Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thoughts on Exclusivism While Reading About George Harrison

After I finished working through Bultmann I picked up Volume I of Helmut Thielicke's mammoth three volume (in the English edition, four volume in the original German; for the English edition volume's one and two were lumped together) Theological Ethics. It takes a certain sort of person to volunteer for a tour of duty with that book, but I must confess that his approach to ethics is both breathtaking and even exciting. However, still exhausted from wrestling with Bultmann, I realized that when school starts back next week I'm going to have more than enough theological wrestling matches. So I put down Thielicke for a moment to get to a book I've always wanted to read, but never could justify to myself, since my reading should be productive. Come to think of it, I'm not exactly sure what I mean by productive. I've just always had this vague, inarticulatable feeling that I should be able to justify whatever I do with something more than just But I wanted to do this. Garbage thinking, I'm sure.

Anyway, I have long loved reading rock and jazz biographies, and so it was with great but guilty pleasure that I dropped Thielicke for Geoffrey Giuliano's Dark Horse: the Life and Art of George Harrison. The mystical Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle, with twice the talent of John and Paul, and none of the attention seeking baggage. George never demanded his due. He never sought the limelight. He never got caught up in all the drama. He simply made music, hoping that somehow his music would in some small way make the world a better place.

His spiritual journey is fascinating - though I don't think we should hold him up as a role model. He was no guru. He had few if any answers. But his never-ending quest for meaning, carried out as it was so publicly, did give many other people the permission they needed to set out on their own quest.

In his book Giuliano tells the story of how George Harrison helped give the Hare Krishna sect a home in England. Not only did he sign a group of devotees to the Beatles' Apple label, publishing their chants on best-selling records, but he also funded the construction of their controversial London temple. For his support of Hare Krishna (along with their determination that he could be evangelistically useful), he, John Lennon, and the infamous Beatle-breaker Yoko Ono earned an audience with Krishna leader Srila Prabhupada. Their first conversation, at Lennon's palatial Tittenhurst Park estate, was recorded, and Giuliano's book contains an abridged transcript.

Reading that conversation I was struck with just how much Prabhupada sounds like a Christian missionary, seeking to win converts by emphasizing what they already have in common with his religion while also trying to convince them that his path, with its subtle deviations from the path they are already on, is the only true path. He even gives an overt argument for religious exclusivism, the notion that one particular religious approach is the universally true path, to the exclusion of all others. When Prabhupada argues that the Hare Krishna mantra is the best, and only necessary mantra, claiming that it alone is "sufficient for one's perfection, for liberation," George counters:

Isn't it like flowers? Somebody may prefer roses, and somebody may like carnations better. Isn't it really a matter for the individual devotee to decide? One person may find that Hare Krishna is more beneficial to his spiritual progress, and yet another person may find that some other mantra may be more beneficial for him.

To this Prahbupada, sounding more and more the part of a sly evangelist, replies:

But there is still a distinction. A fragrant rose is considered better than a flower without any scent. You may be attracted by one flower, and I may be attracted by another flower. But among the flowers a distinction can be made. There are many flowers that have no fragrance and many that do. Therefore, your attraction for a particular flower is not the solution to the question of which is actually better. In the same way, personal attraction is not the solution to choosing the best spiritual process.

To say that Prahbupada has used a weak analogy here may be to state the obvious, but it would be uncharitable to blame him for working within the parameters of his audience, who saddled him with the flower metaphor. Perhaps he did the best he could with it, even if he could not get it to do the work he wanted it to do. But, what do we mean by "good" or "bad," by "better" or "worse," with respect to flowers? Is it a universally acknowledged and self-evident truth that scented flowers are better than unscented ones? As someone who sneezes every time I smell a rose, I beg to differ with Prahbupada.

Given the context, and the weakness of the analogy, it is safe to say that Prahbupada is not building a solid argument which logically works, but is rather engaged in an evangelistic conversation in which he tries, rather than to demonstrate the universality of the truth-claims of his religion, instead simply to persuade the people in the room - especially George Harrison - to convert. In this context, then, exclusivism is not argued for; it is understood. Prahbupada assumes exclusive truth for his own perspective, and spends a great deal of time mocking other would be gurus to the two most spiritual Beatles. He gets in a few especially witty jabs at the man who first served as a kind of spiritual guide to the Beatles, TM founder Maharishi, treating him the way, say, a five point Calvinist might treat an Arminian, with thinly veiled contempt.

This sort of treatment is necessary when one deals with religion, and religious truth or insight, as a zero-sum game in which any benefit from one path must come at the expense of another. And, we should note here, this approach, despite popular opinion, is apparently not limited to the West, much less Christianity. Here we see a Hindu yogi arguing for the exclusivity of his method while also bashing other yogis, acting the part of a missionary trained by a used car salesman.

Ultimately, however, exclusivism rests on a few arrogant assumptions, namely:

1. The "truth" about God and the universe can be known,
2. I know it, and
3. Nobody else does.

This description of exclusivism is a crude version of what Alvin Plantiga, in his essay "A Defense of Religious Exclusivism," calls an argument against exclusivism on moral grounds. At the risk of boring you, dear reader, I am posting here my evaluation of that paper written in an undergraduate Philosophy of Religion class. This paper has nothing whatsoever to do with Prahbupada's statements in his conversation with George, John and Yoko, but I thought of it while reading his pitiful defense of religious excluisivism. So, here's the paper:

In “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism” Alvin Plantinga, who defines “exclusivism” as the belief that “the tenets or some of the tenets of one religion... are true” and that “any propositions, including other religious beliefs, that are incompatible with those tenets are false,”; argues that there are basically two types of arguments that pluralists make against exclusivism: 1.) arguments on moral grounds, and 2.) epistemic arguments. And, while he deals with the moral arguments first, I think that it is better to deal with the epistemic arguments first, because it is likely that the moral arguments depend on the epistemic arguments. After all, isn’t it an ad hominem attack to say that someone is being “intellectually arrogant, or egotistical, or self-servingly arbitrary, or dishonest, or imperialistic, or oppressive” if their argument turns out to be demonstrateably true?

The kind of epistemic argument that Plantinga attacks goes something like this: most people hold the religious beliefs that they do because of accidents related to how they were born. Where they were born, who their parents were, what kind of culture they grew up in, etc. dictates the nature of their religious beliefs. Since this is the case, they cannot know that their beliefs are true, because they only hold them based on accidents related to their birth. If they were born somewhere else, they would believe something else.

I can see why Plantinga attacks this kind of argument, because it seems to be an obviously bad argument. The reasons why someone believes what they believe, while telling us perhaps a great deal about that person, do not tell us whether or not those beliefs happen to be true. I may believe that the University of Kentucky has the greatest college basketball program in the United States because I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and because my parents have season tickets to see the men’s basketball team play at Rupp Arena; but my motives for making that claim have no bearing on the truth value of that claim. It may well still be demostrateably true on other grounds, such as the fact that the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball program has won more games than any other university’s men’s program. Why I believe what I believe does not tell us whether or not my beliefs are true; it just tells us something about me.

Plantinga points out, in fact, that the pluralist’s position, in fact, is called into question by the kind of argument used by pluralists to attack exclusivism. He says, “suppose we concede that if I had been born in Madagascar rather than Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. (For one thing, I probably wouldn’t believe that I was born in Michigan.) But, of course, the same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist or that his pluralistic beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? I doubt it.”

Of course, Plantinga should have separated that last question. While it does not follow from that argument that the pluralist should not be a pluralist, or that pluralism is false; it may be the case that the pluralist in question, if this is his only argument, does have his beliefs for the wrong reason, and that those beliefs are the product of “an unreliable belief-producing process.”

So Plantinga has demonstrated that this kind of pluralistic argument is a bad one. But, of course, while this is the only epistemic argument against exclusivism that Plantinga takes on, it is not the only kind of epistemic argument that pluralists can make. They can, in fact, make a much simpler argument, that moves the burden of proof onto the exclusivist. They can argue that while an exclusivist can demonstrate that they believe that their beliefs are true, they cannot know, or demonstrate that their beliefs are true. Or, at least, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that their beliefs are true before they make statements of absolute truth. And, because religious beliefs deal with the nature of God, and because the existence of God – much less the attributes of God and how God works in the world (the subject of most religious systems of belief) – is beyond human knowledge; it is by no means certain that any description of God is entirely accurate. That being the case, no religion can be reasonably said to contain absolute and exclusive truth.

This argument is much harder to deal with, and it is no surprise that Plantinga refused to do so. To refute this argument he would have to have demonstrated the undeniable truth of each religious belief contained in whichever particular religion it is he thinks can reasonably make claims to absolute, exclusive truth. To do so, even if it were not impossible, would take thousands and thousands of pages of arguing. Or, it would have to appeal to faith, and an appeal to faith would not help distinguish one religious claim from a competing claim.

This brings us to the arguments made on moral grounds. Plantinga says that such arguments involve saying “that the exclusivist is intellectually arrogant, or egotistical, or self-servingly arbitrary, or dishonest, or imperialistic, or oppressive.” Of course, if the claims made by an exclusivist were actually true, then such objections would be irrelevant. But Plantinga has failed to demonstrate that the claims made by any particular exclusivist are true, and so he must account for these charges.

To deal with this attack on exclusivism he narrows the definition of an exclusivist. In fact, he narrows it so much that most exclusivists fail to meet his definition of an exclusivist, which is one way to deal with an attack on moral grounds. He says that he is using “the term ‘exclusivist’ in such a way that you don’t count as an exclusivist unless you are rather aware of other faiths, have had their existence called to your attention with some force and perhaps fairly frequently, and have to some degree reflected on the problem of pluralism.” Also, Plantinga implies that, in order to meet his definition of “exclusivism,” an exclusivist has to consider that they can learn from members of other religions, even “with respect to religious matter.” Is such a person even an exclusivist?

Christians have often used this type of re-definition to deal with arguments made against Christianity on moral grounds, and I suspect that members of other religions do very much the same thing. Christians will say that the Crusades and the Inquisition and the persecution of Jews were not the products of Christianity because in some sense the people responsible for those acts failed to meet the definition of “Christian” properly understood. And, there is some value to this type of argument. After all, many of the atrocious acts committed by Christians throughout history have violated the fundamental teachings of Christ, and so, per a certain definition of Christian, those people fail to be Christians. But, of course, they identified themselves as Christians, and their views represented the views of the majority of Christians at the time in which they lived. Their actions were a reflection of the way in which they understood their faith, and their understanding was very exclusivistic. It is unfair, then, to argue against using such people as moral critiques of (at least) the practice of Christianity on the grounds that they were not “really” Christians. Similarly it seems unfair to so narrowly define the term “exclusivist” in order to get around moral arguments against exclusivism. After all, anyone who meets Plantinga’s narrow definition has more in common with pluralists than most other exclusivists.

But, if you grant him his definition, the moral arguments against exclusivism, by and large, fall away.

Looking at this paper again, I see exactly why I don't like strict length requirements. While the paper was an A paper, it did not come to a satisfactory conclusion. There was, I suspect, more that I wanted to say, but I ran too quickly out of space. Perhaps a more disciplined writer would have left enough room in at the end to explain that Plantiga may have successfully defended the moral permissibility of a very rare form of exclusivism, but he certainly did not successfully defend the moral permissibility of the most common forms of exclusivism, and so his moral defense rings more than a little bit hollow. He also failed totally to defend the epistemic truth of religiously exclusive claims. As such, I found his paper to be a dismal failure. It is not the failure of his intellect to thoroughly consider the problems at hand, but rather of the intuitions which he defends with his considerable intellect.

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