Issue 43, July 2004
The dialogue of religions: source of knowledge?
John D’Arcy May
The dialogue of religions might be said to be in the situation in which the Christian ecumenical movement found itself half a century ago: Thanks to a relatively small number of committed people, institutions are in place and there is the prospect of a more comprehensive movement taking shape (United Religions; World’s Parliament of Religions);i but there is still an air of irrelevance surrounding the whole phenomenon, hardening into hostility in the remaining bastions of the ‘scientific’ study of religion. At the ‘official’ or representative levels of the world’s religions the dialogue is often enough met with indifference or suspicion. In the majority of theology faculties and religious studies departments, though the study of religions may have gained ground, the dialogue of religions is still kept at arm’s length. Religion scholars regard it as a private commitment rather than an instrument of research, and for many Christian theologians it has no direct bearing on biblical, moral or dogmatic theology. There must be reasons for this discouraging lack of development, and it is the purpose of this paper to seek some of them out.
To begin with the much-misunderstood term ‘dialogue’ itself, it connotes the polite but non-committal exchange of doctrinal statements between representatives nominated by various traditions. For this reason I have always preferred to speak about ‘interreligious communication’ in order to capture the many levels at which interreligious encounters actually take place in various contexts, from the classroom and the hospital ward to the workplace and the street.ii This suggests the need for collaborative ‘meta-reflection’ about what interreligious communication involves even as we engage in dialogue, for this form of communication, like any other, can be extensively theorised. In practice, because contexts of understanding can vary so widely, “the means of communication has to be created in the course of communication itself”.iii It is becoming more and more apparent, for reasons we shall investigate shortly, that a real encounter of religious worlds has profound implications for the religious commitments of those involved, as is evident particularly in two recent approaches to dialogue: the ‘liberationist’ (Aloysius Pieris, Paul Knitter), stressing collaboration in the struggle for justice as the medium, not just a topic, of interreligious encounter; and the ‘comparativist’ (James Fredericks, Francis Clooney), which tries to enter deeply into the religious world of one tradition radically different from one’s own.iv
Each religious tradition has its own inbuilt bias towards affirming the indispensability of what counts for it as ‘salvation’; each regards its own ‘way’ as in one sense or another ‘absolute’ and thus, at least by implication, as unique and superior to all others. Precisely this need to assert identity-in-relationship is the problem of dialogue; it is the tension between “the need to integrate and merge versus the need to be unique”.v The claims seem incompatible, yet their separate existence does not mutually invalidate them. Religious identities, like those of individual persons, do not simply arise in a vacuum as the result of some kind of spiritual ‘big bang’, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith liked to put it: though each is autonomous in its unique inspiration, they are themselves the products of relationships with religious ‘others’.
“We each bring distinct identities to dialogue, but these identities are themselves both the products and the presuppositions of interactions, whether individual or collective. It is the paradox of identity that you only acquire one by entering into a relationship with the Other, but in order to take up this relationship you already need to know who you are”.vi
Must each tradition, then, simply be allowed its own autonomy, right through to the reality each conceives of as ‘salvation’ (S. Mark Heim)? Or do they all relativise one another (John Hick, Alan Race)? A more promising approach might be the attempt to deconstruct absolutism itself (Michael Barnes, Joseph O’Leary).vii Whatever strategy we favour, it is obvious that much work needs to be done on what might be called the ‘hermeneutics of dialogue’, i.e. the theory of communication between autonomous social ‘universes of meaning’ such as those of the religions. I propose to tackle this task in three steps: (1) the role of communication in understanding religious ‘others’; (2) the role of such interreligious understanding in bringing about reconciliation and peace; and (3) the light shed by these reflections on what it means to ‘be religious’.
Understanding through dialogue?
Despite the enduring legacy of Wilfred Cantwell Smithviii and isolated essays by scholar-practitioners such as Donald Swearer,ix there is stubborn resistance in the field of history of religions (understood as Religionswissenschaft and eschewing the more speculative phenomenology practised by scholars such as Mircea Eliade or Gerardus van der Leeuw) to any other than strictly rational and scientific methods of gaining reliable knowledge of those collective social phenomena known as ‘religions’.x Anything resembling ‘theology’, ‘confession’ or ‘commitment’ must be kept completely separate from the study of religion. This leaves us with the problem of how to reconcile ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives in the study of religions and cultures and the even more basic problem of who the ‘we’ are who undertake this task: de-contextualised Western rationalists for whom all religious phenomena are merely ‘data’?xi
‘Dialogue’, understandably in such a context, seems to complicate the already fraught ‘politics of religious studies’ by introducing exclusive claims and special pleading. It is perfectly legitimate for religious people, but has no place in the academy, though the knowledge gained by ‘objective’ study of religions may be useful to those who wish to pursue it. Thanks to the level of reflection on participant observation and the subjectivity of standpoints reached by the social sciences, especially anthropology, in recent years, however, it is no longer so easy to maintain the imperious reductionism defended by Segal, Wiebe, McCutcheon and others, despite the pertinence of their warnings that the study of religions is in danger of being reduced to the perpetuation of theology by other means.xii The crux of their argument is that scholarly integrity entails keeping one’s distance from anything that could be construed as religious commitment as a means of acquiring knowledge of one’s own or other religious worlds. But then the question must be asked: Does what is presented as the fruit of such study capture anything worth knowing about ‘religion’ at all, if religion is taken to be an intensely personal and intrinsically communal matter, knowledge of which depends on subjective reporting and group self-representation? It is the methodological dilemma of all the social sciences: can the socially constructed yet ultimately autonomous ‘meanings’ brought forth by religious traditions be ‘explained’ in the manner of the physical sciences (Erklären), or can they only be ‘interpreted’ and ‘understood’ (Verstehen)?xiii
My own view is that, although the study of religion offers ample scope for the rational sifting of evidence and generalisation from it, in the end reliable knowledge of religions, one’s own and others’, is intersubjective. I have therefore never subscribed to the ‘neutralist’ or ‘reductionist’ view of Religionswissenschaft. To me it is illusory to think that in any field of intellectual endeavour, even the ‘hard’ sciences, individual standpoint, emotional response, creative imagination and personal commitment play no part in the acquisition of knowledge. It is not felt to be objectionable if a professor of literature also happens to be a poet or a novelist, as long as he or she has the ability to conceptualise literary theory and analyse the history of literature. In the case of religion, where both objective comparison and subjective evaluation of data are always in play, mature scholarship involves becoming aware of these at a meta-level of reflective analysis. It is not ultimately possible either to understand the others as they understand themselves or to make explicit the conceptual framework in which we do so without entering into actual communication with the other tradition, for this entails the step from observation and abstraction to the practical testing of one’s conclusions in the give and take of interpersonal and intercommunal exchange. Whether this takes the form of personal conversation, participation in ritual, the appreciation of art or – as a last resort! – the study of literature is a secondary matter. For Hegel, the dual movement of ‘passing over’ into the unfamiliar world of another culture and ‘coming back’, transformed by the experience, to re-inhabit one’s own was the essence of education, an insight that has been re-appropriated for interreligious dialogue by John Dunne and Raimon Panikkar.xiv Disciplined dialogue is thus not merely a legitimate but an indispensable means of acquiring reliable knowledge of both one’s own and other traditions.
Peace through dialogue?
Alongside the traditional objections to the validity of religion, such as the advance of science or the problem of evil, the supposed intrinsic link between religion and violence has become a major concern in the course of the twentieth century. This objection can no longer be refuted simply by saying that it is only ‘debased’ or ‘distorted’ religion that leads to violence, not religion in itself. Religion is said to have arisen in order to rationalise the murder of a mythical patriarch (Sigmund Freud), the killing of animals in the hunt (Walter Burkert) or the scapegoating of individuals to purge the community of guilt (René Girard);xv indeed, if we follow Nietzsche we could say that violence is itself religious, a theme that can readily be detected in the noble sacrifices of classical literature and the redemptive vengeance that figures so prominently in contemporary film and television drama (Walter Wink).xvi Considerably less effort has been put into researching the connection between the religions and peace, what Marc Gopin calls their ‘prosocial’ potential.xvii Religion, it seems, is capable of inspiring both the depths of violence in Crusade and Jihad, Holocaust and Intifada, and the heights of reconciliation, from Saints Francis of Assisi and Raymond Lull to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh, thus demonstrating the ‘ambivalence of the sacred’ (R. Scott Appleby).xviii
There is no doubt that the long, sad history of religions-in-conflict corroborates this modern objection to religion: just as there seems to be scarcely a tradition that has not succumbed to the ‘revolt against complexity’ by falling into fundamentalism, so there is hardly any that is not in one way or another compromised by association with violence. Yet we know that all religious traditions properly so called have embedded within them precious ethical values – repentance, forgiveness, compassion, justice – which they have inspired and nurtured through the ages. This is not to say that such values cannot exist independently of religious traditions, but simply that the religions have been the matrix in which they have been able to flourish. The religions as such have seldom been the sole underlying cause of conflict; not even in the internecine conflicts of the first Islamic centuries, the Crusades, or the post-Reformation wars of religion was this the case. Rather, it is what Buddhists succinctly call the ‘three poisons’ of greed, hatred and delusion, manifested in economic inequality and injustice, communal rivalry and ethnic resentment, the lust for power and the flaunting of wealth, that have motivated violence. Ethnic superiority and religious intolerance are pressed into service as ideologies to legitimate the brutal enforcement of these attitudes or violent resistance to them, but they are seldom ‘causes’ in their own right.
It is at this point that the realisation becomes relevant that dialogue is itself an ethical reality which in an important sense – most convincingly articulated by Emanuel Levinas – is prior to knowledge itself.xix This ethical reality of the encounter with what Levinas calls the ‘infinite’ in the face – especially the eyes – of the other makes thinking a moral enterprise and dialogue a religious act, in Christian terms the ‘sacrament of the stranger’. We may reformulate Levinas’s ‘infinite’ as the (admittedly polysemic) cipher ‘transcendence’, meaning by this the intentionality of the human mind by virtue of which it is ‘always already’ beyond, further than what is explicitly conceivable (as formulated, for example, by Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan). We might then say that interreligious communication offers us a unique opportunity to ‘practise transcendence’ by moving beyond the symbolisms and institutions which mediate transcendence to us in our own tradition (as some kind of religious ‘object’), thereby relativising them while adhering to the judgement of religious truth rooted in transcendence itself (as the ‘intentional dynamic’ of the religious attitude). This frees us to enter into the stories and symbols of religious others as if they were our own, thereby discovering new possibilities of transcendence which may have remained latent in our own religious identity.xx This presupposes, of course, that all the complexities surrounding the concept of ‘transcendence’ itself have been sorted out – whether it is admissible at all, purely intentional or in some sense really existent – a task we cannot undertake here.xxi The greater the degree of difference, the more severely the quality of our own response in the presence of the other is tested; and when otherness degenerates into hostility, the religious dimension of the ethical challenge becomes manifest (“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…”, Luke 6:27; “Hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can…”, Dhammapâda 5). We might even speak of a ‘spirituality of dialogue’.
It is thus not only in the genesis of conflicts but also in their resolution that the religious dimension of dialogue becomes apparent. The religious name for this is reconciliation.xxii Cultural and religious perspectives greatly influence how one thinks of reconciliation,xxiii and in Western Christian settings we normally associate it with the reciprocal relationship between repentance and forgiveness, priority usually being given to forgiveness. Each of these goes beyond merely forgetting past wrongs to engage actively in ‘deep remembering’; neither is a substitute for seeing that not only retributive but restorative justice is done; and both together go deeper than professional conflict resolution based on mediation techniques. The more deeply ingrained the conflict is in the social fabric, the more ‘political’ the acts of forgiveness and repentance, whether private or public, become. The potential of the dialogue of religions in conflict situations is that it goes deeper into the particularities of the protagonists’ religious worlds than the more abstract – and therefore alien – strategy of universalising the terms of the conflict. It invites the parties to follow an alternative route to a genuine transcendence of the conflict by re-appropriating each tradition’s own cherished religious values as a first step towards appreciating those of the others. Though forgiveness in such circumstances can seem impossibly difficult and repentance extremely unlikely, if the parties to the conflict can be empowered to bring about change themselves rather than have it imposed on them by outsiders, to initiate the dialectic of forgiveness and repentance in their own ways and by mutual agreement, then former enemies can be liberated from backward-looking hatred to build a new future together.
Such processes are intrinsically political, though the time comes when what was begun in the religious commitments of the parties can be carried forward in the public arena of institutional change. Politics constructs a forum in which ideas and interests can clash non-violently. It is premised on consensus about the limits of toleration, but in situations where the boundaries of humane behaviour have been consistently overstepped, ‘apology’ and ‘compromise’ come to seem like acts of betrayal and forgiveness must dig very deep. “Practically, politically and morally, the institutionalisation of forgiveness is one of the things that make society possible”.xxiv Reconciliation, as the coincidence of forgiveness and repentance, is both transcendent and particular, ‘religious’ and political, conditioned by the beliefs and sensitivities of individuals and groups. When religion is involved in conflict, the motives for enmity and animosity carry the ‘ultimate’ sanction of worldviews and beliefs which may not be compromised under any circum-stances. By the same token, these worldviews, in all their particularity, contain for each of their respective adherents the key to transcending the conflict through the ‘re-membering’ demanded by reconciliation, if only they can be brought into communication and interaction through dialogue.xxv
Religion through dialogue?
Underlying all that we have said so far is a residual ambiguity about what it means to ‘be religious’ in the post-modern context of limitless diversity, the post-colonial situation of resurgent ethnic, cultural and religious autonomy, and what Manuel Castells calls the ‘real virtuality’ of the ‘network society’ brought about by global electronic communication.xxvi What counts as ‘religion’ in these new contexts? As Westerners, even those who have repudiated Christianity, still think of religion in terms of theism, religion in this sense is widely rejected in the West, though some theologians seem unaware that it is precisely a vivid and lively theism that is being enthusiastically embraced by ever larger numbers of both Christians and Muslims in the ‘South’.xxvii These are extremely complex phenomena which require rigorous analysis. Why are Muslim women in Iran burning the chador in protest while their sisters in neighbouring Turkey are demonstrating for the right to wear it? Why are young girls in the more relaxed Muslim circles of Indonesia or Britain suddenly seized with a religious dread which compels them to wear the hijab and be dominated by men? Why are Christians in Latin America turning to an apolitical Pentecostalism in their millions? How could so much of the vast Pacific have become so enthusiastically Christian in such a short time? Why is a seemingly reactionary Roman Catholicism flourishing in Asia and Africa? The examples are as manifold as they are baffling to those with a European concept of religion, whether classical or modern, and to European Christians of a ‘liberal’ cast of mind.
The value of the ‘objective’ and comparative study of religion becomes apparent when we learn that for much of humankind, whether in the Pacific Islands, East Asia, or the American and African continents, religion traditionally had little to do with theism but sprang from the immanence of the sacred within the phenomena of nature, which does not necessarily mean that it was not transcendent. The religions, as the ‘narrators of transcendence’, have found many different ways to dramatise and institutionalise the human relationship to the transcendent, understood in both its ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ senses. In the new global public sphere, in consequence, we are all ipso facto pluralists, because in virtually every social and cultural context, even formerly closed or monochrome ones like China or much of the Muslim world, we are constantly being confronted with new and unfamiliar ways of ‘being religious’. It now becomes apparent why I prefer to work with the concept of ‘interreligious communication’ in various media and at different levels, rather than the more formal and doctrinal ‘dialogue’. Whichever term we use, we see that the new situation holds multiple implications for it, which I would group under the following headings:
Resistance to the idea that religion entails knowledge, that religious propositions, though they do not refer in the same way as empirical ones, are nevertheless cognitive, has been persistent in the post-Enlightenment orthodoxy of much Western philosophy, though this is changing as French phenomenology (Marion, Derrida) rediscovers God and linguistic analysis tackles the conceptual problems of religious doctrines. The great intellectual systems of India, whether Hindu or Buddhist, all came to grips in one way or another with the conditions under which transcendent knowledge is possible, as did those of the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. In dialogue the concession needs to be made by both sides that the possibility of the other’s being able to offer new and valuable knowledge relevant to one’s own understanding of religion may not be ruled out a priori; nor may the possibility that such knowledge could be viable in the public forum of discourse about ‘religion-in-general’. In particular, the role of personal commitment as well as intellectual judgement in acquiring knowledge of any kind makes it evident that knowing, like communicating, is an ethical enterprise. This becomes especially relevant in the context of religious knowledge.
Dialogue, as we have seen, like politics, is always particular. Every act of communication rests on ethical presuppositions, and the encounter with the face of the other, in the sense defined by Levinas and refined by Ricoeur, though it necessarily has ontological presuppositions, is in a fundamental sense pre-cognitive and pre-ontological. In this acknowledgement of the rightness of the other’s existence as something ‘better than being’xxviii there is a primordial orientation, a trans-subjective intentionality, which is prior to all attempts to speak about it, symbolise it and enact it as ‘transcendence’. The summons to commitment disclosed in the fact of the other is unconditional; it is the prototype, as it were, of the dimension of transcendence proper to ethical obligation. It is only in meeting the gaze of the other, in the ‘saying’ which constitutes actual communication, le dire as opposed to the always retrospective dit, that we are carried beyond the ‘totality’ of conceivable knowledge of the world to the ‘infinity’ which transcends the world. This is primordial; revelations, norms and doctrines are derivative. They utilise whatever symbolic media particular cultures and histories provide in order to articulate the primary symbolisation, the ruling metaphor of a religious tradition, which by definition articulates transcendence itself. Languages and cultures make it possible for us to have interpersonal and interreligious encounters in the first place, but always modo concreto, ‘in particular’. Religious knowing is thus a continual mediation between ethical acts, symbolisations of meaning and propositional truth. In the words of a recent definition of religion, it is “an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly”.xxix
In our verbal and rationalistic intellectual environment it is perhaps worth emphasising the further point that none of the above can happen unless emotional reactions and imaginative visions are allowed to play a part. Far from being distractions and delusions which endanger the reliability of knowledge, as our use of language conditions us to believe, emotion is crucial to any kind of empathy with religious realities, our own or others’. It is precisely the rational component of our minds’ capacity for transcendence that allows us to be aware of this and to exercise critical control over it, but without emotional involvement and a sense of beauty we will remain trapped in the dilemma of the social sciences, vainly seeking ‘objective’ knowledge of what is in fact the most subjective of all human experiences, the realisation of ultimate meaning and our response to it. The rise of so-called ‘world philosophy’, which engages Western philosophy with its Indian, Japanese, African and other non-Western counterparts, promises radical new perspectives on the aesthetics of rationality.
In the light of all this it is somewhat disingenuous to speak, as I and many others have done, of the religions as ‘spiritual resources’ which must now be brought to bear on the problems of human survival in a co-ordinated and rational way. The much-vaunted ‘global ethic’ (Hans Küng), if it is to bring about ‘ethical globalisation’ (Mary Robinson) in the form of humane and constructive solutions to humankind’s self-inflicted problems, must be an inter-religious ethic, one which gives testimony to the religions’ ability to surmount their own age-old antagonisms, just as religious education must become inter-religious learning if it is to be credible and effective. That is the theory, but as long as it remains within the parameters of ‘tolerance’, ‘liberalism’ and ‘pluralism’ inherited from the European Enlightenment – indispensable and inalienable as these are – it does not even begin to come to terms with the depths of rage and the crises of identity which must be coped with if we are to bring about a global non-violent way of life for all, not just the privileged and powerful. This would be in itself not only an ethical but a religious reality, even though constructing it would be an eminently rational enterprise and the religions as we know them may be transformed in the process. Much self-transcendence in the name of transcendence itself needs to take place, both individually and collectively, in both cultural and institutional settings, before a fundamental ‘solution’ to our problems can be envisaged.
Perhaps, though, it will turn out to be a solution precisely because it is a non-solution, not something we planned for as the anticipated outcome of dialogue but the new relationship to the religious – or ‘spirituality’, if you will – discovered in the course of interreligious communication itself. Perhaps this dynamic implicit in dialogue, if only it is carried through consistently to its ‘end’ – in both senses of the term! – will be our biggest surprise.
John D’Arcy May is Associate Professor of Interfaith Dialogue, Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. This article is based upon a paper presented at the University of Leuven on 25 February 2004.
Promoting human rights and peace – the role of religion – R. Sampatkamar