinkers provides support for the kind of uncritical individualism that characterizes the rhetoric of so many of those who invoke their names.

As a matter of historical fact, Locke—notably in his Letters on Toleration and the second of his Two Treatises of Civil Government—certainly gave considerable impetus to the traditions that have come to characterize the political and economic orientation of Western liberal democracy. In particular, in the second Treatise he delineates his view of humanity in the state of nature. Over against the position of Thomas Hobbes that humans originate in a state of hostility and antagonism, Locke envisions equal and independent individuals who enjoy a natural happiness. Yet even though he is far more positive about human nature than is Hobbes, Locke too moves quickly to the formation of the state as a protection against the excesses of individualism. Thus the social contract is required to guard against any who might attempt to live outside the law of nature.

Like Locke, Kant is appropriately arrayed with those who have shaped modern Western individualism. His central concern to preserve human freedom and moral autonomy while also acknowledging the power of scientific understanding places him squarely in this tradition. Indeed, his preoccupation with establishing a solid foundation for personal moral agency and responsibility in the impersonal world of modern science is emblematic for Western individualism even among those who have scarcely heard of him and certainly are not aware of the intellectual revolution that his thought constitutes.

Yet, like Locke, Kant is far from advocating an uncritical individualism. Knowledge, for Kant preeminently exemplified in Newtonian physics, can never be a matter of individual idiosyncrasy but rather must be universal and necessary. Similarly, moral action—reason in its practical employment, to put it in terms of his conceptual apparatus—presupposes a shared context of meaning and common criteria for adjudicating alternatives. (In Kant's technical terminology, the postulates of practical reason constitute the shared context of meaning and the categorical imperative in its various formulations specifies the criterion for determining which actions are moral.) This embedding of attention to human freedom and moral autonomy in more inclusive contexts is integral to the analyses of the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. But it becomes ever more central in Kant's later writings: the Critique of Judgment, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, and such occasional pieces as the extended essay "Perpetual Peace."

Like Locke and Kant, Adam Smith is appropriately enlisted in the cause of Western individualism. His thought also represents the close historical connection between this tradition of individualism and modern Western laissez-faire economic theory. Yet what Smith actually wrote lends little support to the arguments for unconstrained markets and unrestrained individualism on behalf of which his name is so often invoked.

In his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith certainly did argue that individual pursuit of self-interest can contribute to the public good and general welfare. But he also recognized that the ambitions of individuals and private groups might be opposed to the public interest and in such cases would require restrictions imposed by the state. More fundamentally, Smith, whose academic appointment was as a professor of moral philosophy, affirmed the pursuit of individual interests only in the context of a network of social relations, as is clearly articulated in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Religion and Individualism

In affirming the role of the community in constraining the excesses of individual self-assertion, Locke, Kant, and Smith in effect stand with the vast preponderance of human wisdom and experience over against only the modern West that so often invokes their names.

Perhaps the most radical insight into the inadequacy of idealization of the individual is the position of Buddhist traditions that there is no self. This teaching of anattā or anātman is shared across a remarkable range of Buddhist communities, from Theravada traditions in South and Southeast Asia, to their Mahayana counterparts in East Asia, and to all of their offspring in the West. To construe the self as an individual entity is to fail to apprehend the co-dependence of all of reality. It is to be captive to an illusion and therefore to live delusionally.

Other religious traditions express this position in various ways. Traditions as disparate as Confucianism on the one hand and Judaism and Islam on the other agree in deeming individuals to be constituted through their social relationships. In short, for Confucians, Jews, and Muslims, the community has logical, temporal, and normative priority over the individual.

Even those religious conceptions that seem to glorify the individual in the end subordinate the self to a more encompassing normative structure or reality. I offer two examples. The Hindu affirmation that ātman is brahman—that the self is identical with the ultimate—does celebrate the dignity of the human person. But for Hindus this equation precisely does not exalt the discrete individual as separate from the finally undifferentiated whole of which it is an integral part. A second example is the Greek and then Christian idea of the soul. This conception confers enduring worth on the individual, and unlike the Hindu affirmation of ātman, it does not then dissolve this individual into the ultimate. Yet even when the soul is construed as an enduring individual entity, its end is to love, to enjoy, to worship the divine reality for which it is destined.

The Challenge of Inclusive Community

Unconstrained individualism and feebly regulated markets not only reinforce each other but in combination also support perverse tendencies that must instead be resisted. To note two examples, this combination powerfully encourages trends both toward increased gaps between the top and the bottom of the distribution of income and wealth and toward the elevation of private interests over public goods. These trends lead to increased burdens on those least able to bear them. But beyond the deprivation of individuals, the single most negative institutional result of this confluence of impacts is the systematic undermining of any positive conception for the role of communities at all levels from families and neighborhoods to voluntary associations, governments, and even multinational organizations.

While the processes captured in the term "globalization" certainly can serve to accentuate these perverse trends, greater global integration may also point in another direction. This other direction is already indicated in both the overwhelming preponderance of the testimony of the major world religions and also the admonitions of central thinkers in the tradition of Western liberalism like Locke, Kant, and Adam Smith. The goal toward which this alternative points is a sense of increasingly inclusive community that focuses attention and concentrates investments on the imperative of including the vast numbers of people who so far have been excluded from the benefits of globalization.

This goal of an inclusive global community is no doubt very far in the future. Indeed, trends of recent decades have resulted in its receding even further into the distance. Consequently moving toward the goal requires not simply further steps in the direction we are already going but rather a basic change in orientation. In particular, we must shift away from our exclusive preoccupation with markets and individuals.

Despite their differences on a host of issues, Locke, Kant, and Adam Smith agree on the role of community or the broader society in constraining individual self-assertion. To repeat, in this respect they join in the virtually unanimous testimony of the world's religious traditions. The challenge is to integrate this imperative with the dynamism of modern secular economic life—a challenge that can be met only if public goods are valued along with the productive capacity of private interests.

Rising to this abstractly-stated challenge in ways that are concrete will require a host of public policy initiatives. In terms of domestic priorities, the United States in particular must shift fundamentally from proposals that disproportionately favor the very top stratum of society to programs that redress the escalating gap between the rich and the poor. In the American context, that means support for legislation like the earned income tax credit and a rejection of tax cuts that are indefensibly targeted on the wealthiest citizens. In the international arena, what is called for is a round of trade agreements that in fact delivers on preferences for the poorest countries and increased aid that is targeted on people and communities ready, willing, and able to move forward on the basis of their own efforts as those efforts are stimulated and reinforced through foreign assistance.

I will not pretend to lay out a full agenda of legislative proposals for either domestic or international programs. But the shift from the approach of the recent past could not be sharper. Instead of initiatives that favor the already privileged, we must move toward policies designed to enlist the promise of globalization for the promotion of a worldwide community that benefits not only the rich but also the poor.

Conviction in the Context of Inclusive Community

An approach to globalization that breaks with uncritical adulation of private interests over against public goods, of markets over against governments, of the individual over against the community also affords the prospect of reconsidering the character of conviction in the context of inclusiveness. Globalization need not entail acceptance of Western secularism to the exclusion of the traditions of other communities. Precisely because some societies have developed ways of appreciating diversity and allowing participation in a shared polity even among those who in other respects disagree on basic issues, the goal of inclusive community does not require cultural or religious homogeneity.

The achievement of such multicultural or pluralistic societies is certainly fragile. In some cases, particular convictions of those "full of passionate intensity" flare up with horrible consequences, as in the occasional eruptions of violence over holy sites in India or vicious attacks on Muslims in Myanmar. In other cases, relative tranquility is maintained in significant part because large segments of the population are more or less indifferent—might be claimed to "lack all conviction"—as in much of Western Europe. But the fact remains that large scale societies have been able to develop social institutions and cultural mores that support an inclusive community. In this sense an ordered social system has allowed space for the convictions of more than one particular community to be expressed.

As the examples of India and Western Europe suggest, the context for this pluralism or multiculturalism is often a relatively secular society that offers a stable setting for the expression of diverse traditions. But that need not be the case. Even in the instances of India and Western Europe, the setting is certainly not simply neutral, as is evident from the historical dominance of Hindu and Christian traditions respectively. China offers another pattern: Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions have co-existed through a considerable range in the orientation of governmental authorities. Yet another example is the interaction of Buddhist, Shinto, and other traditions in Japan.

This historical variety is significant because it calls attention to the need to resist a provincialism that might take any one situation to be normative. This orientation might, for example, assume that modern global and predominantly Western social and cultural patterns constitute the default setting within which more particular communities may be able to flourish. But this assumption is problematic not only because of its unacknowledged provincialism but also because it overlooks the extent to which the interactions between particular communities and the larger society can be effective in both directions.

Especially for those individuals and communities that are vehemently opposed to the dominant patterns of the secular West, it is crucial that the prospect of change in prevailing tendencies not be foreclosed. Here antagonists of the West and opposition from within may share common ground, even if there is no overt collaboration. For the consumer society and mass culture that the West in general and the United States in particular have produced invites vigorous criticism.

This mix of consumer society and mass culture is too often little more than a social system minus its ethical or normative grounding. Such passive accommodation to the hedonism and materialism of secular Western culture cries out for a reconnection to the roots of the more particular communities. Such more particular communities may be grounded in a substantial range of traditions—religious, ethnic, cultural, educational, political, vocational. In each case, the communities affirm internal norms that guide their shared practice. This pattern is most readily recognizable in religious communities, especially if they represent a minority within the larger society. But it is also evident in other voluntary associations, whether ethnic, cultural, educational, or political. It may also be realized in professional or vocational associations, in which definite values or commitments—sometimes formally articulated, at other times only tacit—govern standard or acceptable behavior and frequently also energize participants to exertions that far exceed any ordinary occupational requirements.

What such particular communities have in common is more or less self-conscious resistance to accepting the conventional patterns of the prevailing culture as adequate to their own deepest convictions. Put positively, such communities hold out the promise of a richer, fuller social system because it affirmatively incorporates community within it. A society so ordered would be a worthy achievement of globalization and could rightly claim to be an inclusive community.

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