The West believed in the 1970s that, with modern societies becoming more rational, belief was going to fade. The idea that modernity and religion cannot mix, was very widespread.
The rise of fundamentalisms, the fall of the Berlin Wall, terrorist violence, have created a new climate, heightened new fears, and spread confusion in people’s minds. As a result, religion now occupies a central place in debates previously dominated by revolutionary themes and Marxist ideology. The new challenges require intellectual clarification in favor of a dialogue of religions still to be created.
What can be the place of philosophy and anthropology in interfaith dialogue? What mediating, critical and propositional roles can it play within this context, particularly through its anthropological reflexions?
Religion is not only an ecclesiastical concern, but also and above all scientific
The religious question is not only an ecclesiastical concern, but also and above all scientific. This is why the construction of the object of this argument must have recourse to socio-historical facts and analyzes. In fact, religion, during Antiquity, foreshadowed socio-political organization. This is reflected in the election of the people of Israel to the promised land. From there, the Israelis, followers of a divine conviction, settled on this land promised to their father, Abraham, and confronted a Palestinian people who once enjoyed a presence there. And since then, permanent vicissitudes will make the Middle East a powder keg.
Among these changes, the birth of Christianity following the message of Jesus, seals the salvation no longer of an elected and chosen people of God, but of all humanity irrespective of social status, color or origin. In contrast, emerges Islam, through the Prophet Muhammad who challenges Judaism, but also Christianity, not as a religion, but because its followers have turned away from the word of God by falling into “the mistake”.
In this way, Islam presents itself as a social and political-religious force in the face of Christianity. This is why thinkers according to their intellectual schemes, rightly or wrongly, speak of the war of religions or the war of civilizations which often leads to socio-political and theological confrontations. To this must be added the creation of the State of Israel by Jewish de-diasporization, following “combatant Zionism”, in response to “pogroms” in Russia and anti-Semitism in Germany, which will relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in suspension with direct consequence, the implication of the world.
It follows that these confrontations will inaugurate various forms of internal divisions within and between religions and civilizations which have never ceased to agitate the world. Crystallized from the Middle East, it appears as a conflict between the State of Israel, supported by the West against the virtual State of Palestine, supported by the Arab world which, to defend itself, recourse to an ideology, Islamism, supported by terrorist acts. From this angle, terrorism constitutes a response to the ideologies of the Western superpowers. Within Islam, this Islamist ideology is the work of groups such as the radical Shiites in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Da’ech and al-Qaida in the Middle East, the radical groups in Tunisia and Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Tuaregs in Mali, the Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Shebab in Somalia, Ansar Eddine in Yemen, Aqmi in Mali, etc.
One of the highlights was the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. From there, a new cadence will be born: that of a fight against terrorism which, at bottom, is characterized by a governance that proceeds from religious fundamentalism in the articulation of socio-political relations. Terrorist actions have led to the shaping of a form of Islamophobia based on the evidence that Islam is the basis of conflicts in the world. Terrorist movements will spread to the rest of the world with the exposure of the predispositions hidden in the world system.
The plurality of cultures, an important social phenomenon
This world is plural. There are cultures, languages, religions in the same space. How to live this phenomenon? How to live your faith while respecting that of others? How to build trust between people whose convictions are difficult to reconcile?
This new situation triggers more reluctance than enthusiasm. One, indeed, feels threatened by the dissolution of particular identities in a human universal culture which would bring everyone to step. This is what we fear.
Interreligious dialogue is more difficult and more necessary than ever. Because it requires to open the tracks of a peaceful exchange between religions founded on reason which does not sacrifice religious understanding. We must, therefore, first study the foundations, methods and tools to be made available to interfaith dialogue in order to foster it properly.
Over the centuries, religions have rather fueled the violence of history. We know their responsibilities in conflicts. So would they be troublemakers rather than peacemakers? It is hard to imagine that they are ready, each and all, to transform themselves to build islands of peace in this ocean of barbarity. Religions have too often fueled violence, expressed intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism, exclusion, abuse of power over consciences, legitimized by the sacralization of a truth. It is in the name of “the bitter taste of the absolute“, to put it like E. Levinas, that wars, sometimes even “holy“, guaranteed by a god, are justified. Here we are at the heart of the anthropological triangle of which Professor Mohammed Arkoun spoke: violence-sacred-truth.
It would be an illusion to believe that religious truths are more intolerant than atheistic ideologies. Our recent history has been marred by the worst genocides, the most unworthy of human crimes, in the name of ideologies like Fascism or Soviet Communism. Religions therefore do not have a monopoly on fanaticism.
The shift of the status of truth
For about a century the status of truth has shifted. The positivist Western world sees truth only in the experimental results of natural sciences. Scientific reason wants to be the norm and explain the whole world.
In the past, people accepted everything that happens as natural. Today, scientific progress has made it possible to ease constraints, rather than suffer from them. Just think of pain, old age or death. Reason has gone from submission to reality to responsibility for its history.
On the world, on man, on life, two anthropological approaches confront each other, a scientist, which generates the side effect that Max Weber described as “disenchantment with the world“; the other, a nun, whose apologetics cuddles up on an ontology said to be of another age. Everyone has their glasses, the researcher, the anthropologist, the pastor, the poet, the rabbi, our neighbor or the fundamentalist. We come to conclude, following Merleau-Ponty, that “we only know the world about the idea that our consciousness forms.” All knowledge being only the self-exploration of reflexive consciousness, we can therefore send the world to the devil!
It doesn’t matter to the phenomenologist whether the cat exists or not and what it is in its very essence. On the other hand, it is undeniable that in his conscience appears a cat, especially if it jumps to his face (!), And that it is this appearance that concerns him.
Here arises a difficulty. Each one having a priori, and on all things – on the just and on the unjust, the true and the false, good and evil -, his opinion, his little idea, and everyone would like his idea to be universal. Everyone aspires to impose their truth. Animated by this visceral will to give itself as standard, all the caciques, the mandarins, the potential ulemas, seek to impose their views. Everyone in their den, anthropological, philosophical, religious, seeing noon at their door, hears that it is noon for everyone. And let’s say it ! In doing so, can we still hope for a consensus around a truth, and deduce a norm which, by nature, aims at universality? Is there only one truth?
Thomas Aquinas had answered this question : “If someone denies the truth, he concedes at the same time that the truth is; because indeed, if the truth is not, this at least is true that the truth is not. ” And to conclude : “If there is something true, the truth, necessarily, is.” (De Veritate).
Truth goes beyond the classical definition of truth, thought since the Greeks, confirmed by Thomas Aquinas, as an adequation of the discourse that one carries on the world and the world itself, i. e. between thought and being. This truth must be allowed to happen. Every theologian experiences it, professed Martin Heidegger, by devoting himself to “the science of “unveiling ” (Greek meaning : a-letheia, not hidden) of a given in history“.
The religious intolerances of the past but, also, the totalitarian experiences of the twentieth century must be taken into account, just like the decline of the pretension to an exclusive truth. We are still on the verge of a real encounter with other civilizations. We are in a kind of interlude, where we can no longer practice the dogmatism of the single truth and where we are not yet able to overcome a background of skepticism. We are in the tunnel, at the twilight of dogmatism, on the threshold of real dialogues.
The fact remains that access to the true and to the One is on the eschatological level. Truth is a horizon in search of which we sometimes grope our way. Religious truth is based, in particular, on the rational interpretation of texts. It must be understood in connection with its hermeneutics of religious language.
The project of understanding other religions, or of the non-religious, is done step by step, with similarities. This is where the dialogue appears. Because truth can be represented as a multifaceted prism, no believer can claim to hold – “have” – the entire prism, the absolute truth. He only accesses one facet of the truth and is content to be able to discover others.
This partial access to the truth founds the possibility of sharing non-exclusive truths. This would be a way out of the main contradiction of interreligious dialogue which is generally a clash of exclusive and absolute truths and which results, from a dogmatic point of view, by an always renewed failure. The “regulatory idea” of an objective and universal truth is not denied : it is the horizon towards which one always tends. Rational thinking is a means of advancing on the path of truth, but does not hold it. Today we have to admit that there is truth outside of me, that others have access to another aspect of the truth.
The believer cannot claim to “have” the truth but rather aspire to “be in” the truth. It is a relation to the “fundamental”. At the same time, I only have access to this fund because others also have access to it through means that escape me. This is where dialogue becomes possible and necessary, even if it remains difficult.
Religious pluralism as a theological issue
The difficult task of a Christian theology of religions is to seek to think of the multiplicity of ways to God without compromising the oneness of Christ’s mediation. From the universality of Jesus Christ is not deduced the universality of Christianity.
A new theological era has been inaugurated, bearing a positive judgment on other religions. They still have to be considered as ways of salvation, which requires a theological examination of the meaning of religious pluralism. The Church seeks to reinterpret the vision of God’s plan of salvation, with a much keener awareness of the historical peculiarity of Western culture.
Today, the Church is awakening to other cultures, and begins by questioning plurality. Are we dealing with a contingency of history? Or would the Creator have decided it? What does Scripture say? Two texts enlighten us : Genesis 11 relating to the construction of the tower of Babel, and the account of the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem in Acts 2.
In Genesis 11, what is it? The construction of a tower is stopped by a sudden misunderstanding of orders, disputes and conflicts. The men who believed they were reaching heaven and dominating the earth, despair of never being able to achieve their ends. “For God confused their language and scattered them all over the face of the earth,” says the text. What does that mean? A punishment? Certainly not! A stroke of anger from God and a cataclysm is to be expected. On the other hand, the text reveals the aim of God: “God distributes humanity over the whole earth. ” The key to reading this story is in the next chapter. God intervenes, to bless Abraham, whose main function is to bring together the peoples spread all over the earth, from the three sons of Noah: Shem, ancestor of the Semites, Cham, ancestor of the Egyptians, Nubians, Libyans etc., and Japheth, ancestor of the Phoenicians, Philistines, Medes and Greeks. God spoke to Abraham: “Through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Isn’t this blessing of the nations of the earth, by Abraham that unites the diversity of all clans, universal? Doesn’t this attest to the divine plan of creation?
Unlike the people of Babel who sought to achieve unity without God, on the feast of Pentecost it is the divine initiative that brings people together. This agricultural festival draws crowds from all over the world: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Libya, Cappadocia, etc. The apostles speak to them in their own language. And now everyone understands them in their own language. The unity is operating. The diversity is intact. Doesn’t all this diversity of cultures gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost echo the scattered nations that God blessed in the person of Abraham?
The present foundations of interreligious dialogue
For about half a century we have observed a shift in the problematic of the theology of religions, first in German Protestant circles, when the scientific development of the history of religions led to theologians like Ernst Troeltsch, Albert Schweitzer, or later Paul Tillich and many others to think Christianity theologically, taking into account positively the existence of other religions and their claims to the truth. On the Catholic side, the reflection initiated by P.-A. Liégé, Henri de Lubac, or Karl Rahner, ultimately resulted in the Nostra ætate declaration promulgated on 28 October 1965 by Pope Paul VI.
Along the way, the experience of understanding religions has been confirmed. It is no longer a question of knowing today whether people can be saved outside their membership of the Church, but of trying to understand the positive role of religions, as socio-historical institutions, in the salvation story.
As Claude Geffré writes, the theological foundation of religious pluralism which legitimizes interreligious dialogue, develops the idea that “the economy of the Incarnate Word is the sacrament of a larger economy which coincides with the religious history of humanity ” (From Babel to Pentecost, Essays of interreligious theology.)
It is by insisting on the very paradox of the incarnation, that is to say “the union of the absolutely universal and the absolutely concrete” to put it like Paul Tillich, that we are able to de-absolutize Christianity as a historical religion, neither exclusive nor inclusive, and to verify its dialogical character.
Tolerance for dialogue
The time is coming when we happily move from condescending tolerance to a real dialogue established with respect for convictions. Far from relativism, it is about trying to understand the discourse of the other. The revealed truth of God is certainly One, but it is variously interpreted. The drama of fundamentalisms is to want to identify the letter of the texts with the very Word of God. Fundamentalism always comes from a literalist reading of the fundamental text in defiance of a hermeneutics which takes into account the historical contingency of the text.
Religious truth is neither exclusive nor inclusive of any other truth. Christianity has long claimed a central place in the galaxy of religions, watching the other religions spin around it like free electrons waiting to join the nucleus. This Ptolemaic vision does not hold. No religion can occupy the center and take the place of God without removing it from its faith and denying it. The central star is the Mystery of God.
Would all religions, according to the divine will of universal salvation, be existential possibilities of opening to the mystery of salvation ? That is the question. Who does not question the uniqueness of the mediation of Christ. On the contrary, it is a matter of recognizing the Christic nature of grace, not assigning it a temporal owner. Would we like to claim the right to distribute grace and the monopoly of distribution, like companies that distribute their products wherever they want? Christianity is not air traffic controller! Simply because Christianity is not Christ.
The Christian faith must therefore abandon this lazy inclination to exclude other religions and this predatory temptation to include other religions in its own, as one would assemble nesting dolls. Interreligious dialogue cannot be undertaken with an owner mentality.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter : @Ayurinu
Annotated Bibliography: Articles and Books
Alkhateeb, Maha B. & Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, eds. The Quranic Model for Harmony in Family Relations, (VA Peaceful families, 2007, ISBN 0-9791389-0- 6).
Altalib, Hisham, A. Abusulayman & O. Altalib, Parent-Child Relations : A Guide to Raising Children (Washington-London : The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2013, ISBN 978-1-56564-583-0).
Alwani, Zainab & Salma Abugideiri, What Islam Says about Domestic Violence (Herndon VA : FAITH, 2003, 2nd ed. 2012).
Alwani, Zainab, “Conflict Resolution : Muslim Reflection”, in Interfaith Just Peace Making : Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, ed. (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, ISBN : 978-0-230-33989-7).
_________________________, “Family Relations : Islamic Perspective”, in Domestic Violence : Cross-Cultural Perspectives, M. Basheer Ahmed, ed. (MCC for Human Service, Northern Texas, 2009, ISBN : 978-1-4415-4472-8). 2
Appleton, George, ed., The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford U. Press, 1958, ISBN 0-19-213222-9). 256 pages of Christian prayers, both personal and communal, this sometime Anglican bishop in Burma and Jerusalem added 10 pages on “Prayer as Listening”. The next 100 pages offer a selection of prayers from other traditions of faith, chosen with advice from people who pray them. A useful collection for those who pray in public.
Clooney, Francis X., S.J., Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children (Maryknoll NY : Orbis, 1998). Classic study by one of the fathers of the Comparative Theology movement.
___________________, His Hiding Place Is Darkness : A Hindu-Catholic Theopoetics of Divine Absence (Stanford University Press, 2014). Pairs a fresh reading on the absence of the beloved in the biblical Song of Songs with the same theme in the 9thcentury CE Vaishnava Hindu mystical poem “The Word of Mouth”.
___________________, ed., The New Comparative Theology : Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation (London : T & T. Clark, 2010). A good example of taking this discipline forward.
Cornille, Catherine, ed., The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue (Wiley Blackwell, 2013). Comprises essays by participants in monastic interreligious dialogue, scriptural reasoning, visual arts (“the visible, sensible, and often unworded other”, in contrast to scholarly language), and other modes of dialogue. Also describes historical examples, from various parts of the world, of Buddhist-Hindu, Jewish-Muslim, Christian-Muslim, Islamic-Buddhist, MormonEvangelical, etc. encounters and endeavors.
Dupuis, Jacques, S.J., Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis Books, 1999). One of the most exhaustive introductions to the Christian theology of world religions in recent times. The first half gives a detailed historical overview of theological approaches to other religions from the patristic period to the modern age, although it is a bit weak on Protestant and Orthodox theologies. The latter half surveys current systematic theology, giving an account of the major thinkers and events (such as Vatican II) both in theology and philosophy of religion, providing India and Hinduism as a case study.
Eck, Diana L., Encountering God : A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston MA : Beacon Pres, 1993). A classic, and still good.
Heim, S. Mark, Salvations : Truth and Difference in Religion (Orbis Books, 1995). A bold and original theological framework for thinking about Christianity and other religions. Heim suggests that the primary issue is the nature of the human condition and salvation, and that salvation is an experience produced by specific religious practices, rather than an ontological state.
_____________________________The Depth of the Riches : A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids MI : Eerdmans, 2001). A creative example of examining different religious ends.
Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, Strengthening the Teaching About Religion (STAR) (http://ifcmw.org/resources/) A primary source multi-faith reference featuring perspectives from our 11 member faith communities in response to questions on topics including ethics, theology, practices, governance, and attitudes towards the other. A terrific resource to enrich the study of comparative religions in public and private schools.
Jones, Charles B., The View from Mars Hill : Christianity in the Landscape of World Religions. (Cambridge MA : Cowley Publications, 2005). The word “diversity” produces buzz. Jones prefers to analyze religious diversity, looking as a sociologist (religion as societal glue, plus the tension, felt by persons and societies over the centuries, between openness and integrity) and as a Christian theologian (what does God make of human religious diversity ?). Addressing the intelligent lay person, Jones outlines the advantages and disadvantages of adopting an exclusivist, inclusivist (whether “in spite of” or “by means of”), pluralist, or parallelist position. Concludes with the challenge : “Do we trust God to guide the process ?”
Knitter, Paul F., Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (Oxford : Oneworld, 2009). A good way to get into the reality of multiple religious belonging. Largen,
Kristin Johnston, Finding God Among our Neighbors : A Comparative Theology of Salvation (Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2013). An attempt to integrate interreligious dialogue into the Christian discipline of systematic theology.
Patel, Eboo, Embracing Interfaith Cooperation (www.MorehouseEducation.org, Telephone 1-800-672-1789, 2012). A guide for leaders of 5 small-group sessions, 1 to 2 hours each, recommended to be at least 50% non-Christian. Includes all materials necessary to explore our knowledge about other religions, relationships with people of other religions, and attitudes to people of other religions. Brief videos of sessions led by the engaging Chicagoan Patel are available.
Sharma, Arvind, ed., Our Religions (Harper San Francisco, 1993). Dedicated to the influential liberal Protestant Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith and coinciding with the centennial celebration of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, this 536-page compendium seeks to demonstrate that “there is something charming rather than alarming about religious plurality”. Each of seven scholarly contributors describes the tradition in which he himself stands : Sharma, Masao Abe, Tu wei-ming, Liu Xiaogan, Jacob Neusener, Harvey Cox, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
Smith, Huston, The World’s Religions : Our Great Wisdom Traditions (Harper San Francisco, 1991). After 55 years, these chapters can still lead American college students into the experience of a great tradition other than their own : Chinese religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Primal Religions. Smith became increasingly partial to mystical and wisdom expressions as he grew older, but he had captured something compelling about each tradition he described.
Smock, David R., ed., Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002, ISBN 1-929223-35-8). Mediators, both experienced and beginning, report on methods used and hard lessons learned as they worked to invoke the value placed on peace and justice by various religious traditions, as well as the power of their rituals and symbols. Contributors include : Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Rabbi Marc Gopin, and Ronald Young (Jewish-MuslimChristian conversations, especially over Palestine); David Steele and Jaco Cilliers (Bosnia and Kosovo), the latter applying Bernard Häring’s insight that it is impossible to “help the sick if we do not recognize what is sick in ourselves”); and Joseph Liechty (Northern Ireland). Smock articulates 21 clear principles that “help determine the quality of the outcome of the dialogue process”.
Valkenberg, Pim, World Religions in Dialogue : A Comparative Theological Approach (Winona MN: Anselm Academic, 2013). Includes an insider/outsider perspective.
Woodhead, Linda, ed., Religions in the Modern World : Traditions and Transformations (London : Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0-415-21784-9). Dedicated to the British comparativist Ninian Smart, this textbook in religious studies offers a brief introduction to a dozen religious traditions, including Native American, African, New Age, and New Religious Movements, followed by essays reflecting on contemporary trends, including desecularization, globalization, women and religion, and religion and politics.
What Do Others Believe ? A Guide for Leadership Teams (Harrisburg PA : Morehouse Publishing, 1999, 50 pp.). Written at Virginia Theological Seminary, in consultation with Washington Area Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist scholars, for senior high school and adult Christian groups. This 9-session module assumes students will proceed from a foundation in their own tradition but will actively seek out written and oral sources, both individual and collective, for understanding other traditions. (Out of print, but downloadable at www.vts.edu. Select box “Center for the Ministry of Teaching”, then “Publications”, then “Episcopal Youth Curriculum”, then “Older Youth”: this volume is listed under “Year 3”.)