2.1. Appleby’s Notion of Ambivalence
Comparing those who consider some religions’ violent nature to be just a matter of fact with those who defend religion’s essential role in modern life, in the hope of dissolving the association between religion and violence, Appleby calls for a re-examination of the violent moments of religion and asks especially for caution towards the claim that violent acts “committed in the name of religion” are inevitably motivated by other concerns. For him, common understanding would not associate these violent actions with religious essentiality per se, yet these acts are not necessarily “lacking in religious qualities” (Appleby 2000, p. 30
). For Appleby the religious quality is to be seen from the perspective of human relations to the sacred, and he specifically follows Rudolph Otto’s theological discussion of the complexity of the relation between human beings and the Holy. According to Otto, the scholars of his time had equated the designation of the will of the Holy to a certain moral will, which he argues is inaccurate. For Otto, moral goodness does not exhaust the significance of the Holy. He emphasises that, as can be seen from its Latin root, the term numinous
(or holy) clearly signifies an “overplus of meaning” (Otto 1958, p. 5
). Otto refers to this additional meaning as an “unnamed something” (Otto 1958, p. 6
). People see this unnamed something as irrational, as it is often beyond the simple categories employed in a rational and moral understanding of the Holy. Yet, for Otto, the irrational experience of the Holy is as important as the rationalisation of the Holy in modern theology. To be more specific, this irrational experience of the Holy, the dialectic of “the feeling of dread evoked by its overpowering and uncontrollable presence (tremendum
)” and the “feelings of awe, wonder, and fascination (fascinans
)” coexist (Appleby 2000, p. 28
). It is exactly the terror one gets from the incomprehensible wrath of the “super-rational” holiness that leads to Appleby’s further acknowledgement of violence as a religious quality.
Thus, based upon his reading of Otto’s detailed analysis of the complexity of the encounter with the sacred, extending beyond moral and rational explanations, Appleby proposes that the human encounter with the Holy is “premoral”, especially in the sense of a status possessed before the establishment of goodness and evil. This dimension of the Holy as neither good nor evil theoretically allows Appleby to claim the ambivalence of violence as an innate possibility of religion. The ambiguous encounter with the sacred in religion leads to a plurality of interpretations, and this pluralism opens an ambivalent space on the meaning of violence. For Appleby, to define religion only as violent or nonviolent wrongly commits us to a certain reductionist perspective towards the relation between religion and violence. According to him, the dialectic qualities of one’s experience of the sacred as awe and wonder allow both perspectives on religion as essentially “a creative force” and a “destructive and inhumane spectre” (Appleby 2000, p. 10
). Using his extensive knowledge of religious conflicts in modern times, Appleby demonstrates the deep tension existing in most religious traditions “between the use and the sublimation of violence” (Appleby 2000, p. 11
). An obvious example is the common praise of “holy martyrs” in many religious traditions where the behaviour of violently ending one’s life is valorised.
Through establishing a theory of ambivalence, Appleby is able to conceptualise religion’s double relation with violence and offer us a hermeneutical tool to understand the complicated phenomenon. Even though peace is similarly historically promoted by religious traditions, the dual character needs to be acknowledged. Appleby emphasises that his claim is not based upon reasoning about the sacred being ambivalent but, rather, upon the imperfect perception of the sacred from the limitations of the human perspective. Defining this ambivalence of the sacred as a human awareness of both possibilities of the sacred—life and death—can reflect a real human experience of the world where people’s “attitude toward violence, sexuality, and other self-transcending powers are ambivalent” (Appleby 2000, p. 31
). In many concrete events of faith, one can observe that the ambivalence of the encounter with the sacred allows religious leaders to choose “what is orthodox or heretical, moral or immoral, permitted or forbidden” (Appleby 2000, p. 31
2.2. Difficulties in Appleby’s New Approach to Religion and Violence
Appleby’s model of ambivalence offers us a new perspective on the real content of religion and violence in life, which takes us beyond idealised pictures of religion. From the ambivalence of the human comprehension of the divine, he reaches an important conclusion about the essential role of religious actors in modern society, which recognises actors raising their voices against oppressive regimes and supporting the revolutionary populace for justice. With this new framework, Appleby could re-evaluate the militant approaches adapted by religious actors, especially in revolutionary prophetic theology and within urgent religious peacebuilding events ongoing around the world. Appleby stresses that religious actors can contribute immensely to peacebuilding around the world not by their silence but by militant acts. The ambivalence of the religious possibilities on violence enables religious actors to adapt to specific situations to influence history in their own way.
Appleby thus describes the religious events, which require violence as their means and thus ontologically affirms the violence in religion. Yet, there are problems in Appleby’s conceptualisation of religion’s ambivalent nature and with his approach to the legitimation of violence. First and foremost, one can observe a confusion between an ontological legitimisation of violence and a functional justification of the violence used in religion to achieve justice. With his ontological acknowledgment of violence as a religious quality, Appleby names both violent murderers and peacemakers as ones who “go to extremes” and who can be legitimate interpreters of the sacred (Appleby 2000, p. 11
). For Appleby, both of them are engaging in “self-sacrifice” in their devotion to the sacred; both claim to be “radical”, but a close look would call for a more nuanced approach. The term “militant” clearly means different things in the case of religious actors using violence towards others for revenge and peacebuilders’ active attitude towards their cause for peace. For the ones who use religion as a reason for violence, the attitude of being “militant” expresses their aggressiveness; yet, for the peacebuilders, “militant” rather designates their passion and opposition to selfishness.
Appleby has not offered a close examination of the notion of violence that is in use in his theory. It is a familiar observation that the notion of violence rarely receives any positive evaluation in daily usage. According to Hector Avalos, violence has mainly been seen in terms of “inflicting pain on the human body” (Appleby et al. 2015, p. 556
). Violence is not only physical but can be psychological, in the form of a certain marginalisation in society, or can be both physical and psychological, as in verbal abuse. Avalos points out that a differentiation can be made between justified violence and unjustified violence, where unjustified violence is only “senseless and immoral” (Avalos 2015, p. 556
). Therefore, if Appleby is using the common notion of violence and desires to give a neutral meaning to violence, he needs to examine the relationship between violence and justice, as it is an oxymoron to claim that unjustified violence is ontologically allowed by the sacred.
In Appleby’s argument, the tremendum of the infinity of the divine leads to the possibility of violence and destruction, but the relation between experiencing terror of the sacred and engaging in violence towards human others is not examined. There is a deep discord between Appleby’s utilisation of Otto’s notion of tremendum and his purpose of locating a neutral perspective on violence towards other human beings. Violence from God to human beings in the form of tremendum can be recognised as the infinity of the sacred that is beyond human comprehension, but violence from one religious actor to the other is a human affair and thus is finite. Appleby confuses an experience of horror stemming from the infinity of the Holy with the action of using force on the human other. This is to say that even though terror can be part of the ambivalent experience of the Holy, violence to human others is not innate to this terror and therefore is not a necessary fact or ontological consequence of the inevitable tremendum. Directly translating the dialectical nature of religion as its being both rational and irrational, stemming from the simultaneous dread of and love from God, scarcely allows ambivalence to enter into the question of violence towards human others.
If one tries to assess interhuman relations in terms of the relation between religious actors and the sacred, violence and religion no longer exist in a two-dimensional relation but now appear in a three-dimensional framework. The Holy, the religious actor, the human others and their inter-relatedness, must all be taken into consideration. This unexplored three-dimensional relatedness in Appleby has been examined closely by Emanuel Levinas. The religious subject, the divine and the human other are in a complicated relation, and the religious subject cannot ignore his/her encounter with the human other in his/her path towards God. In fact, he/she can only approach God through facing the human other. I will shortly explore this idea in detail.
Appleby endeavours both to embrace a pluralistic view on religion and to legitimise the revolutionary moment among religious actors. According to Appleby, the ambivalent stance of religion on violence is reflected in each religion’s limited reflection of the sacred. For example, Appleby claims that in Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, ambivalence reigns in the religious imagination, where avatars of fertility commingle with warrior gods (Appleby 2000
). Moreover, to acknowledge the existence of a diversified religious image, the ambivalence of violence should be allowed. Yet, one must not confuse diversity with dismissing right or wrong. The violence done in the name of religion is sometimes claimed to be purely ideological and cannot be legitimised in the name of diversity. This is to say, celebrating diversity cannot be a proper reason to legitimate violence in religion ontologically.
Taking a closer look at the examples given by Appleby where violence is legitimate for religious leaders, we can observe that the ambivalence described by Appleby is not really an ambivalence of religion towards violence but, rather, an ambivalence towards violence from the perspective of justice. In his example of South African revolutionary violence, Appleby shows that in seeking to take responsibility for the people who were under oppressive rule by the state, the church leaders were caught in a dilemma between the pacifism they promoted religiously and the necessity of violence to oppose the violence of the state. In this situation, Appleby argues, pacifism hides the importance of justice to society under the religious heading of universal peace. He maintains that “some charismatic and evangelical churches deliberately chose not to become involved in socio-political issues, but this was to support the status quo by default” (Appleby 2000, p. 35
). Thus, in this scenario, to not use violence is to support an unjust regime and hence violence plays a role in the service of justice, especially when the demand for justice is urgent. However, this is not the same as saying that religious events must end by supporting violence. The political signification of violence in justice will be transcended by religious charity and love after justice has been served. In other words, violence cannot be justified ontologically as a reaction to the divine, but it can be seen as a by-product of justice, which is a secondary and only temporary concession. Religious leaders bear political responsibility for the cause of justice and therefore can fall in line with a revolutionary populace when the state is violent towards its people. Yet, they are nowise simply political leaders, because they have “plus” responsibilities, which extend beyond political ones. Hence, Appleby’s argument does not legitimate violence on an ontological level, but only on a functional level, as far as justice is concerned.
I accept that Appleby is correct to highlight the ambivalent role of violence in religion and to claim that “religious actors play this critical and positive role in world affairs not when they moderate their religion or marginalize their deeply held, vividly symbolized, and often highly particular beliefs in a higher order of love and justice” (Appleby 2000, p. 16
). Yet, I argue that violence itself is only thereby allowed in the sense of its function in achieving justice. Resistance and militant actions are legitimate as regards the aim of establishing a just society. Violence does not have an ontological status in religion, and the ambivalence in question is actually between peace and justice, where violence is secondary. In order to gain a more comprehensive picture of the religious ambivalence towards violence, one needs, rather, to examine the dynamics between religion and justice. For this purpose, I will turn to explore Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of ambivalence, making the argument that it is only through Levinasian ambivalence that Appleby’s proposition on re-examining violence in religion can be reached.
For Levinas scholars, Levinas’s notion of ambiguity (ambivalence) signifies the relationship between being and otherwise than being. It is a common observation that “being” in Levinas has the connotation of the ontological totality of the same, which does violence to the alterity for the sake of its own egological movement. Despite his critique of the Western ontological tradition, Levinas does not deny the necessity of the dialectical relation between being and otherwise than being, that is, between the violent ontological and the ethical. Similar to Appleby, he utilises the notion of ambivalence/ambiguity to express this dialectic relation, which has deep implications for the relation between religion, peace and justice. Next, I will examine Levinas’s notion of ambiguity, comparing it to Appleby’s use of the term. With Levinas’s new notion of ambiguity, I will endeavour to contribute to an alternative philosophical framework to the understanding of the relation between religion and violence.