Saturday, June 05, 2004

TOEFL, surnames, and interreligious dialogue

As predicted, Mrs. Oh passed her TOEFL. She got a 4 on her essay, which puts her above the minimum she needed to pass. So instead of an English lesson, this evening was spent with her entire family, dining on sam-gyeop-sal in Youido, drawing cartoons on napkins and thumb-wrestling Mrs. Oh's younger daughter, Hyun-ah.

A reminder: Mrs. Oh is actually Mrs. Kang. In Korea, women generally keep their surnames even after getting married, but Mrs. Oh insisted that I call her Mrs. Oh because she felt that'd be more the American style. I decided not to argue with her about this; the discussion about what Americans consider the "natural" way of handling certain aspects of etiquette would have been long and probably pointless.

But since you're reading this and are essentially a captive audience (I know your ass is too fat for you to pull yourself out of your chair to break the spell cast by this blog), allow me to talk about cultural static for second. This relates at least tangentially to one of my pet subjects, interreligious dialogue. In my posts on interreligious dialogue, I've been careful to note my own position that we have to risk being reinterpreted or reunderstood by the other. Mrs. Oh's insistence on being Mrs. Oh is an example of this reunderstanding. From her point of view, it's somehow "more American" for her to be Mrs. Oh, since that's her husband's surname. This is how she understands Americans to think on the subject. From the American perspective, this is incorrect-- at least for most Americans, who wouldn't give a damn if she called herself Mrs. Oh or Mrs. Kang. If anything, quite a few American women (and maybe some American men) would insist that she keep the surname "Kang" because (1) if that's the Korean way, and that's how her name appears on the marriage documents, then she's Mrs. Kang; and (2) many American women these days either keep their surnames (look at media professionals, for example) or adopt "hyphenates" to keep their original name visible.

Mrs. Oh's understanding of how Americans do things isn't entirely incorrect, however. As a matter of American tradition, many women do, in fact, drop their family name in favor of adopting their husband's. This means that Mrs. Oh isn't completely reinterpreting American culture. Add to this the fact that Americans like me will be accepting of Mrs. Oh's reinterpretation, and you see that the situation's not as clear as it once looked.

What would I gain by making an issue of this? The answer to that question hinges on our respective personalities, Mrs. Oh's and mine. If Mrs. Oh is open to correction (and she is), it's possible that, with enough insistence on my part, she'd consent to being Mrs. Kang. It's also possible that Mrs. Oh might prove somewhat stubborn about the issue, and should I try to browbeat her into using "Mrs. Kang" as the proper designation, she might consent but feel resentful. What started off as her gesture of respect for my culture will have become a silly point of contention, and it's possible that my insistence will have been disrespectful-- a fine way to pay back Mrs. Oh's respect.

Now transport this discussion into the realm of interreligious dialogue. My own pluralistic stance has shifted somewhat. While I'm still very sympathetic to John Hick's basic argument, I agree with critics who have trouble with the common-essence view of religion. Take, for example, the claim that "we worship the same God." How this claim is taken will vary according to who the interlocutors are and what understanding(s) of the term "God" they bring to the table.

Let's say you're an advaitic Hindu. This already sets you apart from Hindus who follow, say, a bhakti marga (path of loving devotion), which very likely involves a personalistic conception of the Absolute. As an advaitic Hindu, you might find you have a lot in common with Meister Eckhart, but even here, this isn't guaranteed, because Eckhart's conception of the divine is by no means congruent with the tat-tvam-asi (thou art that) nondualism of advaita vedanta.

But let's say the interlocutors are a liberal Protestant with some background in Asian spirituality like yours truly (and please don't take the word "liberal" to mean "politically liberal" in my case) and a Zen master with a more-than-superficial knowledge of Western culture and religious discourse. Let's say I make the claim "we all worship the same God" to this Zen master. The Zen master might want to pick my brain about what I think God is, but it may turn out that we both see God as absolutely ordinary, and that, even though the word "worship" has a dualistic valence (i.e., the worshiper and the object of worship), we both nevertheless understand ultimate reality to be what passes beyond such dualistic conceptualization. So it may turn out that, despite initial differences, we are both-- perhaps for our own reasons-- able to accept the claim that "we worship the same God."

This isn't going to be true for everybody. And as a pluralist, I'd add: Nor should it be. It's inevitable, for example, that certain Buddhists will reject any formulation that includes the words "God" or "worship." The same holds for Christians who will resist a reconception of God as impersona-- i.e., a non-personalistic conception of the divine, the holy as "what," not "who."

Dr. Vallicella wrote on this recently, at one point noting that, while the three Abrahamic faiths might have the same intertranslatable word serving to denote what each religion considers ultimate in its cosmology, this by no means entails that those three terms are referring to one and the same ultimate. Dr. Vallicella focuses (as have others making the same point) on the triune nature of God as conceived by Christians, which is very much in opposition to the simple unicity of the God of both Jews and Muslims.

One of the questions to explore in any interreligious dialogue is the level at which such conceptualizations matter. For some, they matter deeply. Most of the priests I know at CUA would never budge on questions about the triune nature of God. There are some, though, who might make an appeal to "divine mystery" and suggest, ever so quietly, that the issue is in fact open to discussion. My own pastor, on the other hand, is almost brazenly dismissive of too much theological legalism. As I wrote earlier:

My own sympathies lie with people like our church's pastor: when I asked Rev. Criswell what difference there was between the Church's acting out "the will of Christ" and "the will of the Holy Spirit," he smiled and said, "Same thing." Knowing him as I do, I can tell you this: his concerns are not academic; they are religious. He provided a religious answer, which is that if you're too hung up on terminology (a recurrent issue in religious discussion), you're missing the point. I contrast this with some of the priests at Catholic University who gleefully parsed anything and everything: perichoresis, immanent trinity, economic trinity, blah, blah, blah.

No one is unbiased, especially when it comes to interreligious dialogue. There are pluralists out there who labor under the delusion that their metareligious perspective is somehow "more objective" than those with more traditonal perspectives. I agree with S. Mark Heim (a pluralist of sorts, yet also a very partisan evangelical Christian) that pluralism is simply one perspective among many; it occupies no conceptual high ground.

[NB: Some may recall that Tacitus also wrote on the "same God?" question. I quoted some of his post and wrote a response here.]

Whether discussing surnames or trying to discover whether there's any overlap in the core terms of our respective religions, I think dialogue has to proceed with more inquistiveness than it usually does, but at the same time, people need to be rooted in their tradition when they sit down at the table to face the Other. As regards religion, we do have to be ready to be reunderstood: to be exposed to the notion of Jesus as guru, for example, or Jesus as a bodhisattva or buddha or avatar of Krsna. I don't think these reconceptualizations should be blindly accepted, but they need to be chewed over, and maybe that's something that should be said about interreligious dialogue: just as music has been famously called "the space between the notes," interreligious dialogue is more than the words we say, the ideas we exchange: it's also the nods and silences and thoughtful "hmmmm"s we make between the words.


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