The impetus for this post came from a conversation that started here. Since the blog administrator won’t publish my response, I wanted to raise the issue in a more general setting. (Personal attacks on the author of that post will not be tolerated in this thread. Anything that encroaches on an ad hominem–or is overtly condescending– will be deleted.)
As religious people we are interested in religious things. This interest, for the most part, extends beyond our own tradition and into larger issues of world wide religiosity. Comparing our tradition with other traditions is a natural part of this interest and interaction. The larger issue underlying this post is how to do “responsible” comparison. As a way of getting into that conversation I want to offer a critique of the kind of comparative studies we (meaning members at large and not necessarily those doing academic work, although the latter sometimes do it as well) all too often engage in.
Sometimes, comparative work is talked about in terms of the 3 M’s: Motive, Material, and Method. What I want to elaborate on here can effectively be termed “an awareness of motive”. The larger implication is that a lack of reflection on one’s motive can often lead to absurd comparative conclusions.
The dominant motive in LDS comparative discourse is what I would call “inverse Orientalism”. Orientalism, as made famous by Said, is the construction of a fictional (and convenient) “other” used to (re)affirm power relations. In Said’s context, the Western academy (and other inter-related institutions) constructed a notion of the Orient that was everything the West was not. This construct served to bolster perceptions of the Orient as “traditional” rather than “modern”, “emotional” rather than “rational”, and served to justify Western superiority (but also inferiority, in the sense that Western intellectuals often drew on these perceptions as powerful critiques of the ills of Western life–Thoreau, for instance, saw Asia as a place less burdened by modern “conveniences”). Inverse Orientalism is the creation of a fictional other made in one’s own image. Here, rather than an other that is everything we are not, the other is much of what we already are. The attempt to reaffirm a power relation, however, remains the same. So if Orientalism is the creation of “an other”, Inverse Orientalism if the creation of “another”. This notion of Inverse Orientalism is often expressed in the language of “parallels” or, as referred to in the link above, as “finding threads of truth and light in them which lend authenticity, plausibility, and genuineness [to our tradition]“.
It is important to point out that this motive is not a “bad” motive per se. Indeed, it goes significantly beyond demonizing other religious traditions and denying any relation between us and them. There are also positive results of this motive. Looking for similarities can often foster further interest and curiosity. I cannot say that my own interest in other religious traditions is not in some way related to the similarities I see in my own.
I do think, however, that we should understand the ramifications and limitations of this motive. In other words, there are several problems of leaving this motive unexamined. I want to refer to three here:
1) The comparative enterprise becomes a mere oddity. If the purpose of doing comparison with other religious traditions is to reaffirm what we already believe to be true, why engage in it other than as hobby?
2) It limits learning opportunities. The search for corroborative information by definition excludes anomalies–it eliminates anything that doesn’t fit into the narrative of the primary tradition. This selective editing, then, doesn’t require us to deal with the tougher (and often more fruitful) issues of difference in competing truth claims.
3) People take the fiction as reality. Interpreting another tradition purely in the terms of one’s own, creates an animal that those within the other tradition most likely will not themselves recognize, but those in the host tradition often take as an accurate representation.
I’m interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts, as well as identifying past discussions about “parallel-o-mania” that have occurred in the Bloggernacle.