Meeting the Challenge of Deep Differences Part 4: Cultural Assimilation

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Part four of a series of posts by Cameron McAllister which examine the contemporary responses to deep differences. In part 4, 5, and 6, Cameron closes this series by making the case that the Christian church provides the most holistic answer to the challenge of deep differences.

Let’s return to Professor Hawkins. In many ways, the Hawkins incident is emblematic of one of the more sophisticated answers to this challenge—namely, principle elevation of areas of shared concern in interfaith dialogues, and the minimization of actual differences as a necessary concomitant.[11] Miroslav Volf provides a helpful overview of the context for such an undertaking: “These cultural worlds are partly compatible and partly incompatible, partly mutually dependent and partly independent. They form partly overlapping spaces and create ever-changing hybrid subcultures. Simple denial or affirmation of such a world is impossible.”[12] In many ways, this description is an apt summary of globalization—the complex process in which the contemporary world is functioning more and more as a whole, with traditional boundaries becoming gradually obsolete.[13] Following the thought of Miroslav Volf,[14] Hawkins wants to urge Christians to pursue unity with the Muslim community by conflating their respective conceptions of God. Ironically, this strategy for honoring diversity is only made possible by suppressing key distinctions, and, as we shall see, prioritizing politics and economics over faith commitments. The outcome is something that neither devout Muslims nor devout Christians can in good conscience endorse. When Colin Gunton declares, “homogeneity is the specter at the whole banquet of modernity,” he has this ameliorative tendency in mind.[15] Though Hawkins is ostensibly defending diversity, she is actually undermining it.

Far from celebrating actual differences, this interfaith program dissolves it, domesticating and flattening any doctrine or belief that is not compatible with Western liberal democracy and “global capitalism” in particular: “This is undoubtedly a western-dominated process in which a purportedly universal ideology—unfettered free market capitalism as a self-evident good—serves the economic interests of those with economic power.”[16] The practical outworking of this ideology is neither synthesis, nor integration, but a covert form of cultural assimilation that demotes every religion to nothing more than an individual pursuit, a spiritual subset of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As Richard Bauckham says, “If militant Islam at its worst treats cultural diversity with contempt, repression and vandalism, so does economic globalization, even if it does so by taking up local culture, commercializing and marketing it, absorbing it into its own economic monoculture, but preserving only what it can turn into commodities for profit.”[17]

Religious extremists pursue the common good through violent coercion. Today’s leading secular thinkers pursue it by a form of cultural assimilation that attempts to convert all potentially problematic belief systems into nothing more than harmless products, fodder for comedians, film festivals, and bumper stickers. As laudable as the motivations behind this maneuver may be, it is abundantly clear that it does not constitute an adequate answer to the challenge of real difference. In fact, these conciliatory efforts do nothing more than underscore the urgent need for a civic model that is capable of addressing the common good without undermining actual difference.

There is a subtle but profound assumption underlying these covert strategies of cultural assimilation: The idea that secular culture is capable of somehow adjudicating between competing visions of the common good. In this sense, it is possible to see that a significant part of the controlling force behind Professor Hawkins’s actions is not a commitment to the Christian ideal of love, but a commitment to the ideals of Western liberal democracy. Though I have tremendous respect for Volf’s work (Exclusion and Embrace in particular), his assessment of the current cultural predicament seems to assume that the proper ordering for all these “partly compatible” and “partly incompatible” conceptions of the common good depends on the secular infrastructure of the West. This maneuver prioritizes politics and economics over religious commitments and is thus thoroughly secular, a byproduct of Enlightenment thinking in theological camouflage. Those who wish to find the resources for a peaceable coexistence that maintains the proper balance between unity and diversity must look elsewhere. It is at this juncture that traditional theology may prove to be a most useful and practical guide.

Cameron McAllister is an itinerant speaker and writer with RZIM and host of RZIM’s weekly podcast Vital Signs.

[11] Volf’s Allah is a premier example of this line of thought.

[12] Miroslav Volf, Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2011), 81.

[13] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 6.

[14] Though I’m critical of his approach to the challenge of religious pluralism, I hold Volf’s work in very high regard. Specifically, Exclusion and Embrace has greatly enhanced my thinking on injustice.

[15] Colin C. Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 44.

[16] Bible and Mission, 6.

[17] Ibid., 7-8.

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