4 Cultures of Comparison and Traditions of Scholarship: Holism and Inculturation in Religious Ethics 1

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Cultures of Comparison and Traditions of Scholarship: Holism and Inculturation in Religious Ethics1
David A. Clairmont

Comparative religious ethics as a distinct field of inquiry links longstanding philosophical questions about the good and the right to the historical, social-scientific and literary study of religious cultures. It has become, over its more than thirty year genesis, an intriguing conversation within religious studies. Contributions to that conversation have formed their own tradition of scholarship, in the sense of an ongoing argument prompted and guided by a shared set of questions about a subject matter: the practical implications of the beliefs and practices of the many religious communities around the globe.2 Many of the questions—about moral theory, virtue and culture, subjectivity and language—that brought earlier generations of comparative ethics scholars together recur in the work of this volume’s authors, who view themselves as part of an ongoing project to understand the nature and direction of a distinctly religious ethics. Other questions—about the global significance of culturally specific practices that influence moral formation and cultural identity, about gender, embodiment, technology and many more besides—relate to the field’s earlier ones, but these new questions stand to become classics of their own in the future as religious ethics takes more seriously religious and cultural differences in light of the power and global scope of religious discourse.

Bringing the classic questions of an earlier generation to a new generation of scholars with their own experiences and interests requires that we undertake the difficult work of understanding and appreciating our intellectual forebears. Appreciating classics of any kind, including classic approaches to religious ethics, requires that we recover not only the methods and substantive studies generated by those approaches but the questions that gave rise to those approaches in the first place. Classics prove their status when the questions that prompted their production stand the test of time, even as previous answers to those questions require careful examination and critique by each new generation.3

The classic religious ethics question that concerns me in this essay comes from the first two waves of religious ethics scholarship in the United States (roughly from the late 1970s into 80s, followed by a recasting and redefinition of the field in the 90s and into the new millennium): What is required to treat religious cultures holistically when comparing their moral worlds? I am interested in this question for two reasons. First, revisiting the notion of a holistic approach to culture reminds us that, although religious ethics is now expanding the scope of religious and moral discourse it examines and the cultural practices it observes, scholars of the present generation cannot sidestep the basic theoretical questions that occupied participants in earlier conversations. It is very important to revisit those questions, as often as possible, to cast old but revealing light on what we are doing now.

Second, revisiting the classic question of culture allows us a vantage point from which to ask what other cross-disciplinary conversations might prove helpful for comparative ethics scholarship today. The present author comes to the conversation in comparative religious ethics deeply formed by scholarship in comparative theology, a field that roughly parallels in time, style, and intellectual heritage the development of comparative religious ethics over the last several decades. Comparative theology invests its scholars in “acts of faith seeking understanding which are rooted in a particular faith tradition but which, from that foundation, venture into learning from one or more other faith traditions.”4 For the comparative theologian, a holistic view of a religious culture is crucial, and this requires investigating the basic ideas and practices of religious traditions in comparative perspective. But it also involves a careful consideration of the deepest religious questions of the persons who constitute that culture, in conversation with the most profound (and often unsettled) religious questions that guide the comparative theologian’s home tradition. In this way, comparative investigations are able to examine accounts for the dynamic inter-relationship between the subject matter (for our present purpose, religious ethics) and the one who studies it (the scholar of religious ethics). My goal will be to show that the comparative theologian’s reflexive relation to her or his own subject matter has a rough analogue in early philosophical discussions in comparative ethics about holistic approaches to culture, even if those earlier conversations were not cast in terms of comparative theology. I hope this suggestion will be taken as a call for a slightly more hermeneutically inclusive comparative ethics conversation. It is certainly not meant to be a call for all comparative ethicists to become comparative theologians, but I would suggest that religious ethics without a comparative theological element misses something basic about the nature of religious communities and the nature of the internal debates and practical innovations that constitute them.

In this essay, I argue that present and future scholarship in comparative ethics ought to remain sensitive to the prevailing questions that formed each generation of scholars if the field is to continue as a productive scholarly community and as a coherent discipline of inquiry. For an academic discipline is constituted not only by the history of its discourse, but through the persons that have been concerned with a set of common questions. In place of the former, where we might speak of charting a genealogy of comparative ethics, I would like to speak here of a family history of comparative ethics, in order to highlight a certain style in which we ought to think about the intellectual struggles and sensibilities of those who shaped the field we now call comparative religious ethics.

To do so will require that we keep in mind two important topics that are not always held together in the present configuration of the field: (1) the relationship between religious traditions and the variety of methods employed to study them, and (2) the intellectual histories of those comparativists that have gone before us. The intellectual histories of prior generations of comparativists matter because they chart trajectories through which one set of classic questions or concerns about the meaning of religious ethics leads to other important questions and concerns. In this paper, I examine how returning to one particular classic question in comparative ethics--the relationship between religion and culture--can reveal important insights from the past that also signal new ways of thinking about the comparative ethics future. It will also offer us an important lesson from the family history about what it means to study religious and moral differences together, as a community of scholars committed to preserving each others’ questions even when we differ on what to make of the answers. This style of engagement, I suggest, would build important bridges to other conversation, especially those in comparative theology.

The question of how to relate religion and culture through the comparative study of ethics has concerned both philosophers and historians of religion who, not surprisingly, held different views about what these terms meant and how they related to the method and results of comparative ethics. One early debate relating religion and culture to ethics focused on what it meant to take a “holistic” approach to comparative ethics. Should holism be defined by the historians, anthropologists and sociologists of religion and culture who wanted to examine the fine threads of culture while respecting cultural wholeness? Or should holism be defined by philosophers concerned with moral questions, whose understanding of holism represented not just a normative program for comparative ethics but also an evaluative judgment about which philosophy had earned the right to speak for moral philosophy in interdisciplinary conversations?

In the first part of this paper, I revisit this debate to show how the relationship between religion and culture in comparative ethics today is linked to an earlier moment in the family history of this tradition of scholarship, to which present discussions are now returning.5 I suggest that some of the earliest impulses toward holism (as in the work of David Little and Sumner Twiss) were right to seek a balance between offering descriptions true to a religious culture’s own self-understanding while highlighting those self-critical moments in religious traditions. In those moments, holists hoped to understand how and why members of those traditions struggled with their own values and moral languages in conversation with each other and with the scholars who studied them. As David Little observed as far back as 1974, comparative religious ethics must attend to the different ways that religious traditions employ practical reasoning, and this includes how religious traditions relate proximate and ultimate values as they confront new situations and social problems.

By studying what Little called “the relation of patterns of religious-ethical meaning to socio-economic institutional life,” scholars of comparative ethics provide the religious traditions they study with important resources for critical self-examination.6 The sort of holism I see in early comparative ethics was a holism encompassing the scholar’s own questions and concerns and the questions and concerns of the communities the scholar studied as proper objects of comparative analysis. In other words, this wider form of holism asked whether the question of the distinctly “moral” and “religious” brought by certain kinds of philosophical studies of religious ethics might echo long-standing and deep conversations within religious traditions about the kinds of claims those traditions make about what concerns them most. In the first part of the paper, I will differentiate the continuous holism of Little and Twiss which hoped to link the deep questions about moral and religious life that scholars and their objects of study shared from the distant holism exemplified in the work of Jeffrey Stout. While Stout’s critiques of Little and Twiss were helpful in gaining clarity about the limits of the sort of philosophical tools they employed, Stout left comparative ethics with a way of looking at moral worlds that ultimately distanced scholars from the people whose religious and moral worlds they studied.

In the second part of this paper, I ask what kind of relationship between the comparativist and the traditions studied would be required if we are to recover and advance the sort of continuous holism just mentioned. By developing the notion that comparativists are engaged in a tradition-creating form of scholarship, I hope to show that comparisons must proceed sensitive to the effects their work might have on the communities they study. This will require a deep transparency on the part of the scholar about why she or he is interested in the traditions under examination, precisely because those inhabiting such traditions today will want to enter conversations with comparativists with sufficient knowledge about the kind of investment scholars have in their traditions. Only with such assurance will people in traditions be open to trusting scholars with their religious inheritance and to learning from scholars about how to see their home traditions in new and constructive ways.

To illustrate this dynamic between scholars and the religious communities they study, I will contrast two different senses of tradition-creating comparative work. On the one hand, we have the recent proposal by Lee Yearley that comparativists are constantly led to the work of “emendation” in the moral and religious worlds they examine. Emendation is self-consciously tradition-creating and should rightly be acknowledged as such, but it does so with minimal awareness or concern for how those emendations will affect the life of the religious community that inherits them or how such emendations will affect the relationship between the scholar and the religious community. On the other hand, we have examples of tradition-creating comparative work taking place within the religious communities themselves. As an example of such work, I consider recent proposals by African Catholic moral theologians working on theologies of inculturation. I argue that these scholars are also dealing in tradition-creating comparative work, but the impulse to compare is different because they are asking about the way moral truth can be expressed through different cultural forms, some of which are legitimately new and in fact necessary to the wider life of their communities of faith. My aim will be to position the tradition-creating dimension of comparative ethics between the kind of emendations Yearley describes and the more fully tradition-bound comparisons happening in theologies of inculturation.

In the third and final part of the paper, I will draw together my reflections on religion and culture in comparative ethics on the one hand and on emendation and theologies of inculturation on the other by suggesting how the comparativist ought to view her or his relationship with the traditions studied. I will suggest that comparative ethics in an age of globalism should continue to develop the field’s early impulse toward a continuous holism, but one that takes more seriously the extent to which comparative ethics has an inescapable tradition-creating dimension to its work. To foster this kind of comparative sensibility, I suggest that comparativists begin by imagining an analogy between their responsibility to other scholars in the field and their responsibilities to the traditions they study. To come to terms with the intellectual histories of our fellow scholars (rather than simply their arguments and constructive proposals), with all the frustration and misunderstanding that such conversations often entail, prepares us for the sort of long-term relationship we will have with the religious traditions we study. For just as we engage in academic study to communicate to others something we judge important, so too should we think that a similar if slightly different dynamic might be in play for members of religious traditions that might be affected by what we say about the traditions we study. As unlikely as it might sometimes seem, comparative religious ethics is public work, even if we cannot predict which “public” will be affected by its findings.7
I. Religion and Culture in Recent Comparative Ethics

The relationship between religion and culture has presented comparative ethics with a series of problems, summarized as follows: (1) the problem of culture in comparative method, (2) the problem of culture as source for comparison, and (3) the problem of the comparativist’s cultural perspective.8 It is worth noting that these problems are in a sense cumulative, both in terms of how comparative ethics has changed over time and also in terms of the levels of complexity emerging in the discussions as a result of each successive addition.

The first problem of culture in comparative method is probably the earliest of these, and its significance was apparent in the cornerstone text Comparative Religious Ethics: A New Method by David Little and Sumner Twiss and in subsequent critical assessments of that book offered by Donald Swearer and Jeffrey Stout.9 Little and Twiss set out to develop a method for comparing apparently disparate cultural systems that combined Max Weber’s attempt “to understand the ‘logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values,’” with their own philosophical concern to understand “what are the essential defining characteristics of morality and related concepts, what are the features that distinguish these notions from, say, law and legal notions, or custom and matters of etiquette.”10 For this latter emphasis, Little and Twiss employed the work of John Ladd, a philosopher with the comparative foresight to have conducted his own fieldwork among the Navajo in the early 1950s in the service of developing the field of “descriptive ethics.”

Ladd had considered the problem of how to balance the cultural specificity of moral language and the internal coherence of unfamiliar worlds of thought with discernment of a culture’s “ethical ideas as a system of ideas.”11 He noted that his own attempt at a descriptive ethics of Navaho culture linked “the new approach in moral philosophy with its emphasis on language and discourse” with the “current trends in anthropology, such as the increasing stress put on obtaining an exact record of the informant’s statements.”12 Although his period of fieldwork was somewhat brief (December 1951-January 1952), and his view of anthropology’s work rather narrow, he undertook his investigations from a conviction that the work of the philosopher ought to be most closely concerned with the work of “ethical reconstruction” as “a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Usually we have the conclusion and some premises. The task is to reconstruct the missing premises and mode of inference” and then ask whether these reconstructions can be “empirically confirmed or disconfirmed, by the statements the informant makes.”13 Ladd was confident that his questioning of local “informants,” especially those revered by the community as wise or “elders” could reveal basic patterns in the moral thinking among the Navaho. He thought he did not need to examine the full complement of Navaho culture in order to learn something accurate, if only provisionally formulated, about Navaho moral thought. For Ladd, to understand “from the inside” meant to understand how particular persons in cultures thought through moral problems given attendant cultural values with specific attention to the meaning of statements, rather than understanding the complex relations of meaning in a wider cultural system.

Little and Twiss wished to move beyond Ladd’s work while maintaining certain continuities with it, and the form of that move represented an important indication of what a holist approach to comparative ethics would look like. First, as an exercise in descriptive ethics, Little and Twiss wanted to “compare kinds or types of practical reasoning in different religious settings” in order to “demonstrate some different ways in which practitioners have undertaken to give reasons in support of their respective codes of conduct.”14 Second, they sought to widen the pool of data from which moral descriptions would be drawn, so that even though they too were interested in explicating strategies of practical justification, they preferred to do so within a wider notion of religious culture that was not reducible to the logical relations among moral statements made by cultural informants. Culture, they said, was “like a rule book that creates the world or environment in which the game of morality takes place,”15 whereas religion and morality were both specified functionally within culture as “offering reasons for action.”16

Yet when they offered their preliminary definition of religion, Little and Twiss noted that religion addresses “certain ‘boundary situations’ in human life and experience, and they are encountered at at least three points: (1) in trying to make sense out of the felt inexplicability of the natural (and social) world, its existence and purpose, and its processes and events; (2) in trying to cope with the obdurate presence of suffering and death; and (3) in trying to live with and manage the ambiguities and puzzles inherent in human conduct.”17 Religion addresses these basic interpretive problems of human life, but it does so through a number of different avenues, including “conceptually, emotionally, and practically.”18 It is important to note, in light of the critiques that followed on their project, that Little and Twiss viewed each of these avenues of interpretation as corresponding to a certain kind of activity: “of adhering to a cosmology, (or mythic world view), expressing certain attitudes and emotions, and acting in certain prescribed ways.”19 In casting religion in this way, they resisted attempts to reduce religion to the interplay of “the essential religious emotion and the essential religious practice,” or the subjective and behavioral practice respectively. But religious discourse maintains a connection between the elucidation of concepts embedded within a cosmological system and the subjective and behavioral aspects of religion.

What is interesting about this move, and why it is important to recall as we discern the shape that a holistic comparative ethics would take, is that Little and Twiss sought to preserve a certain philosophical impulse within religious discourse which was related to but not reducible to the rational expression of its moral ideas. A holistic approach to comparative ethics would require both an examination of the action guides at work in a religious system, including the examination of the reasons people give for guiding their actions in specific ways, but also an examination of the values of a cultural system that could be formulated either as moral norms or as virtues of persons in communities.20

This style of holism, which sought continuities between scholarly questions about religion and ethics and the cultural systems scholars studied, can be helpfully illustrated if we compare it with two other kinds of holism advocated by two early critics of Little and Twiss’s project.21 Donald Swearer’s critique, later echoed by Frank Reynolds and Robin Lovin, emphasized the tendency to distort the logics internal to a religious framework as a coherent and complex cosmology if one holds too closely to a set of analytic tools derived from a foreign philosophical framework. In such an instance, one loses cultural holism and therefore, Swearer judged, comparative religious ethics ought to be understood instead primarily as a subset of “comparative or cross-cultural studies.”22 This sort of holism, which seeks to account for a greater level of refinement and internal tension in religious worlds, will naturally be resistant to being redefined by any philosophical conversation, perhaps especially the analytic mode that prizes the specificity and logical relations among moral concepts.

Jeffrey Stout’s critiques of Little and Twiss’ comparative project came from a different angle, but interestingly were also cast as an argument about the proper form of holism for comparative ethics.23 His argument made two points, both pressing on what it means for comparative ethics to be holistic yet also maintain continuity with philosophical discussions about religion. The first point was that any attempt to specify distinctly “moral” or “religious” aspects of a cultural context would need to account for those philosophical critiques that doubted the stability of concepts and the idea of inherent meanings in terms. 24 He suggested that instead of opting for the kind of holism that sought the internal logic of an entire cultural system, one should rather look to the holism characterizing slices of intellectual history.25 Instead of trying to understand cultural wholes as Swearer had suggested, Stout argued that comparative ethics should rather look for how moral language is used at relatively confined times within the histories of cultures when certain key moral notions were under debate. This kind of circumscribed intellectual holism does not require detailed observation of different religious cultures or a close scholarly contact with those cultures, although it does require detailed knowledge of how moral language is used within social and intellectual histories.

Stout’s second point was that such holism required not only a familiarity with the social and intellectual histories under investigation, but also a commitment to a certain philosophy of language and theory of normative discourse that could establish the proper way to understand those histories.26 He specified this in terms of a set of unifying commitments to a certain theory of meaning (semantic holism), a theory of justification (epistemological holism), and a theory of interpretation (hermeneutical holism).27

Stout argued that the best way to think about philosophy’s interaction with other approaches to religious ethics (including anthropology as a subset of the social sciences) was to examine historical instances where the use of moral terminology changed, particularly in those “revolutionary” instances where “relatively specific moral judgments were being used to place moral principles in question and to justify innovative departures from traditional linguistic habits.”28 It was only fitting, then, that his philosophical analogue to the process of moral change in religious traditions would be a single line of development in philosophy (the rise and fall of logical empiricism and its replacement by a certain form of pragmatism), where one narrative runs the course of its explanatory power until it can no longer account for the data under consideration. But such an interpretive strategy only functions for moral discourse in religious traditions if one assumes that religious traditions are rather confined sorts of wholes, where a change in moral discourse comes about as a sort of intellectual defense rather than as a gradual unfolding within different historical times and cultural contexts of a tradition’s deepest insights.

Stout tried to cast his remarks about holism in terms of a wider hermeneutical holism, which he thought was broader than the epistemological concerns seeking precise conceptual limits in the service of methodological clarity. The problem, however, is that the alleged capaciousness of Stout’s holism still assumed a rather narrow model of philosophical engagement, one forged in the history of philosophy’s dialogue with the sciences on the one hand and the events of European religious wars (and more recently Western democratic experiments) on the other.29 While Stout was critical that Little and Twiss focused on specifying the meaning of moral and religious concepts within the traditions they studied in a way that did not allow them to track change in conceptual usage over time, his own focus on conceptual usage only at tumultuous points in religious history presents a different problem, but equally removed from the histories of religious cultures. Internal diversity and self-criticism within religious traditions sometimes happen in ways far less momentous and far more gradual.

The sort of holism that Little and Twiss brought to their study was certainly not a thorough-going cultural holism of the kind Swearer wanted, but it did try to let different religious traditions speak in a diversity of voices, by relying on philosophical and anthropological studies, while still presenting a conversation on matters relevant to ethics. Put differently, Little and Twiss offered a project that embraced a holism continuous with a wide array of questions and concerns carried on by the traditions they studied. Stout, on the other hand, preferred a sort of holism continuous only with certain key points in the histories of cultures’ use of moral concepts but ultimately one that kept the scholar distant from the culture’s deep moral questions.

As a result of Stout’s critiques, an important and valuable aspect of Little and Twiss’ project was obscured, even if those critiques were warranted to some degree by the kind of philosophical framework that Little and Twiss adopted. They had attempted an important advance in comparative engagement, raising the question of how a philosophical approach to ethics might be reconciled with an ethnographic approach to culture. Moreover, they rightly saw that the scholar of ethics will inevitably bring some of her or his own moral questions to the cultures they encounter and that these could form productive lines of inquiry. It was telling that Little and Twiss’ first case-study of the Navaho employed the work of a philosopher who had also conducted fieldwork, rather than an anthropologist who became interested in ethics as a result of having previously held normative commitments destabilized through fieldwork.30 While they followed John Ladd as their initial guide to descriptive ethics and Navaho culture, they did not judge his descriptions of the moral code of the Navaho sufficiently connected with other important and morally relevant cultural features. As Stout himself would later note, citing Ladd, “The questioning of informants can itself produce ‘an artificial logical construction not corresponding to any “natural” ethics.’…Anthropologists often settle for something less than historical narrative because the data out of which a narrative might be constructed are unavailable.”31

The question was whether that “natural ethics” was in principle available for study and what balance of philosophy, ethnography, and history would allow the comparativist both to describe it properly and also use it for some constructive purpose. What is interesting, however, is that the discussion of which philosophy might helpfully interact with historical and ethnographic research has not progressed very far from the “first wave” of Little and Twiss, Stout and Swearer, to the recently characterized “third wave.”32 Stout’s critique seemed to narrow the range of allowable philosophies emerging from the religious traditions studied to those that took up the problem of conceptual meaning and the use of moral ideas. While Little and Twiss employed some of those philosophical insights, their method was actually more flexible and pragmatic because it used both anthropological research and philosophical discourse. Moreover, they recognized that one could locate multiple (sometimes quite different) strands of philosophical thinking within the same religious tradition.

With respect to diverse philosophical voices within religious traditions, Little and Twiss’ continuous holism found support several years latter in the comparative philosophy of religion discussions of the mid 80s. For example, Paul Griffiths suggested that a responsible comparison of different moral systems ought at least to consider that longstanding religious traditions usually have more than one philosophical impulse or style. In his examination of early Indian Buddhist philosophy, Griffiths isolated what he called both a “naturalized” and a “denaturalized” discourse.33 A naturalized discourse was one that operated at the level of ordinary language and spoke to human concerns for truth in a way that was continuous with the power of religious narratives. A denaturalized discourse, on the other hand, sought a form of argumentation that would purify itself of the distinctive elements of its religious narrative in order to render it compelling as an option for adherence to those not accepting its religious narrative. Griffiths saw this move both in Indian Abhidharma philosophy but also in the philosophical traditions of the West.

Another option, offered by Frank Reynolds and also drawn from Buddhist sources, was that a single religious tradition might contain different cosmologies because of the diverse and sometimes divergent sources that created it. This variety gave rise to different forms of philosophical reflection grounding different modes of moral action.34 There is nothing problematic with isolating particular philosophical styles in religious traditions, even if those styles move toward more systematic and all-inclusive statements as the Abhidharma does, but these styles must be examined in light of the systems into which they fit. Such an approach honors the concerns of both Stout and Swearer about early comparative projects that used one particular (and for Stout, discredited) philosophical framework to specify the moral and religious domains of a cultural system, but it would also take seriously that religious traditions do themselves at various points either develop or adopt philosophical systems that ground comparative thought and offer rationales for inter-cultural engagement. These should certainly not be left out of the conversations that comparativists have with historians and anthropologists about comparative method.

I noted above that the early debates about holism in comparative method were actually centered on an issue that is now returning to comparative ethics: the place of other disciplines, especially anthropology, in the comparative study of ethics.35 This debate turned on the extent to which philosophical concerns and methods would drive comparative ethics, but it was equally about how to relate the comparativist’s own philosophical perspective on moral matters to the coherence of the religious cultures compared. In the next section of this paper, I take up the question of how the comparativist ought to relate, in the spirit of Little and Stout, to the traditions they study. This will prompt us to consider two examples of comparison as a kind of tradition-creating work: Lee Yearley’s reflection on the task of emendation in comparison and the work of contemporary Catholic theologians of inculturation thinking about a similar comparative problem but from within commitments to a religious tradition.

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