Multiculturalism — good or bad?

multiculturalismAnders Behring Breivik murdered dozens of people in cold blood in Norway. What a horrendous way to make a political point about multiculturalism. He is not even ashamed of what he did. More important to him, than the huge amount of suffering he has caused, is the level of immigration in Norway and Europe.

How should society respond to multiculturalism?

By reiterating democratic liberal values in favour of immigration. Or seeing a warning sign about a society’s limits to tolerance of what is alien?

Idealism or realism in response to multiculturalism

This seems to be a choice between idealism and realism. In the case of Norway, the idealism of sharing its immense oil wealth with the less fortunate from other lands. Or a realistic assessment of the need to compromise with an undercurrent of nationalism.

Do you want to celebrate diversity of belief and custom and respect for people of the world by approving multiculturalism? Or do you want to point to the dangers of pushing a country too far, in expecting tolerance of foreigners?

Those who accept rising immigration into western countries wish to promote human rights of the third world and combat racism. They celebrate multiculturalism and the mixing together of people with different customs, cultural traditions, and even languages.

Those opposed have voiced concerns about how multiculturalism erodes what is valuable in the host nations’ distinct culture and it’s level of social cohesion.

Religious dimension

Breivik is opposed to multiculturalism complaining about an ‘erosion of Christian values’ in his country’s accommodation to Islam. What chord does this strike with some Christians? In all religious traditions, there are those who want to suppress the supposed falsehoods taught by other religions rather than engage in inter-faith dialogue. This was a common historical attitude in Christian Europe prior to the Enlightenment and has appeared as governmental policy into the present day under religious systems like Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that all religions are equal in their value and that none of the religions gives access to absolute truth. This approach is often found within human service professions, such as psychology and social work, as well as medicine and nursing, in which trained professionals may interact with clients from diverse faith traditions.

When asked, “Don’t all religions teach the same thing? Is it possible to unify them?” the Dalai Lama said:

People from different traditions should keep their own, rather than change. However, some Tibetan may prefer Islam, so he can follow it. Some Spanish prefer Buddhism; so follow it. But think about it carefully. Don’t do it for fashion. Some people start Christian, follow Islam, then Buddhism, then nothing. In the United States I have seen people who embrace Buddhism and change their clothes! Like the New Age. They take something Hindu, something Buddhist, something, something… That is not healthy. For individual practitioners, having one truth, one religion, is very important. Several truths, several religions, is contradictory. I am Buddhist. Therefore, Buddhism is the only truth for me, the only religion. To my Christian friend, Christianity is the only truth, the only religion. To my Muslim friend, [Islam] is the only truth, the only religion. In the meantime, I respect and admire my Christian friend and my Muslim friend. If by unifying you mean mixing, that is impossible, useless. (Dalai Lama Asks West Not to Turn Buddhism Into a “Fashion”, Zenit, 2003-10-08 )

This position allows for respect to be engendered between different traditions on common fundamental principles, whilst at the same time seeing the fullness of truth as found in one’s own religion.

Swedenborg’s ideas

Emanuel Swedenborg, who lived in the eighteenth century, was well aware of the hypocrisies and atrocities of the Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic, in the name of spreading “correct doctrine.” He thought narrow sectarianism is due to a hypocritical state of mind intolerant of disparity in thinking; an unwillingness to rise above petty differences of belief into a higher realm of mutual care and love; and a disregard of virtues of freedom, justice and humanity.

Heavily steeped in a Lutheran Christian heritage, Swedenborg’s writings nevertheless reveal a  universal philosophy. He had not travelled to beyond Europe but it would be in keeping with his attitude to be attracted to the colour and vitality of Hindu festivals, the spiritual discipline of the devout Muslim, and the mystical writing of the Taoist writers.  He did write that Islam’s acknowledgment of Allah as the Creator of the universe has the same basic message as a true understanding of Christianity.

He is best known for his reports on his psychic experience of an afterlife in a spirit world. From his observations, he says that after death, regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs on earth, all those who have lived ethically, learn to acknowledge the divine humanity of God.

His writings are not without relevance to today’s question of multiculturalism. He says the following:

  • The closer one is, to the presence of the divine then the more enlightened one’s understanding will be. In the next life, in line with their way of feeling and thinking, individuals live in a particular community of like-minded people that is separate from other communities.
  • Those people in the highest heavenly state are united by their love of the divine. This love overrules everything else which might otherwise divide such as attachment to different religious and cultural traditions. Here in a higher heavenly state multiculturalism exists it seems.
  • However, for those in a lower heavenly state, where there is less divine enlightenment, what comes first is concern for ones fellows. People are united firstly with those with whom they have common interests including religious ones and disunited from those where this is lacking. For this reason, Swedenborg says that the spirit realm in the afterlife cannot be made up of human beings from only one religion. It consists of different communities with different religions because people have different characteristics. So here  in a lower heavenly state it seems multiculturalism is not followed.

Arguably, from Swedenborg’s writings, for one section of humanity, mixing of people from different faith traditions in one community is a good thing. However, for another section it is not.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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