Religion as Medicine, or Diversity Without Relativism

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s widely-shared TED Talk “The danger of a single story” (transcript here) links narrative hegemony and prejudice. When you only see a limited range of images of a community or social group, both your self-understanding and your empathy become stunted: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” For instance, her American literature professor critiqued her fiction as “not African enough” because its educated urban characters didn’t fit our media’s depiction of Africa as uniformly poor and primitive. A single story, if widespread enough, prevents us from asking questions; we can’t imagine that the reality could be more complex. She goes on to say, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

With this in mind, I can’t help seeing a connection between Christianity’s claim to be the One True Story that explains everything, and the church’s persistent lag on civil rights. It’s hard to affirm the full dignity of women, gays, people of color, the disabled, etc., when your faith isn’t structured to recognize that there are diverse but equally valid ways of being a good person. On the other hand, when we speak about rights, justice, and empathy, we are implicitly appealing to common values, which presume some shared human experience in the midst of all this diversity. So relativism is not a good basis for a theology of liberation, either.

In religion, a third way between “There is ONE truth” and “There is NO truth” can possibly be found through the model of medicine. Different religions focus on different spiritual maladies and propose cures to match. To oversimplify quite a bit, Christianity is answering “How do I overcome my sinful separation from God and ensure an eternity in God’s loving presence?”, while Buddhism is answering “How do I achieve inner peace and escape the ups and downs of this impermanent world?” What gives us the right to say that one of those questions shouldn’t matter to anybody? Outcomes-wise, what’s the benefit of pushing a solution on someone who isn’t experiencing that problem?

In medicine, there are agreed-upon facts and observable causal connections. Certain interventions will probably fix certain problems: antibiotics are our current best remedy for an infection. The same interventions will not work if the problem is different: antibiotics don’t fix a broken leg. (A doctor who mechanically applied a single remedy to every patient, in the way that religious exclusivists prescribe one narrative for everyone’s life, would lose a lot of patients to their untreated actual ailments.) Interventions need to be adjusted for the diversity of bodies with the same condition: a person who’s allergic to penicillin should take a different antibiotic for an infection. And some interventions will be useless or dangerous in nearly all cases: eating rat poison isn’t the cure for anything. Diversity without relativism.

An empiricist religion–one that always starts by asking what people’s actual problems are, and continually corrects itself by asking whether its solutions work–would be grounded in empathy and humility, not stereotyping and speaking over other people’s stories. The metaphor of Jesus as the “great physician” and “wounded healer” merits further study by Christians who take Adichie’s words to heart.

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