Theocentrism and Pluralism: Are They Poles Apart?IPSweb
[The issue of whether theocentrism and pluralism can coexist in a society is highly significant, especially given the rapid globalization, modernization and liberalization under way in our post-9/11 world. In the Islamic and Christian perspectives, theologically as well as historically, theocentrism does not exclude pluralism. The key convergence between theocentrism and pluralism lies in the concept of God-centeredness in man’s life and acceptance of unity in diversity as a divine mandate. This “theocentric view of pluralism” presents a solid moral basis for tolerance of other religions and cultures. Moreover, pluralism, far from being a modern Western development, was a hallmark of early Muslim societies; therefore the contemporary theory of an unavoidable clash of civilizations owing to Islam’s purported incompatibility with Western democratic values must be refuted. Pluralism and theocentrism are compatible and complementary and can lead humanity to peace, collaboration and mutual respect both locally and globally. –Author]
Is it possible for a society to be both theocentric and pluralistic?
In the post-9/11 world, this question has attained immense significance. The tragic events of September 11 raised a lasting debate along the lines of Samuel Huntington’s theory of an imminent clash of civilizations — that Islam, being incompatible with the democratic values of the West, would inevitably engage in a conflict with it. In the aftermath of 9/11, it is the Muslims, along with their faith, Islam, who have been marked as the key obstacle to a pluralistic world in which religiously and culturally diverse peoples can peacefully coexist. On a broader level, however, this line of thinking challenges the possibility that a society may be theocentric — that is, subscribe to the view that God’s system of beliefs and values is morally superior to all — and still be pluralistic, that is, capable of peacefully harboring religiously and culturally diverse groups.
Ours is an age of advanced and growing globalization, wherein it is more common than ever before for people of different backgrounds to work and live together. Therefore, it is impossible to ignore the grassroot ramifications of this issue. One of the most obvious signs of the problem, of course, are growing episodes of anti-Muslim bias in non-Muslim countries that consider themselves pluralistic.
For example, in 2004, local Muslims met strong opposition from local non-Muslim vendors and residents when they attempted to establish a mosque inside the Greenhills Shopping Center (GSC). Voicing the growing concern of local Christian communities, columnist Max Solliven wrote: “The Muslim traders and vendors, if they obey our laws and behave themselves, are like all Filipinos — entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of commerce. But a ‘mosque’ or ‘Islamic prayer room’ in the very heart of Christian community makes no sense, especially when the Moros [Philippines Muslims] are transients, not residents.” Notably, this was not an isolated case of discrimination and stereotyping against Muslims in the Philippines.
Likewise, things have changed for Muslims in the United States. The following excerpt from an article captures the sentiments of Americans in the post-9/11 scenario:
A very polite American-born Muslim woman in headscarf approaches the counter of a roadside bakery in Texas. Before she even has a chance to place her order, the clerk behind the counter stuns her by saying: ‘We don’t serve Muslims here; get back on the camel and go back where you came from! What I’ve just described is a scene deliberately staged by ABC News, one of the largest television news networks in the U.S. The reason ABC staged this confrontation was to see and record how other people in the store would react. Would they come to the aid of the Muslim woman? Would they do nothing? Or would they actually show support to the bigoted clerk? It was refreshing to see that some individuals showed great moral courage by intervening on the Muslim woman’s behalf and denouncing the clerk’s hatefulness. It was a bit more unsettling, but certainly not expected, to witness many others opting to remain silent and uninvolved. Most disturbing, however, were those expressed approval of the clerk’s position: “If I were running the place, I’d do the same thing,” said one middle-aged man. Another was less verbal and chose to employ the cowardly subtlety of a “thumbs up” gesture of affirmation aimed directly at the clerk.
The Philippines, which is the only Christian-majority country in Southeast Asia, theoretically considers the non-Christian minority religions at par with the majority religion and this is guaranteed in its constitution. The same is true for the United States, which is home to religiously and culturally diverse groups of people, and moreover, considered a bastion for democracy, equality, and equal civil rights for all. However, as the two above incidents reflect, neither country offers a perfectly pluralistic society. Despite the stated ideals of the countries’ constitutional law, there is clearly a failure on the ground to accept the “otherness” of the other, due either to the laxity of law enforcers or to ignorance of the law among the people.
In terms of severity, the instances of prejudice mentioned above are a far cry from what is happening in Iraq and other parts of the world, where Muslims are being killed. However, the thinking that justifies both kinds of conduct is the same — that Muslims, and by extension other theocentric communities such as practicing Christians, must relegate their faith to the backseat if they are to be allowed to coexist with the rest of the world. This is an important source of the intellectual and physical conflict raging in the world today that needs to be addressed.
This discourse takes a closer look at the notion that theocentrism and pluralism are incompatible. Theocentrism, and the extent to which it accommodates pluralism in a society, is considered from the perspective of two key systems of faith: Islam, as the faith overtly charged with being incompatible with the modern West, and Christianity, as the faith of the majority of people living in the West itself. What emerges is a convergence of aims of theocentric and pluralistic societies that challenges the popular conception of an unavoidable clash of civilizations and provides new avenues for moving towards peace.
Christian and Islamic Theocentrism
Theocentrism comes from the Greek word theos, meaning God or gods, and the English word “center.” In this context, theocentrism refers to the view that God’s system of beliefs and values is morally superior to all. Simply stated, theocentrism is God-centeredness rather than man-centeredness. It is a complete negation of the concept of ethnocentrism, which views one particular ethnic group’s system of beliefs and values as morally superior to all others.
In Christian theology, theocentrism, as a focus on “God, the Father,” is distinguished from Christocentrism — the view that man’s salvation depends solely on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross — and from pneumocentrism, a focus on the Holy Spirit. The famous theologian Jacques Dupuis elucidated how the so-called Christocentric view is substituted by the theocentric perspective as an effective paradigm in understanding other people’s creeds:
The theocentric perspective consists in substituting for the Christocentric one, according to which Jesus Christ and his saving mystery no longer stand at the center of God’s saving design for humankind. That place belongs to God alone towards whom all the religious traditions, Christianity included, tend as to their end. It needs to be recognized plainly that God, who shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), has manifested and revealed himself in various ways to different peoples in different cultures, and that the various religious traditions of the world embodying each in its own way, such divine self-revelation. It follows that…the various religious traditions complement each other in their differences; what is required between them is neither mutual exclusion nor inclusion of the many into one, but reciprocal enrichment through open interaction.
The Christian scriptures contain many affirmations of the concept of God-centeredness in man’s creation. In Isaiah 43:7, it is said: “Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him.” In other words, man’s ultimate goal in this world is to glorify God. The Christian theocentric perspective is that God requires us to obey the moral law revealed to us which proclaims that we must “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbor as ourselves.”
At a deeper level, theocentrism means upholding God’s glory as the source of all that is good and counters to all that is bad. These Christian perspectives are similar to the Islamic point of view. The Qur’an states that the purpose of man’s creation is the glorification and worship of Allah; thus, it is said in Adh-Dhariyat 51:56: “I only created jinn and man to worship me.” Worshipping, in Islam, means testifying to the oneness of God in His Lordship, Names and Attributes. Life is a constant struggle between good and evil, and the Qur’an provides the criterion for what is good and evil. Therefore, in deciding what they may and may not do, Muslims should turn for guidance to the Qur’an, as well as to the Prophetic traditions. These two constitute the primary sources of Islamic law or shari‘a. The purpose of shari‘a is to provide mankind the path for the pursuit of goodness in this life, i.e. beauty of life and character, and for shunning what is destructive or evil. Those who persevere and do good will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven while those who succumb to evil deeds will be punished in hell.
This is the wonderful truth of theocentrism — that in seeking God and seeking to glorify Him above anybody else, man fulfills the purpose for which he has been created. St. Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The Muslim philosopher Imam Ghazzali elaborates this spiritual attitude when he explains the importance of nurturing taqwa in a Muslim’s heart:
In a sense, taqwa is to protect oneself from Allah’s displeasure and punishment by fulfilling His commandments and abstaining from what He has prohibited. It affirms the ultimate realization that man’s objective in this life is to seek the pleasure of Allah by living in accordance with the divine guidelines embodied in the shari‘a.
Finally, in modern theology, theocentrism is“often linked with stewardship and environmental ethics. It is the belief that human beings should look after the world as guardians and therefore in the way in which God wants them to. Humans should be considerate to all, from animals to plants to humans themselves. It maintains that human beings are merely here for a short time and should be looking after the world for future generations.”
In Islam, the equivalent notion of this principle is the concept of vicegerency. In the Islamic worldview, the human being is considered a vicegerent (khalifa/caliph) of Allah. The Holy Qur’an explains this in the following terms:
Just think when your Lord said to the angles: “Lo! I am about to place a vicegerent on earth,” they said: “Will You place on it one who will spread mischief and shed blood while we celebrate Your glory and control you Holiness?” He said: “Surely I know what you do not know.” (Al-Baqarah 2:30)
As a vicegerent, the human being is perceived as a trustee of the earth. In this position, he may not cause corruption of any form on the earth, and he must maintain good relationships with fellow human beings and preserve the beauty of the earth for future generations.
As is evident from the above discussion, the Christian and Islamic perspectives on the concept of theocentrism are anchored in similar values. In fact, the very values that theocentrism imparts its Christian and Muslim adherents promote their peaceful coexistence with each other and with other groups in their societies.
Islam and Christianity on Pluralism
A “pluralist” society has historically been described as one where a variety of cultural or religious groups live together. Such pluralism has been evident in many societies throughout human history and is by no means an exclusively contemporary phenomenon. In the recent Western context, the term pluralism describes the reality of different cultures and religions existing alongside one another in relative peace within a larger political structure. There is no effort to make value judgments about these cultures. Pluralism simply describes the reality that they are allowed to coexist peacefully within the same environment.
K. Douglas Crow observes that “The values of and pathologies of global pluralism increasingly force a reconsideration of the relation of Power and Ethics in international relations.” This phenomenon is obviously the result of the growing trend of globalization, modernization and liberalization in our time. Crow adds: “With religion resurging in much of the world after the end of the Cold War, more civil wars have a religious component than ever before.”
Samuel Huntington has a similar observation and has argued that the Islamic culture of the East lacks the mechanisms to accommodate the democratic values of the West. However, this notion is noted in ignorance of the growing Islamic tradition and teachings. It represents a sheer negation of the Islamic principles concerning pluralism and diversities of human culture. Both the Qur’an and Islamic history provide effective mechanisms for Islam to accommodate the so-called democratic values of the West. In fact, long before the modern Western concept of pluralism was conceived, Islam was promoting peaceful and harmonious coexistence and relationships among different groups of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The following two verses of the Qur’an perhaps best capture the position of Islam on pluralism:
To each among you, We have prescribed a law And a clear way. If Allah had willed, He would have made You one nation, but that (He) may test you in what He has given you; so compete in good deeds. The return of you (all) is to Allah, and then He will inform you about that in which you used to differ.
O humankind! We created you from single (pair) Of a male and female, and made you into nations And tribes, that you may know each other (not that You may despise each other). Verily, the most honored Of you in the sight of Allah is he who is The Most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge And is well acquainted (with all things). (Al-Hujarat 49:13)
Guided by these and related Qur’anic principles, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his illustrious Companions and followers demonstrated the dynamism of Islam and its responsiveness growing political and social needs to the world. As he forged what is considered the first Islamic state in the world, Madinah, the Prophet defined the Muslims’ relations with non-Muslims in the Charter of Madinah and in other covenants with the Jews and the Christians. In these agreements, the practical Islamic principles for building a multicultural and multi-religious community were laid down; the Islamic state was thus pluralist from its very inception.
A distinct feature of Islamic history is that religious persecution of members of other faiths are almost absent from it. The Qur’an states in Al-Baqarah 2:256: “There be no compulsion in religion.” Muslims are banned by their faith from practicing what is called religious persecution against non-Muslims. Jews, Christians and other sects were free to practice their religion; their churches and synagogues were respected and left intact.
The Muslims’ main contribution in the realm of world religions is that they revived the Abrahamic Tradition, which the Christianity and Judaism had virtually lost sight of. They have always had, therefore, a sense of affinity with the Christians and Jews, in spite of the lack of reciprocity from the other side in general. The Holy Qur’ān refers to these two great communities as the people of the Book (ahl al-Kitāb). The difference between the theocentric (in its narrow conventional sense) and the pluralistic mindsets is best illustrated by the Book of God when it refers to the attitudes of the Jews and the Christians towards Muslims:
Of all people you will find the Jews and those who associate others with Allah in His Divinity to be the most hostile to those who believe; and you will surely find that of all people they who say: “We are Christians”, are closest to feeling affection for those who believe. This because there are worshipful priests and monks among them, and because they are not arrogant.
Osman Bakr, a contemporary Muslim scholar, explains the Islamic position on pluralism and diversity of cultures in today’s context in the following terms:
Islam conceives of plurality and diversity within a theological framework. It affirms God as the transcendent source of plurality and diversity in both the natural and the human worlds. It also affirms the spiritual and moral purpose of human plurality and diversity, namely: mutual recognition and mutual understanding in the name of God. A major theme in Islamic pluralism is the idea of unity in diversity, which in fact, characterizes every domain of divine creation. God manifests His wisdom and power through unity in diversity in creation. On the human plane, man should strive for unity in diversity in his construction of society and civilization. Generally speaking, Islamic civilization has proved to be more successful in managing pluralism and realizing unity in diversity through its worldwide Ummah.
The traditional Christian position on the issue of religious pluralism is associated with the question on salvation. According to the Christian traditional doctrine, salvation consists in the divine forgiveness of sin; forgiveness with respect to the human participation in Adam’s original sin is made possible only by Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on the cross. In other words, there is no salvation for those who do not believe in Christ. Leading Christian scholar John Hick calls this position “exclusivism,” or the Christocentric point of view.
The Catholic Church, through the Conciliar Decree Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), affirms the universal salvific design of God to all humanity: “In a way known to God salvation holds true not for Christians only, but also for all men of goodwill in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. According to Christian belief, Christ died for all, and all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine. We must, therefore, hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in way known to God, in the paschal mystery.”
In contemporary history, the Nostra Aetate is the most influential document of the church that clearly promotes religious pluralism. Religious pluralism, in this context, means, in the more poetic words of the great Muslim Sufi Rumi, “The lamps are different but the light is the same; it comes from beyond.”
The above discussion clearly shows that neither Islam nor Christianity is antithetical to the Western concept of democratic values. In fact, adapting to the challenges of pluralism is not a process that began with or is the monopoly of the modern West. As one scholar writes:
It is sometimes said that pluralism is a product of post-Enlightenment western liberalism. But this is a manifest error, since the basic pluralistic idea predates the 18th century European Enlightenment by many centuries. It was taught by Muslim thinkers such as Rumi and Ibn Al-Arabi in the 13th century, and Kabir, Nanak and many others in 15th century India. Indeed, it occurs in the edicts of the Buddhist emperor Asoka in the 2nd century bc. So, far from its having originated in the modern West, the fact is that the modern West is only now catching up with the ancient East!
Whatever is available to us today by way of the teachings of Jesus Christ (pbuh) reflect the same spirit of benignness and magnanimity as we find in the teachings of the Holy Qur’ān and the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). The Islamic concept of the sanctity of life and the divine purpose of human creation is also to be found in some degree in the present day Bible. The fundamental values they contain transcend ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic differences among the peoples of the world.
Cultures are bound to differ and vary from place to place and people to people. This difference and variance, nevertheless, do not necessarily lead to conflicts and pressures. On the other hand, eternal clash and conflict have been going on between culture and anti-culture, civilization and anti-civilization, the religious and irreligious, the universal values of khayr (good) and sharr (evil). Islam, therefore, calls for promoting cooperation and cordiality among all the forces of khayr and non-cooperation and no- compromise with the forces of evil. Any civilization, worth the name, would, therefore, never opt for clash with sister-civilization.
Otherwise stated, similarities of cultures can be found in the religious and theocentric realm. Therefore, even seemingly clashing cultures should be able to find common ground to foster unity. The American pledge of allegiance, which states “.. One Nation, under God indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all…”, though more of a political pledge and not a solemn undertaking rooted in history and culture, is a classic example of a theocentric paradigm that upholds equality and justice for all. This paradigm has a basis in the universal moral values and tradition of the Qur’ān and Sunnah. Allah subhānahū wa ta’ālā says: “Thus, have We made you an Ummah (community), justly balanced, that you might be witness over the nations, and the Apostle (Muhammad) a witness over yourselves.” (S.2: Al-Baqarah, 143). Being “witness over the nations” denotes the global responsibility of serving as a model for the entire world in the implementation of justice and equality for all people.
Love, as a universal value, has its roots in the religious tradition of the East and the West. Like Taqwa, or the love and fear of God, the quality of love for humanity is the most desired attribute taught to us by Islam. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) said: “I swear by the Being in whose power is my life, no one of you can be a true believer unless he desires for his fellow-brother what he desires for himself.” (Al-Bukhari). We find similar teachings in the Bible as well. The parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament illustrates that compassion is for all people. Finding God’s love within each person, Muslims and Christians can walk together in harmony. This, in the author’s opinion, is the essence of theocentrism — finding God’s glory as it reflects God-centeredness in another person.
It may be concluded that theocentrism and pluralism, far from being poles apart, actually complement each other. However, giving practical form to the convergence of these two important “isms” requires a dialogue of civilizations and religions. The statement in the Conciliar Decree Nostra Aetate that “All men form but one community all stem from the one stock which God created to people, the entire earth and also because all share a common destiny, namely God” is an inspiring call for everyone to come together and discuss the common issues of the people of the world in an inter-religious dialogue.
The Iranian thinker Mohammad Khatami gave a progressive view on the importance of dialogue to accommodate pluralism in our society. For him, dialogue is foremost “a search for emotional contact and sincere trust…In genuine dialogue, one can accept what is true in each outlook; highlight the better truths in each by accepting their capacities, values and developments; and, in a changing world, look for the common human element in the median between matter and spirit. Essential in dialogue is not simply the ability to talk and engage with one another, but listening to other cultures and civilizations.”
While real cultural, religious and linguistic differences exist among the people of the world, peaceful coexistence is possible it is very much desirable. The way to it can be paved by genuine dialogue to remove not any misconceptions and build understanding. There are so many issues that are common to all; issues that transcend beyond the western and eastern geographic boundaries, such as the need for peace, cooperation, collaboration and humanitarian endeavor. These issues are everyone’s concern and it is only through dialogue that people can put forward their thoughts and aspirations.
As the world grapples with the challenge of understanding and fostering the spirit of peaceful consistence and pluralism, of attaining unity in diversity, it needs to remember to remain true to the very ideals of pluralism that it is striving to preserve; in other words, it must be pluralist in its approach to finding solutions. As the foregoing discussion has shown, dismissing the theocentric view as an obstacle to pluralism is “a manifest error…born of ignorance.” It is the sort of blindness Idris Shah warns us about in his compelling book, The Way of the Sufi:
Four people were given a piece of money. The first was a Persian. He said: “I will buy with this some angur.” The second was an Arab. He said: “No, because I want inab.” The third was a Turk. He said; “I do not want inab: I want uzum.” Because they did not know what lay behind the names of things, these four started to fight. They had information but no knowledge. One man of wisdom present could have reconciled them all saying: “I can fulfill the needs of all of you, with one and the same piece of money. If you honestly give me your trust, your one coin will become as four; and four at odds will become as one united.” Such a man would know that each in his own language wanted the same thing — grapes!
Theocentrism is not an opposite pole from pluralism; on the contrary, it offers perhaps the soundest basis to lead humanity to peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding.
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· Assistant Professor, School of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.
This theory first appeared in an article in US Foreign Affairs (Huntington 1993, 22–49). It was later expanded and published in 1996 as a book entitled “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”(Huntington 1996). Huntington’s controversial theory has provoked worldwide debates. According to scholar Osman Bakr, these debates have also generated global interest in the theory’s antithesis, the ‘Dialogue of Civilizations.’