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The Need for Religious Literacy in A Multicultural Society

Posted on: March 8, 2008

This article was published by The Jakarta Post on December 21, 2007.

As a layperson who was born and raised in one of the most diverse countries in the world with one dominant religion, and who eventually came to reside in a secular multiculturalistic country, I have come to learn a lot about how to respect and accept others who are different, either by choice or not. It is interesting to note the various facets of interreligious and multiculturalistic relationships in a world that is getting boundary-less, as they are key to a better tomorrow for all.

To be interreligiously literate requires one simple gesture: intellect-based acceptance, not merely tolerance. Acceptance is crucial because it brings forth the best in every human being, while tolerance may come with some reservations to living in peaceful coexistence.

Historically speaking, the fundamental notions of both Indonesia and the United States were based on virtues. And most good virtues, if not all, can be found in most religious and spiritual teachings.

As human beings, we possess the so-called “multiple intelligences”, borrowing Howard Gardner’s term. And for us to comprehend the world around us, including religious and spiritual teachings, we use some, if not all, of our eleven intelligences.

They are linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, musical intelligence, naturalistic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, spiritual intelligence, existential intelligence, and moral intelligence.

In a nutshell, there are two types of intelligence: one that comes from the head (mind) and one that comes from heart (feeling or emotion-based). Ideally, faith itself should be based on mind and heart, as stated by Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, in “In the Footsteps of the Prophet”.

It is thus a logical consequence to contemplate the world around us, including our own and others’ religions, with balanced heart and mind dimensions, especially in a multiculturalistic environment. This, of course, is assuming we would like to sustain the equilibrium among members of society.

According to multiculturalism theory as posited in “Cultural Studies” by Jeff Lewis, “pluralism is a form of false harmony which in fact subsumes the diversity and dignity of migrating groups beneath the ethos of ‘assimilation’. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, liberates individuals and groups from the extremes of homogenized and collective identities, produce a more open respect of cultural differences, both within and necessarily outside the borders of nation”.

In Indonesia, however, the term “pluralism” has been used in a loose sense, referring to anything from a rainbow of ethnicities, sub-ethnicities, cultures, sub-cultures and religions to a group of people with various backgrounds weaved together in an environment of strong camaraderie. On some occasions, it has been used to refer to assimilation and acculturation incidents as well, which are not desirable by multiculturalists and those who believe in equality of the strictest sense among members of a society.

Using the establishment of the U.S. as an anecdote, Thomas Jefferson was the “head” and Roger Williams was the “heart”. Both men had their own perceptions on why religion (or church) had to be separate from government. While Jefferson feared religion would affect the government, Williams worried government posed dangers to religion.

Regardless of the differences, both were aware of the separation as the most suitable path to sustain equilibrium in American society at that time and in the future. Both men agreed the U.S. was not established as a Christian nation, even though the fundamental virtues contributing to the creation of the political system were based on the universal values of equality of human beings and dignity of individuals, which might have been found in the religious books of any religion.

Interreligious literacy should be approached just like learning any other literacy: with intellectual curiosity, composure and grace. While it is very easy to get carried away by other religions’ differences from our own, assuming the learner is a believer, the learning process should not be regarded as a “test of our own faith”.

It is not the place for us to find the rights of ours and the wrongs of others. Instead, it is a good way to “test our spiritual and religious maturity”. It is a good way to practice self-restraint and let our intellectual capacity, instead of affective capacity, take over.

According to Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University, interreligious literacy refers to “the ability to understand and use the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes and stores that are employed in public life”.

This definition might be too specific and rather idealistic to execute. The basic notion of interreligious literacy should be as simple as understanding the postulates of several major religions, to comprehend the existence of other religions, other than the ones accepted as “official” religions in the country, and to understand when a claim of “religion” is valid.

Speaking about postulates, Christianity’s is original sin, while Buddhism’s is suffering. One’s institution’s claim of being a “religion” itself should not be accepted as is, since the best test of its validity would be time.

Finally, we need to acknowledge what Prof. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a professor of law at Emory University, said in “Toward an Islamic Reformation”: “It is true that the interpretation and practice of all religions, including Islam, are greatly affected by the sociological, economic and political circumstances of a particular community.”

After all, Indonesia is not merely a pluralistic community. It has to be acknowledged as multicultural without any dominance over any minority groups, because all of us are parts of the larger community: the human race.

1 Response to "The Need for Religious Literacy in A Multicultural Society"

for me there’s only one kind of human. human.

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