"Many say that it is ethnocentric to claim that our religion is superior to others. Yet isn't that very statement ethnocentric? Most non-Western cultures have no problem saying that their culture and religion is best. The idea that it is wrong to do so is deeply rooted in Western traditions of self-criticism and individualism. To charge others with the 'sin' of ethnocentrism is really a way of saying, 'Our culture's approach to other cultures is superior to yours.' We are then doing the very thing we forbid others to do."
"It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (name that all are equal) is right."
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God
I have various thoughts about this quote of Keller’s. On the one hand, I respect his reasoning, and I think his book is excellent.
On the other hand, I do not totally agree with this statement about ethnocentrism.
Yes, it is true – and good to think about – that it is impossible to escape our human situation. That is an irony of us trying to “step outside of” our situatedness, to develop a model like Bennett’s DMIS, discussing what it is to be rooted in one way of experiencing and seeing the world (what we call “ethnocentrism”), and what it is like to “grow” or “develop” to a point of knowing our own culture in the context of other cultures and worldviews, etc. (what Bennett calls “ethnorelativism”). Any model, as Keller indicates, is still rooted in a human tradition, a human vantage point, and is subject to critique.
But is Keller rightly using the term “ethnocentric,” and is he accurate in his critique?
Or put another way, might we distinguish between an ethnocentric and a non-ethnocentric way of believing that a religion (or a religious truth, or any truth) is right or true? (And is it the same to claim that your culture is best, as to claim that your religion is right?)
To be “ethnocentric,” at root, is to be bound by the perspective of your ethne, or people, in the “ethnic” / sociocultural sense of people; i.e., the people that one grows up among, lives in the context of, is socialized into. To be ethnocentric is to not realize that there are different cultures and worldviews, or to react against other cultures and worldviews, as we discover them, or to act as if they are basically some kind of subset of our own culture and worldview. It is obviously possible for someone who assumes and proclaims that their religion is true or absolute or best, to be doing so in an ethnocentric way – either ignoring others (Bennett’s Denial), denigrating them (Bennett’s Defense), or somehow seeing other peoples’ religion as subsumed under one’s own (Bennett’s Minimization). It is possible for Christians or Muslims or anyone to be “ethnocentric” (in one of Bennett’s phases) as a Muslim or a Christian in general (toward other religions), or, even toward those in their own broader religious community – e.g., to assume that a particular locally rooted expression of being Christian or Muslim is the only right or true version.
For example, I grew up ethnocentrically Christian. The variety of “Christian” that I was raised in, a Swedish-background Baptist Minnesotan church setting, was all I knew. To me, to be “Christian” was to be Minnesotan Swedish Baptist (though I didn’t think this explicitly). Then in school I became vaguely aware of the existence of “Lutherans” around me. I didn’t know anything about them (i.e., I was in Bennett’s Denial stage of ethnocentrism), except that they were different (e.g., the kids had a “confirmation” class, which I didn’t). Then in 9th grade “Catholics” flooded into the public school. Again, I knew they were “Christian,” but I didn’t know how they were different, and assumed that they were somehow not exactly “right” as Christians (because we were). Then I went to an evangelical Swedish-Baptist background university, but which had some other Protestant evangelical churches and denominations represented. I remember being shocked by some of the ideas, beliefs, convictions, interpretations (of the Bible, of being Christian, etc.), practices, that I ran into. I remember thinking, “those people aren’t good Christians,” and “those people don’t know what they’re talking about,” and “they don’t read the Bible correctly,” and thoughts like that. Ethnocentric thoughts. I was assuming that “Christian” was universally what it was for me, and that anyone who was different, was wrong. This kind of ethnocentric thinking occurs within every group of people and every religious tradition. But is it inescapable? I would say no.
Setting aside the question of whether the truth claim of a given religion may in fact be right, responding to others from a standpoint of ethnocentrism has at least two problems for us as religious people / people of faith (I will proceed on an assumption that what I am saying may apply to any religious people). First, as I have argued previously, relating to people ethnocentrically is not loving, and thus falls short of what Jesus calls the second greatest commandment (after the command to love God; and I have read Jewish and Muslim authors that say that Judaism and Islam share these two great commandments with Christianity). In addition, living in and from ethnocentrism in our view of and relationship with others, is a crippled sort of living, in many senses – we do not truly know ourselves, we do not truly know others, and we do not have the deepest and most positive relationship with those who differ from us.
But perhaps the bigger question (if you will allow the above reasoning to stand) is whether it is possible for someone to believe in ultimate truth, e.g., the truth of a religious faith, and relate to others in a non-ethnocentric way?
One distinction that would apply at least to Christian faith and Islam, it seems, is that they are not tribal or ethnic religions, rooted in / bound to a particular people or place. Where is ethnocentrism, one might ask, if a mixed group of people from around the world, and who are fully aware of the existence and reality of various cultures and worldviews, and who might even have lived in different cultural settings and experienced the adaptation or integration that Bennett talks about as the final ethnorelative stages of experiencing cultural difference, make a universal truth claim about their religious faith (if by “their” faith we mean, not a locally rooted expression of Christianity or Islam, but what all or most Christians or Muslims might agree upon as the historical essence or heart of the faith)?
Does it make a difference, in regard to ethnocentrism, whether religious people are focused on external forms or on content / substance / essence? Again, it is easy enough to see the ethnocentrism in a particular group of Christians in a specific locale, who have little contact even with other Christians, arguing that a certain way of organizing their worship or doing church government, is the Biblical or Christian way (with the implication that all other Christians around the world and through history are wrong). But what if we “stripped down” the truth claims to content rather than form or structure? What if, looking across the breadth of ways of working out being Christian, through history and across the world, we emphasized what all might agree on, e.g., that it is about receiving life through Jesus and following him; that God is to be worshiped; that there are sacraments to be practiced (with the recognition that we might disagree on the number and on how they should be embodied in practice); etc. What if we practiced our best understanding of Christian faith, without judging other Christians as being wrong or less Christian than we are? Is it possible to imagine being committed Christians without being ethnocentric toward other Christians?
I would suggest that it is.
But what about between religions, then?
Bennett argues, in his model, that ethnorelativism entails adapting to another culture, learning to see the world from a different perspective, and to adapt behavior appropriate to that setting. It involves coming to see another cultural setting as viable, another way of being human. It does not involve assimilation, i.e., giving up one’s own culture for the other. And it does not involve losing one’s own sense of values, giving up value judgments.
So is it not possible for a Muslim, living in a Christian cultural setting, to remain a fully convinced Muslim, convinced that s/he is on the right path, that the Qur’an is the final revelation from God and that Muhammad is the final Prophet, etc., while at the same time experiencing what it is to accept and adapt to/within the Christian cultural setting? Is it not possible for a Christian, living in a Muslim or some other (Jewish, Hindu, etc.) religious setting, to remain fully convinced that Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord and Savior, the giver of life, the one who reconciles people to God, etc., while at the same time experiencing what it is to accept and adapt to the culture of the other?
It would be ethnocentric for me as a Christian to look at Islam through a Christian framework (which is, I would suggest, where all Christians start out, in looking at Muslims or others). But what if I grow in ethnorelativism, in acceptance and adaptation and integration, entering into the world of Muslims, learning to understand their faith and practice (and broader culture) from within, to see the world from their vantage point, to see how it makes sense, how they interpret and generate behavior, etc.? But what if I still remain convinced that Jesus is the source of life, that he is the incarnate Word of God, that He gave his life to reconcile people to God, that He rose from the dead and will return again, etc.? What if I believe He is relevant to all people, offers life to all? What if I bear witness to that, to Him, to Muslims (without forcing anything on anyone, or condemning or judging anyone)?
Is it necessarily ethnocentric for someone of religious faith to live their faith, even to share it with others (in terms of “this is what I have found – perhaps you will find it relevant”), if done in a way that does not put down or judge the other, if there is respect for the other’s humanity and freedom and choice, if done with the realization that judgment belongs to God alone, and that we people always “see through a glass darkly,” may get one thing or another wrong, etc.?
I would suggest that if Bennett or any non-believing anthropologist claims that to have any sense of anything being ultimately true, is to be ethnocentric, in that case I would agree with Keller that that anthropologist (or whoever) is indeed being ethnocentric, imposing his/her secular social scientific worldview on the rest of us. And I would say, thank you, Dr. Bennett (or whoever), for the model and the concepts, but we are not limited by how you define ethnocentrism (or reality).
This reflection, though long, is just a beginning, just scratching the surface of a complex and I would guess controversial subject. If you have thoughts or questions or insights, feel free to post them. More will come from my side, as well.
And at the end of this long reflection, I’ll leave it to the reader to judge, am I agreeing or disagreeing with Keller’s statement about ethnocentrism?