Monstrosity, dehumanization, and the "religious other"

Regular readers may recall that I'm continuing my research into various subjects so as to apply them to multi-faith engagement by evangelicals with an eye toward making this a more positive experience. The lines of research go across various disciplines, such as a moral psychology of purity and disgust, and conceptual metaphor. These areas hold great potential in helping us understand why conservative evangelicals tend to either stay away from multi-faith encounters, or why more confrontational postures are used.

Related to these lines of research, particularly conceptual metaphor, is another approach that may not be readily apparent to evangelicals, and that is the concept of monstrosity. I've wondered in a prior post about whether evangelical statements about Islam as demonic might involve more than an attempt to theologize the origins of the religion, or represent a form of spiritual warfare. Are we also dehumanzing "the other" as monstrous?

There is historical precedent for this happening in the history of Christianity. In Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton University Press, 2003), Debra Higgs Strickland explores the artistic ways in which medieval Christians portrayed those in other religious and cultural groups that they saw as enemies. Specifically, her focus us on “[m]edieval pictorial and literary data relevant to pejorative representations of non-Christians” in “the era of the crusades” focusing on “the early eleventh through the early sixteenth century, with the heaviest concentration on the twelfth through fourteenth centuries” (p. 9). This was not an infrequent phenomenon. As Strickland states,  “Even a cursory view of medieval Christian literature and exegesis on the ‘problem’ of non-Christians reveals that ‘monstrosity’ was the primary conceptual catch-all for any rival religious sect or ethnic group, whether from within (heretics) or without (Jews, Muslims). For medieval Christians, then, monstrosity was a metaphor for unacceptability, both cultural and religious” (p. 8).  

In this fascinating study, Strickland notes that medieval Christians didn't merely conceive of other religious and cultural groups as symbolically monstrous. They were literally considered monsters.  And their existence as monsters enabled the process of viewing them as less than human, and thus worthy of violence and destruction. In relation to this, at the end of this volume in “Conclusions: What Is a Monster?,” Strickland writes:

"We have seen that a major preoccupation for Christian artists, writers, and theologians during the later Middle Ages was the portrayal of rejected religious and cultural groups...Not yet ‘utterly eradicated,’ the non-Christian ‘monsters’ – Jews, Muslims, and Mongols – were believed legitimate targets of destruction owing to their failure to embrace the True Faith, a failure that Christians were convinced was the ultimate cause of monstrosity” (p. 241). 

It must be remembered that these monstrous depictions of others were not merely the stuff of art and literature. This was not merely a means of artistic expression or entertainment. Instead, these monstrous depictions were theological and educational, and they shaped the ways in which medieval Christians thought of and related to others. Returning to Strickland in this regard she says that this was part of a "historical process of social which social and religious attitudes were more fully developed and more widely disseminated” (p. 242).

Shifting from the time of medieval Christianity to our own, I do not think it is a stretch to suggest that similar kinds of processes may be at work among conservative evangelicals. Although we are not producing art like our medieval Christian ancestors, we are drawing upon similar concepts in our writing, sermons, and other public utterances about those in other religions, particularly Islam. We should ask ourselves then whether our actions in the present are also a part of a process of social rejection where evangelical attitudes about Muslims and others are developed and disseminated. Although some may counter that through such efforts  evangelicals are merely making theological pronouncements about religious sources, or drawing upon spiritual warfare doctrine and models, while I am willing to grant that this is involved, even so other processes may be simultaneously at work. This may be a process of conceptual blending, where theological concepts and statements combine with a dehumanizing process that draws upon monstrosity. 

I conclude with a suggestion that the subject of monstrosity in connection with the processes of dehumanization represents yet another important area of research for evangelicals seeking to understand and improve the way in which we related to those in other religions. I hope that another volume in my research stack is helpful here, Richard Kearney's Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (Routledge, 2002).

John Morehead