Promise and Peril:
The Paradox of Religion as Resource and Threat, Anna Lannstrom, ed.

University of Notre Dame Pr., 2003
This review was originally published in The Conrad Grebel Review, 22/1 (Winter, 2004) 109-11 and appears here with the publisher’s permission.

Promise and Peril: The Paradox of Religion as Resource and Threat, edited and introduced by Anna Lannstrom, is an eclectic collection of seven essays. These lectures were initially presented at the Boston University Institute for Philosophy and Religion. Outlined under “Religion and Politics” and “Religion in Itself,” the essays clarify the “ambivalence of the sacred.” Religions, though intrinsically value-neutral, have the capacity to produce the best or worst of human endeavor.

Following Karen Armstrong’s strong essay on fundamentalism, writers focus on religions in particular places or distinct concepts. Authors are Marc Gopin, Gerald James Larson, Bhikhu Parekh, Huston Smith, Ian Reader, and Wendy Doniger. They examine negotiations between Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine, interactions between Pakistan and India over nuclear capability, issues that pose state-religion questions, the “entheogenic” quality of religious awe (see below), the Aum movement’s brief but perilous development within Japan, and five paradoxes within Hinduism.

A test of any world faith is whether it leads to compassion—whether selfishness decreases and empathy for others increases. Yet, “almost all religions contain traditions that support an inferior status for women.” (69) A basic problem as well as strength (peril and promise), then, of religious traditions and texts is their ambiguity. A given religious idea can be interpreted in such different ways; texts are open to diverse explanations. The Aum leader Asahara could easily find teachings to fit his worldview from within Buddist texts and the New Testament book of Revelation. The prevailing mindset also determines approach. A Partition or Discourse mindset—whether to resist or favor dialogue, mutual understanding, and synthesis—shapes attitudes and actions between adherents of Islam and Hinduism in India.

According to Armstrong, fundamentalists often begin by critiquing their own group but move beyond that to fault modern secular society. People choose new expressions of piety, one being fundamentalism, when unable to be religious as before. Or, if they are deeply fearful of being blotted out, a pent-up helplessness or hatred or intense feeling of inferiority can fuel their religious militancy. September 11 taught some in the US about how its support of repressive regimes, its thwarting of positive change for many West/Central/South Asian people, led extremists to be violent. So, also, perceived arrogance among countries with ‘approved’ nuclear power leads some Indians and Pakistanis to resent their own poverty and feeling of being inferior. They may choose to nuclearize in order to divert attention to reality or to awaken national pride.

Gopin writes about peacemakers in circumstances of conflict between religions. Third parties worsen the problem if they “do not have the discipline of ‘radical empathy’ simultaneously with all sides.” (29) People of different faiths need to learn not to demonize the other. They reduce tension if they together mourn, study, help the poor, and care for the land. But biased leaders may see such cooperation as betrayal.

Attitudes toward leaders add further peril as surely as promise. Intense devotion toward Asahara led to a dangerous development among Aum followers—the expectation to obey him totally. “Violence became acceptable and legitimate when ordered by the guru, and his authority became paramount and unquestioned.” (96) Between 1984, the beginning of the movement, and 1995, the year of an attack on people in a subway, the “paradox of religion” emerged. Initially intent to spiritually transform and save the world, Aum followers came to believe that only the devout, chosen few deserved to live. They killed in order to ‘save’ those doomed.

Smith discusses the paradox of awe. This central religious emotion unites two emotions—fear and fascination. He explains how entheogens—nonaddictive plants and chemicals—can prompt mystical experiences. He identifies both their perils and promises. Doniger explains paradoxes that prompt degrees of violence within Hinduism. She provides insight into ahimsa, a term for nonviolence or noninjury. It refers to “the absence of the desire to injure or kill”; it reflects a “state of mind, not a policy for behavior.” (111)

Having accepted the disparate nature of these chapters, I found them to be quite informative. The essay on state-religion questions intrigued me the least although I agree with the principle that the “state should be neither identified with nor indifferent to religion.” (62). An essay that directly addresses Christian perils and promises would enhance the book, especially if readers are primarily Christians who reflect less often on the perils of their faith. Anyone who deals with issues of conflict between religions will benefit from reading this collection. Honesty about both the perils of religion and the promises is essential.