Courtney Bender and Pamela E. Klassen, eds. After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-231-15233-4.
Reviewed by J. Aaron Simmons
J. Aaron Simmons is currently an assistant professor of philosophy at Hendrix College (he will be joining the philosophy department at Furman University this summer). Specializing in continental philosophy of religion and political philosophy, Simmons is the author of God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn (Indiana UP, 2011), and co-editor of Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion (Indiana UP, 2008).
Edited volumes are notoriously difficult to review. Assuming that everything cannot be covered and some essays will be given lesser attention, the reviewer is presented with distinctive hermeneutic challenges as s/he attempts to give a coherent analysis of multiple authors all approaching a topic from slightly different perspectives. We might say that edited volumes are, by definition, pluralistic in that they bring together multiple voices under some larger thematic unity, all the while trying to maintain the individual voices as distinct. Edited volumes that are successful, then, tend to be the ones that best display and deploy pluralism as a governing norm. As such, it might seem that a book attempting to think “after pluralism” could only succeed as an edited volume if it failed to exemplify the very thing it was trying to critically consider in its pages. Impressively, however, After Pluralism (edited by Courtney Bender and Pamela E. Klassen) successfully weaves together scholarly voices representing different disciplines, methodologies, and backgrounds.
In the introduction to the volume, Bender and Klassen explicitly articulate the aims of the book. “Our goal,” they write, “is to examine the grounds on which religious difference is itself constructed as a problem that has pluralism as its solution” (2). The rationale for such an examination is that “the doctrines and programs of pluralism that dominate contemporary academic and public conversations do not constitute a theory of understanding religious interactions as they take place in the world” (12). Not wanting further to perpetuate what they take to be a problematic trend, the editors add a decidedly constructive and interdisciplinary supplement to their stated goal: “This volume’s goal is to set the normative, prescriptive foundations of projects of pluralism in comparative perspective, by presenting multiple empirical studies, historical reflections, and theoretical reassessments” (12). Despite attempting to maintain existential traction in the concrete realities of religious communities, this book is not theoretically naïve. Frequently operating in critical conversation with such scholars as William Connolly, Charles Taylor, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, all of the contributors in one way or another stress the importance of appreciating the historical and hermeneutical factors that have given rise to pluralism as a contemporary phenomenon and social norm. Accordingly, one of the theses of the book as a whole is that “pluralism . . . must be understood as emerging in specific contexts and places, as a discourse of the future that cannot escape the past” (11). A shared appreciation of this complicated history, however, does not yield a monolithic account of how to understand what comes “after pluralism.”
The book unfolds in three parts, each of which contains four essays and is organized around a slightly different issue. Part one is entitled “Law, Normativity, and the Constitution of Religion,” and is likely to be the part of the book of most interest to philosophers and political theorists. Part two is entitled “Performing Religion After Pluralism,” and is likely to be of interest to sociologists. Part three is entitled “The Ghosts of Pluralism: Unintended Consequences of Institutional and Legal Constructions,” and is likely to be of most interest to historians of religion. In general, we might characterize the three parts as mainly concerned with theory, identity, and practice, respectively. In all three parts, the central idea is considered from a range of perspectives. For example, the discussions of identity in part two deal with American Judaism, Native American religiosity, Islamic approaches to psychology, and the construction of Judeo-Christianity as a pluralist social reality. Similarly, the considerations of religious practice in part three address Native American religious freedom, social justice and human rights in light of the response to Darfur genocide, Polish “monoculturalism,” and the prominence of religion in East German prisons.
Before considering part one, let me briefly make a case for the importance of philosophical engagements with the latter parts of the book. First, given the speculative abstraction to which philosophers are often susceptible, the careful historical, empirical, and sociological work of parts two and three can offer an important reminder that religious belief is not only a matter of logical precision and rational consistency, but also (and I would even say, for the most part) a matter of contextual, and contested, social existence in shared traditions. Second, although few would deny the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to big problems, when philosophers of religion start searching around for interlocutors from other disciplines, some disciplines seem to be more commonly engaged than others. The essays in parts two and three offer opportunities for philosophers or religion to consider how their own discourses might be enriched by developing constructive conversations with scholars working in departments of literature, history, and sociology. For example, Amira Mittermaier’s chapter entitled “A Matter of Interpretation: Dreams, Islam, and Psychology in Egypt” offers important sociological support to philosophers (like myself) who are sympathetic to the notion of an “agonistic democracy” such as that articulated in the political philosophy of Chantal Mouffe. Additionally, Tracy Leavelle’s chapter “The Perils of Pluralism: Colonization and Decolonization in American Indian Religious History,” can be read as an empirical supplement to the critics of the privatization of religious belief from social discourse. Though many have argued that the bracketing of “comprehensive doctrines” from the public square leads to unjust exclusion and not merely stability amidst “reasonable pluralism,” Leavelle offers strong support for the specific claim that in its attempt at equality before the law, political liberalism can make some religions invisible if they don’t neatly fit into a preconceived definition.
Although some of the chapters in the latter parts of the book leave the theoretical implications of their sociological inquiries underdeveloped (for example, the chapters by Michael D. McNally, J. Terry Todd, and Rosemary R. Hicks), they open spaces for further work in such areas. Indeed, perhaps one of the most important questions with which I found myself left after reading this collection is “How should sociological data influence my work as a philosopher?” In light of the recent proliferation of senior scholars claiming that disciplinary boundaries (and even tenure) should be abandoned in the emerging global academy, this question is one that has high stakes indeed.
Since the first part of After Pluralism will be of most interest to, and obvious use for, philosophers, I will give a bit more detailed attention to the contents of that section. In an essay entitled “Ethics After Pluralism,” Janet R. Jakobsen argues that pluralism faces an ethical problem insofar as it fails to “fulfill” the “promise of democracy” (33). In response to this problem, Jakobsen proposes that queer ethics provides a helpful supplement/corrective to “liberal modernity” (46). In chapter two, which is entitled “Pluralizing Religion: Islamic Law and the Anxiety of Reasoned Deliberation,” Anver M. Emon offers a careful historical analysis of the distinction between hard and soft naturalism in premodern Islamic jurisprudence and theology. His goal is to propose an alternative to the “liberal” notion that “religion is something that inheres in people rather than an area for reasoned deliberation” (60). Demonstrating that “similar essentializing tendencies with regard to the Other” can be found in both the liberal secularist approach to the rule of law and also in an Islamic legal framework, Emon advocates the importance of reasoned deliberation without the assumption of “objective assumptions about nature and knowledge” (76).
Chapter three is by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and is entitled “Religion Naturalized: The New Establishment.” Taking her impetus from the fact that “separationist ideology no longer has the purchase it once did in the United States,” Sullivan proposes that there is something very deep at work: “a shift in religious anthropology” (84). “Religion,” she claims, “is being naturalized” and, as such, “it is becoming an accepted part of the domain of government” (85). Through a close reading of two court cases, Sullivan provides evidence of the way in which the Supreme Court has attempted to “get itself out of the business of deciding what religion is” (95). The upshot is that the delimitation of what counts as legitimate religious belief and practice in the public square is no longer a matter for the courts, but has instead become a matter for individuals working in arenas that depend upon such delimitation and, subsequently, for the political process that eventually approves or rejects the decisions of these individuals.
In chapter four, entitled “The Cultural Limits of Legal Tolerance,” Benjamin L. Berger focuses on Canadian law in order to argue that “the lens of legal multiculturalism” obscures the fact that the relationship of religion and law is one of a “cross-cultural encounter” (100). The problem is that this encounter is not one where both parties are able to approach each other on their own terms. Rather, “when religious groups find themselves before the bar of the law, the terms of the debate are, in important ways, always already settled” (100). Accordingly, the very norms to which we appeal in the attempt to carve out spaces for difference (e.g., “pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation”) can, Berger explains, end up being “experienced as a language of power, coercion, and enforced transformation” (100). Drawing on and critically engaging a wide range of political theorists (including Fred Dallmayr, Bernard Williams, Will Kymlicka, Ayelet Shachar, and William Connolly), Berger offers a detailed critique of legal multiculturalism. He calls for going beyond the three options of assimilation, conversion, and dialogical encounter and, instead, encourages a more robust conception of what might be termed legal humility and fallibilism (118). In the terms of the contemporary debate, tolerance masks intolerance and so something more is needed. This something more will “have to differ fundamentally in its basic assumptions and self-understanding from that which we currently possess” (120-21).
Although the essays by Sullivan and Berger are the ones that I consider to be the most philosophically fecund and do the most work in moving the contemporary debates about pluralism forward, the entire volume contributes admirably to an important area of emerging scholarly concern. After Pluralism ultimately succeeds not because it answers all the hard questions, but because it helps us to see why the questions are so hard.