Saturday, December 08, 2012

revisiting an old topic: interreligious dialogue

I used to devote many column-inches, on this blog, to writing about issues of religious diversity. Over the past few years, however, I feel I've shot my wad and have little to add to what I've already written. But every now and again, I'll stumble upon an online article that rekindles, however briefly, an interest in my pet academic subject. Such an article is Peter Berger's recent "Dialogues," a rather epic work in that it covers human efforts at interreligious dialogue on a grand scale, both synchronically and diachronically. I recommend the article to the curious. It ends this way:

Finally, a brief sociological question: Why is all this dialogue activity going on now? I think that there is a clear answer: It is one of the results of an ever more pervasive pluralism in modern societies. The easiest and most commonly used definition of pluralism (or, if one prefers, plurality) is a situation where people with different social identities, worldviews and value systems coexist and interact peacefully. All the forces of modernity bring this situation about—through population growth, urbanization, migration, education, and all the media of pervasive communication. This means that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain or re-establish a religious or moral monopoly in a society. The pluralistic situation can indeed be reversed by the application of massive coercion, but with the result of enormous human and economic costs. Or a society can be torn apart by an ongoing, possibly intermittent civil war between the different ideological camps. To avoid these equally unappealing alternatives the camps—in this instance, the different religious communities—must try to understand and to collaborate with each other. Such dialogue is of course greatly facilitated if religious freedom has been institutionalized in the society. Quite apart from the intrinsic moral and philosophical value of religious freedom, it is one of the pillars of social order in a modern society.

Berger's notion of pluralism seems tied to a sort of religiously neutral secularism-- such as we find in America-- that undergirds public discourse and promotes tolerance of diversity. I think Berger's definition of pluralism (if he can be said to have defined the term) skews toward the pragmatic, but it certainly doesn't have much in common with philosophical or theological/religious notions of pluralism. Berger's is purely a pluralism of tolerance, not John Hick's epistemically convergent pluralism or Stephen Kaplan's ontologically divergent pluralism. But this deficiency isn't surprising: Berger is a sociologist of religion, after all, so his concerns are less about what's going on inside believers' heads and more about the external reality of how believers interact with each other.

Earlier in the article, Berger offers a taxonomy of motivations for interreligious dialogue (sheesh... almost every academic in this field does!):

This is not the place to go into the details of all the dialogues that have been going on: Catholic/Lutheran, Lutheran/Calvinist, Christian/Muslim, Christian/Jewish (much of this one, understandably, concerned with the Christian roots of anti-Semitism and with the question of how to prevent this ever recurring), Christian/ Hindu (a key figure in this was Raimundo Panikkar, a Catholic priest who lived some of the time like an Indian “holy man”), Christian/Buddhist (some of it highly sophisticated, as in the Kyoto School of Mahayana philosophy). But one can distinguish between five principal types:

1. Dialogue motivated by a desire to understand so as to convert the “the other”. One may call this the missiological type. It has widely come to be viewed negatively in Christian circles, except among Evangelicals.

2. Dialogue with the sole aim of enhancing scholarship.

3. Dialogue to facilitate humanitarian action (say, for coping with epidemics or natural disasters.

4. Dialogue to facilitate political action (say, to resist dictatorship).

5. Finally, dialogue to enrich one’s religious understanding or practice.

With the exception of the first type (with which I, for one, have great difficulty), most people will regard these as acceptable motivations for dialogue.

That pretty much covers the gamut, although there's also the possibility of dialoguing with no particular motivation or purpose. Some people just like to chat: maybe they gain something from the interaction, and maybe they don't. My own feeling is that dialogue of all different types is necessary; this puts me at odds with thinkers like the atheist Sam Harris, who sees the bridge-builders between religions as playing an actively harmful role in the cultivation of human flourishing (see my post here, for example). But for me, as for Dr. Berger, it comes down to a pragmatic question: do we try to get along, or do we try to dominate and kill each other? What's the civilized answer?


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