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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Catherine Cornille
Religious Commitment and Interreligious Dialogue


One of the great challenges for the effective and creative mobilization of religious traditions in the pursuit of peace and understanding lies in the tension between religious commitment and Interreligious dialogue. Both the history of religion and religious developments in our own time seem to indicate that – exceptions notwithstanding – strong religious commitment coincides with religious intolerance, while attitudes of openness toward the truth of other religions somehow go together with a looser relationship to the truth of one’s own tradition. Whether by necessity or by choice, Interreligious dialogue has often come to be conducted by individuals who may affiliate themselves with a particular tradition, but for whom that affiliation does not always present itself as normative in the engagement with other religious traditions. The more or less marginal position of many individuals and scholars engaged in serious Interreligious dialogue may be seen to evolve from the attitude of the religious traditions themselves. Most religions regard themselves as self-sufficient, as the repository of absolute truth and the locus of the fullness of means of salvation, and this stance more often regards dialogue as a luxury or even a danger than as one of internal necessity or desirability. After all, dialogue tends to put in question established truths and it heightens one’s awareness of the particularity of one’s own religious beliefs and practices. From within religious orthodoxy, such attitudes are often seen to entail relativism and a threat to the integrity of one’s own claims to truth.

On the other hand, the sense of alienation or marginalization from one’s tradition of origin may also come primarily from the person engaged in dialogue him- or herself. There is no denying that a desire to delve into the teachings and practices of other religious traditions sometimes derives from a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the teachings and practices of one’s own religion, whereupon one embarks on a search for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the truth. This sense of the insufficiency of one’s own tradition itself may be seen to reflect a certain distance or independence from it. Of course, and this is not quite the same thing, the very practice of studying another religion may also lead to a distance from one’s own religion that is not only physical, but also mental and spiritual. In-depth study of another religious tradition requires a prolonged immersion in that religion, the development of linguistic competence and a certain degree of intellectual and spiritual affinity with its teachings and practices. All this may at times lead to a sense of “double religious belonging” in which neither one nor the other tradition exercises exclusive or comprehensive normative claims upon the other. Such a situation of religious hybridity may arise in spite of oneself and lead to great personal and spiritual pain and turmoil. (I have in mind, for instance, certain passages in the personal diary of the French Benedictine monk Henri le Saux, or Abhishiktananda, where he reports feeling deeply torn between his experience of the deepest Self as defined in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta and his personal commitment to the Christian articles of faith.) These days, however, “double belonging” or “religious hybridity” are more often idealized and celebrated. In a world governed by diversity and choice, and by attention to particularity and difference, the attainment of a sense of personal integrity and harmony through the creative individual integration of various cultural and religious options is regarded as the height of authenticity (as expressed, for example, in Rita Nakashima Brock’s notion of “interstitial integrity”.) We are probably most familiar with this deliberate stance of religious and spiritual autonomy as it appears in various forms of alternative spirituality and New Age. But it may also be found in those individuals engaged in interreligious dialogue for whom concern with the traditional truth and the growth of the tradition as a whole is less pressing than is the movement of individual interest and conviction. Cast against the nebulous background of New Age spirituality and religiosity, genuine interreligious dialogue stands out to the degree that it recognizes the higher truth of traditional authority and thus submits its findings to a process of discernment guided by the living tradition. With this in mind, one must insist that genuine interreligious dialogue, in the fullest sense, involves the mutual engagement of traditions, and not only of individuals, or of individuals in so far as they belong to their respective traditions. This does not necessarily require from individuals or participants in the dialogue a full compliance with all teachings of the tradition or with those few people may embody the official teaching authority of the tradition at a particular time in history. But it does presuppose the recognition of some form of religious heteronomy – let me call it deference to traditional authority – and a willingness to let one’s own taste and judgment be guided by the unfolding teaching of the tradition. Such an attitude of religious commitment may be seen to save the individual from a purely subjective relation with the other tradition. At the same time, it may also be regarded as a primary opportunity for religions themselves to grow internally. Indeed, and to bring things full circle, it will be only this sort of hospitality, not only to other religions, but also to members of one’s own religion engaged in dialogue, that enables a tradition to discover in itself its own resources for achieving an openness and respect for other religions that is genuine. To compensate for certain tendencies in contemporary interreligious dialogue, I will thus argue for the necessity of commitment to a tradition as a point of departure and place of return in dialogue.

Religious Commitment as Point of Departure

The concept of tradition is often associated with conservativism and constraint, with a debilitating weight of history inhibiting innovation and change. Traditions are regarded as immobile institutions, concerned primarily with the preservation of established teachings, practices and cultural habits. Commitment to a tradition in the process of dialogue is then often associated with undue limitation of religious options, with certain inauthentic forms of personal attachment, and with a desperate attempt to transform a structure which is defined by its resistance to change. From this perspective, the attempt to remain faithful to a tradition while nonetheless also striving for openness to the other looks like a form of spiritual masochism. Yet, a more lively sense of tradition gives us every reason to view religious commitment as an opportunity for growth and progress. The tradition forms in the first place a solid point of departure for dialogue. For a believer, a tradition constitutes a spiritual home, a set of familiar teachings and practices, a supportive community and a sense of belonging. But more than that, it represents the repository of truth, the link to an original set of events and revelations, the means through which saving truth and wisdom has been transmitted through the ages, always testing, purifying and enriching new religious experiences and fresh insights. For those engaged in dialogue, the tradition thus represents a religious and spiritual authority far beyond the individual experience and judgment of those involved in the actual dialogical experience. Perhaps more importantly, though it amounts to the same thing, the tradition, precisely as stable authority, is also a lens that provides focus and understanding – even if it is necessary, from time to time, to look again or reconsider, or even to step back and inspect the lens itself. While dialogue does indeed occur between individual representatives of particular religions, the sense of commitment to their particular religions allows the dialogue to be broadly interreligious, rather than narrowly interpersonal. Explicit rootedness in a religious tradition allows that whole tradition to be brought to bear upon the dialogue. This is essential, first of all for one’s own tradition. Jurgen Moltman thus points out that “All participants must remain conscious of those for whom they and their interlocutors speak. If people deviate too far from their roots to be considered representative spokespersons for their communities, they will never be respected in reporting back to their communities and they will eventually end up being isolated, representing only their own opinions.” But unambiguous and unashamed identification with a particular religious tradition is also crucial to one’s interlocutor in dialogue. The authority of individuals engaged in interreligious dialogue derives on the whole not so much from their own insight and experience, but from that of the tradition; or it derives from their own experience only in so far as it reflects and is nourished by the tradition which, again, may itself be open to critical scrutiny. This, of course, places considerable responsibility on the shoulders of those engaged in dialogue. Such dialogue first of all requires proficiency in one’s own tradition. It is often said that average Christian believers often shy away from dialogue for lack of knowledge of their own tradition. They fear being outwitted or exposed by the religious expertise of the other. While dialogue does not necessarily require expert knowledge, it does indeed presuppose basic religious competence, the ability to speak with a certain confidence and authority about traditional beliefs and practices. Yet here, too, one might reverse the usual point and note that dialogue can, and no doubt does become the occasion to deepen and broaden that knowledge. Confrontation with a worldview and belief system radically different from one’s own often raises new questions about one’s own worldview and belief system. At minimum, the attempt to understand the other religion will shed new light on one’s own, if only to bring into sharper focus its particularity.

To engage in dialogue from an attitude of religious commitment raises the question of the relationship between dialogue and proclamation. This question has been the object of considerable discussion and debate within the Christian tradition. Some have insisted, often for very different reasons, on a sever distinction. Mission is generally associated with the desire to convert the other while dialogue is oriented toward mutual understanding and growth. So considered, dialogue has come for some theologians to replace mission as the proper way of relating to other religious traditions. John Hick, for example, distinguishes “confessional” from “truth-seeking” dialogue in the following terms:

At one extreme there is purely confessional dialogue, in which each partner witnesses to his own faith, convinced that this has absolute truth while his partner’s has only relative truth. At the other extreme is truth-seeking dialogue, in which each is conscious that the transcendent being is infinitely greater than his own limited version of it, and in which the partners accordingly seek to share their visions in the hope that each may be helped toward a fuller awareness of the divine reality before which they both stand.

Hick thus seems to contrast confessional and truth-seeking dialogue, implying that religious conviction cannot coexist with the search for truth and must be ultimately banned from all genuine dialogue. At the opposite end of the spectrum one may find religious leaders and theologians whose concern is mainly with the preservation of the missionary impulse. While affirming the importance of dialogue in the contemporary world, recent documents of the Catholic Church (Redemptoris Missio [1990] and Dialogue and Proclamation [1991]) insist that “These two elements [dialogue and proclamation] must maintain both their intimate connection and their distinctiveness; therefore they should not be confused, manipulated, or regarded as identical, as though they were interchangeable.” These texts sound moderate until one reads, in Dialogue and Proclamation, that it is the latter (proclamation) which must be considered the highest form of engagement with other religions. “Dialogue,” we are advised, “cannot simply replace proclamation, but remains oriented towards proclamation in so far as the dynamic process of the Church’s evangelizing mission reaches in it its climax and its fullness.”

While the respective intentions and interests of Hick and the Vatican documents are clear, the insistence on a difference between dialogue and proclamation must in the end appear artificial and counter-productive. It is disorienting for members of other religious traditions (who may become distrusting as a result) but also for oneself. All witnessing to the teachings and practices of one’s own tradition, when derived from an attitude of commitment and faith, cannot but entail a certain religious zeal and testimony to the truth of one’s beliefs. I thus agree with Paul Knitter, when he states that “In dialogue, both sides seek to witness and proclaim, and also to persuade or convert each other to the truth as they see it.” This desire to convince the other of the truth of one’s own position also accounts for the apologetic dimension of dialogue. This, too, is the topic of some debate. While Raimundo Panikkar argues that “we must eliminate any apologetics if we really want to meet a person from another tradition,” Paul Griffiths insists that “If representative intellectuals belonging to some specific religious community come to judge at a particular time that some or all of their own doctrine-expressing sentences are incompatible with some alien religious claims, then they should feel obliged to engage in both positive and negative apologetics vis-à-vis these alien religious claims and their promulgators.” Positive apologetics consists of arguing for the truth of one’s own convictions; negative apologetics represents a critique of the teachings of the other religion. Here I would agree with Griffiths, not only because it logically follows from the attempt to overcome the dichotomy between dialogue and proclamation, but also because I believe that it serves to enhance or deepen the dialogue. One cannot engage in apologetics without taking seriously and understanding deeply the truth claims of one’s own tradition as well as that of the other. The apologetic exercise also presupposes a certain capacity to gauge the other’s understanding of one’s own truth-claims and their meaning within the religious framework of the other. All of this may greatly contribute to the seriousness and the depth of the dialogue. Dialogical apologetics, moreover, need not be understood merely as a defense of one’s own traditional worldview and beliefs. It may also lead to a creative integration of symbolic and philosophical categories of the other tradition, which in turn may expand one’s own self-understanding. Precisely this is the goal of all dialogue. As such, proclamation and apologetics, grounded in an explicit commitment to a particular religion, may be seen to form the life and juice of all interreligious dialogue.

Religious Commitment as Place of Return

While commitment to a particular religious tradition represents a necessary point of departure in all dialogue, it may be seen to play an equally vital role as a place of return. Even while requiring some grounding in a particular religion, dialogue also calls for some distance from one’s tradition -- a temporary freedom from doctrinal and ritual restraints. It requires openness for experimentation with the new possibilities of thought and practice opened up by the dialogue. The dialogue between Christianity and Zen Buddhism has, for example, led to the development of Christian Zen centers in which participants explore the new opportunities for a deepening of spiritual life through integration of the meditation exercises and practices of those tradition (not only meditation proper but also ikebana, the tea ceremony and even swordmanship). Likewise, the dialogue between Christianity and the Hindu spiritual tradition, has led to the development of Christian ashrams, small religious communities centered upon spiritual development under the guidance of a guru. These dialogical experiments have operated in the margins of the Christian tradition as more or less free havens of experimentation with inculturation. More theoretical or theological engagement with the teachings of other religious traditions similarly presuppose a certain mental freedom from the fixed worldview and thought patterns of one’s own tradition, in order to imagine new ways of understanding and expressing one’s faith. Efforts of this sort may be found in works that propose to rethink Christian faith through philosophical traditions and categories other the Hellenistic which it first encountered and took (I am thinking, for instance, of John Keenan’s and Joseph O’Leary’s creative attempts to develop a Mahayana Christology and theology.)

As I have already suggested, the importance of what I am now calling “return” may be understood as a protection or safeguard against subjectivism and personal error. The tradition here does not merely serve as norm or arbiter, but also possesses a wealth of tools – insights, concepts, lines of argumentation and analysis – that promise to help evaluate, articulate and apply the fruits of the dialogue. Perhaps this permits me to insist that deference to the tradition is not as dangerous to free thinking as some may fear. It is true that granting authority to the tradition exposes one to the abusive service of the status quo, and risks the disqualification of any insights or possibilities which might challenge traditional modes or thinking and acting. It is also true that the idea implies a hierarchy or superiority of truth that is at odds with the ideology of equality of all religions that presently informs much of the dialogue. However, in so far as dialogue occurs between committed believers, one cannot deny or ignore the fact that the teaching authority of these traditions, at its best, functions to bring to bear on any new insight or experience a deep and rich constellation of principles that enable one to make sense of, and indeed measure the truth of what one encounters in the other religions. It is in this sense that the tradition serves as the ultimate arbiter of truth, as a check on the otherwise undefined flow of individual judgment and subjective taste or desire, so that the meaning of the other religion may show up without becoming an effect simply of a subject’s temporary and limited perspective.

A great deal of work remains to be done in the conceptualization of this matter of normativity, tradition and dialogue. Faithfulness to a tradition in dialogue does not necessarily always play itself out in terms of direct submission of one’s findings to the teaching authority of the tradition. Individuals committed to a particular tradition have most often already internalized most of the teachings and values of their particular religion. Rather than in the temporal authority of the tradition, recourse may also be found in the thought or practice of certain major thinkers of one’s own tradition, to whom a certain epistemic priority or normativity may be granted. Yet in the end, a willingness to openly engage with the living tradition and its authoritative representatives remains a measure of fidelity.

Normativity itself may function in different ways. In his book Jesus, Symbol of God, Roger Haight proposes a helpful distinction between positive and negative uses of norms. While a positive norm “positively rules out what does not agree with it” and “asserts exclusively and thereby implicitly denies alternatives,” a negative norm operates mainly on the basis of the principle of non-contradiction, ruling out “only those alternatives which contradict it.” It is no secret that this talk of the normativity of one’s own tradition does not sit well within the atmosphere of pluralism and equality which often informs the dialogue between religions. Evidently enough, the point of contention lies where commitment to a particular religious tradition implies a certain prioritizing of its claims to truth. Yet, all dialogue involves a certain measure of the truth and validity of the teachings and practices of other religions. The question is whether one measures this truth on the basis of one’s own individual taste and judgment, or in terms of a truth and reality which transcends this and which has established its validity and credibility through history.

Return to the tradition offers not only recourse to a set of genuinely religious norms and principles, it also provides opportunity for enriching and transforming not only one’s own religious life, but that of the tradition as a whole. Most believers do not have the luxury or the ability to engage in constructive dialogue with other religious traditions. Such dialogue requires both a solid theological grounding within one’s own tradition but also the personal openness, linguistic expertise, and a religious imagination given only to few believers in any religious tradition. It is only by means of returning the fruits of the dialogue to the tradition that ordinary believers and the tradition as a whole may come to genuinely reap those fruits. Leonard Swidler speaks here of a “two-sided dialogue, beyond the community and within it:”

We must be in regular dialogue with our fellow religionists, sharing with them the results of our interreligious, interideological dialogue so they too can enhance their understanding of what is held in common and where the differences truly are, for only thus can the whole communities grow in knowledge and inner and outer transformation, and thereby bridge over antipathies and grow closer. In fact, if this two-sided dialogue is not maintained, the individual dialogue partners will grow in knowledge and consequently be changed, thus slowly moving away from their unchanging community and become a third party, a tertium quid – hardly the intended integrative goal of dialogue.

The risks of generating a “tertium quid” are not imaginary. The engagement with practices and teachings of other religious traditions often generate highly individual and personal forms of integration, which, however, become meaningful only for oneself, or at most for a few like-minded individuals. And indeed, at this stage, it does seem that much of what occurs in the dialogue with other religions remains the provenance of those directly engaged in it. Books arising from the dialogue with particular traditions are read (or understood) mostly by individuals sharing a common interest and expertise in the other religion. And locations where Christians experiment with the spiritual disciplines of other traditions exist mostly in the margins of the Church. The risk of dispersion and dissociation from the Church can be avoided only if individuals engaged in dialogue consciously commit to a return to the tradition, to a channeling back of their insights and experiences into the central deposit of faith (depositum fidei). Here, the real function of tradition is thus as a means by which the riches of the dialogue are distributed throughout the tradition. Though the return to the tradition may at times slow down the process of dialogue, it ensures that the impact of the dialogue will be long-term.

Tradition as Impediment or Instrument of Dialogue

While genuine interreligious dialogue places certain requirements of faithfulness and commitment to the tradition upon the believer, it also commands something of the tradition itself. To be sure, the tension between religious commitment and interreligious dialogue are often caused less by the individual engaged in dialogue than by the traditions themselves. Traditions generally tend toward preservation of teachings and practices that are already established and in that sense to inner security. The possibility of growth and change through dialogical engagement with other religions may thus seem alien, if not threatening to a trandition’s self-understanding. This is why dialogue is often associated with a pluralistic attitude toward religious truth and with a tendency to relativize all religious truth claims (cf. the introduction to the document Dominus Iesus). It is also why the insights gained through dialogue are often dismissed out of hand (cf. the Vatican condemnation of the use of meditation practices) and individuals engaged in dialogue are marginalized or even at times persecuted. Within the Catholic tradition, those who specialize in the area of theology of religions or interreligious dialogue have in recent times been the target of suspicion, and indeed investigation. Several such theologians have been censured, reprimanded and at times deprived of teaching authority as a result of their attitudes toward religious plurality. As a result, rather than confront indifference, rejection and possible excommunication, many individuals engaged in the dialogue with other religions have moved, wittingly or unwittingly, to an increasingly marginal position with regard to the tradition. Fear of being subsumed within the traditional parochial structures of the Roman Catholic Church led Bede Griffiths, one of the pioneers of the Christian-Hindu dialogue, to affiliate his ashram with the Benedictine order of Camaldoli. All this signals a significant problem for those engaged in interreligious dialogue. While faithfulness to the tradition marks the difference between genuine dialogue between religions and merely personal engagement with a new tradition, the religious traditions themselves are often not ready or receptive for what transpires in the dialogue. Too often an attitude of self-sufficiency and claims to absolute truth renders religions generally indifferent and resistant or an impediment to dialogue. For religious traditions to become an instrument of dialogue thus generally requires a certain transformation or shift within their own self-understanding. Whereas religions believe themselves to possess the ultimate or final truth, dialogue requires an attitude of humility and recognition of the possibility of growth. And whereas religions believe themselves to contain the fullness of the means to salvation, dialogue presupposes generosity or a recognition of the possibility of encountering salvific truth in other religious traditions. Dialogue thus requires the attitudes of humility toward one’s own religion and generosity toward the other – and these are rarely given in religious self-understanding. In order to become genuinely open and receptive to the possibility and the practice of dialogue, religions are thus called to discover resources for such humility and generosity within their own religious teaching and heritage. This may require a certain degree of hermeneutical effort and creativity. But for every text which emphasizes the exclusiveness and absoluteness of one’s own tradition, alternatives may be found which suggest humility, generosity and hospitality toward the other. Unless religious traditions themselves commit to such hermeneutical retrieval of their resource for openness and dialogue, individuals engaged in dialogue cannot always be blamed for failing to consider, let along embrace, their particular religion as the point of departure and place of return in dialogue. The challenge thus goes both ways. It is only through the continued commitment of individuals engaged in dialogue that the tradition may become inspired or pressures to recover its own doctrinal and religious grounds for openness and dialogue. And it is only through such openness that individuals engaged in dialogue may continue to embrace their religious commitment.


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