Sunday, July 27, 2008

Universalism versus particularity

I read an interesting essay about atheism in the on-line Sojo. The author equated the current crop of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, with fundamentalist Christians because both groups take the Bible literally. The writer also pointed out that it's mostly college-educated white British and American males leading the atheist charge.

One comment I found particularly interesting: In the 20th century, more blood by far was shed by atheists who could kill by reducing humans to "abstractions" than by the religiously faithful.

I was struck by the term abstraction. Many universalists I know have, in my observation, found in all religions a few abstract principles: love your neighbor, help the vulnerable, practice the golden rule. I agree that it can be fruitful to recognize these commonalities rather than condemning other religions as wrong.

But does this abstracting of a few universals diminish individual religions? Robust religion is not abstract, but lived day-to-day in particular ways. The different world religions share commonalities, but they also diverge from one another in ways that are often irreconcilable. They are not the same and they don't even necessarily worship the same God. They may not all be different paths up the same mountain.

I believe the tendency to want to make all religions the same, or find the universal principles behind all the religions, is the product of a particular historical moment. I've noticed that almost all of the zealous universalists I know are over 60 years old. Perhaps the recognition of the commonalities between religions was the great "aha!" moment of a certain generation. This was also the generation that grew up in their parents' world, where assimilating all the ethnicities into the great "melting pot" of American life was an important goal, more so than emphasizing difference.

Lately, we've come back to a celebration of the differences between religions and people. Much of the emergent conversation, as we hear over and over, is about connecting with the ancient church, appreciating the diversity in Christianity and the power of stories to change lives. Religion is not primarily about rules or abstract principles, but about narratives we can enter into. Stories provide rich depths of meaning and symbol not available in a set of principles. Different religions, like poems, come alive in their particularity.

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